It was some of the finest tennis ever witnessed on a major stage, and as the Novak Djokovic-Rafael Nadal final unfolded at the U.S. Open on Monday evening, CBS viewers were treated to a measured, informative telecast in the worthy hands of Dick Enberg, Mary Carillo and John McEnroe.
This would be Enberg's final tennis broadcast in a career spanning 20-plus years, and he went out in style, without a hint of sentiment or melodrama. "Oh, my, what a championship it was," he announced, and thus ended an era. Roll the credits. I'm sure Enberg would be the first to agree with critics that he's a bit past his prime, and that the timing was exactly right -- an Enberg trademark -- for his farewell. But there's no room for skepticism, not even a hint, when addressing the departure of a legend.
Enberg certainly wasn't going to leave without fanfare, and CBS took advantage of a rain delay last Friday to show a well-prepared tribute to his career, then allow Enberg to share a few stories with McEnroe and Carillo, the two of them beaming with reverence.
I watched an awful lot of tennis over the past two weeks, on CBS, Tennis Channel and ESPN, and here are some assorted thoughts in the wake of a strange but ultimately satisfying event:
-- McEnroe and Ted Robinson formed a storied U.S. Open partnership over many years on the USA Network, and thanks to some clever shuffling, they were able to reunite for a few matches on Tennis Channel during the first week. Robinson, who is under TC contract, took a break from his responsibilities as the San Francisco 49ers' lead radio announcer, and CBS generously lent McEnroe to TC for the occasion.
-- Patrick McEnroe had some excellent moments on ESPN, especially early in the tournament, when he joined Hannah Storm in a very frank conversation about grunting (make that SHRIEKING) in the women's game. Storm found it curious that Maria Sharapova practices in silence, while McEnroe said it's time to end the scattershot conversation on this subject and actually do something -- specifically in the form of complaints from players across the net from Sharapova, Victoria Azarenka and other annoying howlers.
-- Carillo, who never needs much provocation on the shrieking issue, admirably picked up the thread. In an interview with Stacey Allaster, CEO of the women's Tour, she asked point-blank, "Are you going to legislate it?" adding, "Our nation turns its swollen ears to you." (Allaster was a bit more forthcoming than most corporate types: "We know there's an issue and we're listening to it.")
-- On ESPN, Chris Evert wondered why no player has complained on shrieking as a "hindrance" -- no player since Martina Navratilova (against Monica Seles), anyway -- and it was interesting to watch how the tournament unfolded. Marion Bartoli was penalized a point for yelling "Come on!" during a point against Christina McHale, prompting Patrick McEnroe to remark, "How is that more of a hindrance than the screaming and the grunting?" Serena Williams' incident during Sunday night's final was a veritable carbon copy of the Bartoli violation, and when the women's final was over, Carillo said, "I've always felt that grunting was a hindrance -- and more importantly, very obnoxious. There should be less noise and more tennis."
Keep up the fight, everyone. Keep exposing this nonsense until the shriekers are gone for good.
-- During an idle moment in the men's final, John McEnroe marveled at Djokovic's massive forehand service return -- the shot that changed everything -- against Roger Federer, and how it was viewed by Nadal. "In Rafa's mind, Roger got what he deserved," said McEnroe. "You've got to go to the body on that serve, or hit bigger up the middle. He paid for that mistake there."
-- Carillo loves the chance to work a men's final. You'd think it would be an automatic call by any network, but that certainly isn't the case with NBC at Wimbledon. Sorry, men only -- and McEnroe, it must be noted, has always preferred it that way. "CBS, God bless 'em," Carillo said recently, "they always had the good grace to stand by me."
-- Carillo uncorked a proper bust on young Ryan Harrison, who had more temper displays than memorable points in the tournament, calling him "Mister Crankypants."
-- Unfortunate exchange on ESPN: As Cliff Drysdale and Darren Cahill discussed what it must be like for opponents to take the court against Serena, Drysdale asked, "When you took the court against Rod Laver, how did you feel?" Cahill: "I wasn't born when Rod Laver was playing."
-- And speaking of Laver: Talk all you want about Djokovic's 64-2 record and great years of the past from McEnroe and Jimmy Connors, but the greatest year of the Open era was 1969, when Laver won all four majors. No one has done it since.
-- McEnroe was a voice of reason during the episode that cost Serena a point penalty -- and a break of her serve -- against Samantha Stosur. There was no gamesmanship behind Serena's "Come on!" She was just excited about crushing a forehand winner and shouted her exuberance a bit too early. So, as McEnroe said, you play a let there. Stosur had no chance of getting that ball back, so just play the point over again. Don't become so vigilant that you senselessly change the tone of the match.
-- Carillo wasn't thrilled by the decision to fine Serena just $2,000. "Give me a break," she said on the air Monday. "Why give her anything, if that's what they're gonna do? Like, go ahead, Serena. Say whatever you want. It's all good. Keep it up. They should be ashamed of themselves."
-- McEnroe in the wake of that comment: "I wish I was playing now. They pay more and fine less."
