ESPN's Chris Fowler discusses calling the spellbinding Australian Open

0:38 | Tennis
Media Circus: Broadcasting the Australian Open
Monday January 30th, 2017

Hours before Roger Federer’s spellbinding victory over Rafa Nadal on Sunday in the men’s final of the Australian Open, ESPN tennis announcer Chris Fowler told SI.com that the 2017 Australian Open would rank at the top of all his tennis broadcasting assignments.

Then came Federer’s 6–4, 3–6, 6–1, 3–6, 6–3 win over Nadal, an epic that will be remembered for generations given what was at stake in the GOAT discussion between the two players.

“It was a privilege to call and I won’t forget this night,” Fowler said an hour after Federer’s win. “It’s something to really savor. I wish more people understood and felt the power of the moments tennis can provide. At its best, it’s hard to match.”

In an interview with SI.com from his Melbourne hotel room on the morning of the Federer-Nadal match, Fowler discussed the particular challenges of calling this Federer-Nadal final (SI’s Jon Wertheim titled it “Fed-Nadal Bowl XXXV”). For starters, every U.S. tennis fan would view the broadcast through his or her lens depending on how they felt about the players—arguably the two most popular men’s tennis players of all time.

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“This is a unique match to call because of the emotional investment fans make in this,” Fowler said. “Not just when it’s Rafa versus Roger but this particular match. There are implications about each guy’s legacy. You are talking about 18 to 14 or 17 to 15 in terms of Slam counts. You are talking about Nadal making it five slam finals in a row over Roger. Roger told me this would be his sweetest win ever. Not just because he is 35 and it’s been awhile but because it’s Rafa.”

ESPN had a great two weeks in Melbourne and it delivered a soaring men’s final production. On this note, Fowler has developed into a sensational tennis game caller and I’m particularly appreciative that he understands the sport is often best when announcers say nothing. ESPN used a four-person booth (Fowler, John McEnroe, Patrick McEnroe and Darren Cahill courtside) for Federer-Nadal and the quartet found the right balance between commentary and letting the natural sound of the action speak for itself. In a text after the match, Fowler said he was particularly pleased with how the production group handed the final game given the multiple challenge points. (Here’s how ESPN called the championship point.)

Fowler has called previous Federer-Nadal matches, including the 2014 Australian Open semifinals and matches in Miami, Indian Wells and Cincinnati. (Dick Enberg called the 2009 Australian Open final for ESPN.) The ESPN broadcaster said that the preparation for familiar players such as Federer and Nadal is different as opposed to educating the audience about someone they have not seen much.

“My preparation was on what is new and different for them and I tried to spend as much time around them as I could from talking to them, to watching practice, to talking to Carlos Moya (Nadal’s coach) and Ivan Ljubicic (Federer’s coach), and the different people in each camp. I wanted to try to find out what made this January 2017 match unique or different or special and what would decide it.”

Given the time (3:30 a.m. ET) the men’s and women’s Australian Open finals air in the States, ESPN’s audience this weekend was particularly informed and passionate about the sport. Fowler said ESPN’s production group is always conscious of the U.S. viewer who gets up (or stays up) in the middle of the night to watch these finals.

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“The producers are the ones who keep us honest about what time it is back in the States,” Fowler said. “When you are in the booth doing the match, it’s 9 or 10 o’clock at night here and the focus that it takes to do these well, you are not necessarily thinking about what time it is for the audience. But no matter when people tune in, they will get a sense of what has happened. That’s why we do frequent resets of what has happened. That is our biggest concession to time of day.”

Worth noting for the Australian Open is ESPN’s broadcasters have a unique booth position. Fowler and his analysts sit in a cramped booth located behind the baseline on the court level of Rod Laver Arena. Fowler said he calls many points off a monitor given how low the on-air crew is located. He is often looking through the legs of a linesman or a ball person during a point.

“You are moving your eyes five or six times from the court to the screen to find the best vantage point,” Fowler said. “You have to adjust to that over the course of a tournament to do it right for a final. It’s not like any other position in the world. We choose it because once you get used to sitting behind home plate you don’t want to move to the center field bleachers. What you can get from down there is so valuable. It’s just a window into a soul. What we can do for a viewer is to let them know what we saw in case the camera did not catch it. You can see body language for a player or if a player’s movement is off a bit.

“Sometimes it’s so intense, it’s frightening. For example, Serena is every bit as intense playing Venus as she is for other matches and maybe more. We can see it on her face. I would not want to call a football game on the sidelines because you need to see the all-22. But in tennis, it is a privilege to have that position and to look into their souls like that. It is a little bit addictive.”

Something you likely are not aware of regarding the Australian Open is that ESPN is bound by the images captured by the host broadcaster (world feed). ESPN cameras do not shoot the matches. They do have limited cameras inside the stadium but they must work around the world feed and that can present production issues.

