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”.
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”.
To conclude the chat, we prepared a lightning round with some specific tennis questions.
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?
Ad or no-ad?
Coaching or no-coaching?
Day session or night session?
UTS or 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?
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Cameron Norrie’s Surprise Win at Indian Wells Could Land Him a Well-Deserved ATP Finals Berth
As Medvedev, Tsitsipas and Zverev disappointed, the Brit (along with Basilashvili, Dimitrov and Fritz) were ready to seize the day
We have grown accustomed across the last bunch of decades to the most important tournaments in tennis being controlled by an elite cast of competitors. That has been the case not only at the Grand Slam events but also at the Masters 1000 showcase championships. While there has been a large degree of predictability associated with these prestigious gatherings of great players, that has been comforting for followers of the sport who have embraced familiarity.
And yet, every once in a while there is no harm when a big tournament produces startling results and a semifinal lineup that no one could have foreseen. That is precisely what happened this past week in the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells, California. For the first time at a Masters 1000, not a single player ranked among the top 25 in the world made it to the penultimate round. The semifinalists were none other than Great Britain’s Cam Norrie (No. 26), Grigor Dimitrov (No. 28), Georgia’s Nikoloz Basilashvili (No. 36), and Taylor Fritz of the United States (No. 38). Their seedings were somewhat better because some top players did not compete at Indian Wells. Norrie was seeded No. 21, Basilashvili No. 29, Dimitrov No. 23 and Fritz No. 31.
These rankings and seedings were almost unimaginable, but all of these players deserved to be in the forefront. The left-handed Norrie took apart Dimitrov 6-2, 6-4 in the opening semifinal with surgical precision and uncanny ball control, and then Basilashvili followed with an overpowering 7-6(5) 6-3 performance in eclipsing Fritz. Here were four distinctive players displaying their collective talent proudly on the hard courts in California. Outside of Roger Federer, Dimitrov may well be the most elegant player of the past twenty years with his well crafted running forehand plus his spectacular and versatile one-handed backhand. Norrie is cagey, resourceful, disciplined and versatile. His forehand carries a significant amount of topspin and can bound up high while his two-handed backhand is fundamentally flat. His serve is strategically located and reliably precise. He is a tennis player’s tennis player.
Fritz combines considerable power with remarkable feel. He serves potently and places it awfully well. He is a constantly improving craftsman with a wide arsenal of shots. And Basilashvili is the biggest hitter in tennis, pounding the ball relentlessly off both sides, unleashing forehand winners from anywhere on the court almost at will, never backing off from his goal of blasting opponents off the court.
So all four semifinalists were worthy of getting that far. Moreover, it was fitting that Norrie and Basilashvili would square off in the final. Norrie has celebrated a stellar 2021 campaign. This was his sixth final of the season and he had already amassed 46 match wins coming into the final. Norrie has made immense strides as a match player all year long, and he was poised to put himself in this position. He is a masterful percentage player cut from a similar cloth to Novak Djokovic and Daniil Medvedev. Norrie measures his shots impeccably, giving himself an incessantly healthy margin for error, refusing to miss by being reckless or narrow minded.
Basilashvili is made of different stock. He had lost in the first round in five of six Masters 1000 events this season because he misses so much with his risky shots. When he gets on a roll, Basilashvili is an exceedingly dangerous player who can make the most difficult shots look easy. But he can also beat himself and is often his own worst enemy with his obstinacy. Basilashvili lost his last nine matches of 2020. Norrie is at the opposite end of the spectrum with his consistency and methodology, understanding his limitations, always obeying the laws of percentage tennis.
The contrasting styles of the two finalists made it an intriguing confrontation. But, in the end, Norrie withstood a barrage of big hitting from Basilashvili, refused to get rattled by the explosive shotmaking of his adversary, and ultimately prevailed 3-6 6-4 6-1 to claim the most important title of his career. It was a fascinating final in many ways as Norrie opened up an early lead before Basilashvili found his range, but then the British competitor reasserted himself over the last set-and-a-half with cunning play down the stretch as the wind force increased and Basilashvili faltered flagrantly.
