Something to remember as you wade through the three-network tier of French Open television coverage: They're in this thing together. And that matters.
Remember the men's final of the 2010 U.S. Open? It was one of those roofless disasters at the National Tennis Center, a tournament completely dismantled by rain, and when the Rafael Nadal-Novak Djokovic match ran a bit too long for CBS' liking, it was suddenly and rudely pawned off to ESPN2. Worse yet, if the match had lasted a bit longer, it would have been switched to ESPN Classic so the alternate Monday Night Football game could be televised on ESPN2.
Welcome to Paris, home of the French Open and broadcast harmony. ESPN stokes the fires, Tennis Channel weighs in with the heavy hitters and NBC handles the weekend drama -- with a mood of mutual respect throughout.
I can't recall a sports day quite like Sunday, the christening of Roland Garros. Ted Robinson and John McEnroe, unquestionably the premier play-by-play team in the business, were the showcase stars of two networks, on the same day, within a few minutes' time. This could only happen when networks publicly embrace each other as partners, complete with cheery cross-promotions that place the whole complicated package under one roof.
Taking it from the top:
ESPN is enjoying its best-ever exposure at the French, kicking off the daily coverage at 5 a.m. (Eastern) with absolute free reign over the ensuing five hours. This is a seasoned, excellent crew -- Chris Fowler, Darren Cahill, Pam Shriver, Brad Gilbert, Patrick McEnroe, Mary Joe Fernandez -- and there's a valuable new addition in Chris Evert, the greatest-ever American on clay courts with her 125-match winning streak (1973-79) and seven titles at the tournament.
The Sunday start has drawn some richly deserved criticism, and the ESPN crew didn't have much to work with: half-empty stadiums (at best, save Jo-Wilfried Tsonga's first match) and none of the really big names. But the two main objectives were nailed down: highlights of Melanie Oudin's first win at a major in nearly two years, and an interview with Brian Baker, whose comeback from multiple surgeries made him such a hot story heading into the event.
Handy hint if you're taping ESPN2's early-morning slot for later viewing: Set your DVR for the next show (10 a.m. Eastern), as well. It may not be a blockbuster match, given that Tennis Channel has exclusive rights to the two main courts -- Chatrier and Lenglen -- when it begins its broadcast at that time. But ESPN2's show ran long on Sunday and Monday, in order to wrap up lesser (but still relevant) matches on the outer courts.
As the morning clock struck 10, Tennis Channel wasted no time introducing Robinson and McEnroe, legendary for their nocturnal brilliance for so many years at the U.S. Open but diminished of late by ESPN's growing presence at the majors. They went right to work in the Tsonga-Andrey Kuznetsov match, and as the conversation turned to French players, McEnroe had some questions about Gael Monfils' withdrawal from the tournament. Claiming that Monfils was most disabled "mentally," McEnroe said, "I know there are some injury issues, but to me, he's afraid to embrace the competition."
McEnroe's strength -- and no other analyst touches him here -- is his ability to sustain a lively discussion that has nothing to do with the action at hand. This can be a real blessing if the match is dragging, but as the cameras switched to Andy Roddick's lamentable loss to Nicolas Mahut, McEnroe cited the American's many weaknesses, particularly the service return, and said, "He just doesn't do a good enough job on this surface. A loss here is going to dent his already-fragile confidence."
As the noon hour approached, signaling the arrival of NBC's first broadcast, the strangest thing happened. "John and I are going out on the town," Robinson announced. "We're going to the Eiffel Tower," said McEnroe with a laugh, and Robinson added, "There might be some knuckleheads speaking on NBC coming up."
This was a subtle way of proclaiming that if you switched to NBC (Tennis Channel still had several hours of broadcast time left), you could continue hearing these two on the Roddick match. It was the only way you'd be able to see it, since NBC had inherited the rights, and when TC came back from a commercial -- Roddick down two sets and up 4-3 in the third -- it had Brett Haber and Justin Gimelstob working the final stages of the Tsonga match.
Meanwhile, Robinson and McEnroe hardly missed a beat. They were still working the Roddick match, joined anew by Mary Carillo, without having to move into another booth -- only now it was on NBC. As a TC spokesman told me via e-mail, "We have wonderful relationships to that end with both NBC and ESPN2. We all want people watching tennis on TV whenever it's carried."
