A familiar voice—if not a familiar face—to many tennis fans, Nick Lester sat down with Ana Mitrić to talk about his start in tennis, the ins and outs of commentating, and his season-ending ATP and ITF assignments.
Nick Lester began playing tennis at eight years old when his parents took him to a nearby club in the Hertfordshire town where he grew up. Back then, kids were taught the basics through what was called, in England, “short tennis.” Although he was also involved in football and squash as a boy, Nick loved every minute of tennis and credits his parents for introducing him to the sport and a few local coaches for giving him the solid foundation on which he’s built as a professional.
When he got good enough, Lester started competing at the county level, with his parents—especially his mother—logging a lot of miles driving him to weekend tournaments. “Mum and dad spent a lot of money on coaching, which obviously was not cheap,” he notes gratefully. As luck would have it, one of the first indoor tennis centers in the country was built fifteen miles from home in the early ’90s. “It was a good break for me,” says Lester, who was able to train there during the winter months as a teenager.
Physically, Lester was a late bloomer. “I was very, very small,” he says. “I was five-foot tall, would you believe, when I was 17. So, I didn’t grow until I was in my 18th year—and that was a significant disadvantage, as you can imagine, when you’re playing guys that are a lot bigger and taller than you.” While Lester calls himself a “very average tennis player” until his late teens, he managed to qualify for the main draw at his first British senior national championships, at 20, having never done so at the junior level: “A lot of that was the result of growing—being a bit stronger, being more mature, physically and emotionally.”
He completed his A-level exams but didn’t go to university, opting instead to pursue professional tennis full time. Lester looks back on this decision with some regret: “I wish, in many respects, that I’d gone to an American university.” Playing college tennis for four years, he thinks, “would have been absolutely ideal for me at that stage of my life, because I was physically still not mature enough. It would have been great to get an education and to have the coaching base, as well as the facilities, there. The problem is, 20 years ago, nobody from the UK was going. There were one or two people who went, and that was about it; whereas now, there’s a large proportion of players who go. If you don’t go, it’s almost like, ‘Why are you not going?’ But I’d never heard of it. It’s a shame—I really wish I’d had that opportunity.”
Although he describes his regimen during his late teens and early twenties as “extremely professional,” Lester also admits that he didn’t have a clear plan for the future. He spent four days a week training at a tennis academy in Wrexham, North Wales, where he’d been invited by a “very encouraging” coach. Weekends were for playing tournaments or visiting home. “You know, it’s funny,” he observes. “I had zero guidance, for the most part. I was shooting in the dark, I really was…. I look back now and think, ‘Wow. How on earth did I ever come to that situation?’ Knowing what I know now—obviously, hindsight is a great thing—I wish I’d have done things differently.”
If he could do it all over again, Lester would have traveled more, played more tournaments abroad and had more belief in his ability. On court, he called himself “too nice,” and says that he “didn’t really have that killer instinct.” Though other players may have had more talent, Lester put in the effort: “I worked myself day in and day out, and always have done in everything I do; so, that wasn’t lacking.” Without more structure and guidance, however, he was a little bit lost.
At 22, only a few years into his pro career, he got certified as a coach and started considering other options. It was his mother, in fact, who suggested he go down to the local radio station and look for work. Lester soon found himself answering the station’s phone, keeping track of football scores from around the region, and feeding information to the presenter on the weekend sports show. Five weeks later, the station’s producers asked him to do a report on the air. “I was shaking, I was so nervous,” recalls Lester.
He describes his younger self as “quite a shy guy…. I dread to think what I sounded like at the time.” Short on staff, the station next assigned him to report from a nearby football club. Working in the stands at his first live event, a local match attended by some 300 people, Lester was hooked: “I loved it—it was such a buzz.” Those were his first steps in broadcasting.
Ana Mitrić: Did you have any kind of apprenticeship or training?
