Tennis Channel comes of age with pitch-perfect French coverage

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Tennis Channel has come of age, and at the perfect time: during a Grand Slam event, with the whole world watching.

It has been a remarkable thing to witness. At this early stage of the French Open, TC has scored a clear-cut victory over ESPN, and this is no TKO. It's a full-blown knockdown.

Let's just say this from the start: If you were only to watch the coverage on ESPN2, running daily from noon to 6:30 ET, you'd be entirely satisfied. The network knows its way around tennis, and its broadcasting stable -- most notably Chris Fowler, Patrick McEnroe, Brad Gilbert and Darren Cahill -- represents credibility and knowledge. A six-and-a-half-hour slot is plenty of time to throw a blanket over that day's play, and ESPN comes through handsomely.

What I've found, though -- aside from the fact that almost none of it is live -- is that its coverage is a bit too reverential. There are times when sports television needs an edge, and ESPN's presentation reminds me of the Masters on CBS, where everything is simply wonderful and there are no annoying subplots to address.

Tennis Channel already had a splendid crew, but the addition of Mary Carillo was a major coup. The time slot is hardly ideal -- live action from 5 a.m. to noon, and that's a 2 a.m. start in my West Coast location -- but do whatever it takes to watch. It's for this very reason that DVRs were invented.

You have to think that as the tournament approached, TC executives planned to make an immediate impression on Sunday's first show. Did they ever. Carillo and the esteemed Bill Macatee shared the anchor's role. Ted Robinson and John McEnroe handled the most intriguing men's matches. Carillo and Martina Navratilova did some priceless play-by-play together, and the always-stoked Justin Gimelstob held his own.

Here's how that first day went:

Right off the bat, things at this glorious event were not wonderful. "Quite frankly, it's not a great bunch of matches we have here," said Carillo, launching a tidy rip job (with Navratilova and Gimelstob) on the notion of starting a Grand Slam on a Sunday. None of the other Slams do it, the players don't like it, and while most of them have no say, Gimelstob pointed out that Roger Federer simply rejected an assignment to play that day.

"The power is with the talent," said Gimelstob. "Mary, you and I would be out there playing today."

There's a certain arrogance to the French Open way of doing things, right down to the tennis ball. The majors tend to respect tradition (Wimbledon has used Slazenger balls since 1902), but Roland Garros abruptly dropped Dunlop in signing a five-year deal with Babolat -- with the players having no say in the matter.

It remains to be seen how this lighter, harder ball will affect play, but the very idea is annoying. "This is the equivalent of bringing out a new basketball for the playoffs," said Navratilova. "You just don't do it."

Gimelstob explained that "it's a serving ball -- you'll see more aces than ever at the French," and "probably a negative for Rafael Nadal, as far back as he stands." Navratilova predicted it will definitely give an advantage to the big hitters, pointing out that the ones likely to benefit the most -- Maria Sharapova, Petra Kvitova, Victoria Azarenka, Andrea Petkovic and Kim Clijsters -- are all in the bottom half of the draw.

With such a weak schedule, very little tennis was shown in the first hour. Tennis Channel announced beyond doubt that it was bringing its viewers a little bit more. Then the real show started.

Robinson and McEnroe were a staple for years on the USA Network's coverage of the U.S. Open. They're the most informative, respected broadcasting team in the sport, and they clearly savored this reunion. Wisely, TC put them in position to comment on all the big men's matches as they occurred, without the slightest break in continuity.

Watching Novak Djokovic return serve against Thiemo De Bakker, McEnroe said, "That serve was just hit at 130 miles an hour. Did you see where the return was (a backhand, hard and deep)? This is what he does better than Federer and Nadal, the return of serve, and it's driving those guys crazy right now. It's uncanny how early he's seeing the ball off his opponent's racket."

As the scene shifted back to the outdoor-terrace setting that anchors the coverage, Lindsay Davenport told Carillo that "there's no guarantee we get an American man in the second round," and said it would be a "surprise" if any U.S. women made it that far.

Davenport had a typically Americanized struggle on clay throughout her career, but she did reach the semifinals once. "Did you ever think you could actually win it?" Carillo asked her.

"Oh, never," Davenport said, laughing but not kidding. And as she surveyed the bleak landscape of American junior tennis, Davenport said "it could easily be another 10 years on the women's side" before a young prospect really breaks through.

Then Carillo took to the court, calling the Jelena Jankovic-Alona Bondarenko match with Navratilova. I'm not sure how often they've worked together, but they're welcome any time, any venue -- men's matches included.

