You Don't Say
January 23, 2011 -- Tennis commentators have it tough, at least in part.
Picture yourself in the booth, either one will do: ESPN2 or Tennis Channel. There you sit alongside Patrick McEnroe and Chris Fowler, the lead team for the deuce. Or, there you are shoulder-to-shoulder with Martina Navratilova and Bill Macatee at Tennis Channel. Pretty heady stuff, right?
Your team will cover the late shift, the matches that wind their ways to sunset and beyond. You will be in your chair past midnight, if prior matches are accurate indications. Hewitt and Nalbandian went past the bewitching hour, as did Federer and Simon. If Roddick had played a bit better, read that smarter, against Wawrinka today they would have stretched into the wee hours, too, given that Schiavone and Kuznetsova recorded the longest women's match in women's grand slam history before the two men took to Rod Laver Arena -- four hours and forty-four minutes!
So the big deal isn't working late. That's easy. The big deal is saying the right things. It's about talking... comments, commentary, or calling the game. You are up-to-date about the draw, the players, their coaches, tennis strategy, tactics, the in-depth nuances of match play. You have to concentrate on every point, as much as the players do.
Your tone should stay steady, unless the occasion calls for some levity or awe, which would have applied to Wawrinka's undeniably flabbergastingly formidable backhand -- the sure shot of his victory.
Commentators attract and sustain attention. They continually demonstrate their depth of every aspect of the game of tennis, and they entice listeners with tidbits that rankle some and distinguish them from the competition. There's no rivalry within the ESPN2 team that we can see. Only support and common ground, although Brad Gilbert will ruffle feathers once in a while. But his provocative attempts at chaos are evenhandedly suppressed by Patrick, the balanced teammate at the ESPN2 desk. His message -- let's get back on track, Brad, you dickens.
In order for these folks to keep their jobs, they have to convey a product ESPN has contracted, that's promised, to deliver. The pressure is optional, but things could go awry.
Andre Agassi joined Ted Robinson and John McEnroe during a night match at the U. S. Open while Andy Roddick performed on Arthur Ashe several years ago. Agassi stopped by, a casual visitor of the historic tennis kind. Within minutes Agassi and McEnroe ignited each other, the way buddies might in a sports bar or kids on a playground. Agassi mentioned that Roddick's backhand, well, wasn't the best -- like, way below the best. McEnroe snickered, which provoked Agassi to elaborate more.
Mind you, the two hit the nail on the head a couple times. Two strategic tennis minds with all sorts of personality can swing from the skinny branches and land on their feet. However, if Ted Robinson weren't there to balance the duo's act, Agassi would have been asked to leave in the next commercial break. It just got out of hand.
Enthusiasm, poise, accuracy, thoughtful, humorous, timely, professional... these are a few of the favorable characteristics of successful commentators. Having played pro tennis sure helps, too. Chris Fowler can talk any sport. He doesn't have tennis baggage. He's learned to rely on McEnroe and follow the leader, when necessary. Fowler has the uncanny ability to appear experienced not matter the sport at hand.
You'll have to follow one cardinal rule -- don't make the call about you. All your attention stays with and on the matches. Another cast-in-stone edict -- keep your opinions to yourself or at least deliver diminutive diction.
An inexperienced Justin Gimelstob discovered the essential nature of commentary -- balance -- early in his broadcast career, as the 2008 Wimbledon Championships got under way. He was a guest on The Junkies, a Washington DC radio sports program. At the time, Gimelstob worked with Tennis Channel, played for the Washington Kastles on World Team Tennis (WTT), and had recently been elected to the ATP board. All signs were positive for the New Yorker. He was transitioning nicely from tour play (twice a major title holder in mixed doubles) to a new career.
But what a way to hit the brakes. Gimelstob became a tyrannical sexist, labeling Anna Kournikova as a 'bitch' and 'douche.' He didn't stop there. He wanted to 'harm' her -- 'serve right at the body' -- during the next WTT match. The catalog of comments remains on the record and adds nothing if re-stated.
