When Sports Illustrated’s Jon Wertheim covers a tennis match, he goes old school, breaking out pen and paper to take notes midst the aisles of laptops. He divides the page into two vertical halves. On the left side, he scribbles about on-court actions, writing notes like “lots of double faults,” “lost four straight after streaker cross the court,” “looks heavier than normal. On the right side of the page, Wertheim writes what he calls ‘atmospheric jottings’ that include anything from the words on a fan's banner to the weather to the music played on the public address system during breaks in the action. Says Wertheim: “Basically, anything you wouldn’t necessarily pick up watching at home on TV.”
But once he starts developing the game story, Wertheim is clearly not stuck in the past. He does not merely offer play-by-play. Instead, he focuses on themes, trends, and news, something he does exceptionally well. Wertheim’s work has been featured in The Best American Sports Writing anthologies in 2005 and 2006, and he has been nominated for a national magazine award. In addition, he has written several books on sports, including one on tennis, Venus Envy. Currently, he also writes the Tennis Mailbag feature for SI.com.
“Any fan with broadband access can follow the action in real time and knows who scored the touchdowns or how many second-half points the Bulls scored or how many winners [Roger] Federer hit,” Wertheim says. Fans today can watch (and review) games on ESPN’s SportsCenter and YouTube, among other places. So covering tennis has changed. He looks for off-beat stories, comments on trends, and develops themes.
“In some ways,” Wertheim says, “when I cover tennis, the match itself is the least important part of the day. The crucial part of button-holing the coach in the hotel lobby or observing the mannerisms of the losing player as she walks off the court makes the job more challenging, but, ultimately, it’s more satisfying than sitting in the press box.”
San Francisco Chronicle columnist Bruce Jenkins also eschews play by play in his tennis gamers. On his notepad, he jots down details about key plays, like service breaks, great shots, changes in momentum and displays of emotion. Jenkins, who won five U.S. Tennis Association awards this past year, also remains acutely aware of the scene around the courts – so he notes reactions in the stands, noteworthy people in attendance, and players’ body language.
“Tennis is a wonderful sport in that way, a bit like boxing, in that you’re out there one-on-one against another person, and nobody else can really help you,” Jenkins says. “It’s always interesting to watch someone rise to the occasion, or fall apart, under severe duress.”
Jenkins has watched plenty of highs and lows while covering the U.S. Open and more than a dozen Wimbledons. Jenkins, who twice was nominated for a Pulitzer, has won countless national awards, and has authored four books, including the most recent In Search of Gordon Jenkins.
“I think the most important thing to know about covering tennis is that – at least in my opinion, as a columnist – it’s about style, personality and human behavior, not the specifics of technique,” says Jenkins. “That’s why fans tune in, for the most part, and I find that’s what they want to read about.”
These are elements that are included in the opening few paragraphs.
■ Can lead with a decisive play.
■ Can lead with major upset.
■ Name of the event.
■ Location (city and stadium)
■ Read through as many tennis stories as possible to learn the proper ways to cite scores, points, terms, and elements of the game. This research will also reveal how to describe the action on the court and to better notice when someone hits a backhand passing shot, a putaway or a cross-court forehead for a winner. Overused, these terms can lead to clichéd writing. But used well these terms can help paint a picture of the action on the court. I strongly recommend John McPhee’s Levels of the Game, a book that will teach you much about the game of tennis and – even more so – how to then write it. This book chronicles a match between Arthur Ashe and Chuck Graebner. I cannot say enough about this fine book, which is both instructive and a compelling read.
THINGS TO FOCUS ON
■ Breaking news. Did anybody get hurt? Were there any upsets? Was anyone fined? Did anything happen off the court between matches? First, determine if anything newsworthy happened.
■ Trends. This can include trends in a game, match, tournament or player’s performance. This can include a look at serves, double-faults, return winners and number of backhand shots, among other things.
■ Body language. Watch players as they compete and as they walk off the court, regardless if they won or lost. On the court, watch to see if a player hunches over after a bad play or whether she smiles and jokes. Does a player bounce on his toes before a shot. At what point does the player seem less bouncy? You might want to describe the player’s game early, then do the same halfway and near the end of the match to see how this player’s body language, and perhaps her attitude, has changed through the match. This can also reveal something about the player’s personality, something readers like to know more about.
