PR: The Other Big Game At Grand Slams

Leading up to the Australian Open, as the players are getting their last few practice sessions in and tournament officials juggle through the courts with the final qualifying matches, another big game is being played on the outskirts of the city and it’s not tennis. It’s the PR game. This little seen world of big money, big brands and big names is both fascinating, financially essential and at times frustrating.

Sponsors of all sorts are frantically to get their players in front of the media whilst managers and agents are trying to juggle their responsibilities of protecting their players from the media barrage and keeping those sponsors happy.

For me this time leading up to the tournament is both interesting, rewarding, fun and somehow annoying at the same time.

As a former player I know what it’s like to deal with sponsors and the media while trying to focus on winning matches. And now, as the host of CNN’s Open Court show I’m part of the media or as some would say “on the dark side”.

My job is to interview players, present the show and introduce various other segments. When I interview players I try to make it lighthearted and fun but I can also relate to them and know they’re doing what they have to do for their sponsors. The Open Court show goes out to over 320 million TV’s so it’s a great opportunity for them to build their brand while also appeasing their sponsors. But in reality, when they’re getting ready to play a Grand Slam match, do they really want to be asked how well they think they’ll do in the tournament? Often I get a standard answer about hoping for the best and “if I play well I can win some matches”, etc. And this is totally understandable, I did the same thing when I was interviewed back in the day. In fact I hated being asked questions like that.

You might think to yourself “well it’s all part of being famous” or “that’s why they get the big bucks”. And while that may be partially true I don’t really buy it. The truth is that players are, through regulations, forced to do certain media stuff by the ATP and if they don’t comply they encounter heavy fines. Then there is of course the pressure from sponsors, managers, etc. All this while they’re trying to get ready for a Grand Slam in the name of good PR. Most players don’t mind doing this but I’d never blame them for saying no.

At the end of the day we the media cater to their ego/self confidence which as a tennis player most have a lot of. Basically, we get them on TV and tell them how brilliant they are. Who doesn’t like to hear that right.

But what about the lesser players? Well they don’t get much attention at all. If they play well (they all do) and happen to be good looking they can get a few sponsors. However, by and large very little money and attention goes to the average player. In fact, they are very lucky to get any money from racket or clothing manufacturers. Therefore their sole focus has to be entirely on the matches and prize money.

What about us old “legends”? What’s it like for us? Well I’m in the fortunate position to see it from all angles.

Today I filmed an interview with Li Na who has retired and not in the position to come back as champion. You may wonder why she is in Melbourne at all? The answer is her sponsors and a free plane ticket from Tennis Australia. I’m glad she’s here as she’ll have a chance to say goodbye to her Aussie fans (though I’m sure we will see her again).

I also went to a media lunch with my new/old/new again clothing sponsor Ellesse along with hunk Feliciano Lopez and up and coming WTA players Monica Puig and Elina Svitolina. Did we have a choice in the matter? Yes but not really. Luckily we had a great time with a cool company who put together a fun event.

I then went back to film more for the CNN’s Open Court followed by co writing an article for the Sunday Times in the UK, where I have to balance my opinions with the knowledge that I’ll soon be walking in to the locker room with the players I’m writing about.

Talk about a juggling act.

The reason I decided to write this quick blog post (sorry if it’s a bit rough) was that I was asked by the lovely PR people at Ellesse to speak to a journalist of a huge national newspaper about the chances of the Australian players. That is all fine but I’ll be holding my breath when the article comes out as the reporter barely knew anything about tennis calling the Australian Open the first “Grand Final” of the year and mispronouncing all but a couple of the players names.

Perhaps I should have refused to speak to the reporter but what would Ellesse say if there was a note in the newspaper saying Pat Cash told X news reporter to get lost, stormed out of the interview and has not changed his spoilt brat ways from 30 years ago?

It’s been an interesting day indeed.

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