By Owen Lewis and Scott Barclay
Scott and Owen got the chance to interview the fantastic Blair Henley, who has hosted, emceed, and written at tennis events. They talked to her about stories from her work, how to break into tennis, and their hot takes. Here is a condensed transcript of the interview.
Scott Barclay: As somebody who has built a really fantastic career for yourself in tennis media, what do you think is missing from tennis media? What’s an area that you can see for development, or what’s an area where you think work is needed in tennis media?
Blair Henley: The first thing that comes to mind is the problem a lot of people have mentioned over the years, and it’s that the tennis community is so small that it makes it hard to write something that might not be received particularly well, or might be critical, or that might be pushing towards change. Because you are potentially going to be employed by these people down the road! Even if I’m working under the journalist heading one day, the next week I could be the emcee for a tournament where in those cases I’m technically not operating under that definition, because I am getting paid by the people who run the tournament. I am essentially getting paid to make their tournament look good! So that week there are certain things that I won’t tweet, or that I will stay away from because I’m employed by the tournament.
I don’t know what the fix is for this. I totally understand why there is some fear, maybe, about digging deeper on certain topics, or certain players, or certain things behind the scenes, because it really could affect your access down the road. .
Scott: So is that something that actually takes place? So in me and Owen’s future, in Popcorn Tennis’s future, when it’s a hugely successful media enterprise, which is of course what we’re aiming for, if we’d written an article that was kind of a negative outlook on whoever, any player, and we wanted to interview that player for something, there would be a high chance of them being like “well, no, because we saw what was written about me a year or two ago,” is that something that would happen?
Blair: I don’t know if I would say high chance, but there is a chance. It’s a balancing act. And it’s not like I support ripping players apart on a weekly basis, but I do think occasionally there are issues within tennis that require taking a more critical stance. I do think, for instance, that Jon Wertheim has done a good job of that in his columns. I do think he has been critical at times, but he also has earned great respect as a journalist. I think if you can attain that respect level and trust level with well-written and well-reported work, you have more leeway in the types of stories you can write. It is just a slow, challenging process, however.
Owen Lewis: Sometimes it kind of frustrates me how impermanent tennis media seems to be. I’m a more recent fan. I got into tennis in 2016. But I’ve gone and mined the archives of the tennis web, and I found articles on The Changeover and Grantland, and it breaks my heart that those two sites aren’t active anymore, because the sites were so good-
Blair: So good.
Owen: -but it’s so hard for it to be sustainable, which is definitely the concern for us. *Scott laughs* So, Scott, I think the lesson here is like, we need a resume like Jon Wertheim’s, so we should find a way to copy-paste; do you know how to do that? *Everyone laughs*
Blair: Well, another challenge is going to be getting into media rooms post-COVID for those who are just starting off and building that foundation, and building that body of work. I was just telling someone this the other day: I feel for the people who are trying to build that body of work now. Because it’s harder to get in. And media rooms are where you meet so many people!
But I just think, especially at the smaller tournaments, that’s where the foot gets in the door. That’s where the players are more relaxed, that’s where you could maybe get an interview you couldn’t get at a slam, or you could write about something you couldn’t write about at a slam. So I think the smaller tournaments are still gonna be where it’s at for people starting off.
Scott: The question that I wanted to ask is that tennis media generally seems like such a circus, almost. It’s got so many different layers to it. What’s it like to be in that? What’s it like to be a fairly integral part of tennis media, what’s it like to kinda exist in that space?
Blair: I would say it changes by the week. It is a rollercoaster. (laughs) In my role, I’m a freelancer, and so technically every tournament I work, I have new bosses. There are new people who are in charge. Some people don’t care, they’re like “do your thing,” and some people are like “this is what your thing will be.”
I think tennis does its best. There are still a lot of areas where there just aren’t a ton of resources. It has actually provided the best possible training ground for me—to try to figure out how to make things happen when I don’t have any resources. I’ll never forget, one of the first tournaments I did was Houston, and at the time I was working for TennisNow, and we had a video component, and they were like, “here’s the video camera,” with the little flip-cam. Cut to me setting up the tripod, flipping the little thing forward, and trying to center Fernando Verdasco and I for a two-shot, (Scott laughs) and then being like “don’t move! I’m going to press record on the little recorder on the tripod!” Phones, thankfully, have come a long way, but at the time, that’s what I was doing. In hindsight, it was ridiculous. I mean, there was a time when I did a whole interview with Dustin Brown, who was lovely. Microphone didn’t work. He’s like “where’s the interview?” and I’m like “he-heh (points sarcastically at camera), never made it!” The interview was dead on arrival. There were a lot of frustrations, believe me—I mean, you guys can imagine.
