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EXCLUSIVE INVESTIGATION: Does Tennis Have A LGBT Inclusivity Problem?

Is it just a coincidence that there are no out players on the men’s Tour or is there a more significant reason that the sport needs to be aware of?

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Tennis has an illustrious reputation when it comes to LGBT representation compared to some other sports.

Billie Jean King, who was first outed by the media in 1981, played an instrumental role in the formation of the WTA Tour and the campaign for equal pay highlighted by her infamous Battle of the Sexes match against Bobby Riggs. It was also during 1981 when Martina Navratilova came out as gay for the first time. Despite being one of the sports biggest stars, the multiple Grand Slam champion admits that she lost endorsement deals due to her sexuality. Nowadays the treatment and promotion of LGBT players have improved for the better, but does more need to be done?

In recent years tennis has dabbled in and out of the Rainbow Laces campaign with the British Lawn Tennis Association throwing their weight behind it. The initiative was created by LGBT charity Stonewall and initially marketed specifically towards football’s Premier League. The idea is to get players to wear rainbow laces in order to raise awareness of LGBT representation within sport. As for its effectiveness in combating homophobia, it is debatable.

“In the UK, sports teams have also been holding Rainbow Laces for the past seven years, yet homophobic language also remains common. Two-thirds of teenage football players and nearly half of male rugby players admit to recently using homophobic language with teammates (for example, fag), which is generally part of their banter and humour. At the amateur level, gay and bisexual males remain invisible,” Erik Denison from Monash’s Behavioural Sciences Research Laboratory wrote in a 2020 report.
“However, recent research suggests that refocusing the current Rainbow Laces campaign, which is underway, away from professional teams and strongly towards amateur sport settings could help fix these problems. We also need to change the education that is being delivered.”

It is important to take Denison’s conclusion with a pinch of salt as his assessment focused solely on team sports and not tennis. Inevitably, some of his findings might be also applicable to tennis, but it is unclear as to what extent.

If the rainbow laces approach does help the LGBT community to some degree and therefore any potential closeted player, should tennis bosses do more to promote it?  UbiTennis has approached three governing bodies to generate their view with all of them saying they would be in favour of allowing players to participate.  

“The work Premier League and Stonewall are doing to drive awareness around LGBT inclusion sets a great example, and we would absolutely support any ATP player that wishes to support such an initiative, or personally express themselves,” an ATP Spokesman told UbiTennis.
“We believe that tennis has an important role to play in promoting inclusivity in sport, and across wider society, and earlier this year Tennis United served as a platform for ATP to amplify voices around this important topic. The ATP has directed efforts for positive change across many causes via the ATP Aces For Charity programme, and we are currently reviewing our overall approach in this space.”


Unlike their female counterparts, there is currently no openly LGBT player on the ATP Tour and few historically. Bill Tilden, who won 10 Grand Slam titles throughout the 1920s, struggled with his sexuality during a time where gay sex was illegal and not accepted by society. More recently, America’s Brian Vahaly was a former top 100 player during the early 2000s, but chose to come out after retiring from the sport.

The WTA points out that they have been working with the ATP last season and addressed LGBT topics during their ‘Tennis United’ chat shows which was broadcast online.

“The WTA was founded on the principles of equality and opportunity, along with positivity and progress, and wholeheartedly supports and encourages players, staff, partners and fans’ commitment to LGBT+ initiatives,” a statement reads.
“The WTA supports tournament and Grand Slam LGBT+ projects both logistically and financially, amplifies our athletes’ voices on this topic through the Tour’s global platforms, and increased awareness by incorporating the LGBT+ spirit  into our corporate identity in June across our digital platforms.
“Despite the challenges 2020 has presented, this year saw the WTA mark Pride month with a series of podcasts and web articles, interview guests on the WTA & ATP digital show Tennis United from the LGBT+ community, and through WTA Charities collaboration with You Can Play, offer equipment and financial donations and players participate in a virtual panel discussion.”


