Photo courtesy Cracked Racquets
Serena Williams returned to post-quarantine tennis Tuesday on a run-of-the-mill court near Lexington. It’s impossible to remember when she last competed in so ordinary a setting: the Top Seed Tennis Club in Nicholasville, Kentucky. It’s a beautiful tennis club, but nothing compared to Centre Court at Wimbledon with Serena’s good friend Meghan Markle sitting in the Royal Box.
The bank of courts was surrounded by chain-link fence covered with vinyl banners. The stands were empty. A few folding chairs littered the back of the court. A steady stream of traffic just beyond the fence was an absurd fixture on the TV screen. Concrete mixers, SUVs, and sedans cruised by, the drivers probably oblivious to the proximity of the world’s most famous female athlete resuming her career. (The 38-year-old is trying to outrun Father Time while chasing the all-time-major record—she could tie it at the US Open later this month and break it the French Open in September.)
In any other year, a normal year, Serena wouldn’t have entered the Top Seed Open, a brand-new mid-level tournament. And the three young guys from Indianapolis who are among the precious few media allowed on site wouldn’t have gotten the biggest break of their lives.
On Tennis Channel, seasoned commentators worked Serena’s match—former Top 10 player Chanda Rubin and 1990s SportsCenter anchor Brett Haber. On TennisOne, a streaming app, former doubles champion Luke Jensen was on the call. And alongside him, 24-year-old Broad Ripple regular and tennis fanboy Alex Gruskin.
A few years ago, Rubin, Haber, and Jensen were well-established in the tennis world, while Gruskin and his tennis buddies had their noses pressed up against the glass. They created Cracked Racquets, now based in Indy with three full-time staffers, to fill a void in the coverage of college tennis, which is practically nonexistent. At the 2018 NCAA Division I National Indoor Championships, they were the only media outlet onsite. Soon they earned the respect of the NCAA and the Intercollegiate Tennis Association, the sport’s other governing body. They contacted college coaches and players on social media, got interviews, posted stories online, and recorded thousands of hours of podcasts. Brian Boland, then the head coach of Baylor’s top-five men’s program, became a reliable and helpful source.
In February, their hustle started paying off. The Cracked team got a call from John Sanders, the director of the Top Seed Tennis Club near Lexington. He was hosting a new minor-league women’s tournament that month and wanted Cracked Racquets to broadcast and commentate the matches online, like they had been doing at the NCAA championships. Sanders is originally from Carmel, creating an instant bond. CR took the assignment and hit it off with Sanders, who had bigger ambitions—to host a larger professional women’s event. Tennis tournaments are disappearing in the United States as the sport’s center of gravity shifts to Europe and Asia, so the mere idea was a bit audacious. But the women’s tournament in Washington, D.C., folded this year, and that week on the sport’s calendar was up for grabs. Top Seed went after it as a long shot. CR says both Atlanta, a tennis capital, and Chicago made a play for it. Somehow, Top Seed beat them out and landed on the tennis calendar for early August—a calendar shattered by COVID-19 and suspended since March, with an unsure future. The good news carried an asterisk—the event might not start until 2021.
But ESPN wanted the US Open tennis tournament to proceed as scheduled in late August, and the organizers muscled that through. That meant the pros needed a couple warm-up tournaments in the United States. The first North American tournament on the schedule in August was the brand-new Top Seed Open. Despite its designation as a low-tier event that would never attract Serena in normal times, the inaugural Top Seed Open debuted with a stacked draw the likes of which it might never see again. CR landed in the right place at the right time.
“This doesn’t happen if a lot of weird things don’t fall into place,” says Dalton Thieneman, CR’s founder and president (and a full-time lawyer in Indianapolis). “It’s a lot of written-in-the-stars kind of thing.”
But Gruskin, CR’s editor-in-chief and play-by-play guy, was also in a hot seat, suddenly the one calling Serena’s first match back, a major sports headline of the day. The tournament’s high profile also means that a steady stream of tennis insiders—current players, ex-players, top coaches—will join him on air as guest commentators. Luckily, he’s not very starstruck—he’s a little more into college tennis than pro. He started prepping weeks before the tournament, and with only about two minutes between the four daily matches he calls in Lexington, he doesn’t have much time to get nervous. “Alex is hanging right there with them, or even outdoing them in some cases with memory recall or references,” Thieneman says.
It’s a big opportunity for CR to prove itself and get more broadcasting gigs like this one. But there might not be any for a while. They were supposed to have a studio onsite at Cincinnati’s major professional tournament in mid-August, but that event relocated to New York for this year only. After the US Open (which they won’t work), there’s no more professional tennis scheduled in the United States for the rest of the year, and both college tennis and next year’s pro calendar are up in the air. While tennis is socially distanced on the court, tournaments often host players from dozens of countries, so it’s hard to bubble-ize. And in tennis, timing matters a great deal. CR will have to wait to find out if theirs was lucky or lousy.