Owen: Can you tell us a bit of what it’s like to talk to these players, these people who you’ve watched and idolized, and is it difficult to build working relationships with them?
Blair: For better or worse, I would say that I am not a person that gets starstruck often. When I’m in work mode, it’s even less so. I put the blinders on and know that I have a job to do, and I think I’m just focused on being the best that I can be at my job. If that ends up getting something great from the person I talk to, then great. Sometimes it does, and sometimes you can have the most well-thought-out question and you get a big old goose egg in terms of information. Other times you ask something totally inane, off the cuff, and you get this answer where you’re like I didn’t see that coming!
The relationships have probably been my favorite part of my job. Getting to know some of the players just as people. The more you see them, the more leeway I think you have in asking those off-the-beaten-path questions. There are some players at least who if you can build a little bit of trust, it gives you the ability to veer off the standard in terms of your questions, and in theory, that’s where you get to know people better. And that to me — I love the storytelling aspect — is the most rewarding part, is being able to have a fan be like haha! Liam Broady laughed about his hair!
I will say, I never take those unusual questions lightly, I always consider… How well do I know a player? Is this a comfort zone? Will this be something that goes over well? When you’ve been doing this for awhile, you usually have enough information where you feel comfortable going in those other directions and then how cool is it that random Betty from Dallas, Texas, has a new favorite player in Liam Broady because she, too, loved his hair. That to me is so incredibly rewarding, I love it.
Owen: So just to be clear, I make fun of Scott’s hair a LOT but if I got the chance to talk to Novak Djokovic, I shouldn’t do that, I should wait until we have a good working relationship?
Blair: Uh, yeah, don’t call Novak’s hair lego man hair!
Owen: Oh, but it is! It is and it all just stays in the same place and never moves. And then people ask him “Novak, are you a robot?! Is that why people think your game is boring?!” That was going to be my first question to him! But what you’re saying is that I shouldn’t do that?
Blair: Yeah… yeah, maybe doooon’t do that.
Scott: Are there any examples of things like that that come to mind or on the other side of things, are there examples of times where you’ve thought “hey, that did not go in the direction that I thought that it would but it was absolutely fantastic!”?
Blair: Oh yes, I have a fresh embarrassing story for you. One thing I will say is that when I’m MCing, when I’m doing stadium hosting, there are so many times throughout the day where you can make a mistake. The number of times you are on a microphone, reading, ad-libbing, interacting with fans, doing post-match interviews, telling people who’s coming up next–it’s a lot.
So it was one of my first days in Dallas and they had me doing a LOT of extras. Trivia, yelling, loudest fan contests, etc. By the time the last match came around, it had really been a day unlike any other. Probably hadn’t eaten enough and certainly hadn’t hydrated enough because I had a little bit of dry mouth. Cut to my post-match interview with Jack Sock and John Isner. The question was something like: “John, you have had success as a double player, Jack, a lot of people think you’re one of the best doubles players to ever play the game, but you’ve also had a lot of success together…” Unfortunately, “success” caught in my mouth and it did sound a bit like I’d missed a syllable in “success.” You can very much imagine what it did sound like I’d said… There was this tournament employee who shall remain nameless who was sitting off camera who literally and loud enough for me and John and Jack to hear said, “DID SHE JUST SAY SEX…?!?” I know John and Jack well, I’ve interviewed them so many times. If it weren’t on camera, I would probably have just laughed and said yup, that’s what I get for not drinking enough water today. Instead, I just wanted to die because I couldn’t acknowledge it, y’know? Just one of those days!
