vice sports q&a

VICE Sports Q&A: Hannah Storm on Wimbledon and Powerful Women in Sports

ESPN's Hannah Storm talks about covering Wimbledon, Serena Williams, Novak Djokovic, and how women are shaping the sports world in new and more powerful ways.

by Caitlin Kelly
Jul 6 2016, 1:42pm

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Sports never stop, and few people know this quite so well, or perhaps quite so firsthand, as Hannah Storm. In addition to working as an anchor on ESPN's SportsCenter every weekday at 10 AM EDT, Storm hosts major events like the US Open and the Super Bowl, covers news stories like Major League Baseball's visit to Cuba earlier this year, and talks to the sports world's most influential figures for her prime-time interview show Face to Face with Hannah Storm.

Storm has been shaping the national conversation as a sports anchor since the 1980s, when the industry was almost completely (as opposed to just heavily) male-dominated. As the first female host for CNN's Sports Tonight in 1989, she joined a generation of pioneering broadcasters and journalists who showed audiences that women can talk sports just as well as men. Her work in this vein continues today, with projects that highlight female athletes like Swoopes, a documentary she directed on Sheryl Swoopes, and 30 for 30's Unmatched, a film about the friendship and rivalry between Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, which she co-produced.

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Tennis is an area of particular expertise for Storm, who covered Wimbledon for a decade with NBC, starting in the 1990s, and now does so with ESPN, where she has worked since 2008. Storm talked to VICE Sports before heading to London, where she will be hosting her one-hour special, Breakfast at Wimbledon, before the tournament's semifinal and final matches. Our conversation kicked off with the weather, which had been (and has continued to be) particularly waterlogged.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

VICE Sports: It's been rainy in London. Does that really throw off your schedule, or how you're preparing for things?

Hannah Storm: I have hosted—we'd have to go back and count—I think something like 16 or 17 Wimbledons, because I hosted them for ten years at NBC and now I've hosted them for eight years at ESPN. And the weather absolutely wreaks havoc with the schedule. But in the old days we didn't have a roof over Centre Court, so there were literally days that were a complete washout. [A retractable roof was installed in Centre Court in 2009.] In fact, I was at Wimbledon for the last one they had to play on the middle Sunday, which is usually dark and no one plays. and it was so cool because they let all these fans in, people who just waited in line—nobody had tickets in advance. It was an impromptu party. It was one of my best memories ever of Wimbledon because it was everyday tennis fans coming in and it was this celebratory atmosphere.

Other than that, it's a test in patience. Matches get pushed back, you're waiting for the darkness, so it really has a feel all its own in that regard, because the weather plays such a huge part. Luckily for the television-viewing audience, because of the roof over Center Court there's always going to be some sort of tennis, so I think that's a vast improvement over the old days.

Are there ways that preparing for something like Breakfast at Wimbledon is different from SportsCenter? Obviously, at SportsCenter you're covering a range of sports, but is there something about the process there that might be less obvious to people watching at home?

When I know, for instance, that I'm doing Wimbledon and the US Open, there's an enormous amount of research that starts coming down the pipe, and it comes weeks in advance. When you have a heavy tennis responsibility in addition to what you're normally doing, you really watch and pay attention to tennis year-round, because that's actually what it takes. So it's not like all of a sudden I find myself cramming for Wimbledon or US Open. With all my other responsibilities, I just can't afford to do that.

So I have to always be looking ahead and preparing in advance. It's sort of like being in college and knowing that you've got an exam—you're not going to just do it all the night before. You have to budget your time for weeks before.

Oh man, that's exactly what I was thinking: it sounds like college.

[Laughs] Doesn't it? I've got this project, I've got this term paper, and then you have day to day class, right? So because of the things I do at ESPN, I have these sort of long-term projects, if you will—long-term assignments that have a long lead-in, and yet I've got the day-to-day of my show at SportsCenter, which happens to be an intense show, too. So you've got to be organized with your time. In fact, I'm looking right now, as I'm speaking with you, at a stack of research, some extra reading that I have to do going into next week.

Hannah Storm chats and Chicago Bears wide receiver Alshon Jeffery at a 2014 Chicago Bulls game. Photo by David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Is there ever that one colleague who does manage to cram it in the night before like at college? Or can you not get to this level in broadcasting by doing that?

I think with sports, and I would say the same goes with news and world affairs, it takes a body of knowledge. If you're really at the top of your game in sports, you have to be a student of history and perspective. I walked in Monday morning and Pat Summitt died, and then about an hour and a half later Buddy Ryan died, and then I went on about an hour and a half after that. So there's no possible way that you could be nimble enough to handle all of the things that happen if you were simply sitting around cramming. That's impossible. You have to have so much knowledge and experience to be able to effectively—you know, beyond just a surface level—handle a lot of what we talk about on the air.

