The US Open is really the big tennis moment in the United States. It takes center stage in the biggest city in the country, features the biggest stars and is the one time where tennis is really front of the American sports consciousness. Ben Rothenberg runs SB Nation's The Daily Forehand, which is our tennis community. Ben has had a hell of a first few months with interviews galore, including two of the titans of the sport in Billie Jean King and John McEnroe. What does Ben have planned for an encore? Let's have a chat with him and find out.
Blez: Tell me how you became a big tennis fan.
Ben Rothenberg: My first love in sports was always hockey. I always wanted to be a goalie in hockey--the accountability, the ability to steal the spotlight of that position always really appealed to me. Tennis has all of that individual pressure magnified immensely. It's completely 1-on-1, like boxing, but there's no way to have your misery curtailed by a knockout. There's no trainer between rounds to give you advice--you have to solve the problems for yourself. The heroic individual efforts and epic meltdowns that tennis allows for are completely unique to the sport. There are no teammates to carry you if you're having an off day. If your opponent that day plays better than you, you go home, end of story. That absoluteness always really appealed to me.
Rothenberg: On the men's side, there's absolutely no way to rationalize picking anyone but Federer. He's won this event the last five years in a row, and has already won two Grand Slams this year. Andy Roddick (if he makes the semifinal) and the partisan crowd he will have supporting him will be the biggest hurdle Federer faces on the way to #6. But it's a hurdle he should clear with his trademark effortlessness.
The women's side is a lot more up for grabs. Serena Williams has a pretty nice looking draw now that her kryptonites Samantha Stosur and Sybille Bammer have been cleared from her path. With how well she played her first two rounds, it's tough to see anyone beating her. The top half is completely up for grabs. Elena Dementieva and Jelena Jankovic, who had come into the US Open playing the best tennis on the WTA, are already out. Maria Sharapova is the most experienced and reliable player on the top half, more so than the mentally questionable Svetlana Kuznetsova and justifiably maligned #1 Dinara Safina. An in-form Sharapova vs.Serena in the final would be a brawl, but at this stage I can't pick against Serena.
Blez: Where does the US Open rank in terms of the biggest tennis tournaments in your eyes?
Rothenberg: As a Grand Slam, it's automatically in the top four. Within those four, I'd put it at #2. It's ahead of the Australian Open (too isolated) and the French Open (too French), but it doesn't hold a candle to Wimbledon. Wimbledon's tradition and austerity is completely unmatched in all of sports--it's an event that really transcends tennis. In terms of atmosphere, Wimbledon is like the Fenway Park to the US Open's Tropicana Field. It's a cathedral of the sport to which almost nothing in sports can compare.
Blez: The move to ESPN...a good thing or bad thing for the sport?
Rothenberg: Absolutely a good thing. Having a grand slam event on a network like USA that specializes in Law & Order re-runs did nothing but marginalize tennis. ESPN, like it or not, is THE brand in American sports, and having tennis on it makes the sport immensely more relevant to casual fans. With ESPN covering the event comes increased presence on shows like SportsCenter and PTI, which can't hurt. And it gives viewers the opportunity to see Mike Tirico of all people try to analyze tennis, which is really something to behold.
Blez: You've only been writing about tennis for a short time, yet you've already scored interviews with Billie Jean King and John McEnroe. Talk about the experience of getting that kind of access and interview so quickly.
Rothenberg: The process of getting access for tennis is a lot different than trying to get access for covering a single team. When covering one team, you're dealing with one media relations office, and just one gate keeper who holds the keys to one door.
The way tennis is organized, each tournament and event operates completely separately from one another. There are a lot more doors, and a lot more gatekeepers. For someone just starting out, that's great, because there are a lot of doors you can knock on in the hopes of eventually getting one to let you in. So while I had a bunch of doors stay locked, there were a few that opened and gave me pretty great opportunities.
I was able to interview both Billie Jean King and John McEnroe by getting credentialed with the Washington Kastles of World Team Tennis, who were incredibly helpful with giving me access even before The Daily Forehand officially launched. As a smaller organization, they were eager to get all the coverage they could, and it wound up being a great opportunity to talk to the big names that they dealt with. King founded the World Team Tennis league, and McEnroe still plays in it, so as each of them made their way to Washington in support of the league I was able to talk to them during their media availability. The Kastles also were great about setting up an extended interview for me with Rennae Stubbs, who just a few weeks previously had been in the doubles final at Wimbledon.
Getting so much so quickly was really unbelievable. And getting credentialed for an ATP tournament (the Legg Mason Tennis Classic in Washington) within the first few weeks of The Daily Forehand's existance was also pretty crazy, getting to be up in the press box next to Tony Kornheiser and talking to players like Andy Roddick that quickly was completely surreal.
Blez: If you were in charge of tennis, how would you start the process of growing the popularity of the sport?
Rothenberg: That's a tough one. I think increased, consistent television coverage on big television channels (i.e. NOT Tennis Channel) would be good. Getting the Masters events that dot the calendar to have more coverage on ESPN would be great for keeping tennis in the American sports consciousness for times outside of the grand slams. I get the sense that most sports fans like tennis a lot the few times a year they do sit down and watch it, it's just that those times are too few and far between. ESPN would have something to gain from this set up as well, as more regular coverage of the sport would result in much better ratings for the four grand slams, presumably.
An American man winning a grand slam would also be huge for the popularity of the sport in the US, but that's not really within any executive's control.
Blez: What kind of community would you like to have at The Daily Forehand?
Rothenberg: An awesome one, ideally. There have been some really great, insightful FanPosts that readers have written, and I'd love to see more of those, for the readers to continue to make the page their own and take advantage of the platform and audience they have at their fingertips.
It's a different set up than a lot of the sites here on SB Nation in that not all the readers are going to be rooting for the same result like they would at a one-team community, which might theoretically make for a somewhat less cohesive community, but hopefully the love of tennis will keep us together.
Blez: I know you haven't been blogging long at The Daily Forehand, but what has been your favorite part so far? Anything you find challenging?
Rothenberg: Obviously getting to do the in-person coverage and interviewing has been incredible. There have been some pieces I've written that have really taken off and been circulated widely around the web, and that's really cool, to know that people out there are reading (and hopefully liking) what you're writing. The reach of the site has been really amazing--in the month or so it's existed I've had readers come to The Daily Forehand from 103 countries/territories and 49 states (no tennis in South Dakota, apparently).
It can be somewhat challenging writing about stuff I don't get to see. Matches overlap, and most aren't even televised. When I can't watch a match for whatever reason, I read as many accounts and descriptions as possible to get a sense for how everything went down, but it's not the same as being able to see it for myself.
Blez: Tell me something that might surprise readers at The Daily Forehand.
Rothenberg: I have a lot of rabbits yet to pull out of the hat still. There were interviews I did at the Legg Mason Tennis Classic and at the Bronx Open that have yet to make their way onto the site, in an effort to space out some of the bigger features. Those will continue to roll out, both over the course of the US Open and beyond, so keep an eye out for them. There are some pretty big names and some players no one has ever heard of, so they should be a nice sampling of the tennis spectrum.
Blez: Thanks so much for your time today.