Owen: I think that YouTube clip of someone saying to Nicolas Mahut “congrats on the win!” And he goes “win? I lost!” has been seen by millions of people. *Scott laughs*
Blair: Because of my line of work, I feel like I give way more grace to other people [for instances like that]. I think of Stu Fraser when he recently misspoke in a presser with Rafa. He is obviously a fantastic journalist—it was a fluke oversight. I think a lot of people agreed with Reilly Opelka when he tweeted about it, thinking this is the media we have covering tennis? How awful! But when you think about how many times these people are in these pressers…it’s just a mistake. Unfortunately, the mistakes can be cut, clipped, and you can feel really terrible for them. So if somebody is not a repeat offender—and, to be clear, those also exist…
Owen: I think you’re talking to two of those people right now. *Laughs*
Blair: No, no, no. *Laughs*
Scott: The self-deprecation is brutal.
Blair: I just wish people had a better understanding of how much you are doing, as I said before, with probably not enough resources. Mistakes are just going to happen. I wish there was just a little bit more grace for those things.
Owen: Scott, every time we annoy a player, we rebrand. We’ll call our next version Sour Patch Tennis.
Scott: Sour Patch Tennis, or Burger Tennis, or-
Owen: Burger Tennis! *Laughs hysterically*
Scott: Burger Tennis, I dunno. *Laughs* If you have any ideas for us, Blair, feel free to let us know. But now that we’ve covered the embarrassing stories, what’s the opposite of that? Best memories of your time interviewing players, what’s the standout where you’re like I’m gonna remember that for the rest of my life for a good reason?
Blair: I feel like this is such a cliche answer, and especially because we don’t know if he’ll be back, or how long he’ll be back, but the times I’ve gotten to interview Roger [Federer] were pretty memorable for me. When I was at the ATP Finals in 2019, and we were on the boat on the Thames going to the O2 Arena, and I’m literally on a boat with…that was a star-studded year-end final. You had the new guys in Daniil, Stef and Matteo, plus Roger, Rafa and Novak…
It was one of the few moments where actually in the moment I was thinking this is wild that I am here right now…I used to film my own interviews with a flip cam! And now I am on a boat in London with the best to ever do it. Having Stef sing “I’m so excited and I just can’t hide it” on the boat…that was (laughs) the best thing that came out of that boat trip. I did interview Roger there, but the thing that has lived on is Stef doing this scavenger hunt of sorts. I had no idea if he was going to say yes to the concept. I was like, “can you sing I’m so excited and I just can’t hide it?” No hesitation. He just ripped it out. *Scott laughs* He did “I’m king of the world,” [from Titanic] That is also where I ended up with a selfie with Novak and Stef because one of the things he had to do was get a selfie with another player and have them put it up on their account with the correct tournament hashtags. It was pretty much me following Stef around with our cameraperson, making sure he goes down this list that my ATP colleague and I made up.
So he [Stef] went for Novak, and Novak was totally game, and they were like “you have to get in the picture!” And I was like “absolutely not. That’s a huge no-no in my line of work. Unless we are talking about someone like Frances Tiafoe, who is like a little brother to me at this point.
Scott: Does it give unprofessional vibes?
Blair: It can be viewed as unprofessional. I don’t think it always is, but if it can be viewed that way, to me, that is a danger zone, so I generally stay away from it. Unless it’s like, you know, Grigor [Dimitrov] getting out of the pottery factory in Cincinnati and being like let’s get a group picture! (Laughs) I’ll get in your pottery picture, Grigor.
So when [Stef and Novak] said “you have to get in,” I was like “no.” They were like “yes.” So at that point I said, “ah, okay!” So that whole boat experience was definitely a moment for me. Not only did I get to talk to some really great tennis players, but I got to show off one of their personalities. That’s my trifecta. You get the good interviews, you get to show off a player’s personality, and just get some really cool work memories. That was a big one for me.
Owen: That’s amazing. Tennis never stops, it’s constant. Have you ever struggled for motivation, maybe during a more busy period? Have you ever been doing an on-court interview after a match, and you’re asking “what were the conditions like,” or something maybe not the most important, and have you ever thought oh my god, I don’t want to be going this right now?
Scott: Yeah, what motivates you day-to-day? What are you getting up for every day?
