You are in your living room, watching the tennis. But it is not just the rallies that enthrall you. It is the human element – the smile of the victor, the tears of a loser, the sweat pouring off the body, the post-match hug, the eyes cast off in the distance.
Those are the moments where Matt Hill comes in. Watch tennis on TV over the last 20 years, and you will have seen Hill’s handiwork – year after year of visual craftsmanship that often leaps into the realm of art. Hill is a director of photography, working in tennis for the likes of Tennis Channel, ESPN and others.
Here is Hill on a Tuesday morning at Roland Garros, holed inside a small office space with his team, field producer Lacee Johnson and soundman Jeffrey Grieshober, as they ponder what’s on the day’s schedule. A player and his entourage will enter the grounds near 10 a.m. Others are about to practice, everywhere from the big stadiums such as Chatrier and Lenglen, to remote field courts. Then there will be those moments in the corners that define the tale, small plot elements that could fit into a bigger mosaic or tell a tale themselves – ballboys and ballkids march into place, a family spoons ice cream, a couple raises two glasses of champagne, a groundskeeper waters the clay.
At the start of each day, Hill and his team anticipate making their way to the early stages of one match, the late stages of another. But then, this is sports, where the best stories of all are the ones that are unplanned – an upset in the making, a favorite in trouble, a blossoming prodigy, a seemingly routine victory gone deep into a decisive set.
“What I’m trying to do is capture an emotion,” said Hill. Growing up in Australia, Hill would watch tennis and frequently be frustrated. “Aussie TV would show the back of the player’s head,” he said. “That didn’t give you anything.”
Hill notes that so often, the player is looking to his or her coach – for support, for connection, for anything that will provide assistance. So the mission, as Hill sees it, is to get his camera in between these two.
“Tennis is a sport that travels around the world,” said one of Hill’s favorite subjects, Roger Federer. “For the sport to be successful, it is not just the players that make it work, but also other parts of the game. The tournaments, the broadcasters and even the cameraman like Matti Hill. In some cases, the cameraman can be just as important as they are the custodians of what the millions of fans at home see of our sport. Matti does a great job capturing our game in an incredible way and also making the players feel relaxed. He is so professional but at the same time he is one of us and he’s always a welcoming addition to the global tour. I have become close friends with him over the years and the sport needs more Matti Hills if we want to continue to grow.”
The connection between Federer and Hill goes back to Federer’s early years as a pro. Hill knows that a player feeling comfortable a particular camera can make the difference between a good shot and a great one. “He understands the sport,” said Federer. “That’s the most important aspect of what he brings to the table. And he captures the unique aspects of the sport with a smile and a relaxed way which allows the players to be themselves. And, he is alway there for a good joke or a nice laugh. This is key. Players aren’t the only people who should have fans and in this case, I know I speak for a lot of players but certainly myself in that I am a big fan of his!”
Spend enough time with Hill and you see how a certain coiled quality surfaces. Even at rest, his blue eyes are carefully – but delicately – witnessing what is in front of him. What some process through words, or numbers, Hill takes in this through his eyes, through his sense of light, color, people, places. This is how he approaches every tournament – even more so as the finals get underway and Hill seeks to capture that quintessential image of celebration, elation, sadness and departure. As morning turns into afternoon, as afternoon gives way to night, as victories pair with defeats, Matt Hill is someone on whom nothing is lost.
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