Tumaini Carayol on Working in Tennis and the Future of the Game

By Owen Lewis and Scott Barclay

Many of the familiar faces in tennis press conferences belong to older journalists who have been at their jobs for a long time. Tumaini Carayol stands out. He is not yet 30, but already has almost a decade and a half of experience covering tennis, from blogging to professional writing. His journey so far has taken him down a handful of different freelancing routes over the past ten years, before finally landing with The Guardian in August of 2019. He is now their only full-time tennis writer. As one of the youngest professional tennis journalists in the world, his career has many big moments to come. “To be honest, I still feel like I’m just beginning,” Carayol says. “I’m hoping [my proudest moment] is in the future!”

Carayol speaking with Frances Tiafoe. Photo via Tumaini Carayol

It’s safe to say, then, that Carayol is uniquely positioned to offer insight into the state of tennis. With all the controversy in the game over the past months – Peng Shuai, domestic violence allegations against Alexander Zverev, Novak Djokovic getting deported from Australia – what kind of place is tennis in? How is our sport doing?

“I’d say this hasn’t been the best period for tennis,” Carayol begins. “For whatever reason, the pandemic seems to have – and not in all cases, but in some cases – have led to a lot of issues and exposed a lot of issues within tennis. Certain things have come to the floor that I’m sure have made people – fans, followers – think about things other than tennis and look at their favorite players and the people they follow in a different light.”

It would be easy for Carayol to avoid mentioning specifics here but he embraces the opportunity to do the exact opposite. “In terms of a lot of those issues, there has been a lot of negativity and…it feels weird to group them together because a lot of them are very different things, but we’ve seen how the tours in some ways haven’t modernized, or aren’t in tune with how professionals and governing bodies are expected to act in 2022 or 2021. It took a year for them [the ATP] to even properly address the allegations against [Alexander] Zverev. Certain ways that the pandemic has been handled…of course there’s issues about things that we’re constantly talking about – the gap between earnings with the top of the game compared to the bottom of the game. So in that sense, I’d say that things have not been great.”

Carayol clarifies that it’s not all bad news in tennis currently. “I still do think that as a whole, there is a positive side, and we’ve seen how even when there’s nobody watching, even when circumstances are completely different to normal, how entertaining the sport is,” he says. “No matter how it’s packaged, tennis is still a great sport fundamentally. We’re at a point where the old guard and a lot of the best players in the world from the last couple of decades are coming towards the end of their careers. I think what is clear is what Rafa Nadal always says: that new players are coming along, new faces and interesting stories. From that side, I’d say there are positives and negatives.”

Carayol rounds out his answer by mentioning certain stories within tennis that have had the innate ability to transcend the sport. He pinpoints Djokovic’s recent controvery before citing Naomi Osaka’s Indian Wells heckling situation as “one of the biggest stories on The Guardian newspaper yesterday!” He finishes, however, with a hint of annoyance in terms of how stories such as these gain traction but offer nothing substantial when it comes to growing the sport. “In that sense, it’s not always a good thing, since people consume these certain stories – even if they’re not negative, they’re sensational stories, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re going to watch the third round of Indian Wells, and that’s the frustrating part as well.”

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Carayol has been in close proximity to tennis since his childhood. “My mom used to play tennis and she got me into it from a young age,” he says. He started to play more and more often, going to his local tennis club six times a week to play. “It was all I was really doing.”

At 15, Carayol injured his back badly, meaning he could no longer play with such frequency. He turned to writing – first a blog called Foot Fault, which he used to cover his first tournament: WTA Linz in 2010. Carayol began university a few years later, but still tried to go to any event he could. 

What drew him to tennis specifically? “Everyone I know plays football, I have a couple of footballers in the family, so I always wanted to just do something different to everyone.” He laughs. “So I played tennis.”

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Carayol’s first big break came when he began writing liveblogs for Eurosport in 2014. The first big tournament he covered – the Australian Open – coincided directly with his first year of university exams. “I went to university in Chester, which is towards the north of England, near Liverpool,” Carayol remembers. Eurosport’s offices were in London, making for a tricky commute. A less dedicated individual might have pressed pause on their career plans until more time opened up, but Carayol wasn’t going to miss out on this opportunity. 