This marks a major breakthrough, though, for Tennis Channel in particular. It shows a ton of self-confidence when you're not afraid to promote a rival network, even if it means a temporary loss of viewership. It also gives TC a chance to show off its product at full strength, as opposed to being stifled by limited resources -- so evident two weeks ago in Madrid, when TC couldn't show a single women's match until the tournament was five days old.
It should be noted that NBC's three-hour Sunday broadcast was little more than a promotional tease. The network will be showing the French Open only on weekends from now on. But we got a taste of that priceless, New York-raised crew of Robinson, Carillo and McEnroe, who continued to hammer away at Roddick's malaise. "He used to have a big forehand," McEnroe said. "Now he's lucky if it's one of the top 75, 100 forehands in the game." And the crowning touch: "This is mental. He looks like he's not there right now, like he can't wait to get off the court."
As a graphic appeared, hyping the upcoming match between 31-year-old Francesca Schiavone and 41-year-old Kimiko Date-Krumm, Carillo cracked, "That will be on Tuesday. They were going to play tomorrow, but they want those two to get a little bit older."
McEnroe showed a sharp eye during the Venus Williams-Paula Ormaechea match, in which Venus seemed oddly disengaged in losing the first set. Very early in Venus' comeback, leading 2-0 in the second set, McEnroe sensed "she's starting to impose her will. She's finally gotten her out of her comfort zone. She's a much different player than we saw a half-hour ago."
One notch off the McEnroe score card: He should have done his homework on Venus' ailment (Sjögren's syndrome). It was a bit awkward when he had to ask Robinson about it on the air, then said, "Oh, it's a Swedish thing."
There seems to be a new trend in Grand Slam broadcasting, covering all three of these networks: the multi-tasking anchor. The very capable Fowler has been calling several matches with Patrick McEnroe, even if they're happening simultaneously (such as those involving Roger Federer and Lleyton Hewitt on Monday). Haber did yeoman's duty on Tennis Channel after Robinson had moved over to NBC, and for many hours thereafter. The Robinson-McEnroe-Carillo team worked the entire three hours on NBC -- and all of it worked just fine.
After being forced to endure that drab Sunday-morning schedule, ESPN kicked into gear on Monday with Victoria Azarenka's perilous escape against Alberta Brianti. As the world No. 1 fell behind 4-0 in the second set (after losing the first), Evert, working alongside Cahill, said, "I can't believe what I'm seeing right now. OK, she lost a tiebreaker, but that's the time a No. 1 player would come back. She's just going downhill ... so many errors. I can understand now why her best result (in Paris) has been a quarterfinal. She's just dejected, her shoulders are slumped ... she doesn't really look like she wants to fight back."
Cahill, however, knew it wouldn't take much to turn the tide against such a low-ranked player. "Work the point," he implored, as if addressing Azarenka directly. "When everything else is failing, keep the ball in the court. You know it's a big occasion for your opponent. She is going to get tight. There's no question about it. So let her get tight. Keep the ball in."
Everyone on the ESPN crew seems to get a kick out of the uninhibited Gilbert, who said at one point during the Djokovic-Potito Starace match, "By the way, that might have been the worst shot I've ever seen Djokovic hit. A drop shot that didn't even land on his own service line?
To which Cahill shot back, through laughter: "You don't let him get away with anything, do you? B.G., calling out Novak!"
Boiling down all this coverage to the essence: If you're out to watch the French Open live on weekdays, start with the 5 a.m. ESPN telecast, switch over to TC at 10 a.m., and you won't miss a thing. But here's a convenient shortcut: TC's three-hour "French Open Tonight" each evening at 7 p.m. Here we find host Bill Macatee, a terrific interviewer who conveys a sense of major-event importance by his presence alone, and a complete wrap of the day's best matches, plus interviews and choice moments from the interview room.
(One of the more revealing clips from Monday: Ryan Harrison, after losing to Gilles Simon, saying, "I'm going to get better. I'm gonna get good enough to where [his temper] is not gonna matter. Because I'm gonna be so good that I'm just gonna execute. And I will get there." Pretty strong words.)
Carillo has done some studio hosting on TC's airy terrace, as well, and that guarantees an essential touch of whimsy and irreverence. I have to admit, though, that I miss Carillo calling matches with Martina Navratilova, another mainstay of the TC crew. I've never laughed so hard, while learning so much, as I did when they worked together at last year's French. Something to look forward to, perhaps.