Shot Making: Inside the 14-frames-per-second world of professional tennis photography

by: Steve Tignor | September 10, 2016

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Working in close quarters, photographers spend days and nights working at their craft around the globe. (AP)

The dugout at the south end of Arthur Ashe Stadium was overflowing, but a tense silence reigned inside. A swarm of photographers had squeezed themselves, and the prodigiously long, 12-pound cameras they were hauling, into this small, dark, low-ceilinged room. There they jostled for a view of the court, where Roger Federer and John Isner sprinted in and out of view a few feet above them.

The roar of 20,000 New Yorkers enveloped the players as they pushed each other late into this September evening. Federer had won the first two sets in tiebreakers, and now led 6–5 in the third. This U.S. Open fourth-round match had reached its moment of truth—for Federer, Isner and the people who needed to capture their images for the world’s websites and newspapers.

While Isner gathered the balls to serve, a photographer from a French paper leaned back and exhaled.

“OK!” he barked as he shook out his arms and loosened his shoulders. “Match point!” Then he leaned toward his camera and, like a boxer taking a few shadow punches before a fight, pantomimed the motion of snapping a photo. 

His colleagues followed his lead and straightened up in their chairs. Most had chosen their positions carefully after asking themselves a series of questions: Which side of the court would Federer, the likely victor, be on when he won? What did he usually do to celebrate? Which way would he look? Where was his player’s box?

As Federer hunkered down into his return position, the photographers double-checked their lens settings. A few of them had remarked, with nervous excitement, that they had rarely seen Federer so animated. The high-decibel, night-match atmosphere in Ashe, as well as Isner’s supersonic serve, had combined to make the 34-year-old as spry and alert as a man 10 years his junior. 

But while that kept these photographers happy during the match, now it made them nervous: Would they be able to capture an amped-up Federer’s reaction to winning? This, after all, was the one shot they couldn’t miss. This was the moment that they had traveled from France, Great Britain, Australia, Japan, Switzerland, Germany, Spain and all over the United States to transmit home. 

Within the space of a few seconds, Isner served the ball, Federer returned it, Isner hit it wide, the crowd roared and Federer wheeled around in the direction of his player’s box. Fortunately for this group of photographers, that meant he was wheeling around in their direction, too. As their shutters furiously snapped, Federer shuffled to his left and leapt sideways into the air, roaring triumphantly. 

When Federer landed and began walking toward the net to shake hands with Isner, the men and women in the dugout lowered their cameras and looked back through the dozens of shots they had just taken. After an anxious second or two, one woman hugged the camera a little closer to her and said, “Yes!”

She had it.


(Photo by Anita Aguilar)

*****

Welcome to the 14-frames-per-second world of professional tennis photography. As the tours crisscross the globe, this satellite society travels alongside them. It’s a subculture that remains hidden to the vast majority of fans; the photographers, after all, are the people on the other side of the lens from the star players we see. Yet in the age of Instagram, when we’ve come to expect every swing, scream, smile, rant and racquet smash to be recorded for our viewing pleasure, their images are more important to the game than ever.

According to many tennis photographers, those images are also better than ever.

“So many of the players now are unbelievable to shoot,” says Clive Brunskill, a photographer for Getty Images who has been traveling from tournament to tournament since 1982. During that time, the Englishman has seen the game grow increasingly more athletic, artistic and dynamic.

“Roger’s pictures are always graceful,” Brunskill says. “Novak Djokovic has brought a new dimension to the stretch shot. With Rafa [Nadal], you can feel the emotion he puts into it. Sometimes I think, ‘My God, I’m in pain just looking at his picture.’ 

“You have Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Gael Monfils diving around, and Kei Nishikori jumping up on his shots. We’ll probably look back on this as the best time ever in tennis.”

That photogenic quality doesn’t stop with the men’s game, according to another Getty photographer, Al Bello.

“Serena [Williams] is the total package for the camera,” says Bello, a New York native who has been photographing tennis players for 23 years. “The emotion on her face, the intensity in her eyes, the way she moves and stretches her body; her hair, which is always beautiful in the light. No one gives it up like Serena.”

Off the court, Brunskill has also found the men’s Big Four—Djokovic, Federer, Nadal and Andy Murray—to be more photographer-friendly than past champions. Two years ago, he shot Djokovic’s wedding to Jelena Ristic, and in 2015 he did the same when Murray married his longtime girlfriend, Kim Sears. 