Saying what most analysts feel, but seldom say on the air, Navratilova completely wrote off Jankovic as a significant factor. "I don't see her beating that many people," said Martina. "She has played the same way for 6-7 years, and she hasn't done anything with it. And she's in and out emotionally. She was a happier player before." Watching yet another weak Jankovic serve come forth, she went on, "Look at her: 5-10, 5-11, long arms -- that should be a weapon. But it's an awkward shot. She's not using her legs or her shoulders enough. She's just arm-ing it."

Bondarenko looked alarmingly gaunt, as if she's lost a bit too much weight. "She looks very thin," said Carillo. "I mean, someone get this woman a hoagie."

"Or three," said Martina.

"Let me throw out another name," said Carillo as they discussed some potential threats in the tournament. "Svetlana Kuznetsova."

"Oy," said Martina.

Carillo: "It's day one, and we're already into Yiddish?"

As the conversation moved on to Caroline Wozniacki -- hey, anything was more interesting than the match at hand -- Carillo said she "read somewhere" that Wozniacki's father would be enlisting Navratilova as a part-time coach.

"Yeah, I read that, too," said Martina.

"So it's not happening?"

"Not that I know of (laughter). I'd like to work with her. She's got a great attitude, and that's half the battle."

A bit later, as the telecast returned from a commercial, there was a gorgeous vista of downtown Paris, with the Eiffel Tower front and center.

"There was a French writer who said he used to eat at the Eiffel Tower," said Carillo, "because it was the only place in Paris where he didn't have to look at it."

There certainly is a fine sense of order to the French Open coverage, ESPN2 taking over immediately upon TC's exit at noon Eastern time. But if you've been watching since the early morning, or are taping the whole thing, there isn't much reason to keep going. Launching its initial telecast on Sunday, ESPN made no immediate reference to the match in progress when TC left the air -- a cliff-hanger between Bethanie Mattek-Sands (who went on to win) and Arantxa Parra Santonja. And by this time -- early evening at Roland Garros, where there are no lights -- there was nothing fresh to show. The key matches, involving Jankovic, Samantha Stosur, David Ferrer and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, had already been thoroughly covered by Tennis Channel, and ESPN proved once again that its viewers would rarely hear anything funny, outrageous or unpredictable.

French Open Tonight, a three-and-a-half-hour production that airs daily at 6:30 p.m. with repeats later in the evening, is Tennis Channel's wrapup show. Gaining the edge over ESPN once again, TC handles interviews in a comfortable outdoor setting with the host (usually Macatee) sitting in a chair and the subject relaxing on a sofa a few feet away. Looking to give this show immediate impact, TC opened with Macatee and Navratilova, who said "not much" is happening women's tennis because "nobody has stepped to the plate," and explained why Kvitova and Sharapova are her favorites because of their mental strength. Not long thereafter, McEnroe sat down with Macatee and offered his usual dose of knowledge and insight. (There's something about Macatee that reminds me of the late Jack Whitaker, perhaps not as clever but such a stable, trustworthy voice of reason.)

There were repeat segments of the day's key matches, but the influx of interviews kept things moving, along with the occasional mini-feature by the great Bud Collins, reflecting on Francesca Schiavone, Martina Hingis, Serbian tennis, Tony Trabert's mastery of the French (so rare for American men) in the 1950s, and Chanda Rubin's comeback from 0-5, love-40 down to Jana Novotna in the third round of the 1995 French.

Monday brought more of the same from Tennis Channel, with more relevant matches on the schedule and a bit less conversation. Thanks to Carillo, we got a look at the personable, sharp-witted Mattek-Sands, who dresses like a complete lunatic but represents the best of American women's tennis until the Williams sisters come back. It was all about eye-black, tattoos, Lady Gaga's designer, loving the big stage and showmanship, Carillo looking absolutely delighted by the absurdity of it all.

Conclusion: It bears repeating that this is hardly an attack on ESPN, but when it comes to the Grand Slam events, there's a new sheriff in town.

Final notes:

• Robinson, Carillo and John McEnroe will be the essential ingredients as NBC takes over on both weekends.

• Guilty of ignoring interview-room comments in the past, TC now has a feature called "Inside the Press Room," offering key segments from the top players. These sessions can be dreadfully dull, but when a humorous or incisive remark comes forth, we should know about it.

• If you get DirecTV, be sure to check the "French Open Mix" (check channel listings in the 700s), offering live coverage of six different courts. You won't get the big-gun announcers, but if you're keying on a match that isn't likely to get much coverage from the networks, this is your ticket.

• At one point during the Tennis Channel action on Monday, my 12-year-old daughter asked, "What's the deal? I can't read the score."

Are you listening, TC executives? YOUR SCORELINES ARE UNREADABLE. Everyone in my family has excellent eyesight, and we're all in a squint. Is that Federer or Fodolsky? A tiebreaker or 5-all? All credit for making it so unobtrusive at the lower left-hand corner of the screen, but for crying out loud, don't make it such hard work.