It has long been ESPN's intention to dominate coverage of the Grand Slam events, and as the Australian Open hits its first-week stride, we're seeing clear-cut evidence of the plan. Tennis Channel remains a vibrant entry, with a measure of live coverage, but this is primarily an ESPN2 production.
The tipoff came on Sunday, when ESPN had exclusive rights and came on the air at 6:30 p.m. ET; that's 10:30 Monday morning in Australia, so remember that 16-hour time difference (19 hours on the West Coast). The show ran throughout the night and ended at 7 a.m., just a few moments after Caroline Woznicaki's first-round victory closed out the first-day program.
Some have criticized ESPN's tennis coverage for being too bland, and it seems there was a concerted effort to change that. Asked the outset for some "bold predictions," the crew provided these gems -- probably missed by most viewers, since the Giants-Packers NFL playoff game was still in progress on Fox:
Pam Shriver: "Roger Federer will win more Slams -- at least one, maybe two -- than Maria Sharapova, Kim Clijsters and Serena Williams combined."
Chris Evert: "Venus Williams comes back and wins a Grand Slam this year. I think she could still win Wimbledon. And Maria Sharapova will win a major. She's too good, too professional."
Darren Cahill: "No American, man or woman, will win a major this year," adding, "Serena's a problem for me, obviously."
Brad Gilbert: "Andy Murray wins two majors and finishes No. 1 in the world. With the help of Ivan Lendl, he makes that hurdle."
Mary Joe Fernandez: "Andy Murray wins his first Wimbledon."
Cliff Drysdale's entry wasn't too strong. In predicting that "a woman outside the top 10" will win the Australian, he left the honor available to past champions Clijsters and Serena. But Drysdale did say that the Big Four of the men's Tour -- Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Federer and Murray -- "are better than any other four in the history of the game." That should make for a lively argument for anyone leaning toward the days when John McEnroe, Bjorn Borg and Jimmy Connors battled a variety of challengers, to say nothing of a late-1950s pro circuit featuring Rod Laver, Lew Hoad, Pancho Gonzalez and Ken Rosewall.
With Chris Fowler an able host -- this guy is excellent at everything he does -- some other interesting comments came forth. Evert, returning to Australia for the first time in 23 years ("kind of a long flight," she said), noted that Federer "needs to finish off the close matches. When he has a lead, he gets a little too casual." Gilbert said that while "Nadal is an old 25, Federer is an incredibly young 30; I think he could easily play at this level for two or three more years."
And Patrick McEnroe launched an amusing tirade about the Slam-less Caroline Wozniacki holding the No. 1 ranking. "I am so tired of hearing that," he said. "The fact that she's No. 1 is really just a joke. I'll bet she'll be much happier, more relieved, when she falls out of No. 1 and the pressure's off. Can someone just win this title and become No. 1? Please? I can't take it any more."
Tennis Channel didn't make its debut until 7 a.m. on Monday, essentially closing time (11 p.m.) in Australia. So there was little to address but repeats of key matches over a six-hour time slot, and one couldn't help but notice the dropoff in quality since TC made its dramatic breakthrough at last year's French Open. I'd argue that at Roland Garros, TC assembled the best and deepest crew in tennis broadcasting history: John McEnroe, Mary Carillo, Martina Navratilova, Ted Robinson, host Bill Macatee, Justin Gimelstob, Lindsay Davenport and Bud Collins.
McEnroe is not in Melbourne (his only ESPN work will be at the U.S. Open), and neither is Carillo, who said via e-mail, "I'll be back at Tennis Channel for the French, Wimbledon, and the U.S. Open, and you'd better figure out a way to get to London for the Olympics. With all the tension on the men's Tour these days, the Olympics becomes a very personal thing for Nadal, Djokovic, Murray and that Swiss guy who's never won gold."
Robinson, the radio voice of the San Francisco 49ers, is immersed in one of the Bay Area's most compelling sports stories in years. Davenport is on maternity leave. So TC has taken some pretty big hits, relying on Macatee, Navratilova and Tracy Austin as its three-person crew on big matches.
Tennis Channel's golden opportunity, throughout the event, is a 7 p.m. starting time each night -- coinciding with the opening matches each day in Australia. ESPN took over at 9 p.m. on Monday and Tuesday, but due to basketball commitments, ESPN won't begin its tennis coverage until 11 p.m. on Wednesday and Thursday, giving TC a four-hour live window.
-- ESPN lent many voices to the Nadal-Federer dispute over the Tour's long schedule, Gilbert saying there's "no real leadership" in the sport with so much power divided between the ATP and ITF. "We need a union, and then we need a commissioner," said Gilbert. "Then we can actually make a change."
-- Nadal explained his bizarre knee injury -- suffered while sitting in a chair -- in remarkable detail, prompting Cahill to say, "Too much information. That type of stuff is probably best left within his team. All he's (doing) there is giving the locker room a little more ammunition in feeling they can match up with him."
-- What, no sign of Donald Young, Christina McHale or Sloane Stephens -- all first-round winners -- on either network? Unlike Wimbledon, a number of outside courts aren't equipped for television coverage. That applied to all three of these matches, as well as Milos Raonic's first-rounder on Court 19.
-- Shriver did catch up with Young and Stephens after their matches. Typically well-spoken, with a ton of presence, Stephens said there's no longer a feeling of anxiety among the next generation of American players: "We're kinda feeling like the big dogs now."
-- Navratilova described the Rod Laver Arena surface as "slower than clay. It's tough out there, and the balls are heavy. Very tough to put the ball away." She also lamented the tournament's mid-January start, saying, "I didn't even play the Australian in my last few years (1990-94) because I didn't have time to prepare. I'd like to see it start 2-3 weeks later, in February. The weather would be good enough. But they have it now because of the Australian holidays."
-- Wisely taking the international view and realizing that Bernard Tomic-Fernando Verdasco five-setter was Monday's match of the day, ESPN picked it up early and stayed with the action. Missing: Tomic's stunning post-match admission that he pretended to be exhausted in the third set, giving Verdasco a false sense of security (Tomic came from two sets down to win).
-- Both networks ignored the first-round wins by Francesca Schiavone and Alexander Dolgopolov, two of the most stylish and creative players on Tour, both of whom offer a refreshing break from standard baseline tennis.
-- ESPN favors on-set interviews to press-conference remarks, and the plan worked extremely well with Victoria Azarenka (charming), Petra Kvitova (getting more comfortable with interviews), Li Na (so witty and mature) and Sam Querrey (upbeat, something a lot of skeptical fans needed to see) all offering something insightful.
-- At some point, I'd like to hear Navratilova address the controversial remarks by Margaret Court, one of Australia's most fabled tennis legends, regarding homosexuality. This is familiar stuff from Court, but the rage within the tennis community will not die. When Laura Robson stepped into Margaret Court Arena for her first-round match, she wore a rainbow hair tie, "because I believe in equal rights for everyone."
-- If you love tennis and don't own a DVR (the TiVo-like systems), this is the time to get one. And here's a tip for anyone taping overnight action: Make sure you tape the show following the tennis (such as ESPN's "Mike and Mike in the Morning"). If something important is in progress, neither network has a problem extending coverage beyond the designated slot.