The International Tennis Federation is responsible for overseeing the running of the junior Tour, Davis Cup, Billie Jean King Cup (previously known as Fed Cup) and the Olympic Tennis tournament. A spokesperson said they would endorse any campaign which would support an equal playing field in the sport. Making reference to their Advantage All campaign which aims to ‘develop and maintain tennis as an equal advantage sport.’

“Tennis has a proud history of its athletes being at the forefront as advocates of positive social change, using their voice and platforms to raise awareness. We would be supportive of initiatives that reinforce the positive message that tennis is an equal advantage sport which is open to all,” UbiTennis was told.

 
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EXCLUSIVE: How To Survive A Pandemic If You Work In Professional Tennis

Amid the heavy financial implications caused by COVID-19, UbiTennis looks at how two leading sports businesses have managed to survive over the past year.

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World No.1 Novak Djokovic being interviewed by reporters (image via theemiliagroup.com)

At the start of 2020 it was business as usual for Sports communications agency The Emilia Group and their partnership with tennis. January saw them collaborate with one of the sports biggest events, the Australian Open, followed by the Thailand Open a month later. It was all going to plan until the COVID-19 pandemic not only slowed down their business but forced them to find a new direction.

 

Tennis has been one of the heaviest affected sports due to the virus with all professional tournaments being cancelled for months during 2020. Victims included Wimbledon, which hasn’t been cancelled since the Second World War. Across the globe, players were left without any earning opportunities and businesses working in the sport faced a bleak outlook.

“We lost eleven events, most of which were cancelled or postponed in the space of a few weeks in March and April, including major events like the Olympic Games and Wimbledon,” Emilia Group director Eleanor Preston said during an interview.
“We’re a small business and in a matter of a month or so we went from being on course to having one of our most successful years since we started the company ten years ago to having our most challenging year by far.”

Over the past decade, Preston and co-director Faye Andrews have managed to establish The Emilia Group as one of the prominent businesses within the sports directory, the International Tennis Federation, two Grand Slam tournaments and an array of events in Asia have been just some of their clients in recent time. Still, their resume was not enough to shield them from COVID-19 with the company losing an estimated £110,000 in potential or confirmed business last year due to the pandemic.

On the other hand, other companies have had a different experience. LiveWire Sport is a BAFTA-winning content agency who have constructed some of Wimbledon’s most popular videos such as the ‘we cheer for them’ video which was narrated by Roger Federer.

“Working in the digital space meant that actually our ability to do our work was not affected hugely, and demand for the kind of services we offer was still high – albeit many of our clients had to balance up the decrease in revenue from live events with the desire to find a way to still engage with sports fans on a global scale and of course to deliver value for their commercial partners, often via social and digital,” Livewire Director and Co-Founder, Caroline Cheese, said.
“We worked with our existing clients to build campaigns to maintain fan engagement, whether that be via esports and gaming, or maximising archive.”

A change in tactics

Like other industries, diversification was the key for survival. Joining most of the population, The Emilia Group got on board with the use of online video chat platforms by launching their own ‘media lounge’ via Zoom. Their goal was to keep the tennis community together while there was no sport happening. Not only was the idea a success with the Tiebreak Tens group backing them, it is now something they intend to do for the foreseeable future.

“They proved to be really popular because people were really missing the informal interaction that you get at events – the chats in the coffee or the sandwich queue, the laughs and the gossip. We wanted to recreate some of that, albeit virtually,” Preston explains.
“It’s something that we plan to keep doing because we could see journalists having to cover events remotely for a while to come.
“I was a tennis journalist on the Tour before doing this job so I’ve spent a lot of the last twenty years travelling and packing or unpacking a suitcase. Tennis is a travelling circus and I love it but it’s also been nice to slow down and step away from it for a while and remember that tennis isn’t everything.”

https://twitter.com/TheEmiliaGroup/status/1304330706223591425

For LiveWire the timing of the pandemic was ironically advantageous for the launch of a brand new app they have been developing. Its aim is to try and generate content from athletes quicker than before which plays into the hands of the COVID-19 restrictions with those taking part being encouraged to do so from home.

