Courtney Walsh has been a leading sports journalist for over a decade in Australia and internationally currently working for The Australian newspaper.
I met Courtney through friends from Victoria who worked in the tennis industry. I quickly learned that Courtney is an elite journalist, very handy state league level tennis player and a really nice bloke. I try to catch up with Courtney each year in Melbourne and as a passionate AFL and tennis supporter, I follow his articles and his new tennis podcast called ‘On the Line is Out’.
Rick – Good afternoon Courtney, Hope all is well with you and thanks for contributing to the Art of Tennis blog.
Do you remember your first question that you asked at a grand slam press conference? When was it and who was it to?
Courtney – That is a difficult question and this is a terrible answer. Unfortunately, I actually don’t remember the moment. Terribly inspiring, isn’t it? I’ll go a little off topic and give you a rundown of what occurs regarding those interviews at grand slams and why I probably can’t remember.
After three years working as a news journalist for the Herald Sun in Melbourne, I had just started in sport working for the afternoon paper mX. Given the timing, our deadline was midday each day and I suspect I actually secured a one-on-one interview with one of the lesser lights to run as a feature for the following day’s paper. That paper also took a light-hearted view of sport, so the quirkier or more off-beat the stories, the better.
During slams, it is usually only the major stars or a successful Aussie that is called into the main press room, where a proper press conference occurs. Those are the interviews you will see during news bulletins during the AO. Seeded players or those who receive multiple requests are pulled into smaller rooms, where a smaller, non-televised conference is held. That is actually preferable for a print journalist as it means the answers aren’t broadcast before going to print. Even better is the one-on-one, but it is a rare event to get a major player or well-known player during a slam. It is why, I suspect, my interview subject was probably relatively anonymous.
Rick – What has been the most emotional a player has been during the post-match interview that you have seen?
Courtney – The one that springs to mind is a press conference with Bernard Tomic in 2012. Tomic had already cultivated a questionable reputation for tanking on occasion and had been called in to the main press room after a disappointing loss to Andy Roddick in the second round. He dropped the third set to love and was booed from Arthur Ashe Stadium. In commentary, John McEnroe was heavily critical, saying it looked like a tank job, or words along that line. Sitting courtside, it actually seemed to me that he was trying but had been outplayed and badly beaten in an environment he wasn’t used to at the time. He seemed dispirited, more than anything, when playing in front of a heavily partisan crowd all going for Andy.
So Bernie comes in and answers in a nonchalant fashion until he is asked about McEnroe’s comments by a then rival and now colleague of mine, Will Swanton, who was sitting directly behind me. To be fair, to me it seemed as though Will was actually trying to help Bernie out of a hole, but he clearly misconstrued what Will was saying and started going him. He was staring directly at me with Will sitting behind me. He was visibly shaking as he asked Will for his name and employer and spat that “I’ll remember you”.
Of course, his anger was fodder for television and ran everywhere, including the US. The thing about Bernie is that he is actually pretty chilled when he comes into press and generally genial. Despite all the adverse stories that have been written about him, he is aware that he has brought most of it on himself. He always has a chat or swaps a joke or asks how other Aussies have gone before the main questions start. Another colleague of mine, Darren Walton at AAP, says he is the only Aussie who asks him how his kids are going.
And as for remembering Will? Bernie has since granted him some interviews and never once remembered/brought it up.
Rick – What would you regard as your best tennis moment that you got to enjoy and capture as a sports journalist?
Courtney – I’ve had a lucky career where I have been able to watch some of the greats of all time in Roger, Rafa, Novak and Serena play regularly and in big matches over the past decade. I think the most remarkable and craziest in terms of pressure was the 2012 Australian Open final between Djokovic and Nadal which went almost six hours. That followed the semi that went almost five hours between Djokovic and Andy Murray. It was a tense, brilliant match. But it was also a nightmare to cover. The final never makes it into the first edition of my paper that is the one that goes to regional areas in Western Australia and elsewhere around the country because it starts too late. And it always pushes the metro edition. But this went well beyond even the drop ins. But the editor-in-chief made the very, very, very rare call to keep a final edition going, which meant I effectively had to drop 750 words by email one minute after the match finished. The paper was held an extraordinary 100 minutes or so. Remarkable match. Remarkable night.
