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U.S. Open TV Coverage

by Tony Medley

            The U.S. Open Tennis Championship on television gives tennis fans the alpha and omega of coverage. The alpha is the USA Network. Although USA uses CBS technicians, USA chooses the low camera for its play-by-play camera at least 25% of the time. The low camera is as superior for the tennis play-by-play camera as is the centerfield camera in baseball to show each pitch. Despite this, very few directors use it. This is pure laziness, if not cowardice. The high camera does cover more of the court so it’s easy to use it and not have to move to get every shot, but the low camera covers enough to make it workable and the angle and sight lines are so far superior, it should be obvious. The downsides are that if the ball is hit to the corners, the camera has to be moved a little to get the shot, and the player in the far court is a little harder to see. When watching from the high camera, one is robbed of the feeling of the speed and elevation of the ball. From the low camera, the viewer can see if the ball is clearing the net and by how much. From the high camera, it isn’t clear until the ball is over the net. CBS shows the entire match from the high camera, with only very few points shown from the low camera. The most enjoyable tennis match I ever saw on television was a WCT match between Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall that was shot entirely by the low camera, and the sole reason it was so enjoyable was due to the use of the low camera as the play by play camera.

            When USA televises a good night match, it reaches the zenith of sports TV coverage. Beginning with the Jimmy Connors-Aaron Krickstein 5-set classic in 1991, USA has shown more high drama in its telecasts of night matches from Flushing Meadows than seen in Super Bowls and World Series. The locale, the rabid New York fans, and the quality of USA’s production combine for televised sports at its best. This year was no exception as two Andre Agassi matches the first week achieved the highest level of excitement and drama.

Both CBS and USA are blessed with John McEnroe as a color commentator. Quite simply, McEnroe is the best color commentator in all of TV sports. He is extremely knowledgeable, brutally honest, and, best of all, he talks about each point in the context of the match.

McEnroe’s brilliance is enhanced by USA play-by-play announcer Ted Robinson who is knowledgeable and interacts extremely well with McEnroe. Robinson knows his tennis and its history, but realizes that the telecast is about tennis, not Ted Robinson.

Unfortunately, USA is burdened by Tracy Austin as a color commentator on women’s matches. Although she used to be a premier motormouth, she has improved over the years. Even so, Austin still talks about everything but the match. More often than not it seems as if she isn’t even watching the match. When Amelie Mauresmo had a break point in her match with Serena Williams, leading 4-3 in the third set of the women’s quarter finals, Austin didn’t even mention it, talking instead of something else, robbing the moment of its drama and importance. This was especially reprehensible, considering that if Mauresmo won the point she would be serving for the match.

Conversely, in the women’s semi final when Jelena Jankovic was up a set and serving at  4-2, 40-30, she got into a dispute with the chair umpire over a line call on her first serve, and McEnroe instantly said he thought such a dispute was a big mistake, a huge distraction at such a crucial point in the match for her. Sure enough, she double-faulted, lost the game, the set, and the match, failing to win even one more game as her opponent, Justine Henin-Hardenne, won the next ten games in a row.

Contrasting Robinson’s low-key play-by-play work for USA, CBS offers Dick Enberg as their number one play-by-play announcer. One of the plusses for tennis fans when NBC fired Enberg was that they didn’t have to listen to his maudlin introductions to each day of the French Open and Wimbledon. But there’s a dark cloud with every silver lining and now Enberg has added his bathetic musings to the U.S. Open, accompanied by the same schmaltzy music.

Also, unlike Robinson, Enberg gives the impression that the telecast is all about Dick Enberg. He bends over backwards to show how cute he thinks he is. He’s a rolling disaster of unfunny reminiscences and awkward one-liners that result in only Dick finding them funny. CBS contributes to this. In the third set of the Andy Roddick-Roger Federer final, with Andy serving at 1-2 in the third set at deuce, a big point, CBS cut to a tape of Enberg retrieving the top of Maria Sharapova’s trophy from the awards ceremony the night before, something that was completely irrelevant and inappropriate considering the status of the match they were televising, the final match to decide the championship.

Surprisingly, and to give Enberg his credit, he did ask one of the best questions of the two week coverage. After McEnroe commented that throughout the tournament Mikhail Youzhny practiced with number 2 seed Rafael Nadal, and then beat him to knock him out of the tournament, probably picking up on something in their practices, Enberg asked McEnroe if he avoided practicing with possible competitors to avoid them picking up something. This intuitive question led McEnroe to tell that he practiced with Jimmy Connors during the two weeks of the 1982 Wimbledon and then ended up playing him in the finals. “I didn’t think he’d make the finals, which was mistake number one,” said John. “Then he had seen, and gotten used to, my serve for two weeks and, guess what? I lost to him in five. Bad decision.”

Contrasted to McEnroe’s articulate expertise, dumbing down the CBS coverage is their on-court interviewer, Mary Jo Fernandez. After Roger Federer beat Nikolay Davydenko in straight sets in the semi-final, she asked, “What was the turning point?” Federer broke Davydenko in the first game of the first set and didn’t even have to work up a sweat in rolling through him in straight sets, and she’s asking about a turning point? Then she followed up with this: “You have reached 6 consecutive Grand Slam finals. Can you appreciate that consistency?” I’ve heard some stupid, virtually unanswerable questions in my time, but this one takes the cake. Federer showed why he’s a champion as a smile flitted across his face before he gave a gracious answer without actually laughing in her face. Andy Roddick, who has the biggest serve in the history of tennis, also had trouble not laughing in her face when she asked him if his serve was going to be a factor in his upcoming semi final match against Mikhail Youzhny. “It’s always a factor,” he answered.

Time didn’t make her any better. The next day, interviewing Roddick again before his final match against Roger Federer, she asked Andy, “Describe the many emotions between 3 years ago and today.” When Roddick didn’t really have an answer to that (remember he’s walking out on the court to play for the championship!), she followed up with, “How much are you looking forward to the atmosphere out there today?” Words fail me in trying to analyze the idiocy of that question, as they almost did Roddick. Fernandez’ incompetence is magnified when it’s taken into consideration that she had all night to think of her questions, since these were before-match interviews.

John McEnroe works for all networks, including CBS and NBC. So why can’t CBS also get the Boston Globe’s Bud Collins, who is NBC’s after-match interviewer and asks astute questions that tennis fans would ask, instead of someone like Fernandez who gropes to find inane questions? Alternatively, with the savvy Mary Carillo, almost as good as her friend McEnroe (with whom she won the 1979 French Open mixed doubles championship), around, why is the clueless Fernandez asking the questions? I can guarantee that neither of them would ask a competitor walking out on the court to play for a championship,”How much are you looking forward to the atmosphere out there today.”

Tennis is grievously damaged by the CBS coverage of the U.S. Open. The low camera, which captures the speed and elevation of the ball and the skill of the players, should be the play-by-play camera for every point. The commentators should keep quiet during the point unless they have a comment to make about the point being played, like John McEnroe does. The commentators should talk about the match that’s taking place and not be gossip mongers like Austin and Enberg are. It’s not enough to just show the matches when they use a camera that slows down the ball with commentators constantly talking over the action about extraneous matters. If CBS doesn’t think that the match its covering is worth talking about, CBS shouldn’t be covering it. As it is, tennis fans like me watch the matches in spite of CBS’s mundane, terminally conservative, uninspired coverage.

September 10, 2006