Blair: Whoa, that’s a deep question, guys. *laughter* I…want to be the best I can be every day. My faith is a big part of my life, and I am extremely thankful for the doors that have been opened. So on the days where I do feel down, and those days exist for sure, I try to remind myself that if I had told myself ten years ago that this is what I would have been doing, I don’t know that I would have believed me. So I just think there’s an underlying thankfulness, that, again I sometimes have to remind myself dude, you have so much to be thankful for. This is such an incredible blessing you’ve been given to do this.
I’m a former athlete, I’m competitive in everything I do — I want to step up to the next rung in the ladder. Just like you guys are pursuing goals with Popcorn Tennis. I love what I do, but I want to grow. That could look like many different things. It could look like doing something outside of tennis. It could look like doing more TV inside tennis. Less of the live hosting, more broadcast. I definitely have goals, and some days it just gets discouraging when you don’t feel like you’re making any headway, but that’s where I would say, just like anything else in life, tomorrow might be the day that I do.
You never know when the next door is going to open, and so having some more patience than I maybe I naturally do, I think, is what I strive for in that department. *laughs* But there are definitely days when you’re like bleh, I just don’t feel like I’m doing anything spectacular right now. That’s when thankfulness is key, you know? And the patience.
Scott: Persevere through.
Owen: That’s awesome. Scott worships at the altar of Andy Murray.
Blair: He does? I’m shocked! Shocked to hear that!
Scott: I was gonna go back to the bit where you were talking about getting selfies with a player. Would it be acceptable for me, if I ever got to meet Andy in a press conference, would that be seen as reasonable to dive in there for a photo in that situation? Or are you recommending no for that?
Blair: If you have a credential around your neck…
Scott: No, are you saying no?
Blair: …it’s gonna be a no. You could actually lose the credential for that.
Scott: Interesting, okay.
Blair: But say you buy a ticket and sit courtside…
Owen: Now I’m just envisioning an Andy press conference, and he gets a couple legit questions, and then they say you, in the back, with the weird hair [Scott] and Scott goes, Andy, Andy, can I get a photo with you please? *laughter* And just goes running up there.
Scott: Listen, if it’s between me and you doing the Andy press conferences, Owen, in the future-
Owen: I’ll give it to you, I’ll give it to you.
Scott: You’ll maybe take that.
Owen: No, no, no.
Blair: That’s amazing.
Owen: We’ve now arrived at our hot takes section of the interview. We have a total of three here and these are opinions that might not be the most popular, but we wanted to get your thoughts on them.
Scott: But we legitimately do believe them. Owen really believes this first one, so let’s see.
Owen: I think Wimbledon, although it’s a really important part of tennis history, is now the most niche slam event, with the lowest level of play. Grass is barely featured on the tour anymore, it’s expensive, it’s slippery, it has a shelf life of about five minutes and its time has passed. It’s also well-documented that strawberries and cream are not that good. Switch Wimbledon to hard courts or clay. What are your thoughts?
*general disbelieving laughter*
Blair: That was more like a blazing take. Forget hot, we’re on the surface of the sun for this one. Alright, so… Where do I even start… I’ll agree with you on strawberries and cream! I did cover Wimbledon once as a writer. Funny enough, it was my first ever slam that I covered, and I applied for credentials thinking there was no way. I didn’t even tell my boss. But for some reason, I applied, they said yes, and my boss gave me the go ahead. I did try strawberries and cream and was very depressed to find that the cream was not sweet. It is not whipped cream, it’s just…cream. So I agree with you there.
*takes a deep breath before this next part…*
I think that… Here’s my thing about Wimbledon. For the people outside of tennis, Wimbledon is the most recognizable, notable thing about our sport. I think that any area outside of our little tennis circle, anytime they’re starting to keep an eye on tennis, that’s a good thing. And so that is my argument for Wimbledon. I’d also say that it’s a warm-up to the real marquee grass court event of the year at the Hall of Fame Open.
Day One of Newport, I always say, “welcome to the real finale of the grass court season, everybody!” But I definitely see your point too about how small of a chunk of the year it is but I think that for everyone, even the players, it just has this magical aura. It just does!
Scott: Look at Owen’s face when you’re saying this!
Owen: OK, but I really do want to beat this point into the ground. So I fully take your point that it’s still the biggest event in people’s minds, in or outside of tennis, but strictly from a practicality standpoint, if that weren’t the problem, if it’s seen as equal to the other [major] events, does it make sense to play a major on grass?
