Pete Bodo (pictured on the right) knows tennis. In 2007, he penned a piece called “The Perfect Player” about one Novak Djokovic, highlighting the remarkable balance in the then-19-year-old’s game. Such a take seems obvious in retrospect now that Djokovic has won 22 majors, more than any other man sans his longtime rival Rafael Nadal, but 2007 was 16 long years ago, the days of Richard Gasquet being known as the original “Baby Federer,” (!!) and Federer himself enjoying the thick of his peak years. Back then, Djokovic was known for his frequent physical frailty, not just the seamless balance in his game.
“Jeez, you saw that?” Bodo, 73, laughed on Zoom when I brought up the piece. His career, spanning an incredible 50 years, includes dizzying highs like winning the WTA Tour award for “Best Writer of the Year” twice and ghostwriting Pete Sampras’s autobiography. But even he couldn’t entirely foresee the scale of Djokovic’s dominance. “I don’t think anybody could’ve predicted this level of achievement,” he said. “So many things can go wrong — anything from physical problems to family-related stuff to people getting satisfied. They hit a certain level and all of a sudden they don’t train as hard, they’re not motivated, they’re happy in the slot they’re in.”
“When you think about it,” Bodo continued, “this is going to sound insulting, but by the clinical definition it’s not — [tennis players] are kind of like idiot savants. I mean, can you imagine going out and hitting, like, 3,000 forehands every day of your life? It’s a very, very curious thing to me that these players can really keep the degree of focus and discipline and enthusiasm in what they do.” Thinking about it from this angle, maybe an event like Dominic Thiem’s dip in motivation following his victory at the 2020 U.S. Open or even Ash Barty’s sudden retirement should be greeted with, “but of course,” rather than shock. Endless careers at the highest level like Serena and Venus Williams’ as well as the Big Four’s are very much the exception, not the rule. “That degree of fidelity to your ambitions, your talent, your dreams, the game, the discipline,” Bodo marveled, “in some ways, that’s the rarest thing in this period of tennis history.”
From Bodo’s fascination with what drives players, it’s easy to glean why he entered the world of tennis media in 1973 and hasn’t left since. But telling good stories about the sport isn’t easy. Successful execution requires riding a fine line between earning a player’s trust to be able to speak with them and expressing enough of an opinion to make a piece interesting. “I had a reputation for being a players’ person,” Bodo told me. “Because for the longest period of my career, when I was writing magazine profiles and covering tournaments, I really felt that my job was to be the conduit from the players to the public. My job was to really bring them to life – who they are. Not necessarily to pass judgments on them, or to have opinions about them, other than the kind of stuff that makes for interesting reading.” To do that, keeping the players happy was key.
Writing a story that criticizes a player (shockingly) isn’t always compatible with that player’s satisfaction. “You’re really beholden to your subjects,” Bodo explained. A journalist can’t always go after someone who might deserve to be ripped, as that might kill the odds of the subject cooperating for future projects. Just look at the way some of the White House media would cozy up to Trump — anyone who didn’t might see their ability to ask him questions taken away.
I suggested that access could even be a drawback in terms of writing an interesting piece — many tennis players are media-trained to within an inch of their lives. Ask Djokovic what he was thinking during a vital moment of a major final and he’ll begin his answer by thanking the fans or praising his opponent. If you write a piece channeled mainly by what a player says, there might not be much to work with. “It’s very interesting that you say that, because I have actually preached this, and I’ve preached this in my attempts to get interviews,” Bodo responded. While many may think of interviews as an opportunity for the journalist, really, it’s an opportunity for a player to set the record straight on a given topic. Bodo once tried to set up an interview with Stefanie Graf during a tense point in her career. Graf declined. “I was like, ‘you’re freeing me up to write what I think,'” Bodo told me. “If you talk to me — look, I consider myself a reasonable human being. If somebody does me the courtesy of actually talking to me and explaining their position, they’re gonna come out looking a lot better!” This kind of exchange, Bodo said, is pretty standard in journalism.
Bodo clarified that he never writes vindictively, but by declining an interview, someone loses the possibility of having their personal perspective baked into a piece. “I believe, in some ways, you actually have a better story if you don’t talk to these people, but you have really done your homework on their careers and the issues at play.” That last clause is key — speculation is only valuable if it’s educated. Few would want to read an uninformed writer’s musings on a given player. “Not getting the interview is often a real plus — if you can convince whoever’s gonna run your material that they still want it.”
