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Tennis (Channel), Anyone?
by Lawrence Jeziak

As a confirmed TV tennis junkie, writing about TV's treatment of the sport over the past ten years, my personal highlight of 1997's Wimbledon occurred during the 48-hour downpour that paralyzed the All-England Club's schedule and left HBO with 12 hours of air time and no tennis. To its credit, HBO reached back and delivered classic Wimbledon from years gone by: Laver and Newcombe, Ashe and Connors, Navratilova and Evert, and of course, Borg and McEnroe. Wonderful moments presented with original commentary by the BBC, an HBO trademark before Jim Lampley and crew increased its level of banter.

A week or so after the 1997 Wimbledon, I happened upon another tennis gem: the 1980 US Open final between John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg. I sat in front of the TV hypnotized. It took me a moment to figure out why I found this match so engaging. Then it hit me. It wasn't simply great tennis -- because I live in Detroit, I'd never seen it before. In 1980 the US Open final was blacked out in metropolitan Detroit and other cities that had National Football League teams playing late games televised by CBS. The same thing happened in 1981. In fact, for 20 years TV tennis junkies in Detroit couldn't watch the US Open on Labor Day because the CBS affilliate chose to run the Jerry Lewis telethon. Only when affilliates switched to Fox did the Labor Day blackout end.

But it isn't necessary to go back 20 years to find great matches that never reach TV. Eventual 1997 French Open champion Iva Majoli's three-set semifinal victory at Roland Garros was ignored by USA and NBC, concentrating instead on Martina Hingis's victory over Monica Seles. And doubles? Don't even get me started.

I suggest that the time has arrived for Tennis Channel -- a round-the-clock cable network providing classic matches, seniors coverage, movies that include tennis in their narratives, and live Grand Slam tennis that the other networks simply ignore. It would be a network for TV tennis junkies like us, presenting the sport as a sport -- like major networks routinely televise baseball, basketball, and football. It's not complicated. Matches would be delivered in their entirety, without missing any points due to commercials, updates, interviews or extraneous features. Like a number of cable channels, commercials would be presented between programs, not during programs. And commentary? Well, John McEnroe is the only name on my list for the job.

We already have golf, food, racing, comedy, animal, and pornography channels. The time for the Tennis Channel is here. There is certainly enough money in the game. Where is the effort to present the game as a sport rather than as an esoteric exercise? The current networks are not getting the job done.

ESPN, for example, only began televising the Australian Open from its first day this year. Its coverage of Davis Cup is conspicuous for tape-delayed matches presented in the early morning hours. NBC is still tape-delaying the women's final of the French Open. USA is more interested in its commercials than live tennis at the French and US Opens. CBS is unable to present US Open matches without bombarding viewers with the scores of baseball and football games. And HBO, with its wonderful opening week of Wimbledon, is still more about movies and boxing than it is about tennis.

It's time for corporate sponsors to give tennis fans something more than another round of redundant commercials that either interrupt or delay on-court action. It's time for Reebok, Nike, Head, NEC, the Association of Tennis Professionals, the Women's Tennis Association, the seniors tour, the International Tennis Federation and everyone else with an economic interest in the game, to agree on one thing: The game of tennis needs a channel on which the sport can be showcased as it deserves to be, with an emphasis on tennis and a minimum of interruptions.

Who will step up to the challenge facing tennis in the 21st century?

It's time for TV tennis junkies to take a stand. Tennis Channel: Just do it!

Lawrence Jeziak, is the TV writer for Tennis Week since 1988, critiquing coverage of major events like Wimbledon and the US Open. He was named Tennis Journalist of the Year in 1993, an honor previously given to George Plimpton and the late Arthur Ashe. He has been a TV tennis columinst for America Online since 1997. He is a film critic, speech writer, and a corporate communications veteran.

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