Norrie moved ahead 3-1 in the opening set but then the Georgian held easily and broke back for 3-3 on a double fault from the British No. 1. Basilashvili promptly held for 4-3 at love. He had won three consecutive games, and clearly the complexion of the set was changing significantly. Norrie realized he was in jeopardy but was unable to halt Basilashvili’s momentum. The British competitor was broken again in the eighth game as Basilashvili released two outright winners. On break point an angled forehand crosscourt from the Russian coaxed an error from his left-handed adversary. Serving for the set at 5-3, Basilashvili was totally composed and confident. He held at love with an ace for 40-0 and then a dazzling forehand down the line winner.
Not only had Basilashvili taken the set on a run of five consecutive games, but he had also swept 20 of 25 points in that spectacular span. When Basilashvili broke for a 2-1 second set lead, he seemed entirely capable of driving his way to victory behind an avalanche of blazing winners. But Norrie refused to lose optimism. Basilashvili suddenly lost both his range and his rhythm off the ground, particularly on his signature forehand side. Four unforced errors off that flank cost him the fourth game and allowed Norrie back on serve.
But Basilashvili was persistent, working his way through a couple of arduous service games on his way to 4-4. Nevertheless, Norrie was unswayed by his opponent’s fighting spirit. The British player held at love for 5-4 in that pivotal second set with a drop shot winner and then broke at love to seal the set with his finest tennis of the afternoon. On the first point of the tenth game, Norrie lobbed over Basilashvili into the corner and took the net away from his opponent. Although Basilashvili chased that ball down, turned and unleashed a potent backhand crosscourt pass that came over low, Norrie was ready, making a difficult forehand drop volley winner that had the California crowd gasping. On the next point, Norrie released a scintillating backhand passing shot winner down the line. Consecutive forehand mistakes from a shaken Basilashvili allowed Norrie to break at love to salvage the set 6-4 on a run of eight points in a row.
The left-hander was in command now, taking the first two games of the third set confidently. He then trailed 0-40 in the third game. But Norrie responded to this precarious moment commendably, collecting five points in a row to hold on for 3-0, demoralizing Basilashvili in the process. Basilashvili self destructed at this critical juncture of the match, giving all five points away with a cluster of errors. But Norrie was also outstanding on defense in that stretch.
The match was essentially over. Although Basilashvili fended off a break point in the fourth game of that third set, Norrie sedulously protected his lead thereafter, capturing 12 of 16 points and three consecutive games to close out the account with a flourish. From 4-4 in the second set, Norrie had won eight of the last nine games and his first Masters 1000 crown. Norrie started the year at No. 71 in the world but now stands deservedly at No. 16 following his astonishing triumph at Indian Wells. It was a job awfully well done, and he was a worthy winner in the end.
But I must add that the three top seeds at Indian Wells all failed to perform up to their expectations. Let’s start with Medvedev, the top seed in the absence of Djokovic. He confronted Dimitrov in the round of 16 and was leading 6-4, 4-1. Medvedev was up two service breaks in that second set. He seemed certain to prevail but performed abysmally thereafter. At 4-1, he opened the sixth game with a double fault and then double faulted again at 15-40. Dimitrov held easily in the seventh game and then Medvedev was broken in the eight game after missing five out of six first serves.
Now Dimitrov held at love and then Medvedev started the tenth game of the second set with another double fault. He lost his serve for the third time in a row and thus conceded the set 6-4 after dropping five consecutive games and 20 of 26 points. Medvedev missed 15 of 17 first serves at the end of that pendulum swinging set.
Dimitrov raced to 3-0 in the third, later advanced to 5-1, and eventually came through 4-6 6-4 6-3 as Medvedev imploded. To be sure, Dimitrov was magnificent in many ways, particularly with his running forehand. But Medvedev was his own worst enemy and his attitude was reminiscent of the man we witnessed in years gone by who was often mercurial. He was infuriated with himself and his situation, competing irregularly, smashing his racquet, advertising his vulnerability.