But Bodo didn’t spend the first phase of his career in accordance with that principle. To adequately fill the responsibility of player-public conduit, he was friendly with players, to the point that he was sometimes criticized for it. It was a thoroughly successful way to get access to them. Though it made negative assessment of players much more difficult –“You can’t really go after some people who maybe need going after in your eyes, because you’ll shut the door on them cooperating in the future,” — Bodo made connections with many players on tour, allowing him to report about them to the public. A line from the Amazon description of his book The Courts of Babylon: Dispatches from the Golden Age of Tennis reads as follows:
THE COURTS OF BABYLON is more than a collection of essays, most of them growing out of a deep familiarity and, often, relationship with subjects that include Bjorn Borg, Chris Evert, John McEnroe, Evonne Goolagong, Jimmy Connors, Tracy Austin, Ivan Lendl and Martina Navratilova.
Speaks for itself, doesn’t it? But Bodo also wanted to write about his own opinions on tennis, not just its players. He developed an interest in the blogging revolution, growing intrigued by the idea of simply saying what he thought. In the early 2000s, he was a senior writer at TENNIS magazine. He posed the idea of a blog to the higher-ups. “Frankly, TENNIS magazine was struggling, so we had a couple changes in leadership,” Bodo told me. (The magazine survived those struggles, but folded last October.) Perhaps swayed by the burgeoning shift from print to online, TENNIS allowed him to create a blog under their digital umbrella.
The blog was called TennisWorld, and it featured all manner of opinions. “I liked the personal touch you could take with it, the freedom you had to essentially say what you were thinking,” Bodo said. At TennisWorld, Bodo did not have to worry about access. He could focus on starting interesting dialogues, either by writing or responding to commenters. Scroll down to the comment section on the Djokovic piece and you’ll quickly see how rich it is. You have your fair share of tweet-sized contributions, but also longish personal anecdotes, deep comparisons between various players, and one gigantic block of stats from the Agassi-Sampras rivalry. Journalists Miguel Seabra and David Law (now the co-host of the wildly successful Tennis Podcast) even showed face under that post. Read through the comments and you’ll probably either remember something from 2007 that you had forgotten or learn something new about tennis, period.
“We had an unbelievable community,” Bodo remembered. People became friends (or more) with each other. Some would hang out on the site on holidays; Bodo fondly mentioned virtual “Christmas parties” in which people would just drop in and chat with each other. TennisWorld alumni can be found all over Twitter, many of whom have gone on to write at prestigious publications — Courtney Nguyen, Juan José Vallejo, and Lindsay Gibbs among them. Some of them did their first tennis writing on TennisWorld, where Bodo would sometimes cede the floor to guest contributors. Vallejo once wrote a comment on Nadal so extensive that it was reposted on fan websites and later posted on his Medium page. He and Gibbs even partnered with Amy Fetherolf to start their own tennis website, The Changeover, in late 2012.
“All kinds of friendships were made,” Bodo recalled fondly, naming various commenters, contributors, and moderators — Rosangel Valenti, Skip Schwarzman, Andrew Burton, Asad Raza, Andrew Friedman. I imagine he could have named dozens of others. Bodo would go out of his way to respond to comments, whether they asked questions, disagreed with him, or merely were interesting. The commenters’ familiarity with Bodo helped build the community. “It became like this one big family,” he said. Burton has even uploaded a few YouTube videos in which he spends time with other TennisWorld contributors at tournaments.
Lots of TennisWorld pieces have fallen to link rot, but if you look hard enough, you can still find plenty of articles on the site, both by Bodo and other contributors. They often bear little similarity to typical tennis coverage. There’s a kind of happy irreverence to many of them, some of which I imagine came from the writers not being under pressure to be entirely objective, depend on player access, or even hide the naked enthusiasm of being a fan.
After a few years, posts upon posts, and over a million and a half comments, further changes in ownership at TENNIS and changes to contracts within the site’s structure made it less appealing for Bodo to continue updating TennisWorld, which had become a daily project. “It’s kind of sad that it all went to hell because we had a heck of a community there, with hundreds of people posting every time I wrote anything,” he reminisced. Bodo does not seem to be a sentimental man — he was even surprised at how little memorabilia he had from his career when I asked him for a thumbnail photo for this article — but he expressed some disappointment that TENNIS didn’t seem to want to pursue the blog route long-term, and happiness at the memories of the TennisWorld community, some of whom he remains in touch with or meets up with occasionally. With no character caps on the comments and a group of eager tennis fans, the sky was the limit.
