Tennis Prose




Jan/21

5

Biofile: Miguel Seabra Interview

By Scoop Malinowski

Status: Portugal-based journalist specializes on tennis and timepieces. Eurosport commentator. Editor at Espiral do Tempo.

First Memory of Tennis: It has to be a wooden racquet my father had around the house. He was not a keen tennis player, but a racquet in those days was a quite impressive object for a small kid. It was the one I ended up using the first time I tried the sport, even though at the time I was completely into soccer as most youngsters in Europe and especially Portugal are. But my first active memory was the opening of a can of Slazenger balls; the smell was so strong back then that I can still recall it vividly! My first visual memory of a televised international tennis event was Adriano Panatta playing Davis Cup in 1976 and then the epic Borg-Gerulaitis semifinal at Wimbledon 1977. My first ever tennis poster featured Vitas Gerulaitis and my first quality racquet actually was a Wilson Vitas Gerulaitis. I know I included a lot of ‘firsts’ in here, but combined they actually form my first childhood tennis memories — visual, active, sensorial. 


Tennis Inspirations: I’d say Wimbledon was the biggest inspiration. The 1977 semi between Borg and Gerulaitis. The 1978 ladies’ final between Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert. I remember being awestruck by Martina’s drop-volleys —and the funny thing is today I have an Avantist Legend Series timepiece with a segment of gut string from the Bancroft racquet Martina used on that final to capture her first Grand Slam title ever encapsulated on the dial! But it was the legendary 1980 final between Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe, to me still the most relevant tennis match of all times, that took my interest to another level: I started taking tennis lessons soon afterwards and buying a few magazines. Even though I was a McEnroe fan, my parents gave me a Borg book that had a major influence on my way of playing tennis — with a two-handed backhand, lots of topspin. Then a few years later I saw Henri Leconte play and I felt his flashy attacking game suited more my creativity, so I changed my game from western to more neutral grips and to a one-handed backhand. A crazy late change! But never looked back. Reading publications such as Tennis Magazine (France), Tennis & World Tennis (USA) and Jornal do Ténis (Portugal) also fueled my interest. I ended up being the editor at Jornal do Ténis.


First Job: The first payment I got was from my father, for creating and publishing a school newspaper. I guess that was kind of premonitory. And then as a freshman in the University (I graduated in History, History of Arts) I started giving tennis lessons and also being paid for being the referee (I had taken an umpiring course and two coaching courses in the meantime) in local tennis events. After graduation, my first full-time job was as a chair umpire — and for a few years I worked and traveled with friends that went on to be elite officials – Jorge Dias, the first non-Brit to umpire a Wimbledon final (Ivanisevic-Rafter, 2001). Carlos Sanchez, now one of 5 ATP Supervisors. Carlos Ramos, the one of Serena fame and a Golden Slam chair umpire (officiated all Major finals, the Olympics final, Davis Cup and Fed Cup finals). And Mariana Alves, who now is a WTA supervisor. That makes me the black sheep of the lot, right? Well, I knew back then I loved tennis too much to be just an umpire and I knew I would make the transition to the media sooner or later… it happened in 1991.


Greatest Moment of Career: I can’t really pinpoint a ‘greatest moment’, since I’ve had so many special moments in so many circumstances. For instance, the extraordinary feeling of ‘nothing can beat this’ while watching an instant classic Wimbledon final from the media seats (and there’s been so many in this century, especially 2001, 2008, 2009 and 2019)… a one-on-one interview with any living legend of the sport, like the one with Rafa at his yacht in Mallorca … commentating a Grand Slam final for Eurosport well into the fifth set, when matches enter what I call the ‘twilight zone’ mentally and physically. It was also special to be the media officer at the 2000 Masters Cup in Lisbon and also at the Estoril ATP Tour stop each year, as it is special to be part of the jury of the International Tennis Hall of Fame. But I will highlight a precise occurrence … I’ve seen a lot of top notch tennis in my life and usually cope well with pressure, yet when Federer saved a matchpoint with a backhand passing-shot in the fourth set tiebreak of the 2008 Wimbledon final vs Rafael Nadal the tension was so high I choked for a minute, couldn’t quite breathe and got a bit scared with what was happening. An incredible, bizarre moment! Moments I loved that still get me emotional and bring tears to my eyes whenever I see footage of those matches: Henri Leconte coming from an hospital bed to mystify Pete Sampras in the 1991 Davis Cup final, playing the perfect match I once dreamt of playing …Goran Ivanisevic coming from nowhere to finally win the elusive Grand Slam title at Wimbledon 2001 on a People’s Monday after a dramatic long fifth set, he was the happiest man on Earth and everyone around me was crying in happiness for him. 


