By Josh Meiseles
Special to tennischannel.com
Tennis broadcasters have been given newfound exposure on a global scale in recent years, with increased television coverage and expanded online streams. While we rely on the players to entertain us, it’s the commentators that carry the burden of illuminating the action and providing insight.
The ability to add value to a match from the booth is certainly an art, and one that Nick Lester has mastered. Using the court as his canvas, the tennis professional-turned-announcer paints a poignant, articulate picture, without overwhelming the viewer.
Anyone can merely describe a match as it unfolds. In most other sports, this is an acceptable form of presentation to the viewer. In tennis, however, where commentary during play is shunned and the time between points is growing shorter, brief yet insightful observations are essential. Lester epitomizes this ‘less is more’ mantra of tennis commentary, refraining from overanalyzing the action. It’s often how broadcasters navigate this dichotomy that separates the great ones.
If you’ve watched a match in recent years, odds are you’ve heard Lester’s voice. A man of many hats, from TV to radio, covering the Grand Slams, ATP World Tour, WTA Tour and even the doubles competition at last year’s Barclays ATP World Tour Finals, he has established himself as one of the more recognized and respected voices in professional tennis.
Lester’s stellar work on the international world feed is second-to-none and his passion for the sport is evident with every broadcast.
“I love what I do so much,” said a brimming Lester. “I love learning about the game. I love seeing different styles. I love analyzing the way people play.”
Like most tennis broadcasters, Lester competed professionally, but his path to the booth was a rather circuitous one. As he admits, “it was a very long and complicated road.”
A former Top 20 player in Great Britain, the Hertfordshire native came from a modest upbringing. An avid fan of Mats Wilander, he took an affinity to the sport at an early age and eventually turned pro at 19. The Brit would hang up his racquet just two and half years later, but not for lack of motivation, rather the absence of a support system and proper guidance to further develop his career.
It’s the presence of a guiding figure that Lester identifies as a significant factor in defining the trajectory of a young player’s career. Unfortunately for many players who are battling for survival in the lower echelons of the game, hiring a full-time coach is not an option.
"Looking back on it, for the most part I was playing without much guidance. The structure I had around me was very poor when I was playing. That’s a regret. I don’t look back on it with any bitterness but it was a shame. When you’re at tournaments, for me, that’s where it counts. You need a coach at tournaments because what you do on a practice court is fine but if your coach doesn’t see you on a match court, how are you expected to progress forwards? That’s when you’re under the most amount of pressure. That’s when you need a coach to look at you, analyze you and help you. It was something I didn’t have.”
After retiring at the age of 22, following a few years competing on the ITF Futures circuit and in smaller British-tour events, Lester turned to broadcasting. But the job wasn’t handed to him. He had to earn it.
"When I stopped playing, I had no idea what I wanted to do. I got my coaching qualifications and actually went to work at a very tiny regional radio station in the U.K. I literally ended up answering the phones for the first four weeks, collecting the football results. Then, they asked me if I fancy doing some reporting.”
Lester would cover Stevenage Borough Football Club, a lower-tier team in southeast England, for three months before eventually hosting the four-hour sports show at the radio station.
"It was a music show too so I was like a D.J. for a bit. In between the songs we would always give the football and rugby scores. We would have interviews with the local coaches too. For them it would be a big deal because they never had coverage before. These were tiny clubs and we were serving the region."
So that was how I got into broadcasting. Completely from nothing I learned to become a broadcaster.”
The 36 year old would eventually join a larger station called LBC, in London, where he spent three years freelancing in the sports news room, before eventually diving back into tennis with Radio Wimbledon in 2003. His big break would later come as a fill-in commentator at SkySports.
"What happened was they had a very quiet week. Someone was ill and they needed someone. SoI got to work at Sky and the rest is history.”
Five years ago, around the time Lester joined Sky as a regular commentator, he returned to the court, winning a round at a Futures event in Roehampton at the age of 32 and thus becoming the oldest player in Great Britain to be ranked. The desire to compete never faded and the competitive fire still burns. An exceptional doubles player, as a member of Great Britain’s over-35 squad he led the team to the bronze medal at the World Championships in San Diego, in 2012.
“I’ve always been hugely passionate about tennis. That’s never been an issue and hopefully that comes across in my commentary. Tennis is so much about matchups. How one guy hits the ball to the other guy is completely different. That’s what’s fascinating about the game. We’re lucky we have so many different characters in the sport. You dissect the rest and there are tons of different personalities out there. It’s a great sport. It exposes so many different aspects of your personality as well. It opens up some pretty raw emotions.”
Lester says that ball-by-ball radio commentary is his favorite and it is his unquenchable thirst and love of the sport that keeps him dedicated to his craft. While his work does have its perks, traveling to ATP World Tour and Grand Slam venues in breathtaking locations around the world, he is not taking a moment for granted. Going from the daily grind in the lower tiers of the sport to one of the most sought-after broadcasting positions took years of hard work. For him, it’s a dream job.
“I love every minute of it. Every single minute of it. There’s not one day that goes by. I wake up every day and I know how lucky I am to be doing what I do. There are a million people out there who would give their right arm to be doing what I do. I am very fortunate and privileged.”
Josh Meiseles is a web editor for ATPWorldTour.com. You can follow him on Twitter @jmeistennis.