Tennis Twitter it was not. For all the virtues of quick communication on the popular social media app, having to craft an argument in three or four-sentence chunks does not lend itself well to debate, tennis or political. Bodo recently criticized Victoria Azarenka in a tweet for clapping back at the press when asked about Djokovic’s father posing (Srjdan is not pro-war, he recently clarified in a statement) with pro-Putin Australian Open attendees. The tweet, the last line of which is probably excessive no matter how you feel about the rest of it, was lit up by a number of people. Over a call, Bodo had more time and space to explain his line of thinking — he said the point of such a question, which Azarenka was wondering, was, “to address a very important geopolitical situation as we head for World War III.”
“You can’t tell me it’s not a new story in tennis,” Bodo continued, “because half the people are complaining about Wimbledon having no points. It’s a legitimate story in tennis.” He expressed frustration at journalists being criticized for looking for stories — are the press looking for a story? Sure! The mission of the press, he said, is to write stories, which was why Azarenka’s irritation at the press specifically irked him. He’d prefer athletes to say “no comment” in such situations — they still don’t have to answer the question, but they wouldn’t shame the press. Condensing all that into a tweet is hard enough, though, and having a nuanced conversation about a sensitive subject on Twitter is borderline impossible, especially when thirty people are screaming at you in your mentions.
During that same press conference, Azarenka mentioned a concern that whatever she said would be twisted into a clickbaity headline. “What do you want me to say?” she asked repeatedly. The sentiment is common among tennis players — I think this is why so many of them are almost comically diplomatic, seeming intent on stressing that they respect their opponent deeply before actually responding to a post-match question. They just don’t seem to trust the media as an institution, leading to bunches of tired cliches. (“I do it for God,” “I got lucky on a few of the big points,” and “I really respect my opponent” are on the leaderboard.) “How do we get away from that?” I asked Bodo.
“You can’t,” he said flatly. “Because the sport in that regard has been industrialized.” Oh.
“In media training,” he elaborated, “they are told to avoid controversial subjects. They’re not trained to say no comment…They’re trained to basically accentuate the positive things about themselves, about their game, to avoid controversy. It’s obsessive.” And when players clap back at the press, Bodo thinks journalists back off too quickly in an effort to be nice. “The press has been turned into a public relations vehicle for the player,” he told me.
“I believe, in some ways, you actually have a better story if you don’t talk to [tennis players], but you have really done your homework on their careers and the issues at play.”
In the early days of Bodo’s career, press conferences weren’t the norm. “When I started covering tennis,” he recalled, “you walked back to the locker room with some dude and sat down on a bench while he took off his sweaty stuff and stood before you naked and answered some questions for you.” While the nudity element has been phased out for good reason, the one-on-one format was an opportunity for more of a back-and-forth — the current press conferences are more like a teacher calling on a room of students. Ask your question, get your answer, then sit on your hands. Journalists still have one-on-one interviews with players, but it’s much more difficult than it was — they tend to be set up through media representatives, who often decline on behalf of the player. (I’ve reached out to a few reps myself, and I’m at the point where even getting a response is a legitimate victory, regardless of the answer always being no so far.)
Players’ fear that whatever they say will be warped into a misleading headline has likely only been made worse by Twitter and social media. Quotes can be presented out-of-context (looking at you, Luigi Gatto), leading to fans of one player dogpiling someone if they feel their favorite has been disrespected. “I gotta say, it’s kind of a cesspool,” Bodo said of Twitter. The way he speaks of the site is the opposite of the fond way in which he remembers TennisWorld; he thinks the nature of the app makes people approach it from a combative mindset rather than a communal one. Besides tweeting out links to his pieces, which Bodo enjoys — he mentions the aesthetically pleasing thumbnails when linking to an article — “I kind of have to go in holding my nose.”