-- Always in tune with the emotional swings in a match, McEnroe examined Nadal's body language at 2-5 in the first set of the final and said, "He's just out of it, mentally. Befuddled." He noted the evolution of great service returners, especially Connors and Andre Agassi, and said of Djokovic, "You may be looking at the greatest returner in the history of our sport." And when Enberg mentioned that Nadal and Djokovic would both be rushing off to Davis Cup sites for matches next weekend -- a logistical disgrace that only the sport of tennis could produce -- McEnroe said, "Do you get a good idea why tennis needs to change the schedule?"
-- It would be bad business, unfortunately, for any of the CBS announcers to criticize the "Super Saturday" schedule, but it needs to be changed, now, so it never plagues another Open. There was a time when tennis-crazed fans savored the notion of sitting down to endless hours of big-time tennis at the Open, but those days are gone. In the wake of the Federer-Djokovic classic on Saturday, people weren't ready for Nadal against Andy Murray, let alone the notion of sticking around for Serena-Caroline Wozniacki. It's astonishing, and sad, that the CBS/USTA people don't realize that.
-- So how does a more sensible schedule work? Easy. Condense the first round into two days, not three. Play the women's semifinals on Thursday afternoon, the men's semifinals on Friday day-into-night, the women's final Saturday night, and the men's final Sunday afternoon. How is this such a big puzzle? Did anyone stop to think that Serena might be just a little bit tired after playing late Saturday night (10:11 p.m. start) and not getting to sleep until 4 in the morning?
-- Put it this way: The women's draw hasn't had a three-set final since 1995, and it's extremely rare that the men stage a world-class final with the right people involved. Nadal calls the final-weekend schedule "crazy." Djokovic calls it "just too much." Federer calls it "not feasible" and adds, "I'm sure there have been many finals played here where one player had a huge advantage." Is anyone listening?
-- Thanks to Enberg for his good wishes to Bud Collins, the dean of American tennis media, who took a fall that required knee surgery and had to leave for home in the middle of the tournament. "The human encyclopedia of tennis," Enberg called him. "Get well quickly." That goes for all of us.
-- Everybody's blasting Serena for her verbal assault on chair umpire Eva Asderaki, and justifiably so, but they're ignoring the dramatic change in Williams' postmatch demeanor. Once a rather haughty loser, unwilling to give her conqueror any credit, she has become genuinely humble in the wake of her medical scare (pulmonary embolism) in February, emerging fortunate to be alive and playing great tennis. She wept tears of relief after her first-round win at Wimbledon, and praised Marion Bartoli after the match that ended her tournament there. Sunday night, while refusing to shake Asderaki's hand, Serena warmly embraced Stosur at the net, then actually took a seat next to her before the presentation ceremony.
"She was great, actually," Stosur said. "I guess it shows what a nice person she is, and what a true champion she is of the sport. To be able to separate the result, and be able to come over and congratulate your opponent, I thought was pretty classy."
-- A sign of bleak times in American tennis: When Andy Roddick played Nadal, it was the first time in seven years they'd met in a major. At the U.S. Open alone, Djokovic and Federer have faced each other five straight years.
-- Hard to imagine: In three sets against Nadal, Roddick lost the battle of forehand winners, 22-0. And it was especially discouraging to hear the silence -- from a stunned, almost dazed crowd -- as the match unfolded. But this was a good tournament for Roddick. Injuries had wrecked his preparation, but he took down David Ferrer, the man who defeated Roddick in his hometown (Austin, TX) during the recent Davis Cup tie. Once Roddick faced Nadal, he'd reached the end of the line.
-- Great stuff: The Grandstand, a much-beloved court with history, class and 6,000-seat intimacy, was the site of the 17-15 tiebreak between Stosur and Maria Kirilenko, Madison Keys' victory over Jill Craybas and entertaining wins by Donald Young (Juan Ignacio Chela), McHale (Bartoli) and Sloane Stephens (Shahar Peer). Court 13 got a surprise visit from Roddick and Ferrer. And the new Court 17, a stadium-style venue with a capacity of just 2,500, was the scene of Young's four-hour, 20-minute win over Stan Wawrinka.
-- Not so great: Ashe Stadium, the Grandstand and Louis Armstrong all looked their age, oozing water and being rendered unplayable at various stages of the tournament. Maybe a roof won't work, but how about some decent cover during the rainstorms?
-- In light of some harsh commentary in this column, congratulations to Young for an inspiring performance that may have turned around his career. The young man learned that he doesn't have to focus on his support group after every point, because he's no longer fighting the rest of the world. The fans loved his performance and, in the best moments, that winning smile.
-- Note to Kirilenko: You had a solid tournament. Great exposure, especially the difficult experience of beating crowd favorite McHale. But why are you shrieking, all of a sudden, and only at certain times? You should be above all that.
-- Enough with the rip jobs on Wozniacki for mimicking Nadal's press-conference cramp attack. The incident was shocking at first, but once everyone realized that Nadal was OK (both he and his coach, uncle Toni, laughed when they saw the replay), it was time to seize the moment. Here was Nadal, the most finicky player in tennis, a man who likes everything just so, paralyzed by his body and literally sinking out of sight. In hindsight, it was hilarious. In the locker rooms of any other sport, such an athlete would be mercilessly chided and imitated for months. Perhaps Caroline wasn't the one to do it; better left in the hands of Djokovic, the sport's comedic genius. I'd like to think we'll see Novak's version before too long. And thanks to Tennis.com's Peter Bodo for a refreshing take, labeling it "Funniest Moment of the Tournament."