“The  LiveWire Studio app is designed to get high quality video from athletes, ambassadors and fans to video editors as quickly as possible. Its launch proved timely, with many sports organisations looking for a way to film content remotely and to harness the power of user-generated content,” Cheese explained about the project. 

Adapting was another key element for their survival with The Emilia Group receiving a reprieve from the Lawn Tennis Association. With professional events halted last summer, the LTA launched their own series of events for British players.

Their task was to help with the promotion of The Progress Tour which featured a female-only line-up.

“Faye was on-site for that and the tournament itself was very successful. Those early events were so important for showing how tennis could adapt to the pandemic and still host competitions in a safe way,” Preston points out.

The Future

Undoubtedly there is light at the end of the tunnel after what has been a turbulent year. Although the clouds of uncertainty are not going away just yet, Tennis’ return date in 2021 was thrown into chaos due to a plan allowing players to enter Australia in December being ruled against by the government. They will now be arriving from January 14th onwards. Besides questions being raised over the Australian Open, there are also fears even more of the smaller events could be chopped as a consequence in the coming months.

Preston is refusing to reach the point of despair as she aims to recover some of the revenue her company lost, like many around the world she hopes the rapid development of COVID-19 vaccines will help aid the recovery more rapidly when it officially comes into effect.

“There’s reason to be optimistic beyond that because even if the vaccines are rolled out more slowly than we are all hoping, the industry and the Tours have done a great job of adapting and showing that tennis can carry on in a safe and manageable way,” she said.
“I think we’ve all learned that there are different ways of doing things and that can be a good thing because it’s our job to make sure that we keep improving the service we deliver.”

Cheese is also optimistic but admits to having concerns about the long-term impact the pandemic could have on the foundations of sports such as tennis.   

“The fact that we have weathered the storm so far means I think we remain confident about the future. My main concern is for the smaller sports, events, leagues and clubs, as well as for the long-term impact of the pause in grassroots sport,” she said. 

The financial impact of COVID-19 on tennis has been widespread. In Britain, the LTA has seen an estimated 40% fall in income which is roughly £30 million. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic this year’s US Open took place despite a 80% drop in revenue compared to 12 months prior. 

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EXCLUSIVE: How Matt Roberts Became One Of The Voices Behind The Tennis Podcast

A work experience obtained with a speculative Tweet turned into a dream profession for Matt Roberts. Here’s how it all happened

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Catherine Whitaker (left), David Law (centre) and Matt Roberts (right) of The Tennis Podcast (photo: The Tennis Podcast)

Every now and again, in tennis we see some players that after many years of sweat and tears on the ITF or Challenger circuit find that special balance that makes all their efforts come together and produce results that catapult them onto the “main stage”. But it doesn’t happen only to players: sometimes it happens also to ordinary fans like Matt Roberts, 24 years of age from London, who through a series of twists and turns of fate has managed to become one of the voices of The Tennis Podcast, one of the most popular tennis-based podcasts in the world.

 

The Tennis Podcast was born almost nine years ago from an idea by David Law, former Communication Manager at the ATP Tour and now freelance journalist, and Catherine Whitaker, currently the lead presenter of tennis on Amazon Prime Video in the U.K. The podcast grew year after year and in 2017 it started raising funds through Kickstarter campaigns that have been more and more successful every year. 

The Kickstarter campaign for 2021, launched at the beginning of December 2020, reached its £80,000 target in just two days and has now raised over £106,000 with almost two weeks to go until the end. David, Catherine and Matt produce a weekly podcast as well as a weekly newsletter that reaches around 25,000 people every episode, with daily editions at major tournaments.

We caught up with Matt Roberts during the off-season to learn how he managed to turn his tennis passion into a profession.

Matt, when did you start following tennis and how did you get involved with The Tennis Podcast?