It might sound harsh, initially, especially to someone who spends hours a day on Twitter (which I do, and if you are reading this, given how many of this website’s views come from Twitter, you may well too). And Tennis Twitter certainly has its benefits — connections can be built there as well. This website wouldn’t exist without it, nor would many of my close tennis friendships. But Twitter also exacts a cost, to productive tennis discourse as well as mental health.
Bodo is concerned that coverage of the sport is evolving away from fair criticism, especially when fans get involved in journalism. Allegiances aren’t the issue so much as someone being unwilling to criticize a player. “There’s a lack of real criticism in tennis, I think,” Bodo opined. “Of real, open-minded, fair criticism… It’s very much advocacy journalism, fan journalism. And that’s a little discouraging. People are very wedded to their heroes, and to the game, and they don’t want to criticize, et cetera. I think there’s an enormous gap there.”
Bodo then touched on perhaps the central question of fandom. “How can you worship somebody who’s, like, 30 or 40 years old and you’ve never met?” he asked, seeming genuinely perplexed. “I’ve spent my life among [professional tennis players]. I’ve had food with them. I’ve babysat their kids. I’ve talked to them, their coaches, their trainers, their agents, everybody. Over and over. [Fans] have never talked to these people, yet they’re gonna tell you what a jerk you are because of what you wrote about such-and-such a player.” He pauses for a second. “That’s fandom.”
That’s a bad corner of it, anyway. There are obviously scores of unproblematic fans, but all too often they’re drowned out by the more vocal extremists, for lack of a better word. It’s a problem on two levels — the inability of a journalist to criticize a player makes it difficult to have a productive professional dialogue about tennis; the inability of a fan to criticize a player kills the more informal debates. Both probably impede outsiders’ understanding of how tennis is actually functioning. Twitter’s overly digestible format allows everyone to vent back and forth, often in arguments where both parties endlessly straw-man each other. Writers and journalists frequently come under fire for being biased when the angry party hasn’t even bothered to read their pieces. It’s no wonder Bodo largely stays away besides tweeting links to his new articles.
Bodo and I finished our chat with an obligatory few minutes on the future of tennis. As clearly flawed as many structures in the sport are, there’s no quick fix. People are constantly pushing for change in tennis, and rightly so, but Bodo pointed out that a new system requires the unraveling of the old system. “The ITF, like it or not, is in charge of the worldwide grassroots game,” he said. “If you want to throw that out by taking that money away so they can’t donate 17 million dollars to developing tennis in Africa, and having tournaments and Challengers and youth programs in Africa, fine. But you know what? One of the operational parts of the ITF is the outreach to the grassroots community. So I think that needs to be better understood. You can’t just say, ‘the USTA makes so much money, but they don’t really spread it to the players.'”
Bodo observed all the different entities on the tennis tour — the ATP, the WTA, the four individual Grand Slam events, the ITF — and how hopelessly scattered yet somehow simultaneously intertwined they are. Mass change would require these organizations, which may have conflicting interests at any given moment (recall that Wimbledon vs. ATP/WTA debacle last year), to act in tandem. The more profitable branches of the tour might be asked to share the wealth, and the branches of the tour don’t answer to anybody but themselves. It’s as if a pair of already-tangled headphones decided to take a bath in some hot glue. Which is why the early “hey, wouldn’t it be great if the tours united” tweets during the pandemic never amounted to anything. It’ll take more than a positive sentiment to get from Point A to Point B. It’ll require effort and sacrifice.
“How do you unwind what you have,” Bodo asked, “to make the better thing happen?” It’s a question that tennis, this enchanting sport that has us in raptures despite its many many flaws, will likely continue to ignore.
As for the future of tennis journalists? “Maybe what comes next is a revival of longform, classical journalism, which would be wonderful,” Bodo said optimistically. But I figured it was to balance out the tone of what he had just told me prior to that. Bodo recalled that he didn’t even aim to be a tennis writer. “But I knew the game, the tennis boom had just occurred, and there was an interest in having tennis content.” 15 years after starting at TENNIS magazine, “I woke up and it turned out I had achieved a little niche in the industry.”
“But I don’t think that occurs anymore!” he said. “I don’t think you can go into tennis and get that kind of a foothold and have that flourish and blossom into something much bigger, and something maybe you didn’t even anticipate.” I got the sense that Bodo was talking about TennisWorld again on some level, not just the way young tennis careers had more room to thrive in the past.
“Those days are gone, unfortunately.”