Monday, July 14, 2014

Interview with Mike Cation, voice of USTA Pro Circuit men's tournaments

We at On the Rise (a tennis blog) make no secret of our fandom of Mike Cation's work on broadcasts of ATP challenger events in the US. He combines a wry sensibility with utter professionalism and a clear love for his work. Most importantly, he has a real appreciation for the brilliant athletes who perform at a high level week in and week out. He's a great asset to the sport, and fans of tennis (particularly those who follow American players) are fortunate to have him.

And On the Rise (a tennis blog) is fortunate that Mike agreed to be the first-ever interview subject for this young blog! A huge thanks to him for responding so quickly to the emailed questions and for his thoughtful and thorough answers. We hope you enjoy!

Introduction: Mike Cation (@MikeCTennis), from Champaign, Illinois, worked in radio as a news/sports director for 13 years, and served as press aide for the JSM Challenger in Champaign for 7 years. Mike is the PA Announcer for Illinois tennis (and basketball/baseball/soccer) at the University of Illinois.  He has been the voice of USTA Pro Circuit events since last summer in the employ of Livestream LLC, which carries broadcast rights to these events.  Definitely check out their archive of challengers to get a look-see at a whole passel of events!

He responded to these questions in advance of the Binghamton Challenger going on right now in New York State.

Q. Of the challengers you've worked, what pops into your head as being a particularly (or surprisingly) great experience for players, fans, and staff?

A: I think you'd find that it varies from player to player, from tournament to tournament.  And I think that's the same for me too.  I don't want to name a ton of names, for fear of excluding people...but that's what stands out to me.  The people who are involved in these events, and I'm talking about 95% of them, are doing it because they love the sport.  And love the ability to try and help grow the sport.  Two weeks ago, in Winnetka, you have Jimmy the stringer, who is there until 1AM every night. This week, Lori, the Tournament Director, is amazing at continuing this event, despite the challenges that they have. Chris Arns in Napa always tweets at me about how excited they are for year #2 in September.  My friends Jim and Christine at the Atkins Tennis Center in Champaign....that's what does it for me.  The people and the passion for this sport.

But more directly to your question, each event has its own charm. I guess what surprised me was the Canadian fans in Vancouver. They were loud, even during points, and it was a great atmosphere.  I know, as an American tennis fan, that might not be what you like to hear, but that atmosphere was the most unique.

Q. What is one tournament outside the USA that you'd love to cover as a commentator?

A: I think I'm supposed to say Wimbledon, but I'd have to say the Australian, just to be able to work again with my friend Craig Tiley, the CEO of Tennis Australia.  I would love to see how he runs things, and compare it to how he was running the Champaign Challenger 10 years ago.

Q. One of the more fun elements of your broadcasts is when you have guests on. In particular I've enjoyed hearing Mark Bey join you as a commentator, and Tim Puetz as an interviewee. Who would you love to have join you in the booth for an afternoon? One each, commentator & interviewee.

A: I also really enjoy having guests on.  It's hard to get those on a regular basis, as I have a limited time between matches to go to the bathroom, get water, the basics, before restarting.  So grabbing a guest is tough.  But Puetz was wonderful.  Groth is always good, and Tennys Sandgren still owes me a guest spot.

But to answer your question: This is going to sound ridiculous, but I was really hopeful to have Dirk Nowitzki join me in Dallas.  I think the take that a pro athlete has is always fascinating.  Especially with his love of the sport.

Commentator: I've always wanted to work with Gimelstob.  But I'm going to choose another old friend, Mike Kosta.  Comedian, former tennis player at Illinois, and had a show with Regis on FS1.

Interviewee: Patrick McEnroe.  (Or Fed, obviously.  I don't get star struck too often at this point in my life, but when I was introduced to him at Wimbledon a few years ago....I was rather quiet and shy, unlike me.)

Q. What's the toughest part of your job?

A: Very clearly being away from my wife, and shortly, being away from our daughter, whose birth will cause me to happily miss both Vancouver and Aptos, events I really enjoyed last year.  That's a sorely overlooked aspect of the lives of these guys on tour, too...they're away from significant others, children, family, friends...

As for what's the most difficult when I'm actually on the job, it's the hours, prep, and quick turnaround.  I'm not saying this in a way that I want to be misconstrued as complaining, because I love what I do, and enjoy this challenge.  But in tournaments where we have night matches, we're broadcasting 6-7 matches, maybe 12-14 hours, with 10 minute breaks.  We sleep for 6 hours, and then I'm up doing prep for the next day, and doing it again.  I do wish I had the opportunity to reflect on a match, think about it more, write some notes about how they played, so that I had a better bank of knowledge and better notes for the next match.  But when it's midnight, and I have to get up at 6:30, I'm not one to do a ton of note writing.

With that being said, again, I like to hope that we continue to put together a pretty decent broadcast.  Our cameramen have really grown, I think I have too, and we continue to add new wrinkles, and adapt.  Plus, with this being our 2nd season, there's definitely more going on upstairs in my brain too.

Q. What would you say to a lay [i.e. less avid] tennis fan - who focuses primarily on majors and perhaps a few other big tournaments each year - as to why "minor league" tennis is a worthwhile way to spend time and/or money?