“I was daily going back and forth from Chester to London, doing my Australian Open shifts, starting at midnight, going to midday, then going back and doing an exam, then going back…so it was kind of crazy,” he says. Despite the hectic schedule, he has no regrets. Eurosport recognized his commitment and called him back to do more writing, some of it on-site. 

Carayol notes that had he not spoken to the right people at a few key moments, his career might have panned out differently. “It’s a very closed profession, at least to me, it felt very hard, almost impossible, to break in at a lot of points,” he says. 

Now, though, Carayol is firmly entrenched in tennis journalism. He has been writing for The Guardian since August in 2019. The full-time job comes with deadlines, which can be difficult in light of the wide range of how long a tennis match can be, but Carayol is yet to miss one. 

He still writes some liveblogs, but also gets to do features, having recently covered the electrifying Jelena Ostapenko. Features have a more generous time frame; he has closer to five days to finish the piece. 

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In 2013, Carayol covered the Madrid Masters for Tennis Panorama News. He sat in on a Roger Federer press conference and tweeted a quote from the Swiss. Neil Harman, then an established tennis correspondent for The Times, replied “I would like it if you would not put the whole press conference on Twitter. It is most annoying.” 

Screenshot via The Changeover

This odd complaint highlights how social media has changed tennis journalism. Posting quotes or even entire transcripts on Twitter is now commonplace. There is less exclusivity surrounding player access; the pandemic has revealed that it’s very possible to cover tournaments remotely. “There was a lot of friction and a lot of people who were against it,” says Carayol with regards to Twitter journalism. “Things have changed now, and I hope that people are more accepting of younger journalists and people who are just there in the press room or virtual press conferences, who are just there to get experience and write more. I certainly wouldn’t ever try to be the way that people were in the past.”

Even in 2013, Carayol’s sentiment was echoed by many fans. The Tennis Panorama News tweet is still up, and the responses indicate people’s desire and appreciation for quick information. If exclusive access is necessary for certain tennis journalists to do their job, you could argue they could be positively replaced.

Social media backlash continues to be an occupational hazard of sharing information or writing. “Obviously there are certain issues that people are not going to be happy about. I mean, the obvious example is Djokovic in terms of certain things that have happened over the past couple of years,” Carayol points out. He has been accused of bias by some diehard Djokovic fans, but has also written plenty of complimentary pieces about the great Serb. “You’ll get people who think that I’m always attacking Djokovic and so when I’ve been complimentary, you get people like ‘oh, he’s on Djokovic’s payroll!’ So if you’re pissing everyone off, that’s probably a good thing, I guess!” Carayol laughs. 

In the end, though, Carayol is concerned with the truth above all else: “I’m fine with people getting upset. I am just trying to write what I think is correct and if people disagree, that’s fine by me, really.”

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Tennis is a difficult sport to write about. A seasoned fan watching the five-and-a-half hour Australian Open final between Rafael Nadal and Daniil Medvedev would probably have been transfixed, but capturing the essence of that final, especially to present to a casual fan or someone not connected to the sport at all, is a challenge. “I kept making notes of shots and points that seemed to be a defining moment of the match but then half an hour later, it was a footnote,” Carayol says. 

The urge to capture a whole match is understandable, but recounting all the small chances and momentum shifts of the match would have been tedious to read. Just imagine: after going up a break in the second set, Nadal handed back the advantage, only to reclaim it by breaking for 5-3. He had several opportunities to close out the set, including a set point, but was broken back after a marathon game. Nadal then fought through a long service game at 5-all, alternating down-the-line missiles and tired shots into the bottom of the net. In the tiebreak, Medvedev fell behind 0-2 and 3-5, but launched a brilliant comeback to take the set, finishing with a sliding, acrobatic backhand passing shot down the line. 

Some point description is nice, but that started to put you to sleep, didn’t it? And that lengthy blurb covered only part of the second set in a match composed of five long stanzas. “I enjoy writing that’s descriptive and is flowing and is pleasant on the eye but it doesn’t always have to be that way,” Carayol opines. “I think the best writing for me in some way captures the moment, the players, the different personalities and why people should care about it. I do think that there are many different styles of writing that can accomplish that and I think that’s probably the key.”