“I started following tennis when I was 7-8 years old back then we were living just down the road from Surbiton Tennis Club, where a Challenger tournament takes place every year, but while we were living there, I showed no interest in tennis whatsoever. It all started as soon as we moved. When I was 10 years old my grandma took me to Wimbledon: she had won ballot tickets for Court 1 on Saturday of the second week, so there were no main draw matches to watch, but I managed to see Roger Federer practice on one of the side courts. I remember working my way to the front through a crowd of bodies and taking some shoddy photos, which I still have somewhere, of Federer and Tony Roche on my disposable camera. It was such a cool experience”.

“In terms of the podcast, it all started when I was at the University, where I was studying French and Spanish. During the Easter holidays of my first year, I sent David a tweet asking if they needed a student for some work experience. I had been listening to the podcast for a few years, and my timing just happened to be perfect, because David and Catherine needed some help to keep the podcast going on a weekly basis. They needed some support in terms of social media, planning, research, a bit of everything. For the remaining three years I was working on the podcast in the background while completing my studies at University.”

“I never really intended to be a voice on the podcast, but they took me on part-time in summer 2018, and at some point, a microphone was put in my hand and there I was, broadcasting”.

The listeners to the podcast had heard of “Student Matt” for quite some time before actually hearing his voice, and in a short period of time “Student Matt” turned into “Graduate Matt” and then it became… just Matt.

When was your first time at a tournament with credentials around your neck?

“It was at Queen’s in 2015, just a few months after I had made a connection with them. David wanted me to get on-site and experience a tournament for the first time, I didn’t do much to be honest, I went to the press conferences, watched a lot of tennis,…”

It sounds like a dream…

“It really was! Nadal was there, also Wawrinka who had just won the French Open. I couldn’t believe I was around all these people that previously existed only on TV”.

“I have worked at Queen’s every year since then, and the first tournament with credentials as ‘The Tennis Podcast’ was the ATP Finals 2018. That was a breakthrough for us, because we didn’t know how we would be received as media, and from that point onwards we realized we could be on-site, and produce content while together on-site, which is when we are at our best”.

Was there a moment when it hit home that your life had changed?

“Yes! Going to Australia in 2019, it had always felt like such a pipedream, and then suddenly I was sitting on a plane thinking ‘My word, the podcast listeners have paid for me to go to Australia’. I was full of emotions – gratitude, excitement, some anxiety. And then once I was there it was the day of the Murray-Bautista Agut match, I did not go to bed until 5 a.m., then set my alarm for a couple of hours later, and started all over again. At that point I was completely swept up by the tournament and there was no time to think about anything else. Then, during the following month, it all started to sink in, and all I could think about was going on another trip and doing it again. I had realized that I could do this in my life and I really liked doing this”.

Matt at the 2020 Australian Open (image via thetennispodcast.net)

What is the aspect of this job, of this life, that you like the most, and the aspect you could really do without?

“Attending tournaments is what I like the most. Obviously not this year… But you can find better stories when you are there, you can live off the adrenaline, and you can take the listener with you which is powerful for the podcast medium. Also, I love having David and Catherine as both friends and mentors. I get a bit intimidated by the press room environment, rightly or wrongly I believe that other people in there are more experienced and knowledgable than I am, they have earned their right to be there, while I almost stumbled into it. I love how [David and Catherine] represent a safe space for me, and I am really appreciative to have found this so early”.

“What I dislike the most…well, social media is a constant battle and one that I haven’t really figured out yet. I owe a lot to social media, that’s how I got in touch with David, we receive so many lovely messages from listeners on there, and at its best it’s an incredible source for stats and news as well as a powerful marketing tool.”

“But it can also bring out the worst in people and we’ve experienced our fair share of trolling, mainly from people who don’t really listen to our show. Because those who do listen will know that we like to have a laugh and to see the funny side of the sport, while also caring deeply about it and taking our work very seriously. Striking the same tone on social media can be hard. I probably blow things out of proportion, but one nasty comment can feel personal and really ruin your day.”

