Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Media | Sports

August 16, 2016

Covering Tennis Without A Net

Caitlin Thompson, along with partner David Shaftel, is launching a new tennis print quarterly just ahead of the U.S. Open.

Carl Bialik

In 2005, Gelf Magazine began, the culmination of a conversation between friends about a publication they'd like to see. In 2016, Racquet started much the same way—only, now that starting an online magazine is mainstream, co-founders Caitlin Thompson and David Shaftel decided to go another way.

Caitlin Thompson. Photo by Amy Pearl.
"Print just has that tangible, tactile, experiential quality that we hope will make people seek out and savor it."

Caitlin Thompson. Photo by Amy Pearl.

Racquet, which is publishing its first issue later this month ahead of the U.S. Open, is a print-only quarterly. If you want to read it, you have to pay for it—or stay in an Ace hotel. The success of other print quarterlies shows that "even if our audience is small, they'll support something they love at a price that will allow us to make something great four times a year," Thompson tells Gelf.

In the following interview, conducted by email, Thompson explains why print is cool now, what it was like waiting for the crowdsourced funding to come in, and what her dream pairing of writer and topic is.

Gelf Magazine: How'd you first get the idea for starting a tennis publication?

Caitlin Thompson: My partner David Shaftel and I have been sharing tennis ideas, photos, and ephemera with each other for years with the aim of collaborating on something. When I came across a great piece on Tyler Brûle—the founder of Wallpaper and Monocle—about his magazine business model, eschewing digital and focused on print subscriptions, I texted David and said: "Let's do this for tennis." Within the hour he came up with a name and we had a list of dream contributors. Eighteen months on, we haven't looked back.

Gelf Magazine: What do you think of the general state of tennis coverage in the U.S., and in the English language?

Caitlin Thompson: If we felt that it was as strong as it could be, the idea wouldn't have had much appeal—the first goal of Racquet has been to make something we'd read. As it stands, a lot of the coverage here is geared toward either recreational players or aimed at the luxury market; neither of those really speak to who we are as fans or why we think tennis is cool and culturally relevant. We really want to reach the casual fan in a way that brings them into the conversation. In Europe, they've got a lot more to choose from—Eurosport's tennis coverage is satisfyingly in-depth and nerdy, France and Germany each have a few print tennis titles, and the newspapers in the U.K. cover tennis the way we cover football or basketball here in the U.S. We're excited to add another voice to that mix.

Cover of Racquet No. 1: Yannick Noah by Mads Berg

Cover of Racquet No. 1: Yannick Noah by Mads Berg.

Gelf Magazine: Why print? Why a magazine? And why quarterly?

Caitlin Thompson: The first question you're really asking here is: Why not the internet? Having spent my whole career grappling with digital media, I've come to believe that to survive now, journalists serve algorithms, not audience, in search of diminishing ad dollars. We decided to center our business model on subscriptions and retail sales in select independent shops because we know that a fanatical audience for tennis and for literary journalism exists. The rise of indie quarterly magazines—Lucky Peach, McSweeney's, Howler, The Gentlewoman—proves that even if our audience is small, they'll support something they love at a price that will allow us to make something great four times a year. Print just has that tangible, tactile, experiential quality that we hope will make people seek out and savor it. Magazines are emotional.

Art from Racquet No. 1: Arthur Ashe by Craig & Karl

Art from Racquet No. 1: Arthur Ashe by Craig & Karl

Gelf Magazine: Who are your partners in the project, and how did you come together? How are you splitting up the work?

Caitlin Thompson: David and I have had a tennis-centric friendship for the past decade, which really created the framework for our shared sensibility about the game's past and present. We both grew up competing as kids, I made it to D-I in college, and we both still play a lot today. Co-founding Racquet felt like a natural evolution. David's a fantastic writer and has had a lot of success freelancing in the tennis space, so our primary division of labor is that he's our editor and I'm our publisher. We share an editorial and business vision—but he's gotten into the nuts and bolts down to line editing and sourcing photos, whereas I've been more focused on things like partnerships, branding, and distribution channels.
We've got a genius in the form of Larry Buchanan as our art director—he has bowled us over with what he has established as our look and feel, and has come up with a whole slew of whimsical and interesting projects, which we'll roll out over the course of the year. Another key player is Courtney Nguyenformerly of Sports Illustrated, currently a senior writer for the WTA. She's our eyes and ears on the tour, has ingenious ideas, and is our go-to as fixer—that's why she's listed on the masthead as a contributing editor. Bill Sullivan is our fantastic curator: He's created a visual language for Racquet and helped us connect with like-minded artists. And Dan Morrissey—whose day job is at Entertainment Weekly as copy chief—did that and much, much more for Issue 1. David Granger, the legendary editor, has been behind the scenes making connections, gut-checking our instincts, encouraging us to keep it bold and weird. He's our spiritual advisor.

Art from Racquet No. 1: David Foster Wallace by Joan LeMay

Art from Racquet No. 1: David Foster Wallace by Joan LeMay

Gelf Magazine: Did you expect the Kickstarter to reach its target? Any nervous moments along the way?

Caitlin Thompson: I'd describe that experience as white-knuckling with waves of profound gratitude.

Gelf Magazine: What's the article in the first issue you're most excited about?

Caitlin Thompson: It was really important to me to set the tone in our first issue with a big statement piece that tackled one of our main themes. I've long admired Taffy Brodesser-Akner's writing—her reportage on Britney Spears in Vegas is a masterpiece— and I was delighted to discover that she played tennis. I really pursued her to write something about elitism and access, something that allowed her to flex her personal-essay muscles and could also speak to the aspirational fans who've felt left out of the tennis world up until now. I can't wait for people to read it. I'm also delighted to tell you that our fiction piece is outstanding.

Gelf Magazine: What's your dream pairing of writer and topic for the magazine? Can be any author, living or dead.

Caitlin Thompson: David Granger on whatever he wants to write about, which we hope to have for an upcoming issue. Zadie Smith on the meaning of Andy Murray.

Gelf Magazine: How has it been juggling Racquet with your day job? Are you exhausted? Exhilarated?

Caitlin Thompson: Yes and yes. David and I also both have small kids, and the amazing thing about that experience is it makes you want to spend your time away from them in a way that feels meaningful. To say that we're doing that with Racquet is an understatement.

Gelf Magazine: You work in podcasting and also have your own tennis podcast. What are your favorite tennis podcasts? What are the critical elements that a podcast must have to be good?

Caitlin Thompson: I'm fanatical about podcasts, and I think about that question a lot! My day job is working in content for a podcast company called Acast—and I'm really excited that some of the best, most innovative journalism is happening in audio. Good podcasts have one of three things (and great ones tend to have more than one): great host(s), great format, and/or a compelling subject.
Compared to other sports, tennis doesn't have that many shows represented in the podcast space, but I think I listen to every one of them. I absolutely love No Challenges Remaining for a tour-centric, newsy take on what's happening week-to-week, as well as the Toronto-based show The Body Serve, which is fun and gossipy. The Main Draw, my podcast, has a bit of both.

Carl Bialik

Carl Bialik, a co-founder of Gelf, is a writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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Article by Carl Bialik

Carl Bialik, a co-founder of Gelf, is a writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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