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Joel Drucker: A Tip of the Hat to Matt

3/12/2014 1:00:00 PM

by Joel Drucker

Here at the BNP Paribas Open, it’s hot – but not as hot as it should be. The heat that’s missing here for the first time in more than 20 years is the red-hot passion of one of the tennis world’s preeminent journalists, Matt Cronin. On the first Tuesday of the tournament – the day Matt usually arrives here – he underwent brain surgery.

Matt’s health took a difficult turn just after he returned from a trip to Australia that included extensive work at tournaments in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne. As Matt wrote on his popular website, tennisreporters.net, “The day after I arrived back at my home in Moraga, California, I was talking to my son, Connor, in the kitchen. I can’t quite recall about what it was . . . but at that moment I had a good five sentences in my head and couldn't get any of them out. All I could do, as Connor would attest, is drop a series of F-bombs in frustration. Perhaps I have never used the word more appropriately.”

Soon enough, Matt learned he had a brain tumor. As the child of a doctor and a nurse, he knew how to swiftly address a medical crisis. But it was tennis that helped him assess potential surgeons. Wrote Matt, “I have learned to distinguish real confidence from false bravado, which is why some players consistently deliver in the clutch and others don’t. For me to allow someone to open my brain up I needed to be sure that he was not only a distinguished person with great reputation, but if I put the challenge to him to show me that he was confident and great enough to win my ‘match’ that he would look me in the eyes, tell me he was, and his voice would back that up.”

Preliminary indications are at that the surgery went well. Matt awaits a series of tests and all of us at Indian Wells have been talking among ourselves about Matt’s status and when he will return to the sport he loves so much and gives so much to.

Make no mistake, Matt leaves blood. From print to Internet to radio to TV, at every tournament Matt is juggling so many balls it would make your head spin. Here he is at a press conference, his voice crackling through to ask a laser-like question about a player’s serving woes. There he is, conducting a one-on-one interview with an obscure Eastern European. In the hallway with a coach. Checking in with an agent. Broadcasting a match on radio. Hunting down an item about a sponsorship. Issuing a tweet to his base of more than 30,000 followers. No matter what the tournament – or for that matter, away from a tournament – Matt’s appetite for covering our sport is off-the-charts.

One of Matt’s signature events is the pre-tournament media hour, a time when top players give interviews. Matt’s footwork at these session rivals Nadal on clay. His absence last week was notable. Just ask Maria Sharapova. “You better be back,” she said at Indian Wells. “We want him back, OK Matt? … As players we have a love and hate relationship with [the media] but at the end of the day we’re all humans.” Later in the week, World Team Tennis CEO Ilana Kloss said, “We miss Matt. We travel the globe and we’re all family.”

I've known Matt since he started covering the game back in the early ’90s. We live near each other in the San Francisco Bay Area and have both worked for Inside Tennis. Years ago we co-hosted an informal program on the website, TennisOne. More recently we've collaborated on several Tennis Channel projects.

The joy of knowing and working in the same world as Matt is his persistent, relentless engagement. Many things occur in the tennis media world that could make a journalist jaded, cynical, disaffected. This is never the case with Matt. Though never blind to corruption or deceit, he has always sought to know more, to understand and throw himself into every possible tennis nook and cranny. For all the comebacks players make, there’s no comeback I care about more than Matt’s.

Joel Drucker has been involved with Tennis Channel since it hit the airwaves in 2003, initially as co-producer of the interview show “Center Court.”  Subsequently he has been involved in dozens of the network’s activities, including work as story editor at all the Grand Slams and the production of numerous TC events