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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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Steve Flink: “Jannik Sinner Will Be a Top 10 Player by the US Open”

The Hall-of-Famer journalist comments on Hurkacz’s surprise win in Miami and previews the clay season. Who was the biggest letdown, Medvedev or Zverev? Nadal will soon be world N.2 again, while Andreescu is striving to stay healthy.

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The first Masters 1000 event of the season wrapped up on Sunday, but another already looms in wait in Monte Carlo, and on a different surface. To comment on the situation of the two tours, Ubitennis CEO Ubaldo Scanagatta was joined by his colleague Steve Flink: they focused on Hubert Hurkacz’s surprise win as well as on Jannik Sinner’s great run in Florida – Asheigh Barty’s permanence atop the rankings was also discussed. Here’s their chat:

 

00:00 – The man of the hour is Hubert Hurkacz: “He had an amazing run, defeating five players with a better ranking than his!” What was the key strategy in his final win over Sinner?

07:30 – This was the first Masters 1000 event since 2005 not to feature either Djokovic, Nadal, Federer, or Murray – a wasted chance for Daniil Medvedev? He started as the clear favourite, but his attitude against Bautista Agut left something to be desired…

12.50 – What lies ahead for Sinner? Some of the greatest names in the game did well in Miami in the past – a sign of things to come?

16.20 – Hurkacz betrayed some nerves against Rublev and Sinner, but held on to serve those matches out. Sinner, on the other hand, wasted a 6-5 lead in the opening set – what can he do to improve?

22.50 – Whose great champion does Hurkacz’s serve remind Ubaldo and Steve of? A look at the other players who underperformed in Miami, starting with Tsitsipas and Rublev.

32.00 – “Alexander Bublik reminds me of Safin, he’s an entertainer and he is not boring in press conferences!” What about Sebastian Korda – does he have the mettle of a champion?

40.00 – The women’s tournament: “I expected a great final, but Andreescu was clearly spent – I hope she’ll manage to stay healthy.” Was Osaka’s no-show against Sakkari a worrying sign?

45.30 – If the Canadian is healthy, will she join Osaka and Barty as the defining players of the decade? Who else could make a run to the top?

49.30 – This week, 10 Italian players feature in the ATP Top 100 – will at least one of them feature at the ATP Finals in Turin?

Transcript by Antonio Flagiello; translated and edited by Tommaso Villa

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Editorial

Women’s Tennis’ Best Player Wins Again

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It wasn’t long ago that Naomi Osaka appeared to be a talented young tennis player who had lost her way. On a rather warm April day in Charleston, S.C., in the 2018 Volvo Car Open, the then 20-year-old had had enough. As perspiration streamed down her face while she walked to her bench on
the jam-packed smallish outside Althea Gibson Club Court, Osaka looked at her coach and made the remark that she didn’t want to be there. Of course, she was losing. Osaka finished that round of 16 match, eventually losing to Julia Goerges.

 

NO WORRIES ABOUT PURSE
Obviously, Osaka wasn’t worried about the larger purse she missed by losing that day in Charleston. Money wasn’t that big a deal. Just two weeks earlier, Osaka had earned a $1.34 million check for winning the mega tournament at Indian Wells, Calif. The world was her game.
A few months later, Osaka won her first Grand Slam title at the 2018 U.S. Open. And now the powerful 5-11 native of Osaka, Japan, looks unstoppable with four Grand Slam titles in less than three years. Serena Williams probably is more worried about Osaka matching her record than Serena is
about surpassing Margaret Court in the number of Grand Slam titles.
Osaka is that good these days on the court, while making waves with her politeness and well-spoken interviews.

BRADY NO MATCH FOR OSAKA
Jennifer Brady was no match for Osaka in Saturday’s Australian Open final, falling much the same way Serena Williams had been dominated a couple of nights earlier. Osaka just turned the6-3, 6-4 victory she posted over Williams to a 6-4, 6-3 over Brady and a second straight Australian Open title.
Brady tried to out-hit Osaka. That was a mistake as the 24-year-old former UCLA star couldn’t keep her over-hit balls on the court in the face of Osaka’s meticulously placed, yet powerful serves and ground strokes. Brady fell victim to Osaka’s near-perfect cross-court put-aways from both sides on short balls.

