TR @ 20: Matt & Ron continue to roll

Matthew Cronin and Ron Cioffi

Read Matt Cronin’s story on the the 20-year history of TennisReporters.net.

If it wasn’t for Pete Sampras, there wouldn’t have been a TennisReporters.net.

Huh? Well, let me go back to the 1990s.

Early in that decade I worked at Inside Tennis magazine as art director. Not for too long; less than a year.

It wasn’t until about two months before I left for a newspaper job in Pennsylvania, Matt Cronin (excuse me, that’s Matthew Cronin) joined the staff as managing editor. I didn’t get much time to get to know Matt but we socialized a few times. When I packed up my family and headed to Scranton, PA, I realized Matt could have been a life-long friend, but now lost. I was wrong.

After three long years in Scranton, I ended up in metro Atlanta. It was about 1999 when I kept seeing Matt’s byline on all over the Internet. Not only was he traveling to numerous tournaments around the globe for Inside Tennis, he was also picking up gigs writing for Grand Slam sites. I was impressed.

So, I found the IT office number in my Roledex (yes, Roledex) and gave him a call. It wasn’t long before we were delving into our opinions about pro tennis. We ambled over to talking about the best male player ever, pre-Big 3, of course.

Defintely Rod Laver. And Sampras. I was thinking that Sampras’ lack of clay court achievement was holding him back in my appraisal.

Matt said, “If Pete had reached at least one French Open final, I would go with him.”

Brilliant, I thought. So, I said, “That’s exactly what I was thinking, too. At least one final.”

After the phone call, I realized that this minor agreement was more than a coincidence. It was an affirmation that Matt’s keen analysis was getting him noticed by the most important tennis websites. Didn’t hurt that he agreed with me.

But, was he writing for a tennis news site? No. Why? There were no tennis news sites at that time. Tennis.com and the like weren’t writing breaking news. A few other sites like ESPN.com had a few stories. But, there was no dedicated website with professional tennis writers pumping out news from tournaments on a regular basis.

A few more phone calls. A bunch of emails. Buy a domain. Design a logo. Find another writer. Build the test website. We decided to change the logo colors two days before 2001 Roland Garros started. In 24 hours, this TennisReporters webmaster rebuilt the site.

3-2-1. Blastoff. We were launched.

So, on a regular and daily basis, Matt and Sandra Harwitt, our other partner, pumped out the copy from the Slams and other tournaments. As I told more than one person (with a wink), Matt and Sandy get to watch the Slams in glamorous cities and I wait for emails in my bland suburban subdivision, do some editing, crop a photo or two and then post. For 20 years, it’s been the same house and same website. For 99.5+ percent of those stories, it’s been my buddy Matt and me.

Sandy was smart enough to drop out during our second year. There was no buyout because there was no money to split. Matt and I kept our heads down, knocking out the stories. We never made any concerted effort to find a backer with a lot of venture capitalist cash. Foolish us. TennisReporters had broken ground and was piling on the readers. With Matt’s Twitter account – still @tennisreporters – our traffic grew and grew.

After a few years Matt was named one of the top sports tweeters by Sports Illustrated. Going into a US Open, their mention of Matt put our website on the Internet map. We were getting more than 3,000 unique visitors a day. We got some advertising. Wow, we thought: Money! I told my wife that I was building my retirement income. Oh, foolish youth, even though I was in my early 50s.

In 2002, Fed Cup came to Charlotte, N.C. USA vs. Austria. We had a family friend in the city. So, I did what I rarely have done over the last two decades: go on the road, write stories and take photos for TennisReporters.

What made this special was that Matt was assigned to the same event by Inside Tennis. So, for the first time since we launched, I spent some time with Matt. Sort of.

Why? Because when Matt works, he is so focused that he can barely break out of his routine. Plus, he often is writing for TR along with other clients. Often pumping out three to five stories a day. So, I think we had a drink together. Maybe a meal.

Four years later I had an all-expense trip to the US Open, a ticket to the coveted President’s Box and four days in NYC, my hometown. Why? Because TR was receiving the USTA Media Excellence Award, Broadcast Media. The honor had previously gone to CBS and ESPN. And us!!! A few years later, the USTA discontinued giving the media award. To this day, TR can say that we are the only website to win the award. Plaque is still on my office wall.

Big award. Heady stuff. That would definitely make TR a huge financial success. Yes, we got a few more ads. But, they pay fractions of pennies per viewer. Still not paying for my retirement. Still not making enough money to pay for an out-of-town trip to cover a tournament.

Even though I’ve worked for USTA Southern for 12 years, it was rare for me to be sent to the USTA semi-annual meeting over the Labor Day weekend and a visit the US Open site to see matches. Thanks for my communications job, I had a pass into the media room. And there was Matt. For the third time in 15 years, I got a quick hug and a few minutes of Matt’s attention. I was back there twice in the last few years. In 2017, I basically forced Matt to take off a few hours so we can have a real meal at a hotel restaurant. Trust me, a great treat.

Still, nothing in our 20 years together compares to a phone call from Matt in 2014. Wasn’t feeling well. Took a fall. Went to a doctor. Had a brain scan. Got a tumor. Cancer. Here’s the story. Classic TR … Matt wrote the main piece and I added a sidebar.

Matt took a break for about six months and TR went dark. There were many tennis journalists around the world who were pulling for Matt, knowing is ability and dedication. He was very well-respected and elected International Tennis Writers Association co-president. I was admittedly jealous of these writers; these were Matt’s working buddies who were sharing stories and drinks in crowded media rooms. I remained in Atlanta, three time zones from his California base.

During the hiatus, Matt had chemo. First, he was cured, then a relapse, then more chemo over the span of years. His output was sporadic, depending on his health. I took more time editing his stories, which often were less complex and incisive as material he wrote before the tumor. Still, through those dark days, he was still a writer, still a journalist eagerly looking to cover the next tennis match.

Now, he continues to be stable, healthy and active. But, his gargantuan ability to write quickly has been diminished. A man who did radio commentary on a global scale now has issues with remembering the right words in casual conversation.

There are often days, weeks, in which we don’t have new stories. Is the website making any money? No. Has the traffic grown? No. Have the ads flowed in? No.

Do I care? No, not really. You can’t be in a business relationship, any relationship, for 20 years without some highs and lows, some awards and some illnesses. For better or worse, TennisReporters.net continues.

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