One can stroll the grounds or admire the faraway fixings of your average elite tournament and easily get the feeling that these temporary juggernauts run themselves, that a skilled hand flicks a switch at first ball and powers down at tournament’s end. The hand at this year’s Rogers Cup in Montreal may have had a sense of humor more sadistic than anyone thought – the lights would, quite literally, flicker on and off throughout the early rounds – but such rare mishaps only serve to remind us of how many moving parts are required to pull off the athletic equivalent of a three-ring circus.
In the era of social media, we may feel closer than ever to the action, but tournament volunteers take one step deeper into the crevasse, and are rewarded with access, and food.
“The term ‘volunteers’ is extremely broad,” reflects Jeff Donaldson, who completed his second year as a Tournament Volunteer. Donaldson, 21, worked on the six-member Social Media Team which, in contrast with the Rogers Cup event in Toronto, hires some of Canada’s most prolific tweeters to forge an “army” all their own. “In Montreal, where the Tennis Canada headquarters is a long hallway in one of the buildings on the tournament site, they have a team go around the site on tournament days and put exactly what they would want to see if they were at home watching online or on TV, onto various social media platforms.”
The team is broken into Francophone and Anglophone pairings to cover the bilingual nature of a tournament stationed at the heart of Québec, explains fellow Social Media team member Nicholas Rodrigues. A three-time Tournament Volunteer, Rodrigues enjoys the organic approach the team takes to designating assignments. “There is a daily meeting at the start of the session (around 10am for day session and around 5pm for evening sessions) where we can delegate things to do among ourselves. Towards later stages of the tournament – say, from the quarterfinals on – everyone usually gets to attend all big matches (or activities).”
A lifelong tennis fan, Donaldson relishes the opportunity to be at the center of the tennis universe – if only for a week. “I started volunteering because I wanted to get closer to the sport in general. I had always watched a ton of tennis online and on TV, but could never afford to go see it up in person. I figured that the best way to do so would be to volunteer in Montreal.”
For the Social Media Volunteer, the worlds of player, fan, and journalist collide: “Most volunteers are meant to work with fans in general, from the corporate/promotions side of things,” remarks Donaldson. “Obviously, the lines people and ball kids have a closer interaction with players and none with fans or press. However, my position has me interact with all three, which is quite exciting and really lets me see so many angles of the tournament. I’m the literal definition of volunteer media.”
Rodrigues first attended the Rogers Cup as a fan and, after meeting members of that year’s social media team, was encouraged to apply the very next year. “The Social Media Coordinator of Tennis Canada contacted me in May 2012 to ask whether I would like to be part of the team in August. I instantly said yes because it was such a unique opportunity.”
Volunteer positions are open to all who complete a written application, though the complete process differs by position. Donaldson, who answered a tweet advertising a need for social media volunteers, recalls a vetting process: “They looked at how many followers I had and evaluated the quality of my tweets, just to make sure I wasn’t some crazily passionate fan who wrote one word tweets after every point!”
The Social Media team members are typically put on two-day shifts, but with credentials that extend access to all sessions, volunteers find themselves on site as much as possible to lend a hand. As the social media universe continues to diversify, tournaments like the Rogers Cup are content to focus on Twitter as the “mandatory minimum,” but are encouraged to branch out into other platforms like Instagram and Vine. Instragram in particular comes in handy for the team, who use the software to take and edit photos of tournament-related activities that range from player practices to autograph sessions with fans.
Though meaningful interaction with players can be minimal, Rodrigues has come away with his share of memories: “Last year, I had a chance to do one-on-one Q&A with Ernests Gulbis with questions submitted by fans via twitter. He was really funny and witty in person. The next day he defeated Andy Murray. After the press conference, he jokingly mentioned I should go to all his pressers so that he will keep winning matches. The year before, I almost bumped into Sam Stosur while she was taking pictures with fans after her practice. I met her again couple of days later when I was covering her press conference; she remembered the incident and we had few laughs.”
This year’s Rogers Cup had a decidedly patriotic twist as the tournament welcomed home its Favorite Daughter Eugenie Bouchard after the Montreal native reached the Wimbledon final. Though Bouchard made an early exit at the hands of American Shelby Rogers, Donaldson was able to get a deeper look at her “Genie Army,” the most talked-about fan group in tennis. Their presence was organized by Tennis Canada’s Social Media Coordinator; the six were credentialed and afforded the same access as the other Media Volunteers. Donaldson was impressed with the vast tennis knowledge of the Army’s founder who could “recall any match played by his favorite players over the last several years,” a memory that stretched past well beyond Bouchard.
“Like most of the tennis community on Twitter, I had assumed that they were just a group of crazy Australian Genie fans that had a lot of energy and initiative in being super fans. But getting to know of them personally and as the ‘Genie Army’ entity was a fascinating experience.”
Far from a side-show, the Genie Army took their position seriously, graciously engaging with fans and media throughout the week.
“Important to note is how self-aware they are of the Genie Army and of the media. They were interviewed almost non-stop for the four days leading up to main draw action, since their story is one news outlets can sell. After interviews, they’d come back to the office and laugh at how they’ve given the same answer a thousand times in the past month or so. They would then go out on site and meet with fans – not fans of them per se, but tennis fans who relate to them. They would also play games and do events with kids around site at certain promotion kiosks – essentially they were an identifiable entity consisting of outgoing, positive, and willing tennis fans who could promote both Genie Bouchard and tennis at the important and fundamental fan level.”
During a week that generated outrage when it had been erroneously reported that the Genie Army would be flown to the WTA Championships in Singapore at the Tour’s expense, the overwhelmingly positive impression left by the Genie Army in Montreal was heartily felt by those on the grounds.
“Hardcore tennis fans (myself included) often don’t like hearing the corporation and business behind the sport they consume, since I suppose it seems to diminishes them as just consumptive pawns of the industry they love. But it’s a reality and the Genie Army is approaching it intelligently.”
For a typical tennis fan, a volunteer position conjures images of khakis and cavorting with top seeds. For Donaldson, however, there is no missing the forest through the trees: “A dream job like this then is definitely an aspiration at a professional level, and having Tennis Canada as a reference would be huge in any way I might pursue a job in the field of tennis in the future.”
For a PhD student like Rodrigues, helping the Rogers Cup run comes from a pure love of the game, and gratitude from players he respects. “I had a chance to talk to Nadal while he was waiting for his golf-cart to go the doubles match on 2nd court. Because there was a big crowd outside and we were waiting, he asked me what I do at the tournament. I explained it briefly and he said, ‘Thank you for your work.’ It is always good to be appreciated .”