Rick – Which player has surprised you the most with their personality behind the scenes?
Courtney – Probably Andy Murray. I had the good fortune of “ghosting” a column he wrote for The Australian during three or four Aussie Opens. By “ghosting”, this means the copy ran under his name but it generally came from a conversation/interview I had with him, which I would then write trying to capture his voice. It is fairly standard practice whenever you see a column from a sports star. I think Andy is generally misunderstood.
In person he is polite, funny, not afraid to voice an opinion (which is a good thing in sport) and has an interest in what you’re up to. He is always invested in the success of other British players and is generally exceptionally well-liked and regarded by his peers. And he works extremely hard.
The other think about the absolute best players is the amount of press they have to do. During grand slams, Murray will talk to the general press for around 15 mins, do five mins with BBC Scotland, another five to ten with two pool reporters from the Brit press, the time spent with his ghost writer (he also pens a column for Wimbledon and during US Open for other publications) and then between one and three television interviews. Federer does his press conferences in three different languages and even more off the court. It is stark difference to, for example, the requirements of footy players in Aus.
Rick – What would you regard as the funniest moment you have seen on the tennis tour? On or off the court?
Courtney – I have a cracker involving Federer but I am going to have to save that until his retirement. Suffice to say, I had the pleasure of seeing his hair down in some style before I was a sport reporter, and I can say he doesn’t dance quite as spectacularly as he plays tennis.
So we’ll go with his Swiss mate, Stan Wawrinka. After he broke through in Melbourne a couple of years ago, I was sitting with some overseas colleagues at a late night bar in Melbourne (bearing in mind we finished work around 1.30am) enjoying a post-match beer when Wawrinka, his coach, parents and about ten others wandered down from an upstairs bar. They were met at the entrance to the bar we were in by the maître d’ (it was a fancy place) who turned them down despite the fact the place was only half full. There were some television reporters sitting in a different area who tried to intervene but the maître d’ refused because they had more than 12 in the party. Wawrinka was still holding a champagne glass from upstairs and was suitably pissed off. I couldn’t believe the stupidity of the employee given they had bottles worth $10,000 on the wine list. When I asked a waiter if they realised they had just turned back a bloke who had won $2 million a couple of hours earlier, he sniffed “We don’t care. We turn down rock stars here”.
Anyway, I’m glad to report Stan made it to an after party for Aus Open staff in Windsor, where he was still putting away beers at the bar at 6am. And it gave me a nice colour piece for the next day’s paper.
Rick – Who would you say is Australia’s best chances on the world stage of tennis? Male and female?
Courtney – I’m still with Kyrgios in terms of the men. I think he is well ahead of the curve in terms of performances. The average age of the top 100 is pushing 28 and he has just turned 21. Certainly there are some things he needs to sort out but I suspect that he has at least a slam in him and probably a couple more. I hope Thanasi Kokkinakis can get himself right because I think he has significant potential as well.
As to our women, I know Dasha Gavrilova is not the tallest player around, but I think she has made some impressive inroads during her time in Australia. When she arrived from Moscow, the only time she came to the net was to shake hands. But she now boasts a well-rounded game. It is worth noting she also missed almost 12 months after a serious knee injury, so she is still in the early stages of her senior career. I think she can be a top ten player and may be able to sneak through too deep in a major in the next couple of years.
Rick – Can Australia support more world class tournaments or are we limited to our population?
