View from couch leaves mixed impressions
You know you're in for a treat when CBS color commentator John McEnroe (above) is calling a match for alongside Mary Carillo. (AP)
I’ve had the privilege of covering 21 U.S. Open tournaments in person over the years, with a list of memories ranging from a John McEnroe-Bjorn Borg final to a mid-match standing ovation for Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi. I’m getting a very different perspective this year, following the action through the CBS, ESPN and Tennis Channel networks. Serving up a few thoughts from the first week:
ACE: Today’s viewers benefit from more coverage than ever before. It’s essentially an all-day affair, and that means regular flirtations with the midnight hour.
FAULT: Even if you’re tossing aside the rest of your life for tennis (kind of fun, with an event of this magnitude), it’s impossible to see everything without the benefit of a DVR system and tape-delayed viewing. Last week’s daytime coverage ran from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Tennis Channel and 1 p.m. to 7 on ESPN, with entirely different schedules (ESPN being granted most of the marquee matches).
ACE: Remarkably, CBS is involved for the 43rd consecutive year, and any time John McEnroe sits down with Mary Carillo to analyze a match, you’ve reached the summit.
FAULT: CBS won’t mess with its prime-time coverage, particularly 60 Minutes on Sunday nights, and that creates some awkward situations. The network was forced to sign off at 6 p.m. Sunday, with Stan Wawrinka leading Andy Murray 4-1 in the third set. What was missed? Wawrinka’s stunning upset, merely the most significant result of the tournament to that point.
ACE: Tennis Channel, given exclusive nighttime rights on Saturday and Sunday of Labor Day weekend, was there to save the day, picking up the match to its conclusion.
FAULT: Dick Enberg is a legend in the broadcasting business, and the mere sound of his voice lets you know something important is taking place. But as viewers of the French Open and Wimbledon (on NBC) realize, Ted Robinson is the man you want alongside McEnroe and Carillo.
ACE: As CBS signed off and TC took over, there was Robinson calling the remainder of Murray-Wawrinka alongside Jimmy Connors. That’s a pretty solid pairing, by the way -- and Robinson-Martina Navratilova is even better.
FAULT: Beatrice Capra became the most remarkable story of the Open, defeating Aravene Rezai to reach the third round in her first main-draw tour appearance anywhere. Viewers deserved to see a CBS Saturday-morning feature on Capra -- her background, her personality, that sort of thing -- before she took the court against Maria Sharapova, but there was no build-up whatsoever.
ACE: Another compelling story, Mardy Fish’s late-in-life ascent, was superbly covered by CBS, from a Saturday feature to the incisive match commentary of McEnroe and Jim Courier.
FAULT: It became apparent, through little snippets of information, that McEnroe and Connors had practiced together during the tournament. Mortal enemies during their playing days, the two became more friendly a few years back and appeared together during Wimbledon telecasts. For anyone who remembered the tension of that rivalry, it was fascinating to see the two of them talking tennis together. Couldn’t happen here; too many networks (Connors works for TC, McEnroe for ESPN and CBS).
ACE: When Connors began working in television, viewers got about what they expected: Half-baked commentary from a man who had so rudely walked away from the game and wanted nothing to do with it. We see Connors now as a polished, engaging broadcaster who has done his homework on both the men’s and women’s side.
FAULT: If a fight breaks out in the stands, you can’t just ignore it, as networks invariably do when some idiot runs onto a baseball field. It’s not the same thing. This is big news in tennis, particularly during a big match on Ashe. Let viewers know what all the commotion is about.
ACE: Pam Shriver brings a welcome brand of honesty to her sideline reporting for ESPN. She went a bit too far at Wimbledon, finding herself in a testy mid-match exchange with James Blake (Shriver was in a broadcast booth that time), but she tends to reach past the tedious flow of standard questions. Example: She asked Sharapova if she’d like to get even with Novak Djokovic, somehow, after Djokovic unveiled his hilarious Sharapova impression to the world. (Sharapova backed off the question, but she was properly amused.)
FAULT: Djokovic’s relationship with the New York crowd is an ongoing saga, peaking with the Sharapova-Nadal impressions, destroyed when he was booed off the court two years ago, and now in magnificent repair -- all of it happening at night inside Ashe Stadium. Justin Gimelstob should have raised that issue during their TC sit-down interview.
One knock on the coverage by committee of this year's U.S. Open: not enough Bud Collins (right), the most authoritative voice in the sport. (AP)
ACE: It’s easy to spot a broadcaster who truly knows the game. ESPN’s Chris Fowler, who built a sterling reputation at the network with his college football coverage, has been a rock-solid anchor since the network got involved in Grand Slam events.
FAULT: Not enough Bud Collins, still the most authoritative voice in tennis. And I don’t mean the pre-packaged spots of Collins commentary. Sit down for interviews with the man. Ask him to name his top 10 players of all time, and how Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal fit in. Get some U.S. Open memories from the long-ago setting of Forest Hills. That sort of thing. Enlighten us.
ACE: We’re seeing more of the journalistic end than ever before, thanks mainly to Tennis Channel, which has taken the time to visit with some titans of tennis writing: Christopher Clarey, Steve Flink, Jon Wertheim and Doug Robson, among others.
FAULT: It’s understandable that TC would base its late-night highlights show in Los Angeles (big difference between 9 p.m. in Southern California and midnight in Queens). But in the process, you lose all sense of feel for the event -- and I’m still trying to fathom the choice of Kevin Frazier as host.
ACE: After a disappointing performance by Tennis Channel -- failing to even address the issue in day-after commentary -- Mary Carillo sternly criticized Andy Roddick on CBS, exposing his pathetic behavior toward a lineswoman and chair umpire during his loss to Janko Tipsarevic. Roddick should be past such hot-headed nonsense at this stage of his life, and Carillo made that clear.
FAULT: There’s a bit too much wonderfulness to the coverage in general, and all is not wonderful in tennis these days. Each of the networks should have a caustic, irreverent voice who is not directly connected to the game, addressing such topics as the demanding tour schedules, the inexcusably vague details regarding players’ injuries (think Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka), and the sight of a half-empty Ashe Stadium during most matches played during the day (while the outside grounds are so crowded, fans can barely move). On the flip side, where’s Gossip Corner? A lot of fans base their favoritism on sex appeal, personality and other matters of the aesthetic. Let’s find out who’s dating who (as long as the couple is open about it), who’s dancing the night away in Manhattan. And by all means, bring in a catty fashion designer to belittle the most tasteless outfits.
ACE: How two different voices capsulized the Gael Monfils dilemma: Before Monfils’ match against Tipsarevic, Courier described him as “the best pure athlete tennis has ever seen.” During the match, McEnroe pointed out that with Monfils failing to take full advantage of his size and speed, “He is slowly but surely becoming an afterthought.”
FAULT: The bottom-of-the-screen scroll has become an epidemic in sports television, asking viewers to forget about the primary event and commence reading. There’s nothing wrong with scorelines, particularly at an event as complex as the Open, but did you catch TC’s bright idea on Sunday? As Murray made a service toss with match point against him -- match point, mind you -- this essential information rolled across the screen:
“September 5, 1990: On this day, Pete Sampras ended Ivan Lendl’s bid for his ninth straight U.S. Open final.” So in other words: Hell with the point. Let’s take a journey down through the years. Unbelievable.