The IX: Tennis Tuesday with Joey Dillon, July 21, 2020

Storylines heading into the WTA's return — Interview: Katie Spellman — Must-click women's tennis links

(Hi! Howard Megdal here. The IX helps build the necessary infrastructure for women’s sports media. In this moment, freelance budgets have been cut, reporters are losing their jobs. Women’s sports always bears the brunt of that first.

Continue reading with a subscription to The IX

Get unlimited access to our exclusive coverage of a varitety of women’s sports, including our premium newsletter by subscribing today!

Join today

We’re here for you. And we are so thankful you, our subscribers, have been here for us. Let’s keep growing together! Our ask today: tell just ONE person you know, who would love The IX, about the work we do every day. If you can? Give that person a gift subscription. And thank you for making sure that whatever happens next, women’s sports coverage always has a home.)

Major Plots to Watch in August

With organized professional tennis set to return in just under two weeks, there are a few storylines that you should keep your eyes peeled for.

The comeback of Kim Clijsters

After former World No. 1 and four-time Grand Slam champion Kim Clijsters announced her return to the game, many were wondering if she could remain among the game’s current elite. She turned 37 last month and endured a knee injury that pushed her comeback to February. She only played two official WTA matches without winning a set, but the Belgian did push both Garbine Muguruza and Johanna Konta.

Clijsters joined the New York Empire for the World Team Tennis season and is currently……undefeated. She’s defeated Bernarda Pera, Sofia Kenin, Danielle Collins, Sloane Stephens and Olga Govortsova, going 25-12 in games. Though her wildcard for the US Open was all but confirmed, her recent play gives some credibility to the USTA when the two-time winner presumably receives it.

Whenever Clijsters plays her third tournament, she’ll receive a WTA ranking, but with her current play, how far can she rise? She says she has no expectations and is playing because she still loves the game, but this is a Hall of Famer we’re talking about. She’s clearly playing at a Top 100 level at the moment, but will her body hold up? The game is even more physical than when she last left in 2012. However, she’s a forever fan favorite, a clear lover of the game and supporter of the WTA’s mission. We’ll be cheering her on.

Will all top players play in New York?

Honestly? I don’t see it happening. Players like Simona Halep, Petra Kvitova and Ashleigh Barty have been critical of traveling not only across the world during the COVID-19 pandemic, but entering the current virus hotbed in the United States. Halep is the top entrant in the Tour’s return in Palermo, Italy, the in Prague, Czech Republic, both on clay. Though she’s more than able to make the switch to hard courts, she also skipped out on the 2016 Olympics due to Zika concerns.

Australian players have been vocal about their hesitance on playing the Western & Southern Open and US Open in a bubble-like atmosphere. A bigger question remains post-New York: what about the rest of the calendar? While Donald Trump will lift any travel sanction to allow competitors to play in New York, there are many other countries who have ruled out people traveling from the United States. For a lot of European players who fare better on clay courts, whose season will begin the week after the US Open, it’s a near no-brainer to skip…..just a guaranteed $50,000 they’re losing out on.

It’s quite a dilemma for the players: put yourself and others at risk in order to pay your bills or stay home, possibly play local events to stay in shape, but lose out on incredible income. The WTA’s ranking solution doesn’t penalize players who don’t play those events this year, honoring whichever tournament they fared better in between 2019 and 2020. I don’t see these players, plus some others traveling to the US, so expect some withdrawal announcements within the next two weeks.

Is the US Open going to happen?

As of right now? Yes, but today’s announcement of the Citi Open’s cancellation definitely puts it at higher risk. The tournament put out a statement to ensure fans that they’re continuing to march on with their initial plans:

Like I mentioned earlier, travel restrictions following the US Open will be the tournament’s toughest opponent.

The state (and more specifically, the city) of New York has done an excellent job at maintaining COVID-19, but truthfully? The US government is a clown show and without mandates to require the wearing of masks, the certainty of the second (that’s weird to say) Grand Slam of the season will always be shaky.

The good news is that the US Open will have a great example to follow in the wake of the World Team Tennis season. The league has done a terrific job at creating policies and protocols to enforce that has resulted in no COVID-19 positive tests halfway through their 4-week season. Granted, the lengths the US Open has to take are greater than WTT’s, but there is some credible evidence supporting the “bubble” concept the tournament is trying to implement.

Withdrawals will happen, but as of right now, I see the US Open happening. As long as the Tours and tournaments put in zero-tolerance policies that players will sign in order to receive their ranking points and prize money.

This Week in Women’s Tennis

The first American WTA tournament, the Top Seed Open presented by Bluegrass Orthopaedics in Lexington, Kentucky, has gotten some serious entry boosts. Serena Williams, Sloane Stephens, Victoria Azarenka and Venus Williams are all signed up to play the inaugural event.

Nina Pantic is on site for the World Team Tennis season and takes a closer look at the testing the players and coaches have to go through in order to play.

