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Racquet co-founder talks evolutions of tennis, media—Part 1
Published Apr 10, 2021
About a quarter of the way through this year, how are your bookish goals for 2021 coming? Whether high and mighty or mired in struggleville, read on.
David Shaftel is a man with many roles. A voracious observer of many things, primarily tennis these days, he's a parent, public-court rec tennis lover, editor of both Racquet magazine, and co-editor—alongside indefatigable publisher Caitlin Thompson—of a newish companion compendium, Racquet: The Book.
The latter arrived in August, chock-full of the titular publication's best work over its initial 12ish quarterly issues. Scribes whose work fills it range from New York Times Magazine stalwart Taffy Brodesser-Akner to actor Jason Biggs, TENNIS.com's own Stephen Tignor to WTA-playing "cultural attaché" Andrea Petkovic. And its cover featured the ever-kinetic Yannick Noah, as illustrated by Mads Berg for the mag's premiere issue:
The topics inside likewise run the gamut: There's Maria Sharapova, elitism, Philip Roth, Ping-Pong as a lifestyle, Justine Henin as Serena's almost-foil, Lolita, Arthur Ashe crossed with Muhammad Ali, Andre Agassi's private jet, tennis and rock music's intersection, and more. (No wonder Pavement's Stephen Malkmus penned a blurb relishing in Racquet's "cultish extreme vibe." The sport provides a "kink" for him, too.)
More recently, Racquet's Issue 15 published—with Issue 16 en route—and that harbors Honor Titus' gorgeous painting on the cover and a Benoit Paire essay within.
Back in late August, in what to all of us now feels a decade ago, Shaftel and I spent a wham-bam hour on the phone, chiefly to talk about Racquet as book. From there, as happens periodically to anyone who does journalism long enough, a computer snafu held hostage my recording of that conversation. (That, and/or it was self-sabotage, identifying here as a vintage millennial who's semi–tech literate.)
Well, they're freshly resurrected by the IT gods in this year of our Lord 2021, and I just might dub these the Tennis Tapes. Shaftel was gracious with his time, piping in from the Orange Lawn Tennis Club in New Jersey where he and Thompson—together, really, for the first time since the pandemic began—had camped out to work and field interviews while their respective spawn took tennis lessons. We volleyed at length about a swath of topics profound and mundane. Here's a read on that, lightly edited for length and clarity because we're both a bit windy.
Jonathan Scott: Just the impetus for Racquet as a quarterly pub in the first place: You've stated it before, the impetus for it as a quarterly pub in the first place. A void, say, to put something in the world that wasn't there before. Is that how it came about?
David Shaftel: Caitlin and I have kids the same age, and I was living abroad. I came back when my daughter was born, about 7 years ago. Our kids were in preschool together. One day, Caitlin was like, 'We should start a tennis magazine.' She showed me the email, and my response at the time was, 'Fine, but it's got to be print only.' We're a good team. We have different skill sets, things I'm good at and what she's good at, and we're a little bit competitive with each other.
We remember getting TENNIS magazine. And I'm a little older than Caitlin—I'm 46, she's 40. But getting it all throughout the '80s, and that sort of corresponds with the tennis boom. And when I was looking through the magazine back then, or my memory of it, and tennis was so much more in the culture then. We always talk about the tennis boom as obsessed with it, and we're trying to usher in a second one. We feel that's our mission, where tennis bleeds out into the culture again and people want to get involved with, something they don't care if they're not good at it. A lot of the ways tennis is represented is Federer and Serena and greats of the game. It's amazing for the sport to have these generational story lines and talents, but sometimes it can be alienating. You know, it's hard to be good at tennis. So we just wanted to promote the sport as a lifestyle, and say, 'Hey, get involved. You don't have to be good.'
But also back to the tennis boom and the tennis magazines—not just TENNIS magazine, but there were a few more back then. And we're also talking about the difficult nature of magazines, that you could have a business that's supported by selling magazines. We just wanted to bring back that sort of time when tennis was really in the culture. And that's what we saw a place for—the public-courts player, player's not even that good but wants to be good, likes the style and aesthetic of tennis. Over the years I've noticed how much tennis and courts pop up a lot in art and painting, which is still something I'm trying to get to the bottom of, something to do with the symmetry of the court. We felt those areas in which tennis enters the culture was something people would respond to, hoped they would, and they did. That was everything for us, to have it resonate and have people want to write, take pictures, draw for for the magazine. People like Gerry Marzorati, he was the editor of The New York Times Magazine. I couldn't get him on the phone when I was a freelance writer—and that's how old we are, you would try to get someone on the phone. Now we're friends, and he writes for me, and he's kind of a mentor. It's like, wow, this guy's a giant in the world of journalism, and he wants to work for us. He's just the first example who came to mind. We were really encouraged by the artistic people—writers, illustrators, photographer—who wanted to get involved with tennis and saw us as a place they could do that.