A:  It's a great question, and one that I wish we had a great answer to.  It's also a ridiculously complex question as well.

First, I think we need to make sure these events are in the right communities, and at the right times.  By that, I mean that our California swing gets a great attendance because it's right after the US Open and the casual fan still has it in their head.  Maui, same thing.  Having worked the Champaign Challenger for 7 years as a press aide, I've always said that one is so tough because it's in the middle of football season, the start of college basketball, and no matter how hard you fight there, it's difficult to get the casual fan to spend their entertainment dollars there.  I would LOVE to have the Charlottesville/Knoxville/Champaign swing in March, in the heart of college season.  But none of the staffs can put that together.

It's a long answer to say I don't know.  I would love more media exposure, but how do you get the Tennis Channel to buy in? I would say better marketing on a local level, but where does that money come from to pay for staff/advertising?

I know that the ATP is working on finding answers too.  But here in the States...I think it will remain a challenge.

Q. You've seen a lot of players at various stages of their careers.  Who has "wowed" you the most the first time you saw him in person?

A: Of late, Nick Kyrgios.  I don't talk tennis too much to my wife, but I was telling her about his Sarasota run as it was happening.  He was very impressive, very quickly.  I just didn't see him doing that this summer.

Years ago, Brian Baker.  Oh that backhand.  Good lord that was fun to watch, even early.

Q. Is there anyone at the juniors or Futures level that you've been wanting to see play in a USTA Pro Circuit challenger event?

A: I just can't answer this.  I don't have nearly the experience at the futures and junior levels.  Most of my free time at home is spent doing work at the University of Illinois, and I just don't have the opportunity to see that much.  This is a Colette Lewis question. :)  That being said, I remember saying during a Noah Rubin match in Sacramento last year that you could see how he will develop in to a very solid pro.  I'm interested in how he does at Wake Forest next year.

Q. There's an ongoing debate about the place of NCAA tennis in the wider world men's tennis, particularly for US juniors. What are your thoughts on the matter?

A: Obviously, it's proven to be a good enough breeding ground.  I think it takes an extremely unique individual to be able to be successful at the age of 18 with no college.  The things that are most important to me with a college tennis experience are the following:

1) A good strength and conditioning/nutrition program.  So overlooked.  Great building blocks moving forward.

2) The ability to have a coach on hand. Obviously, it's important to find a coach who wants to develop your game, and not someone who will solely focus on what will get him team wins.

3) The ability to change/develop/improve WHILE you're also winning a majority of your matches.  This obviously touches on the maturity issue.  You go to futures/challengers at the age of 18, you're likely to get beat up a bit.  You play in college, your winning percentage is likely higher.  That can NOT be overlooked when you mix that with the idea that you're doing it while experimenting and changing things in your game.

Q. What advice would you give to tournament organizers looking to improve attendance at their events?

A: We touched on this a little bit earlier, but very few of these events struggle with attendance because of lack of trying.  But with a media/promotions/marketing background, I think that this is where I would like to see more funding or staff.  Listen, when it gets down to it, everyone knows that the ATP is looking at increasing points/money at these events, and that will obviously help the players. But having some extra money coming in, specifically for staff, will also help.  When I was a media aide in Champaign, I received a small stipend, which I was thankful for, but I also know that I was getting paid less than minimum wage when I looked back at the hours.  I didn't care, and neither do any of the people who volunteer, or work as tournament directors.  But you know what?  The staff is strapped for time.  The budget is ridiculously tight.  Most of these challengers due the bare minimum in terms of advertising, because it's hard to get the necessary sponsorship.

Little things:
1) Find ways to free up players for media work a couple weeks before.  Yes it costs money.
2) Find creative TV opportunities.
3) Find unique sponsorships.

The problem is, almost all of the Challengers have tried to do this.

Ultimately, as sad as this sounds, I think we just need these events to get some validation.  We need the Tennis Channel coverage.  When Tim Smyczek reaches the 4th round, we have to make sure that they talk about the fact that he's been playing against other really good players at this level, not just blown off.  I think the tennis media needs to be a little more accepting of this as a building block, not just a minor league.  Random aside, as I watch the World Cup, and think about soccer, and relegation...that's such a European concept, isn't it?  The idea that if you drop down to a different league, you've failed in a sense, but have opportunities to go back up.  I feel it's very American of us to just dismiss it as "not good enough."

Q. Finally, as a blog focused primarily on US tennis, I have to ask: How do you see the state of US men's tennis? What is an area you feel could be particularly improved among US men?

A: It's obviously a lot better than most give it credit for. The number of players in the top 150 is good.  It's just that we don't have it at the top.  I think ultimately, most of us can agree with that. But, again, because of how we pay attention to sports in this country, we need a winner on the higher level to really see that media perception turn around.

Now, as for the second part of your question, I have been a big believer that we need to be developing the top young juniors, at the 12-14-16 level on the clay.  If that means setting up a training base in Europe, so be it.  If that means getting Har-Tru to do a ton of courts throughout the states, so be it.  I think that developing kids at that level on the clay, they learn how to develop points, extend points, and finish.  We've got some very good players with great serves, great forehands, but it takes them a few more years to learn how to create chances on the clay, which translates so much better on to the hard, in my opinion.


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