Wow. The USA can boast that we have at least 17 million active tennis players; 5.2 million plays at least three times weekly and we continue to grow. Promising, yes. Over a 12-year period (2000-2012) tennis is the clear leader, up 31% according to the Physical Activity Council (PAC), with gymnastics a distant second place. With the numbers rising and the game becoming more and more popular, I’m still mystified why we haven’t seen improvements in tennis broadcasting.
During the boom of the 1970’s, tennis analysts’ go-to-move was to emphasize a player’s unforced errors. Fast forward to today’s US Open coverage, the experts continue to accentuate the same overused statistics. However, I strongly disagree with most tennis broadcasters and their definition of an unforced error. Let me explain. To me, if a person hits a forehand drive over 85 miles per hour and it lands into the 4 or 5 deep zone (approximately 2-3 feet from the baseline) it is a forced error, but the typical tennis analysis computes this shot as a missed opportunity.
Whether it is Juan Martin Del Potro’s huge forehand drive or Serena Williams’ two-handed ripper, these penetrating shots create havoc with any opponent and force legitimate errors. Is it me or have you noticed how John McEnroe has gotten conservative with his commentary? Long considered the best tennis television analyst, due to his edgy comments about the state of the game and more, is now shooting right down the middle making sure he doesn’t offend anyone.
Dial back a few years ago when the USA Network covered the US Open. John was boldas he often shot from the hip and had the audience holding on to their seats. Is it possible to hear some inflection from commentator Mary Jo Fernandez when she is analyzing a tennis match? I’d like to hear more insightful commentary about a player’s strokes and if it ties in with a particular coach. For example, I was watching the Julia Goerges match against one of our young USA rising stars and she kept missing simple forehand groundstrokes. Not only did the tennis analyses ignore the opportunity to dissect Julia’s forehand but they never considered tying it in with German superstar Philipp Kohlschreiber. Both Goerges and Kohlschreiber boast world-class backhand strokes, but often come up short with their forehand drives. It is possible there is a story with the two German tennis stars; perhaps they were coached by the same pro or attended the same academy?
As a viewer, I am fascinated when we learn the backstory of a particular ATP star; often tennis analyst Darren Cahill will break the unusual story and it is a nice addition. Powerful tennis agents are able to place ex-players in the broadcast booth; why not put a prominent college tennis coach or a well-known USPTA pro in one of the prime positions? As presently constituted, both the current broadcasters and the USTA junior development programs are run by former ATP or WTA tennis stars. Let’s see… Patrick McEnroe’s leadership has netted no solid results. At this year’s US Open, no USA male lasted past the third round of the men’s draw. But Patrick McEnroe brilliantly predicted that we won’t really see bigresults for at least five years or more.
Imagine telling your boss that you won’t really see the product or the budget improve for at least five years? Apparently Patrick’s strategy has been rewarded; the USTA has given Patrick another five-year contract to run the ill-fated Player Development Program! If only Jimmy Connors had sought out P. McEnroe’s council before he coached Maria Sharapova, maybe he would still be working with her? As previously reported, Maria fired Jimmy after just one match.
Ok, many of our ATP or WTA players retire and up end in the broadcast booth, so who is worth listening to? My pick: Justin Gimelstob. He was an honor student at UCLA and has incorporated these habits with his new career and his insightful commentary will pay off. Not only has he created outstanding features with the Tennis Channel but he also adds interesting delicacies to his live color commentary.
Unfortunately I am already leery about newly retired James Blake as he has offered little so far. My advice for Mr. Blake is to study the art of broadcasting and not rely on being friends with the players. Viewers deserve insightful observations, not endless chatter that is not stimulating to anyone but their buddies in the booth.
Feel free to express your opinion about the state of tennis broadcasting. I look forward to your feedback.
Doug Browne is the Hideaway Beach Tennis Director and the new Collier County USPTA Pro of the Year. Additionally, Doug has been the International Hall of Fame Director of Tennis this past summer. Doug has been writing a tennis column for the past fifteen years and welcomes your feedback.