Blair: Have you been losing sleep over this, Owen?
Owen: I have! Lots of sleep!
Blair: Well, um… What surface would you like it to be?
Owen: Hard courts or clay, I have no preference.
Scott: And after all that, Blair’s just like “well, I like it!”
Blair: From a quality standpoint, I do see your point, I do see your point.
Owen: OK, I will take that.
Scott: Nice and diplomatic!
Blair: From the purely practical standpoint, I do, Owen. If that helps you sleep tonight.
Owen: And the counterargument is that it has a magical aura.
Blair: The aura, that’s right, it’s a very unscientific argument.
Owen: OK, but I will take that, I feel like I’ve gained some ground here.
Blair: Totally! No pun intended. You’re aerating the Wimbledon soil.
Owen: That’s perfect, thank you. I’ll cede the floor to Scott now, who wrote this next one just to annoy me.
2. Racket Smashes
Scott: I personally believe that there should be at least one racket smash per match and that very little tennis matches aren’t made better by a good old racket smash. I just think that they’re super entertaining and when a player breaks a racket, I’m like “Yes! Give me more of this, give me more!” Listen, a player smashes a racket on court, there’s a reaction immediately, everyone’s loving it, everyone’s up on their feet, everyone’s maybe booing but there’s a reaction and they come alive and there’s a real kind of mood swing of some variety so yeah, I’m campaigning for one racket smash per match to be first and foremost added to the rulebook. Thoughts on this, Blair?
Blair: I’m going to be more on your side with this than you might think and this is coming from someone who would flatline in terms of emotion on court, but I thoroughly enjoy the people who wear their hearts on their sleeves. Mostly because I think it’s relatable. I think that even if you know nothing about tennis, it stinks to lose.
Scott: Yeah, I’m thinking so, right?!
Blair: There are definitely lines that can’t be crossed in terms of racket smashes, but if it’s a pure racket smash, I’m not against it! Whatever helps you channel that negative energy.
Scott: Owen is not enjoying that response at all.
Owen: To weigh in slightly here, my beef with racket smashing isn’t necessarily that children are watching, it’s more that it’s just a waste of money, really. Like, rackets are expensive and in general, it’s not an issue with most pro players, but someone somewhere might be watching and would love to play tennis but can’t afford a racket and I just think the idea of destroying a $200 piece of equipment is not great.
Scott: That’s very much the Nadal mentality, isn’t it? That’s what Rafa got taught by Toni. I get that. But… it’s the heat of the moment, isn’t it?
Blair: I would say many of those players end up handing that broken racket over to someone.
Scott: That is true! That is true! Owen!
Blair: A gift of a lifetime…
Scott: Owen, Owen, Owen, say Andy smashes a racket, right, and he hands that racket to a kid in the crowd and that kid is then inspired to go home and pick up his own racket and get on the court and that kid then goes on to become the next Scottish champion to win Wimbledon. Are you saying then that racket smashes are worthless, is that what you’re saying, Owen!?
Owen: Well, the kid wouldn’t be able to use the racket because it was broken.
Scott: No, because he then goes to use his OWN racket.
Owen: I know, I was deliberately misunderstanding you.
*Scott laughs hysterically*
*Owen sighs heavily* I can’t deny that there is some appeal to watching it and people seem to love getting the broken rackets but we can agree to disagree on this.
Scott: We’ll never agree on that. The last hot take, Owen, on you go.
3. One-handed backhands
Owen: In conjunction with the Wimbledon one, this is gonna make it seem like I have it out for Pete Sampras or Roger Federer-
Scott: Yes, yes it is.
Owen: I think that the general aesthetic fawning over a one-handed backhand is abominable [Ed. note: this was way too strong of a word] to me. All things considered, they’re not as good as two-handers. You see it a lot with the NextGens, like Tsitsipas and Shapovalov, for example. Great players. They cannot return serve, or can’t return serve well. Mostly because of their backhands. So I think that when they step out on court and a commentator says “such a beautiful stroke. So nice to see a one-hander,” that kind of hurts tennis because… they’re not great shots. *Scott giggles* Two-handers might not be as pretty to look at, but they’re better, and I think that’s not as widely recognized as it should be.