ESPN's team for Wimbledon has a number of former pros—John McEnroe, Mary Joe Fernandez, Pam Shriver. I feel like it still comes up, particularly with women, that if you haven't played the game, you're somehow not able to talk about it. My question is less about that, because so many women have established that that's not true. But what, as a host and a broadcaster and a journalist, do you learn from working with people who have been on the tour?

First of all, that premise—that women didn't play sports and therefore can't talk about it—is really illogical and outdated. We cover so many sports and so many topics, and there's not an anchor there, male or female, who's had personal experience even close to the body of what we talk about. Certainly in a host or anchor situation, even for guys—there's no man that I know that has played all the sports they cover. That's just silly.

Ideally and obviously, a sports analyst, which is much different from a host, would need to have played the sport in order to comment on it in an expert way. At ESPN with the tennis crew, what is really nice is that there is a lot of depth: we have players not only from different eras and perspectives of tennis but we have analysts from different countries. Chris Evert is one of the most accomplished tennis players in the history of the game. A lot of the times, what Chrissy says isn't obvious but it is insightful, which is why I really love listening to her because she knows. She's been there. She's won 18 Grand Slams [singles titles], she's one of the most successful female tennis players in the history of the game, and there's no one that knows what she does. And so I find her to be really fascinating, and I find myself really hanging on what she says because it's not necessarily something that someone outside the game would have insight into.

I think that your job as a host is to get the most out of who you're talking to. Everybody brings something a little different to the table, and I think that keying in on their strengths—of Pam Shriver having won Grand Slams as a doubles player, having competed in an era against some of the greats; of Mary Joe Fernandez being in charge of the Fed Cup and understanding and knowing personally a lot of the young players in the game; Chrissy has a tennis academy—you really want to, in the most effective way, fit the puzzle pieces together. I'm not just going to ask everyone, "What's your key to the match?" I'm really going to try to get the subtleties that each person is going to bring to the table. And a lot of times, analysts will also have ideas, like, "Wow, I'm really passionate about this," or "I'd really love to talk about this" and then we try to work with them and try to set them up in that regard. There is a lot of thought that goes into it—who is on set at what time—especially in a show like Breakfast at Wimbledon, where the show has a lot of structure and texture.

Former players like Patrick (left) and John McEnroe are among Hannah Storm's ESPN broadcast colleagues. Photo by Susan Mullane-USA TODAY Sports

Covering tennis this year, when there is so much going on off the court—between accusations of doping, accusations of match-fixing, distractions like Raymond Moore, the Indian Wells CEO and his comments about women—how do you balance those stories with what's actually happening on the court?

If something was specifically relevant to a match at that time, obviously you would address it, but one of the great things that ESPN Tennis did at the very start of Wimbledon this year, during the first significant rain delay, was they did a deep dive into all those topics right away. That's really critical, because at some point you have to address it. So as soon as there was a rain delay, all the announcers were mic'd up, they were on, everybody was on camera, and they went around about everything from drug use to points shaving. It's critical to address that because we are also a news organization. So as we do with any other sport, be it the NFL or Wimbledon, whatever it is—I think we do a really good job at addressing the pertinent issues of the day and it's important for the sport that we do that, as well. As announcers, as broadcasters, as journalists, we address these issues because that also pushes everyone toward making the sport better. [Tennis] is a sport that the people who I'm on the set with love, it is their life. And anything that places that sport and the integrity of that sport in jeopardy is something that they feel very passionate about, and it's something that they need to speak out about as leading voices in the sport.

Going into this tournament, with dominant players like Novak Djokovic pursuing a calendar slam and Serena Williams trying to get to 22 Grand Slam titles, does the focus on those players kind of suck the air out of the room? Or do you feel like that gives you room to cover other athletes and other stories?

At a Grand Slam like Wimbledon or US Open, there are always athletes that come to the forefront. There are stories like Marcus Willis, who lost [last Wednesday] to Roger Federer. There's usually a Cinderella story, or a great up-and-comer, or there's a first-time finalist, particularly on the women's side. Or on the men's side, with the Big Four, any combination of them being in play in what's really the Golden Era of men's tennis gets headlines.

Listen, Djokovic to me is such a fascinating study because he has a chance to really chase down Roger Federer's all-time Majors record, and that's what we're looking at now. So yes, we're looking at the calendar slam, but we're also looking at one of the most dominant tennis players, one of the most dominant runs of all time is taking place from a guy that's been insanely consistent. And yet even he says, "I'm not the beloved champion that Roger Federer is." I appreciate his game so very much, and I think those that follow this sport are so in awe of what this guy does, and I think that we also have a great appreciation for him off the court—how he comports himself, and how he does interviews and how passionate he is about his homeland and what fun and personality he brings to the game. He just happens to be playing in the era of this universally-loved figure in Roger Federer. To me, that's an interesting tangential story.

When you're looking at greatness and appreciating greatness, I don't think that's boring. I don't think it sucks the air out of the room at all. I think it adds an enormous amount of excitement. You just have to remind yourself that what you're watching is some of the greatest ever and let's appreciate it.