Nick Lester: Not at all. It was completely on the job—I really had no one guiding me, even at the station. Of course, I loved sports and I’d listened all my life to radio, so I knew what the style was. I had my pen and paper, and I was writing the scores down and feeding reports. I did that for about two months until the main presenter actually left—so, they asked me to co-present the show. It was a music-based show and we did inserts. Effectively, I was a DJ; but in the inserts, we were doing football, rugby, and all the scores. We used to get players on the phone after matches. It was brilliant! I wasn’t being paid a bean—I was being paid nothing—but I loved every minute of it. It was great to go in on a Saturday and do that.
AM: Were you actually making the music selections?
NL: No, that was all done by computer. But it was quite funny because we loved sports, so we’d cut the music out half the time. And then we’d get a call from the owner saying, “No, you can’t do that—we need more music. We need more music!” He wasn’t really a sports fan and it was kind of a token gesture to have a sports show. But we felt like we were doing the community a great service because no one covered local sport, and suddenly they were getting coverage on our radio station.
One of Lester’s big breaks came about eighteen months later, when he met a broadcaster who worked for Radio Wimbledon. He bought a day-session ticket to the Championships, got a tour around the media center, and was invited back for a week the next summer. A year later, already quite confident behind the microphone, he was commentating on the tennis at SW19. From there, he moved on to producing a weekly sports show for a London radio station. Lester identifies this as a particularly important stage of his career: “That got me into a newsroom. So, rather than just broadcasting, I now was getting a flavor of what a news story was. I was among all journalists, which was great.” Later, he shifted into presenting the sports news: “It was all one big learning curve,” he concludes.
AM: Unlike the “celebrity” commentators—the former players, famous coaches, and big-name studio hosts—you seem almost like the broadcasting equivalent of a journeyman player. Is it fair to say that it’s been a gradual process?
Asked how long he’s been working at this level, Lester enumerates a series of other big breaks and learning experiences: “Life is all about opportunities, isn’t it?” Among these was his first-ever tv gig at Roland Garros in 2006 and his first appearance on a major UK network, Sky Sports, in 2007. “That was great,” he says, “because once I’d done Sky, people knew who I was. That opened up so many doors for me.”
AM: Can you give me a sense of how you prepare for a match? Sitting in the booth, I can see that you’ve got the stats up and access to close-ups and replays. Is anybody else feeding you information?
NL: In terms of research, mine is continuous. It’s year-long and day-by-day. I’m always checking results, I’m always checking scores. But more than that, if I have a day off, I’ll check stats, I’ll go through numbers—geeky stuff that I have to do because we have a knowledgeable tennis audience for the majority of the events we do. And that’s one thing that’s changed: people know the game now and we have to be aware. Today, for example, I’ll go through the numbers of their previous match-ups, what they were doing well, what they weren’t doing well, and try to use as much material—that’s relevant—as possible.
In terms of what we have in our ear, which is very useful and people probably don’t realize, we have Hawk-Eye. So, a lot of things you hear from us—in terms of height over the net and that sort of thing—comes from Hawk-Eye, which is invaluable. Pete Irwin is in our ear all the time and Steph Trudel, who does the graphics, feeds us a lot of stats as well. He’ll tell me, “He’s hit twelve first serves in a row” and then you’ll hear me say it. We try to give the guys credit, because we don’t want to take credit for stuff we don’t do.
AM: In recent years, I watch mostly streams—the world feed, when I can get it, and even Serbian TV sometimes. One thing I now notice when I do watch US network TV is that there seems to be a lot more chit-chat, especially biographical or background information, whereas you guys seem to stick primarily to the match at hand.
NL: We try to. I think you can get biographical stuff online; so, for me, our job is to give the audience something it can’t get. Actually, I had dinner about two years ago, with a famous TV commentator who said something that stuck in my mind. “Your job as a TV commentator,” he said, “is to tell the audience what the pictures don’t.” That’s probably one of the best bits of advice I’ve ever gotten. It’s not easy, because tennis is actually quite simple. For the most part, there’s only a few ways to win a point: someone misses, someone hits a winner. So, for us, the challenge is to learn what to say at the right time, never to over-talk or state the obvious, and try to keep it conversational when there’s a lull in the match.
