What to do with an extra week between the French Open and Wimbledon? For those of us at Tennis.com, it’s an opportunity to celebrate our 20th anniversary. That’s a sneaky-big number for an outlet that, according to some ink-stained veterans of the journalism business, still falls under the category “new media.”

It has been a long time since writing online felt new, or fringe-y, or semi-shameful, the way it once did. My column debuted on the site during the 2005 U.S. Open; by then I had been a staff writer and editor at Tennis Magazine for seven years, and I resisted thinking of myself by that now-mercifully-obsolete term, “blogger.” In truth, though, I didn’t care what I was called, and I didn’t care if writing for the Internet was a step—or two, or three—down the status totem pole in most people’s eyes. From the first entry I published on Tennis.com, I knew I loved doing it, and that this was the format I had, unknowingly, been waiting my whole career to use.

Let’s start with a word I just mentioned, “publish.” When I was done with a post, I would tap the send button and the program we used at the time—Typepad?—would respond with a message: “Your article has been published.” That’s all it took to send my writing all over the world? Every time I published something, I thought of what was required for a newspaper to do the equivalent. I imagined words and images being transmitted to a printer, which would produce a small forest’s worth of paper copies, truck them around town in the middle of the night, and toss them onto the subscribers’ front porches by morning. Even then, those papers wouldn’t have reached their readers’ living rooms, the way my post had. The online publishing process felt like a small miracle; 11 years later, the miracle is that the traditional process of printing a newspaper, and all of the labor it entails, survives at all.

Just as miraculous in 2005 was the presence of reader comments. By now, of course, the words “comment section” are guaranteed to send a shiver down most people’s spines. “Donald Trump is a comment section come to life,” may have been the most damning insult that the much-insulted Republican presidential nominee has received during his campaign so far. In the prelapsarian days of ’05, though, it seemed beyond belief, at least for this innocent writer, that I could talk to tennis fans from around the globe, and in turn hear immediate feedback from them on a piece I’d just published.

Hitting It Over the 'Net

Hitting It Over the 'Net

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Writing for a magazine had always meant hurling your work into a void. You struggled for a month on an article, and once it was done, you got crickets in response. Maybe your parents would mention that they had liked a headline on one of your pieces, or a cranky reader in Missouri would email to tell you how much he hated your Serena column, or your doubles partner would mention that he had “flipped through your piece on, how do you pronounce it, Jankovic?” Otherwise, you had to take it on faith that you had readers in the first place.

Now, online, they were right in front of you, tapping their virtual feet and waiting impatiently for you to finish your next post so they could praise it or crush it as they saw fit. The pressure of knowing that, and knowing that I had to finish a post in a day or even an hour, motivated me to make my writing sharper, more spontaneous, less formal, and hopefully more immediate and engaging. My online writing self felt closer to my true self.

Before the Internet, we also had to take it on faith that tennis had fans. The sport’s popularity is wide but thin, and most of its devotees enjoy the game in some degree of isolation. In ’05, my friend and fellow Tennis.com writer Pete Bodo and I began meeting them—or at least their anonymous online handles—for the first time. In some cases, though, it turned out that we had met them before.

One of the first comments I remember getting praised me as “the Federer of tennis writers.” My initial thought was, “Hey, I could get used to this kind of thing.” My second thought was, “Hmm, is this for real?” Had my breakdown of a first-round win by Lindsay Davenport really been all that Maestro-esque? I was right to have my suspicions: A couple of days later, a fellow editor laughingly confessed to planting the comment to see how I would react.

Sooner than we expected, though, Pete and I were meeting real, likable, knowledgeable people through the comments, people we’re still friends with today, and who we still work with today. In the early months on the site, there was an explosion of pent-up enthusiasm and information. Here were hundreds of people who suddenly had a voice in the game, and a place where they could exchange their idiosyncratic points of view, the majority of which were never reflected in the media’s miniscule coverage of tennis. For a member of that media who thought he had learned everything there was to learn about the sport, it was an eye-opening experience.

Hitting It Over the 'Net

Hitting It Over the 'Net

Who knew that David Nalbandian had a cult following? Who knew that people pored over press-conference transcripts so religiously? Who knew that they watched seemingly every match from every event? That they knew the names of the players’ physios? That they had so much invested in their favorites’ victories and defeats? That the best and most popular of those players—Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova—could command vast armies of supporters committed to their protection and advancement? Who knew that the fans of two of them, Roger and Rafa, could spend an entire decade arguing about everything? Who knew there was so much to watch and care about in this supposedly niche sport? Who knew it could mean so much? Tennis inspired greater passion and deeper emotion than I had ever realized.

And this was what I loved, and still love, about writing for Tennis.com. Here I know I’m writing for people who take the game seriously, and who come from all over the world; at this site it’s about tennis, rather than U.S. tennis, or British tennis, or French tennis, or Swiss tennis, or Aussie tennis. And the opinions of the knowledgeable commenters helped push my own views and politics in a new, more liberal direction, at a time when I thought they were set in center-left stone.

My years on Tennis.com have happily coincided with a Golden Decade on the men’s side, but it’s the way I watch and write about women’s tennis that has changed—evolved, I’d like to think—the most during that time. WTA fans here and on Twitter have alerted me to the myriad double-standards that exist in tennis, and that, frankly, I hadn’t thought very clearly about in the past. This has made me more cognizant of the game’s gender imbalances, and I hope that shows up in my writing. It has also made me a bigger women’s tennis fan than I was a dozen years ago. That, in turn, has widened the game’s canvas for me; now, it seems, there’s more to watch, think, and write about than ever. Through this site and social media, I’ve learned how much I can still learn.

In the last decade, the Tennis.com community has grown and fractured and turned over hundreds of times. Over those years I’ve stopped reading the comment section as often as I once did. Maybe, after being bombarded by so many opinions there, I’ve learned to trust my own a little more. But what mattered to me in 2005 still matters now: My writing has been made better and sharper because, even if don’t look at the comments, I know that the readers are there. I know that what I do won’t be hurled into a void; I know that my writing will get what it wants most: a reaction. Even after 11 years, the thrill of that knowledge still feels brand new.