Long read | The dying breed of courtsiders

To work as a courtsider is to have possibly the most exotic, adrenaline-pumping data-entry job imaginable, writes Ben Rothenberg for Racquet and Longreads

The impression Brad Hutchins makes as he sips a long black at a cozy Thai coffee shop in Brisbane’s trendy West End neighborhood couldn’t be further from the downtrodden Estonians at that Applebee’s. He’s tan and smiling brightly, recently back from a snowboarding trip in the Alps and stylish with a tight black T-shirt and Dolce & Gabbana sunglasses. If the courtsiding industry ever needed a poster boy, it would be him.

Hutchins already has a more public profile than most in his trade. In 2014 he published the book Game, Set, Cash!, a memoir about his two years traveling the tour as a courtsider. Though Hutchins details the lows of the job—particularly harrowing encounters with sadistic security officials in less-developed countries—the highs make the whole ride seem worthwhile. His book is a romp-around-the-world filled with adventure, friendship, booze, and sex—all improbably made possible by merely sitting at a tennis court with a phone in his hand.

The perks were great—he had a company credit card that covered all expenses—and when it went well, his job satisfaction was considerable.

“It’s beating the system, and that feels good,” he told me. “It’s fun, because you’re beating the big guys with all the money.”

Hutchins writes of one particularly inept spotter who worked the tournaments in California. “I trade one set from my pocket while standing next to him for a laugh,” he writes. “I am so relaxed I even have the nerve to take a photograph of the ignorant scout while he searches the stands with his binoculars.”

Unlike the Estonians, who struggled to categorize their work beyond saying that they were “not criminals,” Hutchins quickly articulated an impressive description of the courtsiding trade that put it in a league with disruptive, groundbreaking business models like Uber or Airbnb.

“I think that the top guys who are doing it are entrepreneurs,” he said. “They’ve figured out a market that nobody else really knows exists. They’re exploiting a market in a way that is definitely taking advantage of something they discovered. They’re businessmen, really. But we’re also doing something in an area that’s new, and pushing the boundaries of what people can do.

“You’re discovering new territory, and when you’re doing that there’s always going to be a negative reaction toward that until people understand exactly what it is that you’re doing. That’s half the problem: It’s undefined. So they’re asking, ‘Are you involved in match fixing? Are you just sending off scores? What are you doing?’ Because it’s such a new thing, and most of the public don’t know what it is, I think half the problem that exists is the ambiguity of it.”

Hutchins said the landscape shifted dramatically between his first and second years on tour, after the first tennis data rights deal was signed. Though he remained adamant that he was doing nothing wrong, the scorn and constant setbacks took their toll.

“It was very frustrating,” Hutchins said. “You see people’s reactions next to you, saying, ‘Who the hell is that guy, what has he done? He’s a quiet guy who’s just been sitting there, why is he getting dragged off?’ You get a thick skin to it after a while and just kind of block it out. But at the same time, you get frustrated because you can’t work. It’s not being allowed to do your job, someone saying you’re not allowed to work today for no real reason, other than that we’ve decided that we want to make money, and you can’t.”

Read the full feature here.
(Illustration by Paul Lacolley)

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