I'm rambling to your question, but the other thing we like to do—as we know you guys [TENNIS magazine] have the pro game and gear and tips and all that important stuff on lockdown—one of the things we've always said is, 'Look, if you've got a story that's too weird for who you write for, we're the people to do that for.' I'm also a lifelong print journalist and I just feel that if someone is invested in something and doing their idea their way, and if they're good enough obviously, that that's how you're going to get the best result. Yes, it's weird, but someone's passionate about it, and let's let them execute and give them a chance.
In basketball, for example, there's so much NBA coverage. But also, basketball in the culture, it's so present. These guys are really influential, LeBron James and anybody. They're culturally relevant beyond basketball. We want to promote that in tennis, and see tennis players have that influence.
I'll make one more point, and I'll let you ask another question. [Laughs.] When we started, it was very much about the "Big 3" and Serena. And everyone was, 'This is a great era for tennis, but we're screwed when they retire.' But hat we've seen in the last four years, though, is some new stars come in who young people—atypical tennis fans—respond to, [Nick] Kyrgios, [Naomi] Osaka, who broaden the appeal. We had a little wobble—'Will everyone have to go out of business when Roger and Serena retire?'—but now we feel really confident about the future of the sport.
JS: We've got some big hitters. Their shots are penetrating the court, but their personalities are puncturing the culture, and media in a time when the competition is such that every company, every creator, is a media publisher. You're all just targeting and fighting for attention. How do you set apart in that? And this is a great way to do that, tennis as lifestyle.
DS: Totally. You have Novak [Djokovic], who is very circumspect, as he almost has to be. Roger, very smart, smarter than most of the rest of them. Serena. They're in their late 30s, and they learned social media and all that. Osaka and Kyrgios are who came to mind for me, as they grew up with it and understand the medium better, they understand how to make themselves relevant better and how to align themselves with other brands and things in the culture that kids are going to resonate with—and that's what we didn't see coming, their own ability to curate their lives in such ways.
JS: Hear you there. Feels like there are three layers of the guard—those who turned pro before there was social media, around the time that websites and blogs even became huge, and then those like [Maria] Sharapova who at 33 is 5-plus years younger than Serena and Roger, and then Osaka, Kyrgios, Bianca Andreescu, and a range of others we're both thinking of who are pro since the advent of social and everything exploding from just Twitter and Facebook to Snap and whatever is next. Vine is deceased, but now we have TikTok, which is what Vine was. So there's just such great opportunity to expand their brands at the cost of nothing beyond having somebody capture some media or video on their behalf. They can speak directly to consumers, directly to fans.
A couple things I want to return to that you spoke about. Tennis as lifestyle—and we'll into the multifaceted, multiplatform nature of Racquet. But post-Vitas, post-Connors and -McEnroe, we go from '80s and '90s, bleeding into the 2000s and today. That's really when you say you and Caitlin were coming of age in your tennis love, and wanting the wider pop culture to reflect the relatively niche tennis subculture, we'll call it. It was there, whereas [Michael] Jordan and LeBron would be so prominent in the culture, and reaching corners of the world, all these geographies, let alone the US. How important is it to you that Racquet reflects not just US popular culture but what's happening around the world? Even with Petkovic as a recurring character in the pages, you're featuring the truly global game.
DS: That's what we're trying to do. We always talk about bringing more diversity into tennis, and that is reflected. Listen, I'm sitting here at a country club, so this could a little false, but just trying to promote the public courts in America instead of the country clubs. But diversity also means this to us: Every country has a top player, and those people are super-famous in those countries.