Being a tennis fan is a very radical life choice: it tends to involve a lot of hours spent in front of the TV, sometimes at unsociable hours. How did it impact your life growing up?

“Following tennis can be such a solitary pursuit, unless you have a group of friends following tennis. But it is enough of a niche sport that most of the time you are alone following tennis, and that’s why social media has had such a big impact on the tennis community, I suppose. I have very fond memories of the Australian Open, when I used to get up early and fit in a few hours before school, and I guess that was a sign that I was foolish and dedicated enough to be a tennis follower”.

And the pandemic is sort of forcing you and all of us to go back to old habits and follow the tournaments on TV from home. During the last US Open you adopted a curious solution to be more efficient, didn’t you?

“Yes. I was supposed to go to New York but of course the pandemic prevented me from doing it. In order to cover the tournament the way we wanted to cover it, it would have meant living on New York time even while in the U.K., and since I live with my parents this would have made the situation quite difficult. So David and Catherine allowed me to rent a place for myself so I could live alone for the two weeks of the US Open. It so happens that there is a caravan site about a 10-minute walk away from my house, so we decided to rent that place and cover the tournament while living there. It was much cheaper than a flat, but I wasn’t slumming it either, and we managed to make it a bit of a theme for the podcast”.

“This sport really takes over your life, your calendar becomes the tennis calendar: you don’t think of April as April, but as the beginning of the clay court season. I guess that’s why I ended up discovering the podcast, because I had one friend who was into tennis, a lot of friends that played tennis but did not follow the tours, and I was looking for conversations”.

“I remember realizing that tennis was my thing when, the day after the 2006 Rome men’s final that lasted five hours, I went into the playground at school saying that I watched all of it, and it gave me a weird sense of pride”.

Catherine, Matt and David during a recording (photo by The Tennis Podcast)

To conclude the chat, we prepared a lightning round with some specific tennis questions. 

Favourite Slam?
Australian Open

Favourite tournament?
It might again be the Australian Open, but from a personal point of view I would have to say Queen’s, because that’s where it all started.

ATP or WTA?
I can’t answer that! Both!

Merger or no merger between ATP and WTA?
I would love to see a merger; I just fear it’s very unrealistic. The strongest events are those where you have ATP and WTA on-site together, so I think that tennis would be stronger if all events were together.

WTA Autumn and WTA Championships all in China. Was it a good idea or not?
Ultimately, the WTA did was right for the tour at the time. They couldn’t have predicted what would happen this year. I think it is good for tennis that the WTA reached the Asian market, it’s where there is the biggest growth potential. I would prefer the Championships events, both ATP and WTA, to move around and remain in the same place only for 2-3 years. I understand the idea of building a base for an event, but I think it is a shame that tennis has not taken the opportunity to move these events around more.

Classic question: best of 3 or best of 5?
I don’t see it as an ‘either/or’. There’s room for both. I would not want to see the best of 5 gotten rid of. We need to keep it.

Which solution for the final set you prefer among those in use at the four Grand Slam tournaments?
If it’s best of 3 I would like to play it out, no tie-break. For best of 5, I like the Australian Open solution, a 10-point tie-break.

Classic Davis Cup or Kosmos Cup?
I find this very hard. I was lucky enough to be at the 2018 Davis Cup, the last one in the classic format, and the atmosphere was incredible. They both have such different advantages and disadvantages. Overall, I believe the format needed reform, so I would go with the Kosmos version, but personally I believe there should be an extra round of home/away, because one is not enough. So it would be better to have 8 teams in the finals, preferably with a knock-out format, and one more home/away round.

Let or no let?
Let.

Ad or no-ad?
Ad.

Coaching or no-coaching?
No-coaching.

Day session or night session?
Night session

UTS or NextGen Finals?
NextGen Finals

Djokovic, Federer or Nadal?
You are setting me up again? What do you mean?
Well, think of it as the game of the tower, where you have to throw two of them off the tower.
You are making it worse! Let everyone live, and I would say all-around I believe Nadal is the best.

At Wimbledon, white or no-white?
No-white.

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