Goodbye And Hello: Sadness Followed By Opportunity

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Theologically, as a Christian, I firmly believe we are all special.

As a tennis commentator, though, I assure you that I’m not very special at all. This is where today’s story begins. It is a story that contains several important personal and professional disclosures as I move into a new phase of my life and career.

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PART ONE: CHILDHOOD

I didn’t play tennis competitively. The closest I’ve ever come to understanding a sport at its most cellular level is basketball, because I was a cameraman and sometime-statistician for my high school basketball team. (I received a tuition reduction in exchange for performing those kinds of tasks.)

However, there’s one thing I’ve done a lot in my life, more than just about anything else: I’ve watched sports. I consciously remember falling in love with American football in November of 1981 (on my older brother’s First Communion day) at the age of 5, and in 1982, I drank up everything I could about sports on the television screen and from the daily papers in Phoenix, Arizona, where I was born.

Yogi Berra, one of the great unintentional humorists not just in the history of sports, but in the history of human beings, has given the world many memorable quotes. One such gem is, “You can observe a lot by watching.” That’s pretty much my life in and around sports.

I’ve watched athletic competitions with great interest for 32 and a half years. Editors and publishers have given me opportunities to write about American football and basketball, because those are the team sports played at the university level here in the United States. I can write about those sports because I’ve watched them closely enough to know what’s going on and then convey my impressions to a reading audience.

When I began to fall in love with sports in 1982, Wimbledon and the United States Open did not escape notice. My first tennis memory is of John McEnroe becoming agitated late in his five-set loss to Jimmy Connors in the 1982 Wimbledon final. I recall Connors relishing the glory of triumph in his blue athletic jacket. That Sunday began a long love affair not necessarily with tennis, but with Wimbledon.

On Labor Day weekends, I would go to my grandparents’ house, where my grandfather would always have sports on when we came for Sunday or holiday lunches and a swim in the backyard pool. Labor Day in the States means the U.S. Open on CBS (though ESPN will take over the tournament next year). I grew up listening to the beloved Pat Summerall (one of the greatest announcers America has ever produced) and former major champion Tony Trabert. Virginia Wade joined the CBS commentary booth in the early 1980s, but when the decade ended, a young woman named Mary Carillo had entered the CBS broadcast set. She’s still there today.

Evert-Navratilova with splashes of Mandlikova and then the emergence of a young Steffi Graf. The McEnroe-Connors-Lendl wars, followed by the Year Of Mats Wilander (1988). Yes, the 1980s jolted me with the electricity that major tennis tournaments can create. I’ve followed Wimbledon and the U.S. Open ever since, and Roland Garros to a lesser extent. The Australian Open didn’t really stand on the same plane as the other three majors until the late 1980s (it didn’t have a 128-player field until then). Its emergence as a tournament worthy of the “major” label is comparatively new.

Speaking of new things, many elements of tennis coverage in the United States have just begun to become a regular part of the broadcast landscape. The Tennis Channel is only seven years old. Accordingly, American tennis viewers are only beginning to be brought in touch with tennis on an every-week basis over the course of the full season. A good 20 years ago, such saturation coverage could not have been found.

In the U.S., tennis does not enjoy the widespread popularity it received in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but there is a market for tennis content, and my relationship to tennis is a part of that story – not a special one or a big one, but one story that’s probably representative of many Americans.

It’s not a complicated journey. I followed the majors and was “a sports fan who loved tennis,” as opposed to “a tennis fan who also loved other sports to a lesser degree.” Roger Federer, though – with help from Rafael Nadal – took tennis to a whole new level a decade ago. Tennis became so compelling to me that I began to follow the sport on a more consistent basis, far beyond the majors. The convergence of added television coverage and increased personal interest has exposed me to more of tennis and the workings of the sport, both as an on-court drama and an off-court business.

No, I don’t fancy myself as an expert – I’m not even close to one – but can I make sense of what’s going on? Yes. Moreover, is there enough of a marketplace that I can find a home within it?

One company thinks the answer is yes.

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PART TWO: TENNIS TWITTER AND A WORLD OF GRATITUDE

From 2006 through 2009 (maybe a little bit into 2010 – I’m frankly not sure), I was a regular commenter at Peter Bodo’s Tennis World blog, hosted by Tennis Magazine (now Tennis.com). It was at Tennis World that I learned about the vastness of the global tennis community. From my interactions, I learned how to not only talk about the sport, but listen to others’ views of it. My knowledge of what was happening on the court was supplemented by a growing awareness of how fans – of certain players and styles, and from certain nations – processed the sport.