OSAKA WAS A SUPERSTAR IN WAITING
The first time I watched Osaka in person was in the 2017 Volvo Car Open when a red-hot Shelby Rogers (she had just beaten long-time friend Madison Keys) scored a straight-set victory as Osaka watched too many of her shots miss their mark. It was rather surprising even then as a 19-year-old that Osaka was often losing matches. Her game was already spectacularly based on power. She was so talented and good that she was a
can’t-miss future superstar. Osaka is a quicker version of Serena. She has the entire package of talent.

No one in women’s tennis probably has better control of her shots and serves in pressure situations than Osaka. She also must have some of the quickest feet in the game, while being able to fight off her opponent’s hardest-hit shots with her upper body strength. It’s not surprising that Chrissie Evert calls Osaka “the best player in the world.” She may be just that by a long ways.


James Beck has been the long-time tennis columnist for the Charleston (S.C.) Post and Courier newspaper. He can be reached at Jamesbecktennis@gmail.com. See his Post and Courier columns at postandcourier.com and search for James Beck.

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Editorial

Medvedev, Not Tsitsipas, Looks Like A Grand Slam Champion

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Stefanos Tsitsipas looked like he might be a serious contender to win this Australian Open after his startling upset of Rafa Nadal in the quarterfinals.
But then, it wasn’t as much that Tsitsipas won that match as it was that Nadal lost it. Nadal was just out there the last two sets and the third-set tiebreaker after smothering Tsitsipas the first two sets.

 

NADAL WASN’T HIMSELF
Obviously, Nadal wasn’t himself physically after the first two sets. He was completely un-Nadal, even flubbing a pair of overheads in the tiebreaker. Those two overheads told the story for a player who quite possibly has the best overhead in men’s tennis. And then there was the string of miss-hit ground strokes by Nadal while repeatedly not even making a move for the ball at times during the last three sets as he watched Tsitsipas hit winners that normally would have been answered by Nadal.

TSITSIPAS ENJOYED HIS CAKE WHEN HE COULD
Tsitsipas made the last two sets of his 3-6, 2-6, 7-6 (4), 6-4, 7-5 win over Nadal look like eating a piece of cake. It was evident that he faced little resistance from Nadal. Yet, I for one was fooled into thinking that the athletic 22-year-old Greek was a little better than he really is.
Even John McEnroe was predicting that Tsitsipas and Daniil Medvedev might win 10 Grand Slam titles between them. If that happens, Medvedev likely will have to win all 10 by himself.

A GRAND SLAM CHAMPION?
Tsitsipas just doesn’t look like a Grand Slam champion. At least, not in the Australian Open semifinals in his straight-set rout by Medvedev. Tsitsipas appeared to be following the sameformat against Medvedev that he used against Nadal, following two lackluster sets with an upgrade in his energy and play in a tight third set. Tsitsipas had Medvedev thinking the semifinals could be a repeat of the quarterfinals if the Russian didn’t pull his game together late in the third set to wrap up a 6-4, 6-2, 7-5 victory and a spot opposite Novak Djokovic in the final. Of course, the young Greek might get better with age.

MEDVEDEV COULD COOL DOWN AGAINST NOVAK
Tsitsipas might sneak up and win a major when the other new stars of the game see their games briefly fall apart or the “Great Three” of Nadal, Roger Federer and Djokovic have faded into just legends of the game. Of course, there is a chance that Medvedev could cool down before or during Sunday’s
championship match against the rubber-like Djokovic. But maybe not. I could see Medvedev wearing Djokovic down. This will be Medvedev’s second Grand Slam final. He may be ready this time to pull it off this
time.

THE PHENOMENALLY TALENTED NOVAK
Djokovic is a phenomenal talent, especially in Rod Laver Arena in the middle of the U.S. night. His only weakness has been his physicality. He has shown that weakness throughout his career, although not enough to prevent him from winning 17 Grand Slam titles, just three behind Nadal
and Federer. You might say Djokovic has owned Rod Laver Arena. Eight titles Down Under is almost as amazing as Nadal’s 13 French Open crowns. Nearing his 34th birthday, Djokovic, of course, is a little younger than both Nadal and Federer. But Novak is less than a year younger than Nadal. Federer is 39 and looking a lot like Super Bowl wonder Tom Brady.


James Beck has been the long-time tennis columnist for the Charleston (S.C.) Post and Courier newspaper. He can be reached at Jamesbecktennis@gmail.com. See his Post and Courier columns at postandcourier.com and search for James Beck.

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