Meanwhile, No.2 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas wanted to reignite his game after losing early at the US Open, but the Greek stylist struggled inordinately in every match he played before Basilashvili ousted him 6-4 2-6 6-4 in the Indian Wells quarterfinals. Tsitsipas was trying to manufacture some emotions that simply were not there. He was out of sorts and off his game. At 3-3 in the final set, down break point, fighting hard but playing poorly, Tsitsipas double faulted and never really recovered. It may take him quite some time to recover his best form after a debilitating year.
And what of Sascha Zverev? Here was a man who had won the gold medal at the Olympic Games in August and then secured the Masters 1000 title in Cincinnati. He lost to Djokovic in the semifinals of the US Open but seemed to be ready to take the title at Indian Wells after reaching the quarterfinals. But Zverev wasted a 5-2 final set lead against Fritz.
Zverev had a match point in the eighth game on Fritz’s serve that the American saved stupendously. Zverev had sent a deep crosscourt forehand into the corner that seemed unanswerable but Fritz took it early on the half volley and flicked it down the line to rush Zverev into an error. In the following game, serving for the match at 5-3, Zverev double faulted at 30-15 but still advanced to 40-30 with a second match point at his disposal. Once more, he double faulted. In the end, after Zverev served another damaging double fault on the first point of the final set tie-break, Fritz succeeded 4-6 6-3 7-6(3).
Zverev had no reason to be embarrassed about losing to a first-rate Fritz, but nonetheless the German should have been dismayed by those crucial double faults. He said afterwards that he felt he was the clear tournament favorite after Tsitsipas had lost earlier that day, but why didn’t he play with more conviction when it counted against Fritz? Was Zverev getting ahead of himself by thinking about winning the tournament when he was still trying to succeed in his quarterfinal? I have a feeling that was the case. He is too seasoned a campaigner to allow that to happen at this stage of his career. I thought Zverev was more professional than that.
Undoubtedly the unexpected setbacks suffered by Medvedev, Tsitsipas and Zverev opened a window for Norrie to see his way through to a career defining triumph, but that takes nothing away from his success. Cam Norrie is now at No.10 in the Race to Turin for the ATP Finals, and Rafael Nadal is out for the year. So the British lefty could well qualify for that élite season ending event which is reserved for only the top eight players in the world. After his uplifting victory at Indian Wells, only a fool would doubt that Norrie will very likely be in the field at Turin, which is no mean feat.
Steve Flink has been reporting full time on tennis since 1974, when he went to work for World Tennis Magazine. He stayed at that publication until 1991. He wrote for Tennis Week Magazine from 1992-2007, and has been a columnist for tennis.com and tennischannel.com for the past 14 years. Flink has written four books on tennis including “Dennis Ralston’s Tennis Workbook” in 1987; “The Greatest Tennis Matches of the Twentieth Century” in 1999; “The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time” in 2012; and “Pete Sampras: Greatness Revisited”. The Sampras book was released in September of 2020 and can be purchased on Amazon.com. Flink was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2017.
Indian Wells Daily Preview: 2019 Finalists Andreescu and Kerber Face Stiff Competition
Monday hosts some stellar third round matchups in both the men’s and women’s singles draws. 10 of the days’ 16 singles matches feature seeded players colliding. They include 2019 champion Bianca Andreescu, three-time Major champ Angelique Kerber, and newly-crowned US Open champ Daniil Medvedev.
Each day, this preview will analyze the two most intriguing matchups, while highlighting other notable matches on the schedule. Monday’s play gets underway at 11:00am local time.
