ESPN showed commitment with Wimbledon coverage
It is nothing to celebrate. The major television networks have been our window into the Grand Slam circuit for decades, mixing superb commentary with priceless images of the sport's most compelling players and personalities. But there's an element gone missing: commitment. For that reason, tennis fans can only welcome ESPN's ever-growing dominance at the majors.
As we look back on Wimbledon, has any major sporting event been so thoroughly covered? Tennis Channel was there, as well, lurking on the perimeter, and if you dreamed of programming that lasted from the waking hours until bedtime, you got it: eight hours from ESPN, then another seven from TC, with nearly all of your favorite broadcasters in play.
That's called commitment. It provides what we don't get from NBC when it tape-delays crucial matches or springs Today on an unsuspecting audience. It's what vanished so inexcusably when CBS turned over a U.S. Open men's final to ESPN2 in mid-match (2010). To the major networks, commitment means a money-grabbing retreat to its most trusted programming, sports fans be damned.
And so there is change. Look back with nostalgia on the days of Bud Collins, Dick Enberg and Pat Summerall bringing the nation's tennis boom into your living room with such class and panache. Lament the diminishing presence of Ted Robinson working a match with John McEnroe and Mary Carillo. It's mostly about ESPN now, with essential contributions from Tennis Channel.
Here's how it breaks down:
• U.S. Open: CBS is still in the picture, as well as Tennis Channel, but ESPN recently signed an 11-year agreement to obtain all rights beginning in 2015. As of that year, thankfully, the Open's crazy final-weekend schedule will be trashed. Following Wimbledon's sensible setup, the women's semifinals will be held on Thursday, men's semifinals on Friday, women's final on Saturday and men's final on Sunday.
• Australian Open: ESPN will continue its near-exclusive coverage, with some live action from Tennis Channel.
• French Open: NBC's last stand, on weekends only, with TC and ESPN sharing the bulk of the coverage. NBC's contract allows it to televise one men's semifinal and both finals through 2024.
• Wimbledon: No changes from this year, when ESPN was the exclusive rights holder.
To whatever extent the major-network presence was missed, fans had to be delighted with the prospect of solid, no-surprises coverage at Wimbledon. I thought ESPN did its best work yet, culminating with impressive commentary from Chris Fowler and the McEnroe brothers, John and Patrick, in a three-man booth for the men's final and the Novak Djokovic-Juan Martin del Potro semifinal. That's a tricky assignment, but they offered just the right blend of insight, enthusiasm and -- most important -- silence.
John McEnroe was a blur throughout the fortnight, serving as the ultimate free agent. On several occasions, including the women's final, he could be heard on Tennis Channel's broadcast. Although TC has no match-coverage rights at Wimbledon, it was able to replay BBC matches on its nighttime show (after the ESPN window), so McEnroe -- who has had a long and satisfying relationship with BBC -- could be heard alongside the likes of Mark Petchey, a former tour player from England.
The strength of TC's coverage was in its studio arrangement, with first-rate hosts Carillo and Bill Macatee interviewing a wide-ranging cast of characters including John Newcombe, Jack Nicklaus, Wimbledon historian John Barrett, top British writers Richard Evans and Neil Harman and a number of American journalists. Jim Courier was a constant presence in the network's studio, and his often-edgy commentary was most welcome.
For example, while everyone was marveling at Agnieszka Radwanska's hitting quick-reaction defensive shots from a squatting position, Courier scoffed, "She doesn't need to do that. She's only doing it because she can."
And another: As video clips showed Grigor Dimitrov in "Baby Federer" mode, clearly imitating his idol's every technique, Courier pointed out, "I've never seen a great champion that was a mimic. It would be good for Dimitrov to find something inside of him that is his own."
As the Centre Court roof was closed after the third set of the Andy Murray-Jerzy Janowicz semifinal -- despite a vehement protest from Murray, who wanted to continue in the 30-40 remaining minutes of light -- ESPN's Brad Gilbert argued (and I agreed) that it's the most fair decision, starting fresh with a new set under the adjusted conditions. Courier countered that "it's an outdoor tournament, and should be played that way as long as possible. They'll be sitting around for a half-hour when they should be out there playing."
Hard to argue with that stance, either.
As for Robinson's future in tennis broadcasting, he wrote via e-mail, "I'm signing a new multiyear deal with NBC for the French Open and the Olympics, Olympic Trials and other Olympic sports events. I plan to work out a new TC deal for the French, Davis Cup and other events. Due to my schedule [Robinson is the radio voice of the San Francisco 49ers], I'll have only two days on site at the U.S. Open, for Tennis Channel on its primetime weekend matches."