Billy Jean King founded and remains the head of WTT. Her distinguished contributions to human equality on and off the tennis court are unsurpassed. Wonder how she reacted? Swiftly and precisely. "This type of behavior will not be tolerated, especially in a league founded on the principles of equal opportunities for all."
Flash forward three years. Gimelstob has polished his diction, delivery, and duds. He smiles, is sincere, and can joke around within reason, which is a tough row to hoe for a guy who likes to goof around. He dresses fashionably, wearing a suit and tie for most jobs. Most improved commentator in the media.
Brad Gilbert's another funny dude. A talk-a-minute guy who's a quick witted elder rocker dressed in black. Here are a couple Brad quotes from the marathon Schiavone and Kuznetsova match: "That's an excuse-me-volley winner" and his repetitious "Fortune favors the brave," and "Are you kiddin' me?" That one was a buddy tribute to a youthful John McEnroe's Wimbledon tirade. But Gilbert made it his own with the 'kiddin,' and not the emphatic 'kidding,' which rolled out of the Stanford educated McEnroe.
Gilbert can inform on matters that seem incidental. His delivery evokes laughter as well as incredulity. After Marcos Baghdatis took a tumble in his second-round match against the dangerous floater Juan Martin del Potro, Gilbert chimed in, "If you ever fall on the court, let go of your racquet. You do not want your racquet in your hand when you hit the court. You can get some jammed fingers."
Right as rain, Brad was. He sounded happy, bordering on child-like. His personality on air endears some fans and agitates others, forcing them to dive for the remote -- MUTE!
Over at Tennis Channel, Martina Navratilova dominates. She's been there and done it all on a tennis court. No other commentator has a tennis career record like Martina's. But... yet... however, and without appearing rude, she can sound pedantic. We all might agree on the depth of her knowledge and experience. But please tone down the grandiosity and omnipotence.
Her opinions frequently overshadow her job description, which is basically, after all the layers of the onion are pealed, a public service. She's there to deliver news.
Navratilova doesn't like Caroline Wozniacki. Poll a thousand viewers and the results would come through. Sunshine Wozniacki isn't aggressive enough, will never be a true number one until she wins a major (yawn), and needs a weapon. "She doesnŐt have a weapon and you need a weapon," Martina points out emphatically.
On the plus side, Navratilova's insightfulness about strategy and tactics prove her indispensable. Her eyes are ultra sensitive to players' movements and choices. She, Patrick McEnroe and Darren Cahill are matchless in this department.
Tennis fans, like soccer fans or any other sports fans, can become keenly aware of underlying meanings and messages.
"Fit," means looking good.
"Has to get in better shape," means don't you know you're, well, kinda fat. Take a look at your peers.
"Fitter than she's been," means, like finally -- way to go, you dumped the weight!
Chris Fowler almost stepped in quicksand today as the Wawrinka/Roddick match began. "He's [Wawrinka] is somewhat big around the middle." He was accessing the second Swiss's ability to maintain intensity, if the match went five sets. His inquiry had merit. Roddick could run for hours. He played two-and-a-half sets beyond the injury to his flexor muscle at the 2009 Wimbledon final. Roddick's cache of adrenalin wasn't in question today, just Wawrinka's.
But Wawrinka's girth is a functional necessity. Without his broad shoulders and thick sets of abs his brilliant backhand would be lost in the tennis shuffle. However, Fowler didn't think this through and cannot be expected to maintain perfection. An impossible feat for any commentator, which elevates the ones we watch, and listen to, to high levels of competence.
Okay... The night is about to come to a close. You and your team see a time when you'll call it a night. It's been a long day, but you survived and did well. People will come to recognize you; and, you'll book rooms in top-notch hotels -- no more 2-star mediocre dives. You'll travel the world -- 13 hours of it back to Los Angeles from Melbourne. You'll talk and text family, but won't see them but a few days out of the season. You will come to love airports, or tolerate them at least. Eating out will become an art as you pick and chose food that doesn't land at your waist.
It's the best job ever; it's not for me. Many will view commentating like that. Either way, it's your opinion.