Our Bud Collins Media Award winners epitomize cross-generational excellence in covering professional tennis in both words and pictures.
A Sports Illustrated executive editor/senior writer, Tennis Channel commentator and 60 Minutes correspondent, the versatile Jon Wertheim has been an instrumental voice in the sport since he landed his first job as a full-time columnist in the mid-1990s; the late photographer Luigi Serra was an effervescent presence in photo pits from Flushing Meadows to Indian Wells for the better part of five decades, capturing the action with a style all his own.
The BNP Paribas Open presents the Bud Collins Media Award on an annual basis to a member of the media who over the years has been integral in covering, promoting and supporting the tournament.
Wertheim, the 2020 honoree, has chronicled some of tennis’ most significant moments. He has authored more than 10 books, including Strokes of Genius: Federer, Nadal, and the Greatest Match Ever Played, an in-depth, shot-by-shot analysis of the epic 2008 Wimbledon final.
While Wertheim’s initial interest in the sport reaches back to his days playing junior tennis in Bloomington, Ind., he quickly realized that his skills with a pen outweighed his on-court abilities. After enrolling at Yale, Wertheim began working for what was then the Pilot Pen International Tennis Tournament in New Haven, Conn.
“I was able to get a series of jobs with the tournament; first as a locker room attendant and later to being in charge of the ballkids after a promotion,” he recalled with a laugh. “I was only 19 years old but working in the locker room and seeing tennis from a totally new angle. That was a seminal moment and big plot point for me.”
Wertheim’s interest in sports would lead him to Sports Illustrated, where he began working as a columnist in 1996. He served as a general sports reporter until acting on some life-changing advice from colleague Frank Deford, who suggested that he become a single-sport specialist.
“Cover tennis because it’s full of great stories. Everyone’s a little nuts, and you get fabulous travel,” advised Deford.
Wertheim has been on the tennis beat ever since.
The honor has special significance for Wertheim, who developed a meaningful relationship with Collins that began only a few years into his career.
“At the first event I ever covered in 1998, this nice man who I had watched on TV as a kid came up to me and asked if I had any questions or needed any help, and that he’d love to help me. That was the start of a lovely relationship with an incredible man,” recalled Wertheim. “Everyone remembers him for the crazy pants and the nicknames, but in reality, those surface aspects were just a small part of who he really was. I believe that any of us who have made a pivot to TV should be paying a Bud Collins tax. He was one of the first to pull it off.”
Taking after the legendary sports broadcast career of Collins, Wertheim became an analyst on Tennis Channel beginning in 2012, as well as a contributing correspondent for 60 Minutes starting in 2017.
Wertheim has long penned one of the most engaging methods of delivering tennis coverage to fans. His Sports Illustrated “Mailbag,” a weekly online column in which he takes questions from readers and explores the hottest topics of the moment, is nothing short of religious reading material for many of tennis’ most fervent enthusiasts.
While Wertheim’s online mailbag may have functioned as little more than a side project at the start, it has evolved into arguably the single-most read and respected piece of weekly tennis journalism in the industry.
Wertheim’s fellow Bud Collins Media Award winner, the 2022 honoree Serra, was born in Florence, Italy in 1941. An avid soccer player and all-around sports fan, he survived the war years and grew up to become an electrical engineer. He immigrated to the U.S. at the age of 26 with the love of his life, his American fiancée, Bonnie. Though he spoke no English, he went to work for a Chicago engineering firm that designed nuclear power plants. Undaunted, Serra became a valued and respected engineer and, while on the job, a fluent, even idiomatic, English speaker.
While working day and night to support his young family, Serra nonetheless pursued his passions for tennis and photography. He taught himself tennis by studying the best players at the Chicago Park District and the Midtown Athletic Club. The Serra family’s social life soon revolved around tennis courts.
Serra learned his craft through trial and error, developing photographs in a darkroom improvised from a bathroom in his family’s small apartment. In the early 1970s, he photographed players from the newly launched women’s professional tennis tour. Billie Jean and Larry King ultimately hired him to be the official photographer of the Chicago Virginia Slims Tournament.
“He started from nothing,” said Bonnie. “He worked for 28 years as an engineer, but it was that technical mind that drew him immediately to photography. It was his first hobby. He loved tennis, but it was capturing that moment of intense kinetic action as the player hits the ball that really enticed him. Even in his last years, he had such an instinct for tennis, how to click that shutter half an instant before the player strokes the ball. That was his talent.”
Serra would eventually become a fixture at tournaments around the world. He worked for World TeamTennis, and was an accredited photographer at the four Grand Slams. He worked for several French and Italian tennis publications and, in 2010, became the tennis editor of Desert Golf & Tennis.
“Luigi was a man with a big heart, a bright smile and a man who lived his life full of love and laughter,” wrote King in a forward for a retrospective of Serra’s work, the book 50 Years of Tennis Champions.
In his 50s, Serra was driving along Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive when he was struck head-on by a drunk driver in the wrong lane. Though his right hand was permanently damaged, he taught himself to maneuver a camera and grip a tennis racquet with three fingers.
Along with his wife and son Luca, Serra supported the Tennis Opportunity Program (TOP) of Chicago for 20 years.
“It affected the kids directly,” Bonnie continued. “We’re dealing with inner-city kids for the most part, and single moms and trying to make a go of it. We had such success with kids that really made it. Several went on to great colleges, great careers and have come back and are on the board. Others have gone on and used tennis as a lesson in striving for excellence.”
In December 2021, Serra passed away at the age of 79 due to complications from COVID-19.