Turns out all of these years, Vanderbilt women's tennis coach Geoff Macdonald had a hidden talent: writing. Now that it's on full display on the New York Times tennis blog "Straight Sets", it's not so hidden anymore.
Macdonald has been writing for the popular site over the past few weeks on numerous topics surrounding the Grand Slam of professional tennis, and with Wimbledon starting Monday, the site has been buzzing with readership.
"I wrote a couple, I enjoyed it and they thought they were decent pieces," Macdonald said. "I just kind of kept it up and it's just been a couple of weeks. It's a blast. I'm learning a lot doing it, just about writing, how to edit, stuff like that."
Macdonald received a phone call from the New York Times' Joe Drape during last month's French Open, asking if he wanted to help contribute to the site. The two had met in 2006 when Drape did a story about foreign professionals illegally playing tennis for U.S. college teams.
"I found him very interesting off that topic," Drape said. "He (has) a Masters in English, I was an English degree guy, he's a reader, I'm a reader, so we started talking about books we were reading, and we sort of became friends over letters."
The Times began a transition on its online sports section to try and stimulate more discussion amongst its readers and now has a blog for nearly every major sport. Drape, who is head of The Rail, the site's horse racing blog, was approached by a colleague in tennis looking for good writers. He remembered his friend at Vanderbilt.
"I said, `Call Geoff,' because I do know the women's team is very good there," Drape said. "He's obviously a very good coach, he's very articulate, and the most important thing he does is he brings our readers an insider's knowledge, not only as a player but as a coach, and you can't get that anywhere else."
Macdonald jumped at the chance, joining a crew of both professional writers and dedicated fans that keep the site regularly updated.
Macdonald, Vanderbilt's longest-tenured coach having just completed his 15th season, played at the University of Virginia and also briefly played at the professional level from 1981-1984, including an appearance in the U.S. Open. With that resume, he has put his extensive tennis knowledge to use on a variety of topics, having written on the history behind Roland Garros, site of the French Open, analyzed how Roger Federer completed his career Grand Slam and even expounded upon the great human drama of the Wimbledon Qualifiers.
"I wanted to pay attention to the fact that the tour isn't just the top three or four players on each side, that there are a lot of really, really good world-class players who tend to get ignored," Macdonald said. "One thing I guess you can do on a blog is (say), `Hey, by the way, look at qualifying, look at how good these players are who are just trying to get a spot in the main draw.' In a way there's more drama in qualifying than in the second round. So I try to focus on some of the people who don't get much attention."
Given the enormous popularity of tennis across the United States and particularly in New York, where the United States Tennis Association is headquartered, Straight Sets has become one of the most visited blogs of the New York Times. The comments on Macdonald's writings by the site's visitors have been overwhelmingly positive and stimulated active discussion.
"Our goal is to start the conversation," Drape said. "And guys like Geoff start the conversation."
There's another benefit to Macdonald's blogging besides flexing his sports writing skills, which were dormant, he says, since he was a stringer in ninth grade covering his high school football team.
Already a fan of tennis anyway, writing for Straight Sets has afforded him an opportunity to pick up valuable tips from watching the world's greatest players to help his Commodore pupils, applying what he studies and blogs about in the Grand Slam tournaments to his own practices.
"I'll give an example," Macdonald said. "I've been watching how Federer plays way more closely, and I'm beginning to see that he does some stuff that I can get my players to do that will help them. It's making me study the game more closely, and I think that's going to help me be a better coach."
Getting a chance to write for the Times has re-ignited his zest for the game.
"That's making me just really fired up about my team here at Vanderbilt," Macdonald said. "I found it actually has made me think a lot more about coaching, and it makes me more excited and passionate about tennis."