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Air Time: Voice of the USTA Pro Circuit Puts Fans in Front Row

August 21, 2019 04:46 PM

Story & photos by Ron Cioffi / USTA Southern 

LITTLE ROCK, AR – It's opening day for the main draw and Mike Cation overlooks the Baptist Health Little Rock Open Stadium Court.

He can see about 10 or more spectators in the shaded seating. But, as he speaks, no one in attendance can hear him, even at close range.

In top photo: Mike Cation, left, announces a match while Jef Kethley looks on.

Directly above: Brandon Holt is followed by a remote camera.

Below: Control room is ablaze with screens.

Worldwide, more than 500 dedicated tennis fans can hear his polished delivery as he describes a first-round match. That number of viewers will grow as the tournament progresses, up to as many as 70,000, Cation said.

Cation is the voice of the USTA Pro Circuit. He puts in 10-14 hours per day as the play-by-play announcer and commentator covering the low-level pro tournaments in the U.S. Most of the time, it's just him – no famous tennis player at his side. Here in Little Rock, most of the names on Cation's score sheet are little-known pros battling for ATP points that some day could get them into the Grand Slam and other top-level tournaments most fans watch on TV.

But, now, their exposure is streaming TV, available to the world through the USTA.com Pro Circuit pages.

On the daily order of play, the 10 a.m. match features Ryan Shane, 25, USA, and Thiago Seyboth Wild, 19, Brazil. Though they were No. 338 and 360 respectively, Cation – who puts in two or three hours of prep a night – knew them both. Why would an announcer need to be so versed in players who may never touch a Grand Slam trophy?

"The people who are watching streaming are not the usual general audience. These are hardcore tennis fans,” Caton said. “I have to make sure I am really knowledgeable. I have to match [the fans'] expertise."

Cation's work, along with the entire production team, made an impression on Tournament Director Chip Stearns. "We are reaching out to the world, which elevates the profile of Little Rock and our tournament. It's great that people from around the world can see the refurbished Rebsamen Tennis Center."

Cation acquires some extra insight with his direct connection to the competitors. "I text many of the players. I get little personal details. Little drop-ins."

Still, the time on the road is exhausting. Cation takes weeks off between the grueling schedule of working from the morning until the last night match has finished. "It's isolating and physically draining. But I absolutely love what I do." So much so, in fact, that he also does support work for the TV of the US Open, Australian Open and Cincinnati tournaments.

Behind the cameras

Before the announcer delivers his commentary, the production staff has been on site for days. LiveSports is fully engaged in delivering the free stream.

Jef Kethley heads up a crew of four to six, some on site and some around the world, all producing high-quality work. "We are working in 4K,” Kethley said. “That means that the Tennis Channel can put up our feed, which they do."

Huddled in a crowded van beside the main court are three producers and a bank of a more than a dozen screens. From here they either manually run four cameras on courts or have their off-site crew take on those tasks.

Two courts have wide-angle cameras that show the entire court. "We use a platform to get the camera at the optimum position," Kethley explained. "We strive for a consistent look on all courts at all events."

Two cameras sit close to the net opposite from the chair umpire. For ATP/WTA tournaments, operators handle the equipment. But, on this level, all controls – including shooting angle and zoom – are either manually run by a producer in the truck or offsite. Megan Rose, USTA Senior Director, Competitive Pathway, runs the 90-plus USTA Pro Circuit. "The USTA Pro Circuit webstream is an amazing asset for us to be able to showcase this level of talent, dedication and quality of tennis," she said. "The Pro Circuit allows fans the opportunity to sit front row and watch the rise of the next great talent in professional tennis. For those who don't have a Pro Circuit event in their backyard, they can watch it all for free on USTA.com.”