“It’s better to be the host broadcaster, I’ll tell you that,” Fowler said. “Number one, we are not in control of every aspect of the production so decisions are made by the host broadcaster director that we would not necessarily make. You have to roll with that. As an announcer, you have to react to some of the pictures they are presenting. You can’t push a button and say [to a producer or director], lets not do this or do this.”

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Specifically, Fowler said that the Australian Open has more replays than he would choose for a broadcast. He would prefer a broadcast stay live on the tennis more. While he likes the shots of the super slo-mo facial expressions of the players, Fowler thinks they are shown too often during this tournament. He said that the host broadcaster for Wimbledon is much closer to an American-style broadcast of tennis.

“At times my preference would be to live on the players a lot more then we are allowed to be,” Fowler said. “But having said that, the pictures are phenomenal. It’s not really a complaint, it’s just something you have to adjust to on the fly.”

While it’s fair criticism to note the many conflicts of interest that tennis broadcasters in America have, including those employed by ESPN, the production part of ESPN’s tennis coverage is first rate. Think about the tonnage, graphics, teases and stat packages you saw over the last two weeks—just sensational.

“If people in the States got a chance to watch more tennis coverage, I think they would appreciate the commitment that we make,” Fowler said. “They might not agree 100% with the philosophy but I think they would see we are trying to give them as much as we can, and are giving them more than others around the world. I think our broadcasters try to be down the middle, which is something not even attempted by tennis broadcasters around the world. If you saw an Andy Murray match, for example, in the UK, you would see that. Or a French match at Paris. There is no comparison. I think we strive for fairness and a balanced presentation.”

Fowler made clear both in a phone interview and via text after the men’s final that this was a tournament unlike any we’ve seen in some time. While we will likely see the finalists appear in major finals again, it seems inconceivable given their ages that Serena and Venus Williams and Federer and Nadal will all reach the finals of the same major again.

“You had matches that absolutely no one saw coming—Denis Istomin over Novak Djokovic was right up among the biggest upsets we have ever seen,” Fowler said. Then [Mischa] Zverav stuns Murray against all the pundits' predictions. You have the top two players expected to dominate gone—yet you still end up with a dream final. It never happens. And that’s just the men’s tournament. The women had their own great plot lines. I have not seen a men’s Grand Slam ever like this. To have these two guys in the finals—the two most popular men’s players in the world, and Federer I think is the most popular player in the history of the sport—to have them across the net with implications about their legacy was incredible. It was why tennis fans were at a standstill across the world.”

The Noise Report

(SI.com examines the most notable sports media stories of the week)

1. As someone who watched the Federer-Nadal match on Sunday, I was curious on the historical data surrounding the most-watched sporting events that began after midnight on the East Coast. So I asked ESPN PR if it had research on the most-watched program in the history of its network between the hours of 3 to 5 a.m. ET. The network said its data only goes back to 1991. The most-watched hour in that time frame? A Sept. 14, 2009 edition of NFL Primetime that aired on a Monday between 3:10 a.m. and 4:10 a.m. It drew 1.703 million viewers. The New York Times reported that live coverage of the America’s Cup Finals in 1988 (which went overnight) reached more than 1.8 million households. The final viewership for Federer-Nadal will be out Tuesday.

1a. Here’s Fox’s plans for the Super Bowl, including all the bloviating on FS1.

1b. Tune In is offering something pretty cool for TuneIn Premium subscribers. For the Patriots-Falcons game, listeners have access to their choice of 10 different play-by-play feeds in eight different languages, including English, Spanish, Flemish, French, German, Hungarian, Japanese and Mandarin.

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1c. The MMQB’s Emily Kaplan wrote a piece on the most difficult year of Fox Sports broadcaster Erin Andrews’s life.

2. Last Wednesday ESPN announced that Brent Musburger, whose sports media career spans six decades, will end his play-by-play career with the company at the end of the month. The 77-year-old Musburger’s final telecast will be Georgia at Kentucky on Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN.

But Musburger is not retiring. He’s relocating to Las Vegas to help launch a multi-channel network dedicated to sports gambling information. His new job will have him broadcasting live from a custom-built studio in the sports book of the South Point Hotel Casino in Las Vegas. On Monday, I’ll have a long interview with Musburger about his new role. He made it clear on multiple occasions that he was not forced out by ESPN, nor did he hear from ESPN management on his comments about Joe Mixon.

2a. Two pieces to read on Musburger:

The Boston Globe’s Chad Finn.

Associated Press national columnist Tim Dahlberg.

3. Episode 100 of the Sports Illustrated Media Podcast features NBC Sports broadcaster Mike Tirico, who works on a variety of sports for that company, including the NFL, golf, college football (Notre Dame) and the Olympics.