Blair: Ooh, man. You guys brought it with these. So you’re talking to someone with a one-handed backhand…
Scott: I KNEW IT! I thought that was gonna come up!
*laughter* [Ed. note: at the time, Owen thought Blair was asking him to imagine talking to a pro player with a one-handed backhand. When watching the interview back to transcribe, he understood what had really happened and cringed. Many times.]
Blair: But I think I have a really realistic take on it, and I would say that the return of serve is one of the tougher areas for a one-hander. I also think, though, that you cannot compare Denis Shapovalov with a two-handed backhand to Denis with a one-handed backhand. Because we’ve never seen him with a two-handed backhand. So to me, it is 100% possible that Denis — and I don’t want to pick on Matteo — might have a Berrettini-esque two-hander.
I would also say that there are ways to improve the one-hander. Roger explored that in the latter part of his career. Denis has sliced a lot less in the last couple of years and I think we’ve seen the results of that as well. So I think that you get other marginal benefits from the one-hander. You have a little bit more reach, it may be easier to learn the backhand volley, you possibly can disguise your slice better, or it’s easier to adjust between the two.
Owen: Those are all great points. The one about not being able to compare a one-hander to what-if-they-have-a-two-hander I hadn’t considered, especially. I guess my gripe with it in general is when people advocate for it just because it’s pretty.
Blair: And that’s fair.
Scott: Those were our hot takes. Do you have a controversial opinion on anything that relates to tennis, anything major that would kind of ruffle some feathers in tennis?
Blair: Let me think about that for a second. While I’m thinking, that backhand thing, that backhand question, that’s an article that should be written.
Owen: I’ve ranted about it before [from the pre-Popcorn Tennis days], but I’m planning a follow-up [stay tuned].
Blair: I think it’s a very fair point. I think a lot of two-handers would agree with you there. In terms of controversial opinion…
4. Blair’s Hot Take
Blair: This isn’t necessarily controversial, it’s just something that’s come up many times in my roles: I’ve wondered if it’s better to hire inside or outside tennis. Think of any other major industry where you could be super successful and have an awesome track record and have done innovative things. It’s just come up, where I’m like, is that helpful in tennis? Can that translate to tennis?
In theory, I feel like it should. In practice, I don’t know that it does.
Scott: I think I speak for both Owen and myself, we hope that it’s not beneficial to go looking for that, we hope that they can find people within tennis, hopefully like ourselves *laughter* who can come in with some interesting takes.
That’s an interesting one. Does that happen quite often? Them reaching over and bringing people in who’ve covered other sports? That’s a thing, really?
Blair: I just worked with a bunch of people whose background is hockey, in Dallas. And certainly, things like the ribbon boards in a 250, that’s not something you see very often. And it does add a multimedia element. They were doing clap, clap, clap-clap-clap on the one-game changeovers, and they had the clap graphics on the ribbon boards around the court. There were definitely pieces of something more like hockey that you could see. They wanted to make it more of…
Scott: a spectacle.
Blair: Yes. Maybe a mixture of backgrounds is okay, but you have to have the tennis person who can say so we can do this to this point, but then you have to rein it back in because that’s not going to fly with the tennis community at large, or the players for that matter.. On the flip side, maybe we shouldn’t even care what the tennis people think?
But, yeah, this is the thing I wrestle with often. What does tennis need? And I do think, by the way, one of those things that we’ve seen especially in the Twitter and social media spaces: great if you can make the jump to official media, but the fan perspective, and the fan feedback, and the fan conversation? That drives a lot of engagement for tennis. And I feel like that’s where the old school media mentality can be hurtful to the growth of tennis as a whole, because there are more things than just longform profiles to make people interested in tennis players!
Scott: I think your hot take is actually not so much of a hot take, it’s like a…yeah! *laughter*
Blair: It’s just tennis’s own inner struggle. Especially when you’re working with one foot in the broadcast space and one foot in the social space, I find myself thinking about it often. You keep pitching, and you keep trying for new things, and some people will say no, and maybe one person says yes, and that ends up being a very cool thing.
So we keep soldiering on.
This interview has been edited and condensed for brevity.