“The players are more media savvy now,” Brunskill says. “You never really got to know them in the [Pete] Sampras era. I’ve known the guys today since they were starting out as teenagers. They trust that I’m not going to burn them by leaking a photo from their wedding, or shooting one of them having a drink.”

Still, every so often when he needs a scintillating shot on a dull afternoon, Brunskill finds himself missing the game’s bad old days. When John McEnroe got going, according to Brunskill, it was like the pictures took themselves.

“The players are better to watch now,” he says, “but there were more characters in the past. You couldn’t leave a match with McEnroe because you knew he was going to do something.”

Of course, the trick is to be there, in the right place and at the right time, to gobble those pictures up. In the early days at a Grand Slam, there are hundreds of photo-worthy moments happening at once, and no camera can capture more than a tiny slice of them. A few years ago in the French Open press room, a photographer who had taken an ill-timed lunch break stared at his television in agony as Monfils leaped and slid and roared on a nearby court. 

“Oh, look at all of those bloody pictures,” he moaned as the French star gyrated to his home fans’ applause.

As every tennis photographer quickly discovers, capturing even a few of those “bloody pictures” requires a lot of planning and more than a little bit of luck. 

“You learn that you’re making the photo, not taking the photo,” says Anita Aguilar, a freelance photographer who contributes to TENNIS.com. “You have to create the moments you want; you can’t wait for them to happen.”

No matter however beautiful or carefully planned, though, every moment in a tennis match is fleeting, which means that having the right equipment to record it becomes paramount. At a time when camera technology is constantly evolving, costly gear upgrades come with the job.

Manuela Davies, a Florida-based freelance photographer, will spend $6,000 for a new camera body, and typically lugs two heavy, hooded Canons, with different lenses, across the grounds at Flushing Meadows.

“The shots are getting sharper all the time,” Davies says. “You have to have [the equipment] to keep up. It’s easy to see when you don’t.”

The biggest technological leap for photographers in recent years, of course, has been the shift from film to digital. It’s a change that, as far as their work lives go, has been a double-edged sword. 

“With film,” says Matthew Stockman of Getty Images, “you didn’t know what you had until a roll was developed the next day. With digital, you see what you’ve got right away. It’s easier to experiment and work on your timing.”

For Davies, though, the idea of dropping her film off and calling it a night has its appeal.

“Now I might shoot 500 shots a day,” she says with a laugh, “which means I might be up until 5:00 A.M., agonizing over which ones to save and which ones to dump.”

While technology has advanced, one fact about the job remains the same: the need, by many people, to occupy the same limited amount of space. Before last year’s Wimbledon men’s final, 183 credentialed photographers vied for 73 positions on Centre Court. It gets even more cramped when a major final ends and the trophies come out.

For a champion, a trophy ceremony is a joyous occasion; for a photographer, it’s a mad, scrum-like dash to stake out a coveted front-row spot. After one U.S. Open women’s final, as Serena Williams hopped happily across the stage, a petite female photographer and her much taller male colleague finished a dispute by screaming and jabbing their fingers in each other’s faces. It didn’t appear to be the first time that one of them had ended up in the other’s way.

“Photographers can be territorial,” Davies says. “It’s not an easy world to break into.” 

Every new photographer, in other words, takes up valuable real estate. Yet along with competition, the close quarters breed camaraderie.

“At the Open, it’s like a family reunion,” Bello says of the large Getty team that will descend once again on Flushing Meadows this August. “You work closely with the same people every year, so it feels like home for two weeks.”

Three-hundred other credentialed photographers joined Bello and make the Open their home this year. They’ll work 15 days, for up to 20 hours each day, running from court to court while juggling multiple cameras, before riding the media bus back to their hotels after midnight. They’ll look for cool shadows on the sidecourts, follow the low-afternoon sun in Louis Armstrong Stadium, search for celebrities in luxury suites and, above all, try to transmit the beauty of the sport they see up close to the rest of us at home. They’ll finish the tournament, as Brunskill puts it, “completely knackered.” 

As long as someone is there to tell them it’s match point, though, they should be OK.

“It will be overwhelming,” Bello says, “but that’s tennis.”

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