Thirty-five years ago, Christopher Clarey ’86 was writing for Williams Sports Information. Since then, he has covered over 80 Grand Slam tournaments for the New York Times. While a career covering tennis might seem like an apt choice for an English and history double major and tennis player at a top liberal arts college, Clarey’s career path, from his first publication to his most recent, has been anything but linear.
The opportunity to play tennis, volleyball and soccer was a key factor that brought Clarey from his hometown in San Diego, Calif. to the College. “I just didn’t find any liberal arts colleges of the size that I could play sports at at the level on the west coast at that time.”
While at the College, Clarey took a job in what would eventually become his field.
“I had the chance to kind of look around for the right job, and because I was the editor of my high school paper and I was interested in sports, they said ‘Hey, we’ve got this Sports Information job.’ So, that’s a lot better than washing dishes or bussing tables,” Clarey said. “I worked with them for most of my College time, writing press releases.”
After winning tennis NESCACs his junior season and graduating in 1986, Clarey delayed job-hunting for a year to travel with a friend from school. “We took off for a year, and I just loved the experience – it’s still one of the very best years of my life. We were all over the Middle East, Europe, went to Burma, went to China, went to Japan,” Clarey said. “I came back, and I had no money at all… I had done a lot of writing during the trip – journals, writing letters, things like that.”
Opportunity knocked when the sports editor for the San Diego Union, a newspaper where Clarey had interned in previous summers, called a few days after Clarey got back. “Turned out they had a summer internship that had been taken by a guy named Jeremy Schapp… He wasn’t able to take the internship at the last minute, and they were looking for a replacement,” he said.
With no recent clips, Clarey brought his travel journals to the Union as his only writing sample and got the internship. “After three months, a full-time job became available covering high school [sports], and so I did that for a year,” he said. “For a couple of years, I covered NCAAs, and then I covered the San Diego Chargers for a year.”
After a few years at the Union, Clarey decided to pack his bags for a second time. “Meanwhile, I met this French lady during our travels, and she came to my house in San Diego as an exchange student. We ended up falling in love and deciding that it was time to make a big move, so we got engaged, and I quit my job covering the Chargers … and moved to Paris to freelance,” Clarey said. “People thought I was crazy.”
Trying to freelance in the pre-internet age, Clarey sent out letters to various publications, advertising his interest in covering international sports. In November of 1991, he got a call from a sports editor at the New York Times. He received his first assignment: covering sibling ice dancers Isabelle and Paul Duchesnay as they prepared for the upcoming Winter Olympics in Albertville.
“I took a night train to Germany, and I wrote this story… And that’s how I started freelancing for them,” Clarey said. Within a year, Clarey went from freelancing to becoming a European sports correspondent.
Since then, his main focus has been on covering tennis, reporting on some of the most infamous matchups of all time. When asked about some of his all-time favorite matches, Clarey mentioned the 1991 Davis Cup, where the French beat a U.S. team of Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi. “It was a huge deal for the country,” he said. “It just gave me a real sense of international passion for sport.”
Other highlights of his include the Steffi Graf/Martina Hingis matchup in the French Open finals of 1999 and the classic five-hour Wimbledon final of 2008, in which Roger Federer beat Rafael Nadal. “These guys were just such classy champions dueling each other,” Clarey recalled. “It was one of those moments when you were watching the match [and knew] that it would be one of the greatest matches of all time.”
Going into this year’s French Open, Federer, at 36 years old, is the oldest No. 1 ranked player in the history of the modern ranking system. While some wonder about the future of tennis after Federer’s retirement, Clarey doesn’t see his eventual absence from the court as uncharted territory.
“Back in the very late ’80s, people were saying ‘Oh, we’ll never see it again, [Björn] Borg and [John] MacEnroe, it was the greatest thing ever, we’ll never have those days again,’” Clarey said. “Whoever wins the slams, whoever gets to number one, whoever creates these stories year to year creates a persona for themselves. So, here we are, what, 30 years later, and we’re saying the same thing about Federer and Nadal in their era.”
Clarey also reflected on some of his favorite interviewees since he began covering the sport. “If you’re looking for quick wit, one-liners and edge, Andy Roddick would definitely have to be up there for sure,” he said. “If you’re looking for more in-depth analysis, it might surprise you, I think that Justine Hénin-Hardenne… She [didn’t] have that image in the U.S., but when you spoke to her in French, [she was] very deep, very thoughtful.”
Reflecting on his career in journalism, Clarey emphasized the value of a strong liberal arts background.
“I think a liberal arts education is super relevant because you have to be adaptable,” Clarey said. “You need that flexibility in your mindset and in your ability to acquire new tools… I don’t know how journalism is going to look 30 years from now – I could never have figured out what happened in my 30 years – but I do know that it’s still going to be important.”