AM: When you’re working in pairs, how do you divide the tasks?
NL: I’m the main play-by-play guy, rotating with Jason Goodall, and Robbie Koenig can do both [plays and color commentary]. For the most part, the ex-pros come in without much broadcasting experience, so that’s where I come in to lead them, get the best out of them, and ask them questions. That’s where I benefit from having played the game: I know what questions to ask, what’s relevant, and what I’m seeing. I may not have played at this level, or have this kind of experience, and I openly admit that, but I do still have a good idea of the game and how it works.
AM: How many weeks a year do you spend commentating?
NL: Probably about 26, including the 250s I do from London. For ATP Media, the world feed, I do about 10 or 11 weeks; for the Slams, another seven or eight; and then Davis Cup.
AM: What are your most and least favorite aspects of the job?
NL: There aren’t many least favorite, I have to say. I love every minute of it, I really do. It’s 13-hour days—I was absolutely exhausted after Paris—but we wouldn’t do it if we didn’t love it. I’m very privileged to do what I do, very lucky. I say this all the time, so it sounds like I’m gushing, but I’m not. I’m very fortunate to do the job I do—I know there are millions of people who’d love to do it. So, I never take it for granted—I’m always looking to improve as a broadcaster, always looking to do my homework. What are the negatives? Being away from my wife. It’s not easy for her, but she’s great—she understands.
AM: In terms of trying to improve, you’re obviously self-critical and you have colleagues to offer comments, but where else does feedback come from?
NL: Twitter is fairly big. Funnily enough, last night, I got back and listened to our commentary on the doubles. Actually, I was unhappy with a couple of things I did. So, it’s important that I listen to myself—because even though, obviously, we’re in the moment, when I get home, and can listen back to it, I can then pick the bones out of what I feel like I did right or wrong. The [ATP Media] guys who look after us here will tell you if you’re not doing a good job. But I’m not on any sort of contract with anybody—I’m 100% freelance; so, I always have to be aware that things could change.
AM: How conscious are you of being or having an on-air personality? Do you try to “brand” your commentary in any way? A commentator like Robbie Koenig, for example, has his catch phrases. Is there a specific way you try to put your stamp on things?
NL: You know what? I just try to be me. That’s probably where I’m a little different from someone like Robbie … I don’t really go that route. I want to be the person I am—I don’t want to be someone I’ve written down on a piece of paper. My philosophy is that I’m at the tennis and I want to be able to portray what I’m seeing as much as possible without showing off. I don’t mean that in a negative way, but that’s just not my style. My style is to try and be entirely personal, in a way. Speaking from a British perspective (and we’re quite conservative), as an audience, we don’t really like that so much, those kind of cliches. I think good commentary should come from the heart and be instantaneous—taking what I’ve just seen and being able to build on it.
One thing I do like to use are sayings, speeches, or good quotes. But they have to come in at the right time—and you have to be careful that you don’t overuse them. There was a great one the other day, actually, that was really fitting for the young Frenchman, Lucas Pouille—something along the lines of “character is what you do when no one’s watching.” He’d had a really good week in Paris and played brilliantly against Federer in front of a big crowd. Yet, for him, it was about going away and playing in the Challengers now—that’s where he has to have success because that’s how he’s going to get to the next level. That sort of thing comes in quite handy.
AM: Assuming you watch tennis when you’re not on the job: who do you like to listen to, if you have a choice?
NL: You probably wouldn’t hear him, but we have Mark Petchey over here, who’s outstanding as an analyst. His analysis of the game, in terms of taking you between the lines, is better than anyone I’ve ever heard, and I include Cahill in that. I’ve heard Cahill quite a bit as well and I like Darren’s commentary, but I think Mark Petchey’s understanding of the sport is as good as anyone’s.