■ Themes. Look for something off the court, you do some research to determine if this player has faced personal challenges. Or, this can focus on a clash of styles between two players. Here is Jenkins’ take on the 2005 Wimbledon:
The women's draw lost more than a feared contender when Justine Henin-Hardenne was knocked out in the first round Tuesday. It lost the element of contrast.
Henin-Hardenne, upset by 76th-ranked Eleni Daniilidou 7-6 (8), 2-6, 7-5, is the only elite player to fashion a one-handed backhand and take pride in an all-court game. To the shock of a Court 1 crowd, her virtuosity wasn't enough against a powerful, 22-year-old player with a fondness for grass.
■ Displays of emotion. Did a player react to a certain point? Did the player react emotionally to a series of points, or actions, on the court? Describe this. Speak to this player (and this player’s opponent) after the match to get more insights.
■ Change in momentum. Look for a key play (or string of plays) that changed the course of the match. This can be a point in the final game, or it could have been set up by a point in the first several games. Clearly, the more you cover tennis, the better you will be able determine these swings of momentum, but still give this a try in your own coverage.
■ Great shots. Describe especially great shots, especially if these are in pivotal moments. You can also describe these when the player makes the same type of great shot throughout the match. Read Bruce Jenkins’ award-winning story on a player who relied on a one-handed backhand, "A Match that Sweetly Recalls an Earlier Time."
■ Write a few sentences describing a player in general and a few sentences on a few plays. Trust your observations. Here’s how McPhee does it: “Left arm up, fist closed, index finger extended, he continues to point at the ball until he has all but caught it. His racquet meanwhile dangles behind his back. Then it whips upward in the same motion as for a serve.”
■ Court surface. Outdoor courts are either hardcourt, grass or clay. Players typically perform a little better on certain surfaces. A person with a strong serve typically does better on grass and hard-court surfaces while a better baseline player might do better on slower clay surfaces. That’s why it is difficult to win tennis’ Grand Slam, which includes each of these surfaces.
■ Early-round matches. Focus on major upsets or top local performers, especially when writing about tournaments.
■ Records. You can cite records for the season, or cite a player's record against an opponent, on a certain surface, or in a specific stadium.
■ Improvement. Determine if the player has played better lately by checking his/her record in recent events, whether that is in professional tournaments, matches or conference tournaments.
■ Next opponent. Cite who a player faces next, especially if you are covering a tournament. If this is part of a college team, can look ahead to the other team’s same-ranked player. If your team’s No. 2 player has won eight in a row, check the record of the No. 2 player on the next college team. You can usually find records and results on a college’s athletic web site.
■ Tournament wins. If you are covering professional tennis, cite the number of tournaments a player has won if the person is entering the final rounds. If this player has not won a tournament, cite the best previous finish even if that is 10th or 20th. That would be a great angle for a person competing in a semifinal or final.
■ Length of rallies. Matches between serve-and-volleyer tend to have shorter rallies than those between two baseliners. Count how many times the ball went over the net in longer, or pivotal rallies, something you can include in your game stories. “Andre Agassi fired a backhand volley down the right side to culminate a nine-shot rally that left Sampras trailing 4-1. Games between players with different style are always interesting. Which player, for instance, will assert her personality on the court, the volleyer or the baseliner?
■ Scoring. In tennis, scoring is counted a bit differently than one might expect. Scores go from 0 (called ‘love’) to 15-30-40. A player must win by two points, so games that are tied 40-40 force an extension of play that results in scores called ‘advantages.’ A player who wins the first point after 40-40 has the ‘advantage,’ sometimes called ‘ad-out’ and ‘ad-in.’ Ad-in refers to the person scoring. If the server loses the next point, the score is back to ‘even.’ In tennis matches, players must also win by two – until the score hits 6-6. At this point, players typically play a tiebreaker, whose scoring method is cited below. The winner of the tiebreaker would win the set 7-6. Wimbledon does not have a tiebreaker system, so players at the All-England club must win by two games. That might mean a player wins 9-7, not 7-6.
■ Tiebreakers. Typically, these are played and scored differently, but most are determined by seeing which player wins seven points first (best of 12). The winner of the tiebreaker gets the final game and the set.
■ Left-hander vs. right-hander. See how this affects the game. Ask players and coaches about this afterwards.
■ Clashes of style.
■ Weather. A blustery afternoon can cause more problems for a baseliner than a serve-and-volley player.
■ Research. Check the background of key players before heading out to the matches. Read about hometowns, experience, and recent performances through the season. If this is a youth tournament, go early to speak with officials, coaches and parents.