Most Painful Moment of Career:
Probably when, due to the crisis, the small publishing department specialized in tennis I worked for had to close — some ten years ago. No more tennis magazines, even though I’ve been editing another magazine for twenty years in my other area of expertise … high-end mechanical watchmaking – and watch sponsors have helped me get direct access to the greatest champions! Not having been able to play tennis following acute tennis elbow was also hard to swallow. And I have to add that it was extremely hard to see such a great friend – one of the best people I know – go through what Carlos Ramos had to go through during and after that infamous 2018 US Open ladies’ final between Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka … all the abuse, the false allegations about him, what Serena said in the press conference after – and people didn’t know this then – having had a serene conversation with the tournament officials and Carlos Ramos himself. And because people knew I was Carlos’ friend and wrote a column defending him and using a quote of his on the subject, I was getting calls non-stop from around the world all day and all night. I even had British tabloids picking up stuff from my Facebook and writing long clueless articles about me — that’s when it hit me hard, a journalist being the subject of sensationalist press! I was emotionally spent on the week after that US Open.


Funniest Tennis People Encountered: French jester/musketeer Henri Leconte was, just like John McEnroe, a God-sent tennis talent, but — unlike Mac — incredibly funny on a tennis court, whereas the American can be really funny off of it. Both can make me laugh, each in his own way. Even while umpiring in the old satellite circuits – pre-Futures – I would end up directing a match with some crazy obscure player that would crack me up because of the things he would say or do.


Favorite Players to Watch: Growing up, I always preferred to see panache rather than tenacity, sheer creativity rather than extra resilience, aereal flowing tennis rather than a dogged style — so, mad geniuses like unorthodox John McEnroe and instinctive Henri Leconte always took my fancy. I also enjoyed watching the attacking game of Stefan Edberg, Boris Becker and Pat Cash or how intelligent Mats Wilander was on a court. Then I became a journalist and learned how to distance myself from bias or favoritisms, just analyzing what should be analyzed and understanding that there are so many more talents in tennis than a perfect hand-eye coordination… like the talent to play breakpoints, to be clutch, to be disciplined, to be permanently motivated, to take the most out of oneself even with a limited game. These days I won’t say I have favorite players to watch but can say that there are players with a more interesting, multi-layered game… and, getting past the Holy Trinity of Fed, Rafa and Djoker, I’d say Stefanos Tsitsipas has an emotionally intelligent game and Daniil Medvedev has so many nuances in his game that most people don’t realize — making them two of the most interesting players out there.


Embarrassing Career Moment: As a journalist, I remember having a hard time interviewing Pat Cash in 1994. I knew the subject quite well, so the interview was actually going great and he kept telling me “you did your homework, didn’t ya?” But he was with a mate and out of the blue, in the middle of the interview, he would use Australian slang to insult me between his teeth without me understanding anything — with no particular reason, just for the sake of it, maybe to entertain his friend. At least that’s what it felt to me, so it crossed my mind a couple of times finishing the interview right there and tell him to sod off. Then a couple of years later I was interviewing former champion and legendary Australian Davis Cup captain Neale Fraser and he told me his most difficult moment was in the 1986 Davis Cup final fourth rubber match between Pat Cash and Mikael Pernfors … he felt that any misplaced word he would say to Cash would make him snap at him! Cash ended up winning that decisive match coming back from two sets to love. As a young umpire, I had several embarrassing moments, from matches that really went wrong on the disciplinary side to a specific one on a Challenger when I went to the chair thinking I should have pee’d and coming down three hours later – it was a freaking marathon match! -with my whole body hurting from delaying that overwhelming need because I was too proud to tell the players I needed a toilet break.


Why I Do Love Tennis: I love everything about tennis. The one-on-one gladiatorial nature of the game. Mastering a small fuzzy ball with a funny looking instrument. How different a player strikes the ball compared to another, the huge technical kaleidoscope in the top 100. Strong, charismatic characters like Bjorn Borg – who had a mythical aura no one can understand in these days of proximity via social media – John McEnroe or Jimmy Connors. The fabulous tennis fashion between 1975-1985, when Italian clothing brands ruled the tennis world, also had a part on it. And I also love tennis because it helped me travel around the world, covering all Grand Slams and many other events — including memorable Davis Cup finals in places so different, from Fort Worth to Moscow.