Carillo has become a Tennis Channel fixture at the French Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open, and although her TC contract expires in October, it's likely she'll have a new deal in hand by year's end.
"I'll also be working the U.S. Open with CBS through 2014," she said, "and I'll do NBC work at the French Open for the foreseeable future."
Other thoughts on Wimbledon
• It's not a requirement that players be gracious in defeat, but Radwanska should take a close look at the aftermath of some heartbreaking losses in the tournament, notably those involving Janowicz, Fernando Verdasco, Rafael Nadal and Djokovic. To exude traditional class at Wimbledon, one should come up with a decent handshake and wait a few moments so both players can leave the court at once. Radwanska didn't even look at Sabine Lisicki during her dismissive handshake after the semifinals, then hurried off into the tunnel.
A big deal? Maybe not, but this is how a lot of casual fans will remember the talented Polish player. Yes, it was disheartening to read Greg Garber's ESPN.com account of Lisicki's meltdown in the final against Marion Bartoli, claiming, "This will be a popular win in the WTA locker room. Lisicki is not beloved by her playing peers. She is seen as overly dramatic and sometimes a bit precious."
Still, here's a tip for Radwanska. No need for hugs, kisses or smiles. Just look your opponent in the eye, if only for a moment.
• How could Lisicki become such an emotional wreck after staring down Serena Williams and gutting it out against Radwanska?
"Everything is a little bit different this day," Martina Navratilova said on Tennis Channel as Lisicki broke into tears during her loss to Bartoli on Saturday. "She's losing to the Wimbledon final. Most people need to play one before they win one."
Chris Evert agreed on ESPN, recalling her first Wimbledon final (1973) as a complete disaster, blown away by Billie Jean King in the first set and finding her composure too late in a 6-0, 7-5 loss.
Candid postmatch comment from Bartoli: "When I looked at Sabine's face before going on court, I saw someone very stressed about the situation."
It wasn't much fun to watch, that's for sure. About as enjoyable, tweeted The New York Times' Chris Clarey, "as watching your child freeze during their piano recital."
Credit Lisicki for admitting to the crowd that she was "just overwhelmed" by the occasion. She should check out the tapes of Jana Novotna's progression from a shocking collapse against Steffi Graf in the 1993 final (complete with tears on the Duchess of Kent's shoulder) to her richly satisfying championship victory against Nathalie Tauziat in '98.
• The Lisicki-Williams match in the fourth round was, from a technical standpoint, the highlight of the women's draw and the very definition of modern-day power. The sound of the balls leaving their rackets was so dynamic, I thought for a moment they were playing under a closed roof.
It was a blessed development, as well, that Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka vanished from the draw so quickly. Seriously, aside from their hardcore fans, did anyone lament their absence? The essence of pure tennis is so much about the soundtrack, the feeling of being mesmerized by a memorable rally. I never cease to be appalled by the arrogance and self-absorption of those two, knowing that their incessant caterwauling alienates a significant part of the audience -- both on TV and in person -- to say nothing of the WTA and Wimbledon officials.
And, no, it was hardly a coincidence that the Sharapova-Michelle Larcher de Brito match in the second round was banished to No. 2 Court. That was a very clear statement from the All England Club, where the sport's finest traditions are so ardently cherished.
• Milos Raonic must be wondering if he was born too late. He grew up watching the likes of Pete Sampras, Richard Krajicek and Goran Ivanisevic dominate Wimbledon matches with huge serves and net-rushing tactics, the kind of serve-and-volley tennis that always worked so well on grass. Now he's a grown man, and those days are gone. Big serves will always be an asset, but an all-around game is essential. While Raonic and John Isner consistently come up short, Janowicz and del Potro are the big guys most feared on tour.
• How ironic that in an age of baseline tedium, Taylor Townsend -- the fast-rising junior so rudely criticized for her physique before last year's U.S. Open -- is showing more hustle, variety and net-rushing skill than nearly anyone in women's tennis.
• And here was a comment, heard from a distinguished woman at my neighbor's tennis-watching party, as Bartoli was being interviewed on ESPN: "That's such a sweet, beautiful face. And no makeup, making it even more impressive. Don't you think she's adorable?"
There was agreement, all around. Take that, John Inverdale.