In other WTT news, Danielle Collins was removed from the season after she broke league protocol to go to Charlottesville, Virginia, home of her alma mater UVA. It’s the first dismissal of the season for the league, who has a strict policy of not leaving the Greenbrier Resort. No specifics were confirmed for her choice to travel two hours, but coach Jay Gooding said it was to his understanding she was getting food and health supplements, most likely to help her Rheumatoid Arthritis.

The Philadelphia Freedoms are making us feel really old right now. Also, Alexa, play “Nants Ingonyama Bagithi Baba.” Speaking of Sofia Kenin, she’s making the most out of playing – and beating – her idols.

World No. 160 Allie Kiick recently celebrated her 25th birthday and decided to honor her father, Miami Dolphins legend Jim, who passed away from Dementia the week prior. She’s helped raise over $23,000 for the Concussion Legacy Foundation, which included a donation from the WTA and WTA Charities.

WTA Chair Umpire Kader Nouni is a fan favorite for his smooth voice, but he’s also the longest-tenured member of the Tour’s Gold badge umpires. He opens up to Victoria Chiesa about his favorite moments, the early decision he had to make between officiating and school and more reflections throughout his 30-year career.

Even though their enshrinement was postponed a year, the International Tennis Hall of Fame has put up their 2020 exhibit that features 1994 Wimbledon champion Conchita Martinez. Though she only won one singles Grand Slam, Martinez was a force on the doubles court as well. It bodes the question: would she have won more in singles if she hadn’t?

Former World No. 3 Nadia Petrova honors her late mother, Olympian Nadezhda Ilyina, in the latest edition of My Inspiration.

Original 9 member Peaches Bartkowicz was the most recent subject of the WTA’s Legacy Spotlight, where she detailed her entire tennis journey and what she was up to following her retirement.

In exhibition news, Anastasija Sevastova came back to defeat Petra Kvitova to take the hard court portion of the Bett1 Aces event. Elina Svitolina won the grass court section, also over Kvitova in a final that ended up being played on hard following rain. In the second leg of the FFT Elite Challenge, Fiona Ferro emerged champion again, defeating Kristina Mladenovic in the Cannes final.

Former Top 20 player Peanut Louie Harper spoke up about her nonprofit, Harper for Kids, whose focus centers on building character tools for elementary and middle school-aged children. Since 2008, their mission has reached over 75,000 K-12 students across California.

Though the Tokyo Olympics have been postponed until 2021, former World No. 1s Naomi Osaka and Sania Mirza will be participating in next week’s Summer Festival of Olympian and Paralympian Online Experiences.

The most recent episode of Tennis United featured a discussion of Russian tennis and included a cameo by two-time Grand Slam finalist Olga Morozova, who has been credited for paving the way for this century’s Russian Revolution on Tour.

Tweet of the Week

Olympia Ohanian is flexing hard at only two years old, joining parents Alexis Ohanian and Serena Williams as part owners of the latest (and first majority-women founded/led) NWSL team, Angel City FC.

Five at the IX: Katie Spellman

Following her graduation from The University of Bristol (which was preceded by a year playing tennis for the University of Hawaii), Katie Spellman started her career as a sports journalist spending seven years on national newspapers in the UK, including a three-year stint as a senior editor on the sports desk at The Times (London). She was then appointed senior manager, communications of the WTA, working with players, tournaments and sponsors to promote women’s tennis in the international media. In 2012, Katie moved to Toronto and set up her own PR consultancy business.
Katie has worked with a number of top players and current clients include World No.2 Simona Halep and two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova. Pre-COVID-19, Katie also worked as the Media Director of the Connecticut Open and Rogers Cup as well as providing social media services for leading events such as the Australian Open. Katie also worked for OBS (Olympic Broadcast Services) managing the broadcast interview process for tennis at the 2012 and 2016 Olympic Games. Katie has three children, Jack (7), Poppy (5) and Matilda (1). You can follow Katie on Twitter head to her website.

Joey: You began your career covering soccer in the UK before making the leap into tennis. What drew you to your original position at the WTA and then your decision to create your own company?
Katie: Tennis had always been a huge part of my life and was one of the reasons I chased a career in sports journalism. The thought of covering the sport I had grown up playing was a dream job and one of the reasons I left tabloids (the Sunday Mirror) to join The Times was in the hope of covering more tennis. While my primary duty there was Deputy Football Editor, I also served as tennis writer and edited the Wimbledon supplement. In 2009 I was approached by the WTA about making the switch into communications. It was an incredibly tough decision at the time as I was loving the huge challenge and learning experience at The Times, but the thought of working with the top players and tournaments promoting women’s tennis, as well as travelling the world and using my degree in modern languages, was ultimately too good to turn down. 

After three years on the tour as a senior manager of communications at the Women’s Tennis Association, we had an opportunity to move to Toronto thanks to a job offer for my husband and we also liked the idea of starting a family in Canada (where my husband was born). Those two things were a catalyst for me to think about how I wanted to work while being present for my family which is why I took a leap of faith and became my own boss.