Strangest Match I Covered: There’s been so many, tennis’ unique scoring system really promotes all kinds of unthinkable situations and sometimes it really is difficult to commentate on those matches — most of those involve five setters, cramping, squandered matchpoints…. just like the 2004 Roland Garros final between Gaston Gaudio and Guillermo Coria, a traumatic experience to all involved! Most recently, the 2020 US Open final between Thiem and Zverev was also quite bizarre, with a lot of choking and twists … then after one of them failed to serve for the title late in the fifth set, the disc jockey had the audacity to put on air during the changeover that famous Queen/David Bowie hit, ‘Under Pressure’ — it really cracked me up, one of the most what-the-heck moments I’ve witnessed! If I were a player I would ask the dude to be fired right there.

 
Favorite Artists: Tennis-wise I’ve mentioned a few. Since I graduated in History of Arts, I could name a few Rennaissance painters — especially moody Caravaggio, who once murdered a rival after a game of tennis – or a tennis predecessor – and had to go hiding. It was during those turbulent times that he came up with his greatest masterpieces, including one I saw at the National Gallery in London the day after the 1998 Wimbledon final between Pete Sampras and Goran Ivanisevic. The Christ on Caravaggio’s sfumato painting had the exact same infinitely suffering sad expression Goran had after losing his third Wimbledon final.


Favorite Tournaments:
Our own Millennium Estoril Open is a great tournament, a very special boutique event I am really proud of. I love the view from the old media room at the Monte-Carlo Country Club and the fabulous ambiance the tifosi created in Rome, but the Grand Slams are on a different level. Each one fascinating with its own personality and idiosyncrasies. Yet, Wimbledon remains Primus Inter Pares — first among equals.


Childhood Dream: I don’t think I had a specific dream. I remember playing against a wall thinking I was facing Borg, McEnroe, Connors or Vilas in the late 70s. I guess I would love to play with Bo Derek [smiles]. Around 16 or 17 I knew that somehow my life would involve tennis. And since I have the Peter Pan Syndrome and am still a child at 53, I could say I’d love to beat Federer on grass at Wimbledon, Nadal on clay at Roland Garros, Djokovic on hardcourts at the US Open and Murray on PlayStation in Australia — all at the same time [smiles].


Favorite Sport Outside Tennis: I grew up in a soccer country — we call it football around here, because it is played just like the name says – unlike in the US [smile]. I like to watch it and also love to play it. American tennismen should practice a lot of soccer, it would help them have fast & intelligent feet, stronger legs; most of the best tennis players these days are also excellent footballers. But any sport at a professional level can be fascinating. And there is no reality show better than sports at the highest level.  

People Qualities Most Admired: Creativity, emotional intelligence. Then all the other usual ones most people admire… and the qualities shown by my tennis hero – Richard ‘Dick’ Norris Williams, who survived the Titanic disaster after helping saving lives … his legs were so badly frozen doctors wanted to amputate, but he fought amputation and soon after he was back playing tennis, winning the US Open Mixed Doubles in that year and the US Open Singles two years later, alongside Olympic and Davis Cup victories.


Favorite TV Broadcasters: Can’t say there’s one that really stands out. I have several friends I like to hear. From my generation, maybe Robbie Koenig – whom I’ve umpired on a Satellite Circuit back in 1991! Nick Lester, the Goodall brothers. Old timers, for sure the Italian combo of Rino Tommasi and Gianni Clerici. John McEnroe and Mats Wilander can surprise you with an interesting angle but they also lack discipline. I like to hear a broadcaster who will be able to surprise me on a frequent basis, telling me things I don’t know.


Best Players to Interview: Russians, truly Dostoyevskian characters. From former world number 3 Andrei Medvedev – who actually was from the Ukraine but felt Russian… to Marat Safin – who I first saw play on the qualifying of a Challenger in the Azores Islands … never again forgot the sound of that Head Prestige on his backhand. From Andrei Chesnokov to Daniil Medvedev, from Maria Sharapova to Svetlana Kuznetsova. They simply have a mindset that will provide a lot of unexpected stuff and great quotes!

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