At the same time, Serena Williams has not been dominant. The [2015] US Open was unlike anything, ever. I was there for all her matches: her loss to [Roberta] Vinci, I hosted that; her match with Venus, I hosted that. And it was just electric. It was so amazing for tennis, these mano-a-mano, titanic match-ups. She's just there by herself—it's just you and the other person across the net, and that's what I think makes tennis insanely tense and dramatic and interesting.

The things about it is, when she lost, then all of a sudden the invincible is vincible, and we see this crack, we see she hasn't been able to get to 22. So there's that drama. She didn't get the calendar slam, OK; now she's going for 22. And to get to that 22, to finally win that, imagine the sense of relief when that comes—and I think when that comes; I'm not going to say if that comes.

The struggle makes it even more fascinating—the fact that it doesn't come easy and the fact that she is in her mid-30s and she did have that incredibly shattering loss on the precipice of history last year. I just think Serena Williams is one of the most fascinating characters in all of sports, if not all of inside and outside sports. And she is nothing but great for the game, and especially for this country. To keep American tennis alive, and the amount of girls that she has inspired is—it's just mind-blowing what she's been able to do for tennis in this country and the fact that she's even going to play in the Olympics with her sister adds just a whole other layer. She's transcendent.

Serena Williams is at the top of Hannah Storm's list of fascinating Wimbledon storylines, and rightfully so. Photo by Susan Mullane-USA TODAY Sports

Do you think that this tournament stands to be her best chance to get to 22?

I think for Serena, it doesn't matter—she's so good on every surface. Even though the Williams sisters have dominated Wimbledon unlike any siblings in the history of any sport—what the two of them have done at Wimbledon is unprecedented and I don't think will ever be matched—Serena, if she doesn't get it here, she can get it at the US Open, she could get it at the Australian Open next year, she could win the French. I wouldn't say that the pressure is, "Oh wow, she can only win here." Whereas I do think that kind of pressure that might sit on the shoulders of a Venus Williams or a Roger Federer, that this is your best chance. With Serena, it doesn't matter—she can get it anywhere.

When you look at younger players, do you think that after the Big Four and after the Williams sisters, the tennis world should be worried about a lull in interest or a lull in competitiveness, or are you confident that there are up-and-coming players who have what it takes to fill those huge shoes?

I think there will be up-and-coming players because there always are. It's a cyclical sport unlike any other. Listen, rivalries are very difficult to replace. A special rivalry is something that takes in some ways an uncanny amount of timing because it takes a couple of great people who meet in some huge situations with a lot at stake. So do I think talent will be there? Yes, but the health of a sport, especially an individual sport like tennis, sits on the shoulders of a special, special rivalry. And so that's where a combination of people coming up at the same time and building a history together—that's where the popularity of the sport, to me, is going to be ensured.

That's what's been so special [about the Big Four]: not that there has been a Federer or there has been a Nadal or a Djokovic but the fact that they've all been together and played each other.

On the women's side, I think Serena has been so dominant, she is irreplaceable on so many levels. She is a once-in-a-lifetime athlete in many, many ways. But certainly if you saw several younger players who captured the imagination—and in this country you need some good young players on both sides—you certainly have some good young American players who could come up and sustain a lot of interest. But again, even with the women, it's the rivalries. Look at what Martina [Navratilova] and Chrissy did for the sport of tennis.

Both you and Serena were recently named AdWeek's 30 most powerful women in sports. Congratulations, first off. Thinking about the idea of power in the sports world and how women have held that power—for an industry veteran like yourself, how have you seen that change over time?

I think that their voices have gotten stronger. There certainly have been women through the decades who have led by example, but now I think there are platforms for women to be more vocal. I think their reach has gotten broader, and I think part of that is obviously the explosion of media we've had in the last few decades that have allowed a lot of access. At the same time, I think some of it has been a natural evolution of the way our society has gone with women increasingly in male-dominated fields being able to make headway. And frankly it was the Billie Jean Kings and Pat Summitts of the world whose shoulders we all stand on.

I do think that you're seeing women, top to bottom, in positions of decision-making, which is important, and in positions of being able to influence, whether it's influence on business, on style, on thinking, on the sports culture. I thought their 30 was a thoughtful and interesting cross-section of people. Obviously, I was very honored to be in that group. Some led by example and have worked their way up the corporate ladder. Some, like Serena, have been absolutely dominant in their field but also very outspoken.

I think that one of the great things about women is that they're not afraid to share their struggle: how did I get here, what did I have to overcome. I'm going to lay myself out there so that I can be an example to you, so that you can see what I did and so you can be inspired to do the same and push yourself to greatness and understand what's inside of you. That's what I would certainly hope many of us would have in common. I think the sports world is obviously better and richer for having half the population bring all of their talents and all of their intellect and all of their experience and all of their heart to the table. And it's important to keep making inroads in that area, it really is, because sports is so healthy and it's so impactful, particularly for young women and it can be so empowering. It's something we all have to strive to continue to influence.