When I joined Twitter in the spring of 2009, I didn’t know what the future would bring. I was beginning to tire of the incendiary nature of many commenters’ entries at Tennis World, but it was still my go-to place to talk tennis. I compiled a list of tennis tweeps to follow, but I had not yet experienced a major tournament with Twitter as the main web-based conversation place.

The 2009 Wimbledon tournament was my introduction to Tennis Twitter during a major, and I instantly found a lot of Tennis World friends in the realm of social media. Many of us had managed to carry our conversations from Tennis.com to Twitter, and we realized that while Twitter wars were not always unavoidable, we could still choose almost all of the people and conversations that appeared on our timelines. I was hooked, and many Tennis.com refugees felt the same way.

Moreover, Pete Bodo and his colleague, Steve Tignor, joined Twitter as well. Furthermore, other tennis writers were accessible on Twitter, so we – the fans of #TennisTwitter – realized that we could go to a single web source for “one-stop shopping” in terms of content and analysis.

Ten years ago, I might have gotten up in the middle of the night to watch an Australian Open match on ESPN, but that would have been the limit of my interaction with the match. Today, Tennis Twitter brings me to the web when I watch tennis matches at any time of day or year. In late January, I was watching a men’s semifinal (I forget which one; I know a Swiss guy was playing in it😉, when this gentleman asked me if I had ever written about tennis before (for pay).

I said no… but that I’d love to be given the chance.

That chance was indeed granted.

Let’s absorb what happened: A CEO of a blog-based publishing company offered me the chance to cover tennis because I was a constant presence on Tennis Twitter. I know I’m speaking to the Picket Fence community here, but I’m even more broadly speaking to Tennis Twitter as a whole. YOU, Tennis Twitter, have helped me find a voice. YOU, Tennis Twitter, are responsible for what I’m about to announce:

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PART THREE: CROSSING THE LINE AND A FAREWELL TO THE FENCE

I am not yet a full-service tennis blogger/commentator, but for 2014, I will be paid to cover Roland Garros, Wimbledon, and the U.S. Open at Bloguin. I will therefore cross the line separating the avid tennis fan from the paid worker. I’ll have to stand on the other side of this divide. This doesn’t mean I will be personally separated from Tennis Twitter, but it does mean that I now have a professional and ethical obligation to be accurate and fair in handling facts and information. (There’s always a personal obligation to be thus, but now that obligation is more binding and pervasive.)

The tenor or content of my tweets and writings won’t change dramatically, but they will change slightly at certain times. I won’t be writing for Federer fans or other specific segments of the tennis community. I’ll be writing for a general audience. That’s a responsibility which can’t be taken lightly.

I’m really excited about this opportunity, but these moves carry a price, and the cost of this transition is that I can’t write for the Picket Fence anymore.

The Fence has been a wonderful home for me. Julie Zhou – the hostess with the mostest – has been extraordinarily generous in offering me this space during the major tournaments and whenever a moment of inspiration emerged at other points during the tennis season. Doots, P.J., and L.J. have given a lot to me, all while they’ve entertained and delighted the larger community of Fed fans with their work over an extended period of time. I can’t thank these three Hall of Fame Federtweeps enough for giving me an added/fourth seat on The Fence.

This blog has enabled me to put tennis thoughts on paper, and I don’t think I’d feel as ready for this adventure at Bloguin if I hadn’t been able to provide Federer fan therapy after one of Roger’s semifinal or quarterfinal losses at a major (especially to Rafa).

It’s up to Doots to decide what to do with Le Fence in the future. She’s been busy becoming a kick-ass lawyer who will bring about substantial social change in the world. That’s kind of important, oui?

What my departure means is unclear, but I would venture to say only this: Perhaps there’s a Federtweep out there who would be interested in pitching in at the Fence (and submitting him/herself to a vetting process). If conversations develop about the Fence’s future, that alone would be a good thing, no matter what the ultimate decision or course might be. At any rate, though, this is something for others to decide, not yours truly.

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PART FOUR: A COMMERCIAL AND AN INVITATION

As I said at the beginning of this piece, I am not a special tennis commentator. I’m not more knowledgeable than most. I’m not a former player, anyone who can offer a unique level of insight into tennis.

What is unique about me? Not myself as a person, that’s for sure. My story, though, is an uncommon one. How the heck did I get here?

I got here because I tweeted a ton about tennis. I imagine a few other human beings have been offered writing opportunities due to their tweets, but this is not an everyday occurrence within (paid) sportswriting. What emerges is that after five years of tweeting about tennis, I now get to sustain my interactions with Tennis Twitter, but in a different capacity.