In this podcast, Tirico discusses which sport is the toughest to prepare for as a broadcaster and why; the legacy of Brent Musburger; the advice he would give college broadcasting students on how to succeed in 2017; how he gets evaluated by his bosses; which aspect of football play-by-play is the most difficult; why he left ESPN for NBC; whether he was frustrated by Monday Night Football’s schedule in relation to Fox, CBS and NBC’s NFL schedules; how critical a network broadcaster can be of coaches, players or the league; the comments made by Bill Simmons that Tirico failed Tony Kornheiser while both worked on Monday Night Football; his current relationship with Kornheiser; whether a woman will call the NFL in the near future; how he balances calling a game in which his alma mater (Syracuse) is playing; what it was like working with Hubie Brown; the broadcaster he would most like to meet; his NBC golf schedule in 2017; his connection to the University of Buffalo; whether SportsCenter’s new format will be successful and much more.

You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Google Play and Stitcher.

3a. Thanks to the following publications for picking up (and transcribing) some of the interview above:

• Awful Announcing has a piece on Tirico answering the question about what agreement was in place with NBC regarding his calling NFL games this year.

• The Washington Post has a piece on Tirico answering the question on his relationship with Tony Kornheiser in the Monday Night Football booth.

3b. On Thursday the SI Media Podcast will have a 75-minute interview with Jemele Hill and Michael Smith on their upcoming SportsCenter assignment—they will co-host the 6:00 p.m. SportsCenter—as well as how one handles internal politics at ESPN and why sports broadcasting has historically lacked women of color behind the camera in supervisory roles.

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Sports pieces of note:

Buffalo News writer Tim Graham went searching for kicker Bjorn Nittmo. What he found will haunt you.

• ESPN.com’s Kevin Arnovitz, on DeMarcus Cousins.

• For sports journalism lovers: Here is every Super Bowl game story that SI has run in the magazine.

• From John Ourand: The oral history of Fox’s glowing puck.

• Via Denny Burkholder of CBS Sports: The Lost Royal Rumble.

• SI’s Alex Prewitt went behind the scenes with the Golden Knights, Las Vegas's first major league franchise.

Non-sports pieces of note:

• Via Wired’s Brendan I. Koerner: Can You Turn A Terrorist Back Into A Citizen?

• From The Week: What I fear about the age of Trump.

• Via the New Yorker: Doomsday prep for the super rich.

The $99 Billion Idea, via Bloomberg BusinessWeek.

• From James Fenton: Murderous Manila: On the Night Shift.

• From Motherboard: The Data That Turned The World Upside Down.

• From Vanity Fair: How Author Timothy Tyson Found the Woman at the Center of the Emmett Till Case.

• From The Atlantic: The Hollywood List Everyone Wants to Be On.

• The New York Times obit, from Virginia Heffernan, on Mary Tyler Moore.

5. Sports Business Daily assistant managing editor Austin Karp reported NBA games on ESPN had averaged 1.6 million viewers as of this week, down 7% compared to 1.72 million viewers at the same point in the calendar last season. Karp said it’s the lowest figure for the cable net since the 2012–13 season.

5a. Writer Karim Zidan, on why the UFC may benefit during the Donald Trump White House.

5b. Newsday’s Neil Best spoke to the Nets' announcers about calling the worst team in basketball.

5c. Karp reported that NBC last Saturday drew 2.81 million viewers for the primetime window of the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, the lowest Saturday primetime window for the event in at least a decade, and likely further back, when the event aired on ABC. Karp said last year’s event drew 3.75 million viewers, while the 2015 Saturday primetime window drew 3.33 million viewers. In 2008, the event drew 5.184 million viewers.

5d. Former LSU coach Les Miles will be a guest analyst for the ESPNU Signing Day Special on ESPNU and ESPN2 this Wednesday.

5e. The Sporting News examined Bleacher Report’s plans to appeal to millennials via live sports.

5f. ESPN’s new studio team for its Sunday NBA showcase—Sage Steele and analyst Jalen Rose—debuted this week.

5g. The Players’ Tribune (TPT) announced the launch of a podcast network, featuring oral histories, athlete-hosted podcasts and other shows. Its production partner is DGital Media, which does Pod Saves America and the SI Podcasts, including mine.

5h. E:60 will get a 52-week run on ESPN and Outside The Lines will move into a new, state-of-the-art studio for its daily show.

5i. The New Yorker profiled J.J. Redick’s fledgling podcast career.

5j. Last week Fox Sports announced that it hired Wieden+Kennedy New York to create creative activations (e.g. ads) for the network’s sports properties and original programming, including FS1’s daily studio shows, with a specific emphasis on the FIFA World Cup on Fox. What’s interesting here is that W+K was the longtime lead agency for ESPN (it created the “This Is SportsCenter” campaign) before the two entities parted ways in December. Operatives for both Fox Sports and ESPN were working reporters last week on this story, which is always fun.

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