Angelique Kerber (10) vs. Daria Kasatkina (20) – 11:00am on Stadium 2
It’s the 2018 runner-up against the 2019 runner-up. Both players submitted subpar results thereafter, but have bounced back strongly in 2021. Kasatkina started the year ranked outside the top 70, yet is now inside the top 30 after racking up 36 wins and reaching four finals. Kerber rediscovered her mojo on the grass. Since her title run in Bad Homburg, she’s 18-4. These two players have split eight previous encounters, though Kasatkina leads 4-2 on hard courts. Most recently they met two years ago in Tororto, where Daria prevailed 6-4 in the third. Their clash of styles on these slow courts should provide some dynamic, compelling rallies. But based on Kerber’s current level of confidence, I give her the slight edge.
Bianca Andreescu (16) vs. Anett Kontaveit (18) – Second on Stadium 2
Andreescu may be the defending champion and higher seed, but as of late, Kontaveit has been the better player. She recently hired Dmitry Tursunov as her coach, and she’s been on fire. Since late-August, Anett is 14-1, with two titles. By contrast, Andreescu is only 6-8 since Roland Garros, with the US Open the only event where she has won back-to-back matches. However, Kontaveit did withdraw from a WTA event in Chicago two weeks ago with a thigh injury, so she’s not been 100% after playing so much tennis in such a short span. Bianca rarely goes down without a dogged fight, especially at big events on hard courts, but she may be the underdog on this day. And she’s never beaten Kontaveit, who is 2-0 against Andreescu, including a straight-set victory earlier this year on the grass of Eastbourne.
Other Notable Matches on Monday:
Diego Schwartzman (11) vs. Dan Evans (18) – Schwartzman saved match points on Saturday against American Maxime Cressy, while Evans survived a grueling three-setter against Kei Nishikori. Two months ago in Cincinnati, Diego defeated Dan in three.
Casper Ruud (8) vs. Lloyd Harris (26) – Ruud leads the ATP with five titles this season, winning his first hard court event just eight days ago in San Diego by defeating three top 30 players. Harris is on the verge of breaking into the top 30 himself, coming off his Major quarterfinal debut in New York.
Reilly Opelka (16) vs. Grigor Dimitrov (23) – This summer in Canada, Opelka took out Dimitrov in straight sets, though these slower courts will mitigate some of his Servebot prowess.
Su-Wei Hsieh and Elise Mertens (2) vs. Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Iga Swiatek – These teams played what was perhaps the most exciting doubles match of the year at Roland Garros, when Mattek-Sands and Swiatek saved seven match points to eventually prevail after three hours and 11 minutes.
Ons Jabeur (12) vs. Danielle Collins (22) – These are two of the WTA’s strongest performers in recent months. Last October at the French Open, Collins upset Jabeur 6-4 in the third.
Denis Shapovalov (9) vs. Aslan Karatsev (19) – Since advancing to his first Slam semifinal at Wimbledon, Shapovalov is a meek 4-6. Karatsev achieved the same feat back in February, but is now 8-11 since mid-May.
Coco Gauff (15) vs. Paula Badosa (21) – This could be one of the best matches of the day, between two of the WTA’s fastest-rising performers. Gauff is just a few wins away from putting herself into qualifying position for the WTA Finals.
Hubert Hurkacz (8) vs. Frances Tiafoe – Tiafoe leads their head-to-head 2-1, though Hurkacz claimed their latest clash, two years ago in Winston-Salem.
Roberto Bautista Agut (15) vs. Cameron Norrie (21) – Norrie has accumulated 42 wins on the year, reaching five finals. Bautista Agut has underperformed this season, and hasn’t achieved a final since March.
Daniil Medvedev (1) vs. Filip Krajinovic (27) – Medvedev is looking for his 50th win of 2021, while Krajinovic arrived at Indian Wells with a record of 17-17. However, he did defeat Daniil at the last staging of this event two years ago.
Barbora Krejcikova (3) vs. Amanda Anisimova – Krejcikova is one of many players who have shared how exhausted they’ve felt after such a busy season, though it’s been an incredibly successful one for her. Anisimova dropped only seven games in four sets played last week.
Monday’s full Order of Play is here.
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After Fairytale Breakthrough, Barbora Krejcikova Reaches New Highs At Australian Open
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Novak Djokovic ‘Trying’ To Get To The Australian Open, Says Lajovic
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