AM: How often do you think commentators get in the way of matches rather than enhancing them?
NL: That’s an interesting question. I think it depends on what part of the world you’re in, to an extent. I have to say I think it happens less and less now, I really do. I think people have learned, over the years, what the audience requires. Probably in the States, with the style being influenced by American football and everything else, they do like a bit more chat. But, having said that, our commentary goes out on the Tennis Channel in the States and the majority of the feedback we get is very positive, even though our philosophy is “less is more.” Sometimes there’s the odd one or two, but I think all broadcasters in tennis are learning that, actually, you don’t need to add that much to add to the quality.
AM: When do you focus on the action very closely, and when do you shift (or drift away) to discuss other issues?
NL: There’s a kind of unwritten rule for us that generally at the start of sets—especially the start of the second set—we’ll go to other subjects. Because there’s usually a five to ten minute lull at the start of a set, unless something drastic happens. A lot depends on the match, too—if it’s quite dull, and there aren’t many opportunities for either player, then we’ll talk about other things. That’s kind of off-the-cuff stuff—it’s never something I’ll talk to [my co-commentator] about off-air. I’ll just bring it up, because we’re so comfortable working together that I know I can talk tennis with him. As I always say, the best commentary should be, effectively, like the chat you’re having in the pub. That’s how we operate—we’re chatting together, only with an audience.
AM: How do you think the internet and social media have changed tennis viewing or fandom?
NL: Enormously. Jeff Sackmann—Tennis Abstract—is a great example. His website is phenomenal. We were using it in Paris this year, and I don’t think Robbie cottoned on to how good it was before that. The numbers that Sackmann generates, that are just there for us on tap, are invaluable.
Twitter, obviously, is a news source. Having worked in a newsroom, that’s probably where I differ slightly from other commentators, in that my agenda is quite news-driven. There was a great example in Beijing this year, where we were commentating Verdasco-Dimitrov and Verdasco wasn’t even trying—it was bizarre and we were trying to work out why. My Twitter timeline’s always up, and one of the guys who’s always on it tweeted a link to the fact that Verdasco’s girlfriend’s father had died that morning; obviously, that suddenly enlightens us. Now, you probably could argue that we should have known that anyway, because we were there—there’s probably a fair point in that. For whatever reason, we didn’t; but when I see that, I’m able to bring it in and, suddenly, you’ve got a different perspective on the match.
There isn’t a match I commentate on anymore where I don’t have my Twitter feed up, nonstop. As you know, the nature of the beast is that things change—and when they do, it’s on Twitter.
AM: With Tennis TV, do you assume a more educated tennis audience?
NL: Definitely. If you’re watching Giraldo against Pospisil in Washington, chances are you’ve got a fair love of the game. If I’m commentating at Wimbledon for the BBC, then it might be slightly different, because that’s a two-week tennis fan. For Tennis TV, if they’re watching a 500 series event, that’s your core audience. And my philosophy on that is that if I’m catering for a tennis audience, then for the most part, I’m quids in, because I’m catering for everyone else as well. But if I’m catering to the two-week tennis fan, then I’m not catering to the core tennis audience.
AM: In terms of who you follow on Twitter, is it mostly media or also some fans?
NL: I’d say 50 percent media and 50 percent others. There’s loads of people out there, a sea of people, and someone somewhere always has more information than you have.
AM: That’s what I think is interesting about Twitter—all the different niches. For example, you have someone like Foot Soldiers of Tennis, focusing on guys ranked outside the top 100.
NL: That’s gold dust for us.
AM: You mentioned Tennis Abstract. Do you have any other favorite websites, ones you visit on a weekly basis?
NL: There’s a guy out there on Twitter, who a friend of a friend knows,“Jimmy Soixante Neuf.” I found out what he does the other day: he works for a company called Tennis Form, who provide news and analysis for betting websites. His day-to-day job is to source everything tennis related, 12 hours a day, and feed it to these betting companies, which affects their odds. So, even though, obviously, that’s an area we’re not allowed to get anywhere near, for me, he’s a great source. Actually, he’s the guy who linked the article about Verdasco.