I'll give you an example: We love Taro Daniel. We're big fans. He's famous in Japan, he's the second- or third-ranked player there, ranked around No. 100 in the world. He has a great story, seems a cool guy. He's a top athlete, and that person deserves to be talked about as much as the top 10 players or the top 4 players. These are all professional athletes, they're all interesting, from different countries, cultures, and backgrounds. That's one of the great things about the sport, how international it is. That wasn't really the case when we were coming up, there was sort of American dominance and a few other countries, the Czech and Yugoslavian players had defected from somewhere else. There weren't Asian stars. You had some South Americans. But it was very much an American-dominated sport, with notable exceptions obviously. And now there's top tennis in so many countries, and we need to celebrate that and not to be afraid to talk about someone. We profiled Benoit Paire, who was probably around No. 50 at the time. We just can't be afraid to talk about people who aren't as accomplished as some of these who are among the most accomplished sportsmen and sportswomen ever. We can't let that strangle how we talk about tennis, and tennis players.
JS: Right. It can't be exclusively about those players who have reached double-digit major titles, notably singles titles, one or two dozen of those, versus those who you mention. Taro Daniel, as you said, had that landmark 2018 upset at Indian Wells of Djokovic.
DS: Right, that's when I became a fan.
JS: He deserved to rise above a one-time feat, this wiry, angular guy who pulls off a big upset and then goes back gently into the night or something. He deserves better than that.
DS: And I know his girlfriend [Rika Tatsuno] played at the University of Michigan, they're hanging out with Kimiko Date. They're living this amazing lifestyle that I'm frankly jealous of between Japan and L.A. It's almost about talking about their lifestyle more than his game. But as Caitlin always says, we want to promote the game, not the players, promote the excellence of playing tennis. It has to be about the game. Otherwise you're just bound to personalities who could go away or let you down.
JS: Yeah, not knowing how something's going to age necessarily. It's about what accompanies the player, even in terms of who's around them, entourages being so bloated compared to what they used to be, less so during a pandemic. It's about what augments them, adjacent to or outside the courts after the analytics of the actual match are done.
So Racquet puts something in the world that wasn't there before, in terms of tennis media, and tennis meets culture, and even with Petkovic as cultural attaché reporter.
DS: That's a reference to Boris Becker, who we love and was pparently, briefly made the cultural sporting attaché to the Central African Republic. I think that's what he said. [Note: Shaftel describes this title for Petkovic in the Racquet book's introduction as a "loving, gentle dig" at Becker.]
JS: Yes, a knowing wink, and it's fantastic. But you have Petkovic talking [Stephanie] Graf, you have music with the stuff you do with Gorilla vs. Bear mixes that accompany issue releases in the past. You have an actor like Biggs talking tennis, who's an outsize fan who comes to the US Open annually as a proponent of the game. You've brought in a voice like Taffy to the space of tennis, and so people are going to follow Taffy anywhere, about anything she writes about.
DS: Well, that's why we got her. And she's also the best, just as a person and with the right piece. We were just talking about her this morning. Some people are just so great. We were like, we need somebody big for the launch issue. She tweeted something about tennis, and Caitlin asked, 'Can you give us 10,000 words on that?' [Note: Brodesser-Akner tweets about tennis with some frequency.]
But from there, we developed other ideas. We just said that we have to bring in outside voices. You get unexpected results. We get a lot of people saying, 'Well, I don't know anything about tennis. I've never written about it.' And I don't care. We say, 'We'll fact-check your match results. We'll help you with the tennis stuff. But we need a fresh eye.'
And of course we have tennis writers, and a certain percentage of the magazine devoted to that meat-and-potatoes tennis stuff. We want everyone to, and we love the people who think that 100% of it is for them. Caitlin and I are those people; that's our profile. But if you pick it up and you're like, 'What the f— is this?' At least there's like a story for you, maybe gets you involved. We also found that people wanted to get involved, wanted to write. It blows my mind, the people who, the writers I really admire, who reach out to us. Personally, as a journalist, that's been one of the most satisfying things.
JS: It's a symbiotic relationship.
DS: It could be. Just trying to keep it fresh, and with the photographers and illustrators as well, especially with photographs. As you know with image research in your pieces, sometimes with sports photography, you look at it a lot and you just stop seeing it. I don't want sports photography. I don't even want people playing it. We have some issues where there's nobody actively playing tennis. Maybe they're on the changeover or they're at rest, or standing around. But I just try to stay away from sports photography just because that's where it needs to be different, especially with a print magazine, as it has to feel special. We want you to buy this and keep it. So it's got to be different, in a good way.
More on Racquet magazine's future and enterprising ways in Part 2 of this conversation, coming soon.