■ Recent injuries. Observe how injuries affected play on the court.
■ Winning streaks. Check on these for both individuals and teams.
THINGS TO KNOW
■ Unforced errors. These are shots where a player makes a mistake that results in a point for the opposing player. A point can end three ways – in an unforced error, a forced error or a winner. According to Dr. Leo Levin of IDS Sports, who is credited with creating this term in 1982, an unforced error: “is when the player has time to prepare and position himself or herself to get the ball back in play and makes an error. This is a shot that the player would normally get back into play. The real keys here are time and position. When the opponent takes away time by hitting the prior shot with extra pace this can result in a forced error. Also, when the opponent forces the player out of position with placement (depth and/or angle) this can result in a forced error." A double fault is an unforced error.
■ Forced errors. These are the results of excellent shots from an opponent who has forced the player out of position or by hitting the ball with extra pace. A missed return off a first serve is usually a forced error, but a missed return on a second serve is usually unforced since second serves are not usually hit with as much pace and speed.
■ Ace. A serve that is not returned and results in a point. Count how many aces a player tallies. Also, determine the percentage of first serves that land in and the number of points won off the first or second serves.
■ Rankings. You write that someone is ranked No. 31 or that the person is 31st ranked.
■ Seedings. Players are seeded before a major event, like Wimbledon, from 1 to 64. You do not need to cite these unless they are significant, such as when the 24th seeded player defeats the fifth-seeded player.
■ Grand Slam. This consists of the four major professional tennis tournaments: Australian Open (hard court), French Open (clay), Wimbledon (grass), U.S. Open (hard court).
■ Game scores. Put the match winner’s scores first, even if they have won fewer games in a match. For example, if Serena Williams defeated Maria Sharapova in three sets, you would write: “Williams rallied to defeat Sharapova, 1-6, 6-4, 6-3.” Williams only won one game in the first set, so that score is posted first.
■ Baseline player. This is a player whose strength is staying back and returning volleys.
■ Serve-and-volley player. This is typically someone who has a great serve. This player gets the net quickly after firing off a solid serve. This person might have a higher number of aces but could also have a higher number of unforced errors.
■ Double faults. When a player fails to get two consecutive serves into play, resulting in a point for the opposing player. An official can call ‘net’ on a serve, meaning the serve touched the net when it landed in the proper service area. This is essentially a ‘do-over,’ meaning the player gets to take the first serve again.
■ Defaults. A player is given two attempts to serve the ball over the net into the service area. If both serves fail, this is considered a double fault and the receiver wins the point. Click here for a glossary of tennis terms.
■ Lucky loser. A player who loses in qualifying for a tournament but who gets a spot in the tournament after another qualified withdraws for injuries or personal reasons.
■ Make sure you know the rules. You can click here to learn more about NCAA tennis news, rules and guidelines.
QUESTIONS TO ASK
Ask questions that add more depth to your observations and notes. Players’ insights into key plays, emotional displays and other aspects of the game can be illuminating, more so if you are talking with high school and college players. Pros tend to be more guarded (although this does not apply to players like Andre Agassi.) “Afterwards, when the interviews are taking place, you basically get a lot of nothing,’ Jenkins says. “Players tend to be guarded and cautious, and with good reason. So many stories run worthless quotes like ‘I was serving well,’ or ‘He (she) played better on the important points.’ I try not to use quotes unless they are funny, off-the-wall or especially revealing or relevant.”
So always ask follow-up questions. If a player says he served well, ask how he knows this. What about the serves felt particularly good? Had he been concerned about this before the match? And if a player says her opponent played better, ask for more details. How in particular did the other player perform better? With returns, footwork, serves? Then, follow up on this as well by asking for more explanations on these specific areas.
Too often, sports reporters allow a first response to serve as the answer. These questions are just the starting points. Lob questions back to players/coaches and continue to do so until you learn more details and gain more insights. Remember, we ask questions for information, not quotes. Don’t worry: The quotes will surface if you continue to ask pointed, specific follow-up questions.
Here are a few places to start:
■ Ask a player to describe her opponent’s game. What were the person’s strengths and weaknesses? What did she notice most about the other player’s game plan or skills? (You can also ask these questions of a coach. Try to speak with both player and coach.)
■ Ask a player to describe her own game.
■ Ask how players felt during key moments of the match.
■ Ask players about key injuries.
■ Ask players questions related to your descriptions and notes and observations. Don’t be shy. Then, listen and ask more questions. That’s what we do.