AM: In terms of the prestige of your assignment at the World Tour Finals, you didn’t get to commentate on the marquee singles matches, but the contests you observed were actually more competitive. So, I’m curious to get some of your thoughts about the doubles. For starters, what are the key differences between commentating on singles and doubles?
NL: From my perspective, there’s a more substantial amount of research I need to do, because I probably only commentate on a handful of doubles matches during the year and then suddenly I’m doing 15 in a week. To be brutally honest, given the number of singles matches we do in a given week, I usually only look at the doubles draws. We’re so singles-focused on the world feed, that we don’t really have time.
So, the three or so days leading into the week [at the O2], I did a few hours work on each of the pairs—not necessarily the game styles, but more trying to familiarize myself with their results and to understand who’s playing with whom next year, since they get around. A little of that was helped by my co-commentator [Jamie Delgado] who knows the doubles guys really well.
In terms of commentating, specifically, on the doubles, there are obviously nuances in the way it’s played. It’s definitely improved. This is the seventh year I’ve commentated on it and in terms of quality that was, by far and away, the best year. Almost every match was outstanding. I think the return of serve is probably the area that’s improved more than any other.
AM: The semifinal between the Frenchmen and the Bryan brothers was a blowout; but other than that, all the matches were very close. Why do you think the margins are so small? Are these teams just equally matched?
NL: I think the surface also helped. It was a fairly slow surface, so that does allow good quality points. It’s tough to put the ball away. There were very few short points. Doubles, traditionally, is the serve and a volley and suddenly it’s gone. Whereas on that court, because it’s slow and big around the sides, it does actually allow teams to defend very well. So, you’ve got a team like Granollers and Lopez, who obviously play doubles in a different way to what it was twenty years ago, hitting forehands all day long, running around their backhands, and staying at the back of the court. You had a little bit of an unusual case with Kubot and Lindstedt, who effectively had done nothing all year, after winning the Australian Open, but who seemed inspired by the circumstances and blew that group wide open. You’ve also got people like Benneteau and Roger-Vasselin, who are very good singles players. For my money, that’s where the return of serve comes into play, because (with all due respect) those guys are better, more consistent returners of serve than some of the doubles specialists. And they’re used to playing big matches, as well. Put all that together, and it worked out really well.
AM: Although it had been a while since the Bryan brothers won this specific event, in other ways they’ve been dominating for years. Do you see any pair being able to challenge them for #1 before they retire? Are they technically or strategically much better than the other top doubles players, or is their success as much about their relationship as anything else?
NL: That has to play a part, doesn’t it? I mean, it’s not pointing out anything new to say that every year that comes around, every new pair takes a little while to adjust. The Bryans, obviously, never have that. I do think it’s interesting, however, hearing them talk about the fact that Bob’s becoming a father has changed their dynamic a fair bit. Then again, the results suggest that it hasn’t.
The gulf in class, in terms of points on the year, speaks for itself—they got double the points as the second-best pair. The thing with the Bryans is that when they do start to roll, and they do start winning, they’re a very, very confident pair; you can see how quickly things go. Every doubles player I’ve talked to over the years has said that the worst thing you can do against the Bryans is start losing early because they’re so energetic, and bring so much electricity to the court, that you feel like you’re just being run over. They just get so confident. And that was definitely the case last week, because they actually didn’t play very well in their first two matches; but once they did get through, the semifinal was phenomenal and then they obviously played pretty well in the final, too.
AM: One of the things that really struck me in the Bryans’ press conference was them talking about their coach—specifically, his scouting and strategizing. Correct me if I’m wrong, but my impression is that a lot of these teams don’t have coaches.
