TALLAHASSEE CHALLENGER 2014
'Marathon Mike' Leads Hardest-Working Team In Tennis
by Josh Meiseles|
Fans of the ATP Challenger Tour circuit have never had it so good: More than 100 tournaments around the world are being streamed free online this year through a partnership between the ATP and IMG. But the next time you're enjoying the action, spare a thought for the hard-working team behind the scenes.
It's the multi-week grind, consisting of early mornings, late nights and countless miles on the road, undertaken by Jef Kethley and his four-man crew, that delivers the popular Challenger streams from the United States to fans around the world.
Kethley's company Live Sports LLC produces the streams and his unremitting team deserves a lot of credit. Led by the voice of the USTA Pro Circuit, Mike Cation, known as 'Marathon Mike' for his first-ball-to-last ball commentary sessions, they are currently in the midst of the final leg of the three-week clay-court swing, that weaves from Sarasota to Savannah and Tallahassee.
John Isner and Nicolas Mahut will forever be synonymous with marathon men between the baselines, but Kethley’s crew is staking claim to the most dedicated group off the court. In nothing more lavish than a well-equipped bus, which serves as the production facility as well as the sleeping quarters, they set off to cover 16 tournaments across the U.S. and Canada each year, sacrificing blood, sleep and sanity for the operation—literally.
“I had a tent collapse on me on two occasions,” said a smirking Cation, outlining his battle scars from the job.
“And then there was [the journey from] Binghamton to Lexington last year. The final in Binghamton was on a Sunday afternoon. We left there somewhere around seven in the evening. It’s a 13-hour drive, so we got in around eight in the morning and we were on air three hours later. No shower, little sleep. Those are the crazier days. You don’t have a ton of time to prepare and get ready so you have to do things on the fly."
14-hour days are not extraordinary explains Cation. And neither are days without breaks.
“We travel to beautiful places like Maui, Aptos and Sarasota, but for us it’s a ton of work. We’re literally working 80-90 hours a week. Last week, in Savannah, we did 37 matches from first ball on Monday. We wouldn’t be doing this if we weren’t passionate about tennis.”
Cation’s passion for the game is deep-rooted from his high school years, having received lessons from current Tennis Australia CEO and Australian Open tournament director Craig Tiley. Years later, as the head coach at the University of Illinois, Tiley rekindled Cation’s love for the sport and urged him to join the Fighting Illini as the public address announcer, where he would work while burning the oil in sports radio for 13 years. Cation would later sign on to become the press aide at the Champaign Challenger for seven years before joining Kethley’s team as broadcaster.
The non-stop Challenger road show of Kethley, Cation and Co. devote long hours to bringing the highest-quality product to the live streams. Their dedication to their craft is indisputable and it is their love of tennis that motivates them to press on, regardless of the circumstances.
“The important thing is we all enjoy what we’re doing,” expressed an enthusiastic Cation. “I think it’s very important to get more young people involved in tennis and we can reach out to them through live streaming. That’s huge. I want more people to watch these players and see what they go through, hopefully increasing the purses for them.
“You look at Tim Smyczek. He’s a great example. He’s been through many years of grinding it out at the Challenger level and all of a sudden he’s thrust into the limelight last year at the US Open and everyone is saying, ‘Who is this Smyczek guy?’ Well, he’s been doing it at the Challenger level for 5-6 years and finally getting to the point where he’s in the Top 100 [of the Emirates ATP Rankings]. There are really talented players at this level. They just haven’t had the opportunity to show their stuff.”
A typical day for Cation involves getting up four hours before the first match to do prep work and research all the players that will compete on the main stadium court, where he calls the action.
“We generally have four to six matches per day that we are going to do full production on. We have the live stream camera, two on-court cameras and any others we want to use. We go until the last match finishes.”
Players often make guest appearances in the booth as well, an important feature of the broadcasts that allow fans to learn the players' personalities off the court.
Mother nature dropped nearly 10 inches of rain on the Tallahassee Challenger this week, forcing play indoors from Wednesday to Friday. As Cation insists, constantly dealing with and adapting to situations that are out of your control, from the weather to frequent schedule changes, is part of the job. But it’s all worth it.
“It’s special because all of these tournaments treat their stop like it’s the biggest thing possible. In Vancouver, the fan turnout is ridiculous. It is phenomenal. To be honest, all are unique and have their own quirks. Binghamton is in a city park. It’s interesting and cool that people are sitting on their front porch and can see the action. Winnetka is in a city park area as well. You’re two minutes from the lake. There are some, like Aptos, where you can see the ocean.
“Helping to grow the sport with the USTA is what is really important. I enjoy what I’m doing. The ability to bring my two loves of tennis and broadcasting together is perfect for me personally, but making a difference on a bigger scale is what drives us every day.”