Sadly, most American tennis fans have no idea how well their sport can be covered on television. On the BBC telecasts of Wimbledon, the mellifluous Dan Maskell chairs the proceedings. He knows the language and the game and attends to both. He is joined in the booth by only one other commentator, most often a thoughtful analyst named John Barrett, while another professional announcer is stationed in a room below to interview the players—sitting down, intelligently, at length. Tennis is a mano a mano contest, and court technique is no more important than the personalities involved.
Unfortunately, of the U.S. networks CBS is by far the worst—in every sport—at putting any heart and soul into its coverage. Just point a lot of cameras, overwhelm us with expertise and presume that gets the job done. CBS aired 30 hours of the 1980 U.S. Open; much of it was live, but except for the points themselves, none of it was alive.
Because the CBS tennis announcers have less than kindergarten journalism credentials, they were utterly at the mercy of the action. If a match was good, CBS was swept along with the tide; much of the time, though, it was in way over its talking heads. The people to be blamed are those who chose such a me-too staff and designed such a monotonous product.
Producer Frank Chirkinian has made his mark running CBS' golf events, and this showed. In the early going, Chirkinian had the cameras hopping all around Flushing Meadow, destroying the continuity of matches, which is crucial to building the drama in tennis. And, oddly, he seemed to have made a decision to keep us from getting to know any of the players. The poor golfers: now we have a good idea why, on CBS, they all appear to be the same bloodless blond bores from Sunbelt U.
September 14, 1980
While disdaining the athletes, Chirkinian made us endure a platoon of competing voices. Pat Summerall, never adding anything original, was most interested in eliciting sophomoric "picks" from his announcing colleagues. Well, of course, none of them is really an announcer, like virtually everybody else in TV sports, they are only chatterers. This plethora of chatterers had to waste a great deal of time ego-massaging one another, especially on the nightly half-hour highlight show during which time was at a premium.
Largely, it was a half hour of chain introductions. Jack would introduce Pat who would introduce Tony, who would introduce about eight seconds' worth of a match. It was reminiscent of the old Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts. "Whom did you bring, Newk?" "Arthur, I brought a third-round doubles match." Alas, the players were rarely introduced. Incredibly, but typically, even when Chris Evert Lloyd beat Tracy Austin in a match Chris considered among the most emotional of her career, CBS didn't choose to show Chris talking after her superb victory. As journalism, that was inexplicable, if not, indeed, negligent.
Tim Ryan, a professional announcer who does interviews well, was seldom given the opportunity to do one. He was like the twin brother in Thomas Tryon's novel The Other—the one who was never seen. Just: "Now here's Tim with the other scores." Next year, hire a Western Union ticker, CBS. But once—hallelujah!—Tony Trabert was dispatched to interview a player! Jimmy Connors, courtside! Trabert chose to ask Connors who his next opponent would be—information that anybody, even a chatterer, could've read off the draw sheet. To ask such a question is equivalent to an airline pilot inquiring of the passengers where it is he is supposed to be flying them. When Trabert returned to the booth, however, Summerall was beside himself. "Welcome back, Trab!" he fairly cried. "Great job!" You would have thought Trabert had interviewed Gaddafi at the Wailing Wall.
But, it must be said, Trabert and the other microphone jocks and jockettes were outstanding at providing stroke commentary. Trabert, especially, has a polished delivery and a keen eye and is extraordinarily prescient at anticipating strategy. John Newcombe is good company and not afraid to criticize. Virginia Wade apprenticed well at the BBC, and Mary Carillo is, as ring announcers used to say in welcoming pugs before the main event, a pleasing newcomer from Queens. However, instead of so many of the same types, how much better it would've been if some genuine electronic journalists had been thrown into the mix to really cover a tournament—not just a bunch of locker-room pals "bringing it to you."
Most depressing—and insulting to the viewers—was the fact that never has a network crew been so sloppy and poorly prepared. It was obvious that none of the chatterers could be bothered to do any homework. Just go out there and "follow the action." The jocks in the booth were so unprepared that they seemed unsure of players' rankings and unfamiliar with even the most basic tournament history. Summerall played an avuncular not-my-job straight man, the Chris Schenkel of the '80s, and everybody else smugly winged it. We were told almost nothing of relatively fresh faces like Hana Mandlikova and Johan Kriek, and when it came to the better-known heroes, no effort was made to delve beneath the surface. What were supposed to pass as moments of color and background added up to no more than hype.
Tennis is a very open drama; the players wage their battles against one another in a confined space where their frustrations and triumphs are readily apparent. It isn't at all like golf, which is bucolic and internal, man alone with his club selection. But Chirkinian and his Xeroxed chatterers played it that way. And with their effort they patronized us rather than informed us.
It's difficult to understand how a network could invest so much money—about $3.5 million for the rights alone—and time and electronic energy in covering the Open, and then be so derelict as journalists.