WIMBLEDON, England — The moment Amélie Mauresmo, the tournament director of the French Open, said that women’s tennis didn’t currently have as much appeal as men’s tennis, there was little doubt she would get an ear.
Among the objectors was a Brit named Catherine Whitaker, who scathingly belittled Mauresmo in 10 minutes and 35 seconds on an increasingly influential show, The Tennis Podcast. Whitaker was somewhere between angered and appalled that a former No. 1 player in women’s singles would say such a thing to explain why she had scheduled men for nine of the tournament’s 10 night sessions. She criticized Mauresmo for having an “unconscious bias” towards some of the biggest and most famous female athletes in the world.
The next morning, a member of the French Open communications team approached Whitaker with a suggestion: Would she like to join a select group of journalists to speak to Mauresmo?
That Whitaker’s words had caught the attention of Mauresmo — who would later try to retract her comments — might have been hard to predict in 2012, when Whitaker and her boss, David Law, sat at the dining table at his parents’ house recording the first episode of their podcast.
“Maybe five people listened to it,” Law, a longtime tennis communications manager and ` radio commentator, said in a recent interview. For years, the show stalled and restarted, with episodes skipping erratically and drawing tiny audiences.
A decade later, The Tennis Podcast regularly tops the Apple charts for the sport in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and Spain. It’s a favorite of the game’s luminaries and commentators, like Billie Jean King, who listened to the entire archive, Chris Evert, Pam Shriver, and Mary Carillo. It recently ranked 40th among all sports podcasts in the United States. At certain moments, such as during the Mauresmo crisis, this is how sport speaks to itself.
“I’m a nerd,” Carillo said in late May, just before he taped a special 10th anniversary show high above main course Philippe Chatrier at Roland Garros. “These guys know their stuff. And they’re funny. You can’t pretend funny.”
Every sport has its handful of must-lists. Most feature hosts have come to their podcasts with established platforms or have major media companies behind them.
Whitaker, Law and Matthew Roberts, who started out as the show’s Twitter intern in 2015 while he was still in college, are the genre’s charming garage band that broke through, though they’re not sure why. Maybe a tennis debate with a British accent just sounds more correct? “The Tennis Podcast” has become an interesting test case for a crowded podcast market that’s hard to build an audience and even harder to make a living like the three are trying to do.
Roberts, 26, is still unsure if this is a legitimate career choice.
“Maybe I’ll write more?” he asked himself one evening in Paris.
At big events like the small competition taking place here at the All England Club this week, the group occasionally line up around a picnic table with the mics and a beer, although that’s the case with a growing legion of fans, particularly at Wimbledon become more problematic.
On the show (and in her life), Law, 48, plays the goofy but thoughtful father. He is ignorant of most pop culture references. He often teams up with Whitaker, 36, as if she were a much younger stepsister. Roberts serves as the wise beyond his years son, often settling their differences.
“And he can do that annoying backhand jumping thing,” Whitaker said of Roberts, who played junior tennis tournaments and has a degree in modern languages.
At this year’s French Open, a fan of the podcast nervously approached to praise Roberts.
“He’s the one they all like the most,” Law said of Roberts. “I know because I’ve read all the emails.”
They now earn enough to travel to all the Grand Slam tournaments, although Wimbledon is a home game of sorts. Law, who is married with two children, recently left his day job as communications director for the annual lawn tournament at the Queen’s Club in London, some 120 miles south of where he lives near Birmingham.
Whitaker, who lives in London, emailed Law after graduating from university, telling him she was keen to work in tennis. He hired her to help with his work with retired players on the Champions Tour.
He also liked her voice and eventually developed the concept of a podcast. Whitaker was skeptical but called.
Law was introduced to podcasts in much the same way as many Brits – listening to The Ricky Gervais Show in the mid-1980s. As the medium grew, Law realized that every sport seemed to have a podcast, which became The One, and quickly snapped the title “The Tennis Podcast.”
It was a good name, he thought. “And there weren’t any other tennis podcasts, so it was actually true,” he said.
In 2013, with the podcast stumbling along with just a few hundred weekly listeners, Whitaker got to work writing crime and punishment press releases for the Crown Prosecution Service’s press office. She knew within a month that despite her longing for stability, she had made a terrible mistake. It took her a year to go away and get involved with the podcast, as well as a few side gigs in tennis.
The venture cost Law money for the first four years. In 2015 he sold a small sponsorship to the French bank BNP Paribas.
Over the next year, Law, Whitaker and Roberts ran the first of their annual Kickstarter campaigns, which they support along with subscriptions to additional content for £5 a month, or £50 for the year, or around $6 and $61.
They have 3,000 subscribers and around 35,000 weekly listeners. Her success helped Whitaker get hired to host Amazon Prime’s tennis coverage.
You owe Carillo a lot. Five years ago, she approached Whitaker at a tournament and asked if she was from The Tennis Podcast. Whitaker said it was her, then found Law and told him something strange had just happened.
Carillo spread the word. She told King, who told Evert, who told Shriver, or something like that. Nobody is sure of the order. All are devoted listeners now. King joined the show’s hosts at Whitaker’s flat last summer to eat curry and watch the European Championship football matches.
After Shriver went public with the revelation that her longtime coach, Don Candy, sexually abused her as a teenager, her first interview was on The Tennis Podcast. WTA Tour boss Steve Simon also came in to speak about sexual abuse.
Most shows have no guests. The troika chats about the latest results from Estoril in Portugal or Istanbul. They scoff at each other’s food choices or underhanded serving skills.
Law said years of mistakes and research yielded valuable lessons, such as: B. the importance of releasing a new podcast weekly, stopping it on a specific day (usually Monday), limiting weekly shows to about an hour, and doing 45-minute daily episodes during Grand Slams.
Things took a little longer after Mauresmo got in at the French Open earlier this month, giving Whitaker the right time for her takedown. She described Mauresmo as a product of a system “designed and maintained almost entirely by men,” and told anyone who might think men’s tennis was inherently more attractive than women’s tennis to “get in the bin.”
A lot more than five people listened.