Here’s what this means: Having shared so many lamentations and complaints with many of you about the way in which tennis is covered, I now get to be a part of “the media.” Sure, I’m at a lower end of the food chain, and I wouldn’t call myself a full-fledged journalist. (“Commentator” is the better word. I’m not doing reporting here.) However, I’m definitely in the arena.

I now get to attempt to represent you, Tennis Twitter and Picket Fence readers. I get to represent your views. I get to practice the art of media commentary as one who must be accountable to a larger audience. In short, I get to practice what I – and YOU – have been preaching. I think that’s pretty neat.

If you’re reading this, you have very likely joined me for at least some part of the past five years. You probably know what I think, but you’ve mostly gained that insight through tweets. Now, I get to unpack a lot of my thoughts in columns and expanded pieces. You might disagree with some of the larger conclusions I arrive at, but there’s nothing wrong with a disagreement.

My tennis writing position enables me to field questions, comments and criticisms from you, and to produce a work product that you will like. If you are frustrated with the way the media covers tennis, guess what? I might now be able to do something about it! Therefore, let me close with a short commercial about Bloguin, followed by an invitation to all of you:

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Bloguin (it’s pronounced “BLOG-YOU-IN”) covers several American professional sports, plus college sports. Non-American tweeps probably won’t find most of those sports very interesting, but if you do, give Bloguin a look. What should definitely be worth your time at Bloguin in addition to my coverage of the remaining majors this year – this is true whether you care for American team sports or not – is partner site Awful Announcing, which looks at media issues and the ways in which sports are covered in the United States.

Want to understand the relationships that link money, production decisions, and event packaging? Awful Announcing will be your place to learn. Moreover, I’m definitely going to use my position as a tennis writer to address some tennis media issues at Awful Announcing.

When you visit Bloguin, you don’t have to click on ads. You just need to visit and share my articles. You don’t need to thank the people who hired me by sending them a note. You can thank them by visiting Bloguin and clicking my pieces. That’s how this enterprise works.

If this tennis experiment for the three remaining majors works out in 2014, Bloguin might enable me to cover more of the tennis season in 2015 and beyond. Facebook likes and Twitter shares will all go a long way toward ensuring that my tennis blogging career extends beyond 2014, so that I can continue to cover the sport – hopefully for a long time and for a partial living.

That’s the commercial. Here’s my invitation to all of you:

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Contact me. Hold me accountable. If you like what I do at Roland Garros and appreciate my contributions to Awful Announcing on tennis media coverage, feel free to let these guys know. If you don’t like what I do, let me give you my e-mail address: mzemek@hotmail.com.

Stuff my inbox – I’m serious, please do when an article misses the mark or fails to meet your standards. Tell me what I’m doing poorly. Offer suggestions.

I’ll be open to what you have to say, and if I get a high volume of responses saying that the format of “Story X” doesn’t work as well as the format used in “Story Y,” I’ll be sure to use the format in “Story Y” as I move forward.
I’m saying goodbye to the Picket Fence, but I’m not saying goodbye to Tennis Twitter. Hopefully, as I say hello to the world of tennis media, your loyalty as readers and your continuous combination of advice and criticism will enable me to give you the tennis coverage you want… and richly deserve.

Thanks to all of you! I will see you at Awful Announcing and Bloguin, offering some tennis media pieces and tournament previews for Roland Garros.

This conversational relationship isn’t ending. It’s merely moving to places and forums on the other side of…

The Picket Fence.

3 responses to “Goodbye And Hello: Sadness Followed By Opportunity”

  1. Deborah Taylor (@shackle52) says :

    I have loved good sports writing since I read the issue of Sports Illustrated on the Black Athlete in 1968. I’m sure I read it cover to cover. When I became a Federer fan following his 2006 Wimby title, I spent the rest of the summer reading everything about him I could get my hands on in a vain attempt to make up for all I’d missed. (Being a librarian really helped) Two things stood out for me then: how many good writers were drawn to his game and how many of them were outside the world of sports. At that point I also learned about the world of tennis blogging which led me to Doots and ultimately to you. I have no doubt you will make that bridge between the casual sports fan and the tennis lover. Your writing style, especially your humor (bad puns and all) and fairness will see to that. Expecting wonderful things from you!
    All the best,
    Deb

  2. Kyle Johansen (@KJOttawa) says :

    I’m sure you will do excellent Matt. I’m sure at least half of my favourite 20 tennis article have come from you, so best of luck!

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