By Mike McIntyre
Who’s got the fastest hands on tour? Rafael Nadal or Justine Henin perhaps, or were you thinking of Andy Murray or Elena Dementieva? Try thinking outside of the box, or, more specifically, outside of the court. I’m not talking about the video review operator on center court or Roger Federer’s racquet stringer. Take your search into the players and media area and you will find a woman whose fingers are infinitely faster than any of the above.
Meet Linda Christensen, one of the ATP and WTA Tour stenographers. Able to type between 260-300 words per minute is a regular occurrence for this behind-the-scenes specialist who captures every sound uttered by the players in their post-match press conferences. Employed by ASAP Sports, Christensen gets the transcripts completed within moments of the players leaving the press room and into the hands of reporters and tournament organizers who can then share these valuable moments with tennis fans all over the world. In her spare time she also works as a CART provider (Communication Access Realtime Translation) which specializes in translating classes for deaf children who are in junior high and college.
A tennis enthusiast since the 1970s when her grandmother got her to watch Chris Evert, Christensen was initially trained as a court reporter, a role she fulfilled for 23 years. After years of working in the high-stress environment of the legal world, Christensen, a self-described sports enthusiast, decided to make the transition into the world of professional sports transcribing. Since the fall of 2007 she has covered college football, golf and most recently tennis where she began at the 2008 Australian Open.
I had the chance to talk with Linda last summer while
covering the Rogers Cup in
Q: How does this fantastic process work with the machine and the audio and how do you put it all together?
A: It’s a training where you learn to write phonetically and it's a different language. So instead of typing one individual letter on a keyboard like your laptop, phonetically we make words and phrases and even whole sentences at a time so that we're able to take down up to 260-300 words a minute. And then that data is sent wirelessly into our laptop, fed into our database, and it is translated into English.
Q: And phonetically, it's a hard concept to grasp for someone who is used to just your typical keyboard. But when I look at that machine there, you've got far less keys, they're not labelled at all. So does each key correspond to a sound?
A: A sound. Or combinations of keys. Lets just take the word "much." If you were on your laptop you would type m-u-c-h. When we write "much" it could be the initial "m" the "uh" and the final "ch" sound so we can write “much” all in one stroke. Or in court if you want to just say commonly used phrases, when an attorney addresses the jury he or she might say, "ladies and gentlemen of the jury," and we have that in one phrase, one stroke of our shorthand keyboard.
Q: Would you do the same thing in the tennis world then?
A: Yeah. “Backhand,” “cross court,” “hard court,” “grass court,” “clay court” are all pre-programmed in there as one stroke on the keyboard.
Q: Is it conceivable that someone could, with a regular keyboard, keep up with it all?
A: I don't believe so. I don't think anybody's ever been able to type that fast.
Q: What's your evaluation process like? How are you evaluated or how are you reviewed each year or what kind of process do they have in place for that? Or are you just on your own when you go to tournaments?
A: A little of both I guess. People read our transcripts in the company and we usually work with colleagues. This kind of tournament (Masters 1000 level) we work solo because they're smaller, but at the Slams we work in tandem with a computer person and a writer. And so we evaluate each other and challenge each other to be faster and more accurate.
Q: How hard is it to pick up? When you started in 1983, how long did it take you to become comfortable with this process?
A: Well, I can say that the attrition rate in court reporting is very high. If I were to say a beginning class, let’s say, is 25, I would be hard-pressed to say that maybe one or two other people that started when I did are still doing it. It's a very high-stress job. I'm talking legally. And then there's a whole other part of the business end and dealing with personalities like lawyers and paralegals, and deadlines. If they're in trial and they need something right away, you have to pull an all-nighter to get that transcript to them. And, you know, with ASAP, we say "When all is said we're done" - journalists have a deadline to meet and we know we're under the wire to get them their quotes from these interviews.
Q: In terms of tennis, who are some of the more difficult players to keep up with or understand and transcribe?
A: At the French Open in 2009 - the Serbians all speak very good English but they're very fast and fortunately they have a good cadence with how they speak. And Ana Ivanovic can be very quick, very rapid-fire. I was working as the writer for her interview at the French and I had a scopist - meaning the computer person - a young man working with me, and we are able with our software to gauge how many words a minute people talk. Anyway, Ana Ivanovic came in from a win and she just “took off,” and my colleague, after the interview, said that she had at times during the interview gotten to 330 words a minute. She was pretty quick. Others have very heavy accents. Dinara Safina can be very difficult to understand, as is her brother Marat. They have a very heavy accent. James Blake,(laughs) all the journalists know that he speaks very fast. And it's kind of a joke and he realizes that he's our nemesis, because he's even looked at us and said, "I know you hate me." ‘Cause he just really likes to talk.
Q: Do you ever get to a point where you're struggling to keep up or has it ever happened to you that you're falling behind - how do you compensate for that? How do you deal with those situations?
A: Yes, that is difficult. You learn a skill called trailing or carrying where you learn to be behind a sentence or two and you keep it in your mind and you catch up. If we have any questions, everything is also recorded to our hard drive simultaneously, so if we think we might have missed something or misheard, we can listen to that at the time we edit it before we send the final transcript.
Q: Any memorable moments in particular? Particular tournaments or interviews that stand out for one reason or another?
A: Well, yeah, the Australian
Open of '08 my colleague and I - there were just really long matches, and
everything for the women went three sets and everything for the men went five.
And it being
Q: Do you have to transcribe those expletives word for word, verbatim?
A: Yes, pretty much.
Q: Any awkward moments between reporters and players
A: I can't think of a specific. Only when players lose and they don't like to be asked what they think are seemingly stupid questions. So they get kind of testy.
Q: Favorite tournaments for you in the year and a half that you've been doing this?
A: Indian Wells is wonderful, as is the Sony Ericsson in Key Biscayne. The Slams - the French is great, everything is translated and the translators are great. The US Open is gruelling because they have lights that they can start matches very late at night. So last year every other night is 3 to 4 AM into bed, and that gets a little tough after two-plus weeks