"Oh God, It's About Grunting Again": An Official Stenographer Dishes On Transcribing Tennis Players

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Tennis players do press constantly; it’s part of their job. They field questions about all the unforced errors on their forehand, why their first serve was so effective, or what does it feel like to pull off an upset like this, and they generally give tame and compact answers. So the journalists can write off of a central and accurate account of what was said at a presser, the tour employs a transcription service. These people have perhaps listened to more tennis players more carefully than anyone else in the world. (They have now also faced the challenge of transcribing Overwatch character names phonetically.) Linda Christensen, who helps to produce the official transcripts for the Indian Wells Masters and has worked various tennis tournaments for over a decade, told me what she’s picked up on the job.

Deadspin: You’ve been doing this for 11 years. Across those years you must see a total range of players from different countries, different accents. Are there certain accents that you’re especially familiar with now, or others that are still tricky?


Christensen: Some are still tricky. Quite honestly because we deal with speed as well, the funny part of that is the hardest speed-wise are the English speakers. The Australians and the Americans. Sometimes it’s difficult to understand the English as in—even Andy Murray sometimes can be a little tricky, or he was in the beginning.

His brogue.

Yeah. But the Aussies, especially if you are having Australian journalists asking an Australian player, they talk on top of each other and they anticipate what they’re gonna say.


Is there slang that’s sometimes hard to keep track of?

There’s little colloquialisms. And funny sayings. You know, Lleyton Hewitt. It’s just kind of fun to hear him say that he put in his “hahd yahds.” Or they always say—we as Americans for good luck say we “knock on wood.” And a lot of other nationalities say, in the middle of the phrase, “so I hope to do that—touch wood.”


What questions do you hear the most of? Are there any questions you hear so many times that you just tune out the answers?

It goes in cycles as well. For a few years it was about the grunting. So they would ad nauseum talk about how they were going to do away with grunting. And those who had already been coached to grunt as part of their swing took great issue with that. So it became, Oh God, it’s about grunting again. And then you’d get to a smaller country tournament where the local journalists hadn’t heard about it much, so you thought that issue was done, and they’d say, “I wanna talk about grunting.” And then the player would go, “Oh dear God not this again.” [Victoria] Azarenka had a funny one in Doha where a local reporter said, “I wanna talk to you about your grunting.” And she says, “Let me ask you this, do you snore? Do you think you could stop snoring if you had to?”


Do you transcribe on the fly or do you go back and fill in the holes?

Christensen’s co-worker, Michele: There is an audio feed that we have access to so it is plugged into my software, and it is synced with the text, but I am getting a real-time feed from Linda, so it’s translating on the screen and I’m editing it live. So if there’s a spelling [that I’m unsure of], if it didn’t translate quite right, I’m looking it up, checking for punctuation, and I do have the audio to refer to if I want to.


Christensen: In my mind’s eye I see it coming up and I know it’s not going to translate correctly, so sometimes if it’s not as fast, I can write [Michele] a note—“double-check that spelling”—or I can go back, if it’s really slow, and correct a few strokes. But for the most part, she does the final eyes on it.

Do you use any shorthands?

Our language is shorthand. It is all steno, and it’s all phonetic. And we have a database called “Sports” or “Tennis” so that we can write the same word in a different database and it is something totally different. But in tennis it’s tennis-related. Backhand, forehand, Roger Federer, [laughing] Wimbledon, GOAT [laughing].


But to go back to our transcriber, we are interchangeable to where she can do that, and I can do this. We are connected even though you can’t see it. Her steno machine is connected via Bluetooth to my laptop.

Sometimes I notice that you’ll add some context into the transcripts, like, “he laughed,” and it’s not all the time. And to me, reading them, it seems like what could be mistaken as a tense moment, those are the moments where you add in [laughed] so that someone reading the transcript understands the vibe in the room.


Yes. Because sarcasm doesn’t translate. And it was an issue, we’ll say, in Beijing one year, where Novak [Djokovic] made a comment about the air quality, and it wasn’t taken well. And a Reuters journalist wrote not such a glowing—so it’s very important that you get either the sarcasm, or not, but you try and add a little “haha.” Because if they [say], “Yeah I’m gonna go out there and kick butt,” or whatever, they’re not saying it—you try to add a little interpretation like, they were smiling, they mean it as a joke.

Has there ever been a time where you added context or left it out and a player got upset or felt like they’d been misinterpreted?


Players, I don’t think, ever read our scripts unless their agents or somebody or the ATP or the WTA maybe points it out. We do add license to what the questions are, because there are some journalists, with all due respect, they want to tell you how smart they are. “Gee I was watching your match out on Court 5, and you were doing the backhand et cetera et cetera sentence sentence sentence. Here’s my question.” A lot of times we get to the question. Because nobody cares how smart they are. They want to hear what the player said. So I don’t think a player has really, unless it’s translated to us back from the WTA or the ATP.

You mentioned the Australians. Have there been any other notable exchanges that are hard to turn from conversation into text?


Some of the Spaniards are tough. And after all these years, [whispering] even Rafa. You can tell when he’s been injured and he’s been staying in Mallorca—he’s back in Spainville. And then he comes back, and when he’s been playing a lot and working on his English, he comes up with fun new words. And the journalists and I will go, “That’s a new one.” He came up with a new word. He used to, and a lot of the Spaniards and Argentines will say, “I had pression.” When they mean “pressure.” Yeah they all add another “r” in “surfrace.” Even Garbiñe Muguruza will say “on this surfrace.” Rafa used to say, “I had my dou-bits.” But he would read it literally in English until someone pointed out that it’s silent. It was really cute.

I like that with Rafa, his cadences are always in there. The commas, ending questions with “No?”, the very specific ways in which he speaks.


Yes, and the Russian [Nikolay] Davydenko, used to always speak like, oh who’s the Star Wars wise—


Yeah. He would say, “Was good my backhand.” He’ll reverse the comments. “Sit here I do.” Things like that. And it was very cute, very charming.


Do you feel like there are certain players that you really love to hear?

Yes. I do. Some of them will say very profound things, and you go, “Wow!” Others you just go, “Oh, it’s that rote comment again that they just practice over and over, and they don’t really say anything different,” but you know, that’s what they do.


Can you say any of the players?

Oh, [Janko] Tipsarevic. He’s very big into literature.

He has that Dostoyevsky quote on his arm.

[Andrea] Petkovic.

She’s a great writer too.

She reads a lot. She speaks like, five languages, and really talks very in-depth things. I think some things Rafa says are quite intuitive.


Is there a policy on profanity?

It happens.

I know Nick [Kyrgios] sometimes lets something slip.

Ooh. Oh yeah.

Is he fun to transcribe?

No. He’s one of the worst. He’s difficult. He’s fast. And very parenthetical, we say. Because he’ll be saying, and then there’s a parenthetical, and then he goes on, and there’s another parenthetical. Hard to punctuate. Even Roger’s very hard to punctuate at times. Thoughts and then they blend together and then there’s a thought and there’s a disjointed thought. And where does the period go? To listen to him, you know where he’s going on, and what his gist is, but to actually punctuate it, put it properly, it’s a quandary where some of that comma stuff goes.


Who speaks in the cleanest copy?

The Serbians are very good. They speak with perfect syntax and great rhythm.

Additional reporting by Chloé Cooper Jones.