BY DR. JACQUELYN CUNEEN
There was a time when only “big” tennis matches were broadcast on television, and big means the men’s championship final from Wimbledon on NBC and the U.S. Open men’s final match on CBS. Networks did not have a collection of tennis sportscasters in the way they had a stable of announcers specializing in stronghold sports such as baseball and football that were televised daily or weekly. When the networks produced tennis for television, they usually paired a popular and soft-spoken staff announcer with a well-known and personable former player, both of whom would fit well into the elegant country club atmosphere of the venues where the tournaments were played. Back then, CBS chose former NFL player turned announcer Pat Summerall and Cincinnati native Tony Trabert, a retired world No.1 player. NBC assigned Dick Enberg to call the matches with former college player and coach turned sports reporter Bud Collins (although Collins could single-handedly transform the chic atmosphere of any country club). With the tennis boom of the 1970’s, the sport started coming into its own as “made for TV” events were staged and eventually, with the advent of the current crop of specialty sports cable channels, most all of the hallmark tennis tournaments now receive full coverage from start to finish.
That should be good news to tennis fans, right? Maybe not. The expansion of tennis as a television staple is great for tennis aficionados. However, it did not come without growing pains that seem to still be hanging around making it difficult to enjoy the broadcasts with the sound on.
While no tennis fan with cable access could possibly lament the amount of modern-day television coverage devoted to Grand Slam and other major tournaments, those who recall the skills of announcers/commentators such as Summerall and Trabert (image above) are likely disappointed by the talent hired to fill today’s broadcast booths. In particular, former players assigned to either anchor or comment on the matches seem to focus on one or both of the following: (1) They talk about themselves as much or more than they talk about players in the match they are covering, and/or (2) They are so full of hyperbole with their compliments to the top players that they are more like fan club presidents than analysts. It does not matter if names are mentioned here or not – pick an announcer, any announcer. It is rare for a former player sitting in the broadcast booth to criticize a current Top 10 player on court or scrutinize the match by sharing the insider expertise they were hired to provide.
Except for many of those panel members who sit at the desk for pre- and post-game football and baseball shows, former team sport players who work television games as announcers and analysts do not seem to have this egocentric focus on themselves. Perhaps that is because when playing a team sport, one shares success and failure with others and they recognize the gifts of their teammates. In tennis, the athlete is on the court alone or teamed with only one other player and the focus is almost 100% on them, win or lose. Is it possible that this self-focus carries over to the broadcast booth and they still think of themselves as one of the attractions of the program?
Tennis players spend a lot of time around each other, because they all play essentially the same schedule, attend the same tournament- or sponsor-related social functions, and generally hang out together year round. Thus, they know each other better than athletes in the Big 4 and other sports who may only know their own team members. Is it their closeness to their subjects that make former players so restrained in their comments?
In addition, unlike locker rooms for most sports, the media are banned from tennis players’ dressing areas. However, for some reason, former players are permitted access to dressing rooms and player lounges, particularly if they themselves are playing in one of the senior-level draws at the larger tournaments. Thus, the announcers are able to pal around with the current players, and perhaps this affects their objectivity.
More professionalism, impartiality, and broadcast technique is needed before these former tennis players can master the craft of being a genuine, bona fide sportscaster. Until then, tennis fans may want to turn the sound off when watching televised matches. There is an upside to that – with the sound off, one cannot hear the players themselves screech, coo, groan, growl, howl, and roar as they strike the ball.