Joey: Describe a normal day for you. How has COVID-19 impacted your normal routine and work schedule?
Katie: My clients are in Europe so I tend to wake up while the house is still quiet and check in with them, catch up on emails and make a plan for the day. Every day is different, which is why I love what I do. If my players are at a tournament, the day is structured around their matches and my role is very reactive to wins and losses. On-site days often include post match interview requests, social media campaigns, sponsor appearances, PR messaging, photo shoots etc. Conference calls and zooms are scheduled around nap time and then I usually get back to work when the kids have gone to bed in the evening. Pre-children I travelled around 140 days per year, now it is more like 6-8 weeks and I often have a child in tow. 

When COVID-19 hit, we were in Indian Wells for the BNP Paribas Open and really had no idea of how the following months would unfold. There was one positive test in the Coachella Valley and it seemed like a hugely conservative move to cancel the tournament; looking back it was the best decision they could have made. 

COVID-19 has been an anxious time for everyone, including my players. Tennis is such a complexity of international athletes that with quarantines, borders, and air travel, it is incredibly difficult for the tours to navigate a path back to safe professional tennis events.

With no tennis to play, stakeholders including broadcasters, sponsors, tournaments and governing bodies have been rushing to fill the content void. The creativity has been fun to see and my clients have taken part in some wonderful initiatives, but at the same time, from a PR perspective, I think it has been vital to reflect that there are many more important things in the world than tennis right now and that staying home, following guidelines and wearing a mask, are more essential than  forehands and backhands.

Joey: What do you see as your career highlight? Has there ever been a time where you felt like you wanted to step away and change careers?
Katie: There is so much variety to my job that I have many different highlights. In terms of breaking barriers, I’d say becoming the first female to chief sub the sports pages of The Times. For juggling balls, probably running the communications operations at back to back top-tier tournaments in Connecticut and Toronto while being 6 months pregnant with my third child!  For overcoming a challenge, I would say navigating my client Petra Kvitova through the complete nightmare of a career-threatening knife attack in her home and all the global media attention that story provoked. Finally,  being asked to be PR manager for Simona Halep after she won her breakthrough Grand Slam at the French Open. It was a huge honour to be asked, especially because she is a first class human being and someone I had long respected from afar.

I honestly have never considered doing something different and know I am incredibly lucky to be able to say that. Certainly COVID-19 has caused us all to pause and reflect on where our priorities should lie, but I have enjoyed the evolution of my career path and feel lucky to be able to work AND be the primary caregiver for my kids.

Joey: How is it navigating a career in professional sports, but also juggling motherhood?
Katie: With three young children around you get very used to doing things on the fly and, with Covid19 and no childcare, to being interrupted. My clients are used to hearing my kids in the background and have been unbelievably supportive of the chaos. My kids have grown up travelling with me and seeing me in a working environment and I think it’s very important to teach them that just because I don’t head out of the door in a suit and go to an office every day, my work is important.

Tennis is a very tight knit community and so many people have been supportive, from WTA supervisors letting me use their offices to feed my babies, to Wimbledon letting my son use their crèche during the 2014 final, to journalists looking after my kids during press conferences. My second child was 3 months old and with me in a baby carrier when a client at the time (Christina McHale) rang the NYC stock exchange bell prior to the US Open and my third child inadvertently made her Tennis Channel debut at 4 months.

So it’s a juggle, and many days a struggle, but looking back I am proud of doing it my way and wouldn’t change a thing. Apart from more sleep. More sleep would always be welcomed 🙂

Joey: What was the greatest piece of advice you received and who gave it? If you can go back in time, what would you tell 18-year-old Katie?
Katie: I was incredibly lucky to work with a female sports executive powerhouse in Anne Worcester for two years at the Connecticut Open. Anne was the first female CEO in professional sports and has more positive energy than anyone I have met. She taught me to “surround yourself with women who fill your cup” – meaning those who make you feel good, who inspire you and support you, and not to waste your energy on the many who don’t. Working as a women in sport can be lonely sometimes – as a 21-year-old covering football on a tabloid in England I became hardened to that reality very early on – so it’s important to raise each other up at every opportunity. As a busy mum, this was really important advice and I strive to follow it both professionally and personally. 

What would I tell an 18-year-old Katie? Good question. Hard work will always pay off. If you have a passion, follow it! Anything is possible if you remain stubborn and don’t take no for an answer. Follow your heart…and your gut instinct! 

Mondays: Soccer
By: Annie Peterson, @AnnieMPeterson AP Women’s Soccer
Tuesdays: Tennis
By Joey Dillon, @JoeyDillon Freelance Tennis Writer
Wednesdays: Basketball
By: Howard Megdal, @HowardMegdal The Next
Thursdays: Golf
By Carly Grenfell, @Carlygren
Fridays: Hockey
By: Erica Ayala, @ELindsay08 NWHL Broadcaster

Written by Howard Megdal

Howard is the founder of The Next and editor-in-chief.