Carayol’s writing covers the full range of the sport, not just the forehands and backhands. His recent profile of Jelena Ostapenko didn’t just detail how aggressive her style of play is, but explained how her mindset enables her to try shots others wouldn’t dream of attempting and how her disdain for more passive styles accentuates her aggression. Players’ personalities do not mirror their styles, but there are often threads that connect the two, and seizing on these in writing makes accounts of the game more compelling. 

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For the longest time, both the WTA and the ATP have been reliant on big names to promote the sport for them. The Williams sisters and Naomi Osaka have been standouts for the women, while the obvious domination of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic on the men’s side have threatened to overshadow all else in tennis for a decade and a half. 

How does Carayol see the state of the game 10 years from now when these icons have hung up their rackets? He takes a moment to consider and smiles before responding. “You’ve seen the L’Equipe prediction from maybe 10 years ago. They predicted the rankings, and they had Benoît Paire as world number two. I hope this doesn’t end like that and someone sends me this article in ten years,” he laughs. “But I don’t think, at least for many years, there’ll be something like what we’ve seen in the men’s game like what’s happened with Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, all pushing each other – and Murray as well – to a point where they were all monopolizing these big tournaments… I don’t think we’ll see that again. I think there will be more parity.”

Oopsie.

If that’s the case, how will the game look to market itself in the absence of an all-dominating faction of players? “I think when the Big 3 finally retire, there’s an opportunity to think about what tennis is supposed to be. We’ve kind of seen with the ATP and how they’re trying to change the coverage of the sport with their “strategic plan” and we’re going to see how that plays out…” Carayol sounds unconvinced here that the ATP in particular have the right idea of how they’re planning on developing and improving in the future but he seems willing to wait to see the results before judging.  

In the meantime, he’s hoping for a broader overall focus on those people that are rarely in the spotlight currently. He’d like to see tennis become “more sustainable for players not only in the top 100 but outside the top 100.” Despite much of his current career being spent covering the top players at the top events, Carayol is all for greater coverage away from those lofty heights and he clearly believes in the rarely publicized depth of talent that runs all the way down and throughout the world rankings. Those playing in the shadows deserve some time to shine.

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What does covering one of the major tournaments look like? How are Carayol’s days structured when he’s on site? “Well, first of all, it’s very long,” he jokes. “It’s really about just multitasking when the matches start. There’s the calm of the first hour or so, especially in the earlier rounds, but then there’s press conferences and so you’re going to press conferences. You obtain interviews by requesting the players you want to speak to and so you might have an interview with someone like a coach somewhere around the grounds but also you’re keeping an eye on the tennis and also keeping an eye on the clock because depending on the time zone, with newspapers, there’s different deadlines and so I have to make sure that what I’m supposed to be writing, that I’m going to give myself enough time to do that.” He talks this through quickly, reeling it out for us as certain memories come to him. It all sounds stressful but Carayol smiles constantly as he speaks. He loves this.

Carayol takes some time to address one of the most widely spread negative comments in relation to how tennis journalists go about their jobs, that they’re rarely at the matches themselves and often seem to be underprepared for certain press conferences. “It’s funny because when I was younger, one of the criticisms that I always saw tennis journalists get is that ‘oh, they’re never going to the matches, they’re always in the press rooms’ and it’s funny now that I realize there’s so much going on, it can be hard to actually do that.” 

Through all of this, Carayol is well aware of just how lucky he is. He describes it as a “privilege” to be able to be at these big time events, to be able to talk with these players, to be able to cover this sport. He may still be in the early stages of his career but he’s already taking nothing for granted.

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Carayol’s description of the job paints a picture of a chaotic whirl rather than a glamorous stroll through a tournament, and with tennis being a global sport spanning the entire calendar, it’s easy to see the demands of the profession. Carayol has learned to multitask at tournaments to cover ground more quickly. “I always try to go and watch matches in person and also just bring my laptop with me and if I’m covering a match, write the piece on the court. But there’s a lot going on.”

His dedication is more than a match for the job. “The longest day I had at a Slam was actually Andy Murray’s faux retirement ceremony in 2019,” he says. Carayol was on site at the Australian Open, writing a piece on the end of Murray’s career and the attritional state of tennis for The Ringer. “Because of the weird time difference, I ended up finishing the piece at 8, 9 a.m. I was at the tournament in the press room the whole time from about 11 a.m. until almost 8:30 a.m. the next day,” he recalls. 

“The cleaners were coming in and cleaning under my legs.”

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