Courtney – I don’t think we can, for several reasons. As it is, I think the Sydney International is having some problems due to its proximity to the Australian Open. It seems to be the trend for any tournament unfortunate enough to be held the week before a major. There are obvious issues in terms of the well-established schedule in tennis. I believe the tours would prefer the AO to be in late Feb or early March, but it is understandable that TA is holding firm given its placement in our major school holidays. It would be disastrous for attendances, ratings and all the subsequent metrics attached to the prodigious crowd the AO draws to move it to a less consumer friendly time. There is a concern, I believe, with the virtual arms race in prize money. The US Open is offering $50m in prize money for their tournament this year with plans to hike those levels further next year. In Aus terms, that is more than $60 million if organisers want to be comparable.
Rick – What’s your view on the future of the dominant men of the last few years? Nadal, Federer, Djokovic, Murray and who are the other threats to these giants of the sport?
Courtney – I think we have been privileged to watch them all. As I think every time I watch Federer or Nadal, even when sitting at home taking it on TV, it is worth appreciating them every time they step on to court. Who knows how much longer they will be able to play given their respective injury woes and age? Aside from their incredible records, they have changed the way the game is played, which is a remarkable thing. Djokovic has been phenomenally dominant over the past 18 months and may well reel in Federer by the end of his career, though history tells us that slams are far harder to win in your 30s. But I think he and Murray are still at their peak and can win at least a couple of more slams each.
As to the challengers, I have been impressed by Raonic this year. He seems to have recognised earlier than Berdych that he needed to improve further to win a slam. I think he will break through soon. And there is a lot to like about the next generation of players. Kyrgios, Zverev, Pouille, the young Americans like Tiafoe and the Ymer brothers from Sweden all have great potential, so too Kokkinakis. And we have seen Shapovalov, a 17-year-old Canadian, upset Kyrgios recently. The word is there is an even better player, Felix Auger-Aliassime, a Canadian 15-year-old, to come.
I hope and suspect there is enough talent left to soften the blow when Federer and co bow out.
Rick – Are you a fan of the new Indian Premier League format? Do you think this format will thrive in the way that cricket has?
Courtney – I am still to form a proper view. I have no doubt Asia is a growing market and I suspect tennis will do very well there. And we have seen with T20 cricket that the shorter matches work extremely well. If anything, it may well start a trend that changes tennis elsewhere, though I am a traditionalist. I still prefer my cricket played over 5 days and my tennis played over five sets. But I think it has struggled to attract publicity elsewhere. It is rarely reported on in Australia, which is something I hope will change in coming springs. There is also the worry that players are already over-taxed, so another commitment (admittedly lucrative) may have an impact on more regular ATP and WTA events, including those in Australia that precede the Open. For example, we saw last year a couple of players who played in the IPL pull out of events they had committed to in Australia citing injury. It will be fascinating to see how it pans out.
Rick – So you have a new podcast? Can you explain what you cover on the podcast and how people can check it out?
Courtney – Thanks for the chance to give it a plug. It is called On the Line is Out. I am sure anyone who has played the game at any level will appreciate we are being tongue in cheek there. It can be found on iTunes, Twitter, Facebook and our website onthelineisout.com
Basically we have a light-hearted look at what is happening around the globe in tennis while also covering the news of the week, with segments covering things as diverse as college tennis in the US to tennis in pop culture. It will also feature regular interviews with tour players, coaches and other industry figures in coming months. We’ve had the fortune of having the Aussies Pat Cash, John Millman, John Peers and Chris Guccione on in recent weeks.
I’ve spent a lifetime playing and covering tennis and love the sport, so I’m always interested in trying to boost its profile here. My colleagues Paul Rowbottom and Rob Daley are both coaches (the latter won a Newcombe Medal a couple of years back) who won State Grade pennants in Melbourne and have played and coached through Europe and in the US. I met Greg Maarschalk when he was in Perth for a year and we played State League together with North Beach. He is Zimbabwean who attended college in the US and also played and won tournaments in Canada so he has a rounded view of the sport.
We think it is a nice mix that covers a few different elements, though there are still some rough edges that need smoothing, but we don’t want to be too polished. It is a podcast, after all!
Thanks Courtney for your time mate and catch up soon.