By Matthew Futterman
The moment Amélie Mauresmo, the French Open tournament director, said women’s tennis did not have as much appeal as men’s tennis right now, there was little doubt she was going to get an earful.
Those objecting included a British woman named Catherine Whitaker, who delivered a scathing, 10-minute-35-second dressing down of Mauresmo on an increasingly influential show, “The Tennis Podcast.” Whitaker was somewhere between exasperated and aghast that a former No. 1-ranked player in women’s singles would say such a thing to explain why she had scheduled men for nine of the tournament’s 10 featured night sessions. She called out Mauresmo for possessing an “unconscious bias” against some of the world’s greatest and most famous female athletes.
The next morning, a member of the French Open’s communications staff approached Whitaker with a proposition: Would she like to join a select group of journalists to speak with Mauresmo?
That Whitaker’s words had gotten the attention of Mauresmo — who would later attempt to walk back her comments — might have been hard to foresee in 2012, when Whitaker and her boss, David Law, sat at the dining room table at his parents’ home to record the first episode of their podcast.
“Maybe five people listened to it,” Law, a longtime tennis communications executive and BBC radio commentator, said during a recent interview. For years, the show stopped and restarted, with episodes dropping irregularly and attracting tiny audiences.
A decade on, “The Tennis Podcast” regularly tops the Apple charts for the sport in the United States, Britain, Canada, Australia and Spain. It is a favorite of the game’s luminaries and commentators, such as Billie Jean King, who has listened to the entire archive, Chris Evert, Pam Shriver and Mary Carillo. In the United States, it recently ranked 40th among all sports podcasts. In certain moments, such as during Mauresmo’s crisis, it is how the sport talks to itself.
“I’m a nerd,” Carillo said in late May, just before taping a special 10th anniversary show high above the main court, Philippe Chatrier, at Roland Garros. “These guys know their stuff. And they’re funny. You can’t fake funny.”
Every sport has its handful of must-listens. Most feature hosts who came to their podcasts with established platforms or have major media companies behind them.
Whitaker, Law and Matthew Roberts, who began as the show’s Twitter intern in 2015 when he was still in college, are the genre’s charming garage band that broke through, though they are not sure why. Maybe tennis debate just sounds more proper with British accents? “The Tennis Podcast” has become an interesting test case for a crowded podcast market where it’s hard to develop an audience and even harder to make a living, as the three are trying to do.
Roberts, 26, still is not sure if this is a legitimate career choice.
“Maybe I’ll write some more?” he wondered one evening in Paris.
At big events like the little competition taking place here at the All England Club this week, the group will occasionally set up with the microphones and a pint at a picnic table, though with a growing legion of fans, especially at Wimbledon, that arrangement is becoming more problematic.
On the show (and in their lives), Law, 48, plays the goofy but thoughtful father. He is clueless about most pop culture references. He often jousts with Whitaker, 36, as though she were a much younger stepsister. Roberts serves as the wise-beyond-his-years son, often settling their disputes.
“And he can do that annoying, jumping backhand 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 read all the emails.”
They now earn enough to travel to all the Grand Slam tournaments, though Wimbledon is a home game of sorts. Law, who is married with two children, recently quit his day job as the communications director for the annual grass-court tournament at Queen’s Club in London, about 120 miles south of his home near Birmingham.
Whitaker, who lives in London, sent Law an email after she graduated from university telling him she was desperate to work in tennis. He hired her to assist with his work with retired players on the Champions Tour.
He also liked her voice, and eventually raised the concept of a podcast. Whitaker was skeptical, but went along.
Law got introduced to podcasts the same way a lot of Britons did — listening to “The Ricky Gervais Show” in the mid-aughts. As the medium grew, Law realized that each sport seemed to have a podcast that became The One, and quickly grabbed the title “The Tennis Podcast.”
It was a good name, he thought. “And there were no other tennis podcasts, so it was actually true,” he said.
In 2013, with the podcast muddling along with just a few hundred weekly listeners, Whitaker went to work writing news releases about crime and punishment in the press office of the Crown Prosecution Service. She knew within a month that despite her yearning for stability, she had made a terrible mistake. It took her a year to walk away and commit to the podcast, as well as a few side gigs in tennis.
The venture cost Law money the first four years. In 2015 he sold a small sponsorship to BNP Paribas, the French bank.
The next year, Law, Whitaker and Roberts did the first of their annual Kickstarter campaigns, which, along with subscriptions to additional content for 5 pounds per month or 50 pounds for the year, or about $6 and $61, sustain them.
They have 3,000 subscribers and roughly 35,000 weekly listeners. Their success helped Whitaker get hired to host Amazon Prime’s tennis coverage.
They owe a great debt to Carillo. Five years ago, she approached Whitaker at a tournament and asked her if she was from “The Tennis Podcast.” Whitaker said she was, then found Law and told him the strangest thing had just happened.
Carillo spread the word. She told King, who told Evert, who told Shriver, or something like that. No one is certain of the order. All are now dedicated listeners. King joined the show’s hosts at Whitaker’s apartment last summer for curry and to watch the European Championship soccer matches.
After Shriver went public with the revelation that her longtime coach, Don Candy, had sexually abused her as a teenager, her first interview was on “The Tennis Podcast.” Steve Simon, the head of the WTA Tour, also came on to discuss sexual abuse.
Most shows have no guests. The troika chat about the latest results from Estoril, in Portugal, or Istanbul. They mock one another’s food choices or underhand serving abilities.
Law said years of mistakes and research have provided valuable lessons, such as the importance of releasing a new podcast weekly, dropping it on a specific day (usually Monday), limiting the weekly shows to about an hour, and doing 45-minute daily episodes during the Grand Slams.
Things went a little longer after Mauresmo stepped in it earlier this month at the French Open, allowing Whitaker the proper time for her takedown. She described Mauresmo as a product of a system “designed and upheld almost exclusively by men,” telling everyone who might believe that men’s tennis was inherently more attractive than women’s tennis to “get in the bin.”
A lot more than five people were listening.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.