This article is part of FT Globetrotter’s guide to tennis
In the early 1990s, a British foreign correspondent wrote a memoir called Fishing in Africa. It was in the longstanding tradition of correspondents spinning their experiences covering revolutions and wars into a book. But Andrew Buckoke’s book had a particular narrative strand that caught his publisher’s eye – and mine too as I tried my hand at being a foreign correspondent. He wove his insights into the politics of east Africa around his excursions away from the news in pursuit of a trout pool. Wherever he went, he carried a rod, and in the process had countless revelatory encounters he never would have had with only a notebook and pen.
I am no fisherman. But at the start of my career, I too took to travelling on stories with a sporting accoutrement in hand. If Buckoke’s publisher is still in the market for such books, I know what my title might be: Serving for the Scoop.
My first posting, Bucharest, in the aftermath of the December 1989 revolution, did not obviously lend itself, initially at least, to tennis. It was not just that that winter was especially cold. The shops were empty, literally, except for jars of pickled indescribables. Even if I had wanted to play, where would I have bought tennis balls? But this was the country of Ilie Năstase. There were courts. You just had to know where to look – the northern suburbs of the nomenklatura. That summer, other young correspondents and I discovered their courts. I also discovered that the old elite were all there. One ex-apparatchik joined a game and proved a useful source for a story on property reclamation. This was, of course, the pre-internet era. In hindsight, my opponent might have been less forthcoming – and less willing to play me again – if he had been able to read online the critical tenor of my reporting on the old guard.
My racket really came into its own journalistically a few years later when I was reporting across sub-Saharan Africa. In the summer of 1997, the three-decade rule of Mobutu Sese Seko, the kleptocratic ruler of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), was nearing its end. I was one of dozens of correspondents based in the increasingly isolated capital, Kinshasa, for weeks on end, awaiting the arrival of the rebel forces at its gates. It was hard to do much meaningful reporting. You could not leave the city. Few in the know dared to speak even off the record. The police and army were jittery. The humidity and tension felt suffocating.
Many evenings I would repair to the tennis court of the InterContinental Hotel, my luxury semi-prison, after filing my story and play a match with colleagues. My usual partners were George Alagiah, the BBC presenter and then chief Africa correspondent, Sam Kiley, then at The Times and now with CNN, and Hugh Dellios of the Chicago Tribune. Hugh had the most professional game, George the most elegant and Sam the most muscular, but the heat tended to level the playing field and allow my reverse spin serve far more purchase on Kinshasa’s red clay than it deserved.
As with Buckoke’s fishing rod, the racket allowed us to exhale at a time of some stress, not least over the nightmare of filing when communications were poor. We shared perspectives, traded tips. There were also insights to be gleaned. The night the staff tending the courts had vanished and we had to turn on the lights ourselves, we realised the city was about to fall. Sure enough, the next morning a group of Mobutuistes filed out of reception with bulging designer bags, waiting for a ferry across the Congo River to exile. The next day Mobutu had fled. The days of playing a waiting game on the courts were over, and the real reporting could begin.
Over several years I played tennis on tarmac in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, and concrete in Monrovia, the Liberian capital, at a time of turmoil in both countries. Some 15 years ago, a racket was a useful touristic prop when arriving in Harare during one of Robert Mugabe’s crackdowns on the opposition, when journalists were not welcome. If all this sounds a little dilettante, bear in mind that great upheavals are often punctuated by long periods of lull; and those are the times when editors insist you stay in situ just in case.
Some correspondents have been more industrially productive via their tennis game. Washington traditionally was a good place to cultivate sources over the net. But by the time I was there during the George W Bush administration, politics had become so divided that unless you showed a clear political preference, you were unlikely to get many games with White House insiders. So the bulk of my playing was with the bureau chief from Le Figaro.
The pandemic led to a resumption in London, over early-morning games with our redomiciled, then student sons. But too many years editing at the screen have dimmed the eyes. Only the reverse swing serve remains: once the conqueror in Kinshasa, now just the occasional bamboozler in Ravenscourt Park.
Alec Russell is Editor of FT Weekend
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