NL: No. It says a lot that Macpherson has been hired by the Swiss Davis Cup team as well. I don’t know David that well, but just seeing him around on tour, the guy is so professional. You might think, “What can you teach the Bryans?” But there obviously is still stuff for them to learn, so that’s why they have the guy there.
AM: Do you think the ATP can or should do more to promote doubles?
NL: Yeah, they’re trying. From talking to Eric Butorac, I know they want to get more tennis on tv—full stop. They want get more courts covered, more coverage of Slams, and that will include doubles.
AM: Moving on to your next assignment, how long have you been commentating for Davis Cup?
NL: Two and a half years. I do exactly the same thing for the ITF as I do for the ATP Media through the world feed, only we don’t go out to as many places, since Tennis Channel use Justin Gimelstob and Brett Haber. We’re heard online, in South Africa, and a couple of other countries, but we’re not heard quite as regularly as we would be for the Masters events.
AM: How would you gauge the health of the event?
NL: The best atmosphere I’ve ever experienced anywhere in tennis is a Davis Cup final. Nothing even comes close. I was in Prague and Belgrade for the last two and there’s no tennis atmosphere in the world that comes anywhere near a Davis Cup final. Obviously, those both went to fifth rubbers, so that helped a bit.
It’s a tough one. I think you have to keep looking at who’s playing, as well—and, for the most part, the top ten have played. If the top ten weren’t ever playing, then that’s a concern. But if you look at who’s played over the last two or three years, Rafa’s played, Novak’s played, Federer’s played, Murray’s played, Berdych’s played—all these guys have played. It’s not like they don’t want to play. And, let’s be honest, this weekend is their once-in-a-decade final, isn’t it? It’s not going to get any better than this.
AM: What questions do you have on the eve of this France-Switzerland tie?
NL: Because of what happened in London, there have been a fair few stories with the Swiss; but, to be honest, I think it’s less about the Swiss and more about the French. I think who the French pick is probably the most fascinating aspect of the tie because, with all due respect to Chiudinelli and Lammer, Switzerland have only got two players.
As we all know, the French have had a fairly long tradition of players letting themselves down on big occasions. So, do you go with the charismatic Gael Monfils, who has this phenomenal record of playing in France and yet can, out of nowhere, become injured or turn into this kind of clown figure? You’ve got Gasquet, probably one of the most introverted characters the game’s seen in recent times, who hasn’t played particularly well on the big stage; Tsonga, who’s been out of form except one week this year; and the person they left out, Gilles Simon, who’s arguably had the best year of any French player. So, how the French deal with the occasion is, I think, probably more exciting than what’s happening on the other side.
I mean this with the greatest respect for Federer … It just left a slightly bad taste in the mouth with him coming in so late to play Davis Cup this year—you know, that tie against Serbia where he was suddenly there. No one would ever speak badly of Roger, of course not. But when he set out his year at the end of 2013 (and maybe this was a fitness issue), Davis Cup wasn’t on that list; then, three days before the Serbia tie, it was. There’s a few people who think there’s a bit of an element of him, perhaps, “carpet-bagging.” I don’t know if I agree with that, but I’ve heard the phrase thrown around, as if he saw the draw and thought, “Ooh, I haven’t won that competition!” I don’t know if he was thinking that—how would I know?
AM: People always talks about the fact that no matter where in the world he’s playing, it’s a home crowd for Federer—but do you expect a partisan French crowd?
NL: Oh, absolutely. And I think one other factor is actually the cold. They have heaters above the court, but it’s going to be twelve degrees Celsius in that stadium. Now, with Federer’s back, that’s not going to help him at all. He’s not going to get any assistance from the heat, which is not good for his game either. He’s obviously a player who enjoys quicker conditions; so, I think from Federer’s perspective, it’s not really a pretty scenario right now, if the back is as bad as we’ve been lead to believe. It’ll be cold and heavy, the balls will be fluffing up—it’s not going to be quick. So, these are probably the worst possible conditions for Federer to play in.