US Tennis TV is Stale

Ashe Roof

We live in a world where a little kindness can go a long way.  Complaining is the norm.  I am about to go with the grain, and I don’t particularly like doing so.  Yet, I think tennis as presented in the US by ESPN and NBC and, to a lesser extent, the Tennis Channel could use a huge revamp.  Consider the following:

  • Tired Voices and Takes – John McEnroe dipped his toe into commenting in 1991.  Chris Evert beat him to the punch by becoming a commentator in 1990.  Legends of various sports have been long-time voices heard by TV audiences so this is not abnormal.  Quality and preparation by McEnroe and Evert have been patchy at times.  McEnroe, especially when in the both for women’s matches at majors, seems utterly unprepared and unfamiliar with the players on court.  This is easily prevented – don’t put anyone in the booth for matches if the commentator is not ready to treat the contest with seriousness and preparation.  It may also be fair to ask why Chris Evert whose power level was so far from today’s WTA players and John McEnroe whose grips, use of spin, and power level are so different from today’s players talk about their pasts as much as they do in the booth.
    • Jon Wertheim noted when writing Strokes of Genius that he rewatched the 2008 Wimbledon men’s final several times from each English language broadcast and that NBC with McEnroe did the best job.  I will trust him, but if Mac is dismissive of players contesting a round of 32 match, is tennis giving up too much for him to throw out great commentary in a championship match between two legends?  I think so.  The commentator needs to help the audience both understand and care about what is being broadcast.  If he doesn’t care, why should we?
  • Conflicts of Interest as the Norm – Jim Courier and Patrick McEnroe maintained busy broadcasting schedules while also being the US Davis Cup Captain.  Darren Cahill is a regular on ESPN and has also been coaching or hired as a consultant by players in the tournaments he covers.  Mary Joe Fernandez‘ husband, Anthony Lewisohn Godsick, co-owns a sports management agency with Roger Federer that represents a lot of professional tennis players.  Was Courier ever going to question John Isner for never really improving his backhand or return of serve while acting as the US Davis Cup Captain?  Could he risk Isner skipping a Tie if he got hacked off at Courier?
    • Can anyone imagine Steve Kerr in the booth for the NBA calling a Lakers-Rockets game next season?  It would be considered completely ridiculous on several fronts.  Shouldn’t Kerr be busy coaching the Warriors?  Why would he have time to do commentary even sporadically for NBA games?  Also, wouldn’t his commentary be considered less than fair given his interest in the Warriors’ success?
  • Tennis has done a good job of getting better camera angles etc.  The lines are fixed and finding good camera angles for letting fans appreciate pace, placement, and spin from shots as well as the distances being covered by the players is something that can always be fine-tuned.  Still, I think a combination of great camera work, replays, and commentators explaining something like getting wrong-footed can all work together to help fans see more of what is taking place on the court.  Seeing the nuances of the game probably makes for a more enjoyable viewing experience.
  • Tennis could do a better job of getting coverage on new and older platforms in the US as well.
    • The USTA & one of its media partners could get some great content on YouTube from outer courts at pro and challenger events held in the US.  They could be instructional like here is how to attack a short ball etc.  These matches are not being broadcast, but in an era of streaming, tennis has content to spare that could be spliced into helpful bits for fans to learn from and enjoy.
    • I hear minor league baseball and minor league soccer being broadcast on AM radio in the US.  I don’t know what tennis could do with sports radio, but aside from some updates during majors tennis has no presence on the medium in the US.
  • Beyond conflicts of interest, I think going so heavily down the former player and coach route hurts tennis on tv.  Could someone with journalistic chops have brought a sociological and/or historical perspective to tonight’s match between Naomi Osaka and Coco Gauff?  I don’t think Chris Evert, Mary Joe Fernandez, and Pam Shriver nuanced the match and the post-match situation as well as they could have.  Having someone else in the booth with them could have helped.

Is the coverage up to the quality of the content?

I don’t know if the answer is a wholesale cleaning house of commentators or if some of the pieces could be changed to make for a better viewing experience.  Still, I think adding better production values to more prepared announcers with fewer (dare we say no?) current entanglements with players on tour would be a huge change for the better.

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