Monday, January 17, 2011

There Was Something About Mary

by Savannah

Let's get this out of the way. Day 1 and the following seeds are out: Aravane Rezai, Nicolas Davydenko, Daniela Hantuchova and Sam Querrey. A lot of hope rested on the shoulders of both Querrey and Ryan Harrison. Harrison, who was unseeded but had had a good run at the US Open crashed out early as well. I don't know if any of you watched ESPN2's coverage last night but there was something very curious about it.

While Gael Monfils was staging his comeback from two sets and 2-5 down and WTA #1 Caroline Wozniacki was playing her first match against the tricky Gisela Dulko the most important match for American viewers was the one between Sam Querrey and Lukas Kubot. I've criticized ESPN2's coverage here before but even I was surprised not only that the match was featured but at the level of what passed for commentary during it.

I understand that the American tennis establishment wants to profile it's players, the people they hope will bring the United States back to prominence in the tennis world but really? I mean really people? There was no commentary. It was a group of people sitting around trying to will Querrey over the finish line. They talked about what he should be doing, not what he was doing and why. The demeaned his opponent, someone they apparently thought had just dropped in from Mars (they treated Lukas Lacko so badly people Tweeted about it but that's another story), and in the end Querrey lost. Yes he took five sets and if his opponent had more experience on the main tour it may have lasted one less set, but the problem is to a casual viewer Querrey's loss would've seemed as if a top seed had fallen.

Which brings me to the case of the missing Mary Carillo. I have never been a big fan of Mary's. I have to state that up front because while some knew Carillo had left ESPN during last years US Open many didn't. Thanks to an article brought to my attention on Twitter by tennishead GVGirl more details are available about why she left and the noxious brew that is tennis coverage in the United States.

I have said it before and I'll keep saying it. Mary Jo Fernandez has no business interviewing Roger Federer. Her husband is his agent. She's been photographed standing with his family right after matches. She and Mirka shop together. In fact she has no business in the broadcast booth calling matches or doing interviews.
I say this every year but what I say doesn't matter. I'm not connected to any of the powers that be in tennis so I am free to say what I want.

The article by Richard Deitsch for Sports Illustrated goes right to the heart of what's wrong with tennis coverage in the U S of A.

It doesn't take a leap to surmise that the philosophical difference rested in Carillo believing the tone and tenor of ESPN's coverage was closer to cheerleading than reporting. Sources told that Carillo was distressed by a culture that frowned on critical analysis of the top players on tour, particularly American stars.

Deitsch also touches on the conflicts of interest in the broadcast booth naming names.

No sport does conflicts quite like tennis, dating to former agent Donald Dell, who provided commentary of matches involving players he represented and tournaments his firm owned and managed. That's morphed today into ESPN's Mary Joe Fernandez interviewing a player (Roger Federer) represented by her IMG agent husband. The affable Fernandez also draws a salary from being Fed Cup captain, where the Williams sisters' commitment is often the key to winning or losing. Patrick McEnroe, who this column enjoys as a broadcaster, makes a six-figure salary from the USTA, which puts him in a tricky situation when questions come up yearly about the U.S. Open scheduling and the stadium's need for a roof.

This is why many tennis fans prefer the commentary of people like Robbie Koenig and Jason Goodall who usually call Masters 1000 events for Tennis Channel over Patrick McEnroe and his merry band on ESPN2. Martina Navratilova and Lindsay Davenport also break the mold, Davenport calling her matches fairly despite being American. She was never a fave of the establishment though and still tends to call 'em as she sees 'em. Sure Koenig and Goodall have their fanboy moments but in between them you get tennis ANALYSIS not cheerleading. It's painful to hear American commentators repeat the same talking points - Mardy Fish's weight loss, the divorce of Rafael Nadal's parents over and over again ad nauseam. And who can forget Serena Williams being in the booth during last years US Open during one of Rafael Nadal's matches. She would stop answering some inane question to actually talk about what was happening on the court as it related to the techniques of playing tennis. Best five minutes of US Open coverage last year.

Perhaps Mary's flame throwing stemmed from her frustration with what passes for tennis commentary here. As Deitsch points out in his article

The sport's television entities have long fostered a climate where players are subjected to questions about as soft as a Francesca Schiavone drop shot. It's hard to believe such flagrant conflicts would be permitted in other sports.

I wonder how tonight will go in terms of commentary and coverage? Will this article make a difference? Probably not. He who pays the piper calls the tune. Right now the United States tennis establishment is getting exactly what it pays for.


TennisAce said...

Part 1

Savannah, it is not only in relation to Federer that we hear the fan boy comments. It also happens when Nadal, Murray and to a smaller extent Djokovic. It is irritating and we as fans deserve better.

Yesterday during Sharapova's match my tv went on mute when I realised who would be doing the apologies. There was no analysis and for a time it seemed as if Sharapova was out there playing all by her lonesome as poor Tammy got no love. She never even got camera time until she was walking off the court.

I cannot say that I miss Carillo and the reason for this is how she dealt with the Serena affair. She went on and and on ad nauseam as if Serena had killed somebody. Serena was wrong. She was punished. Even those who were not fans of Serena were put off by Carillo's constant whining. The last straw was when she likened Serena's behaviour to that of a murderer.

TennisAce said...

Part 2

We may not all like Wozniacki and believe that she should have at least won a major before gaining the NO. 1 ranking but frankly everybody needs to deal with it. It hurt me last night to see that most of Wozniacki's match was not even aired last night because the Great American Hopeless that is Querrey once again got all the air time and had nothing to show for it.

Someone, I believe it was you asked the question on twitter, as to why he even bothers to show up.

In relation to Federer, as a fan of the man, the media bias against him is too much. When a commentator goes on air and blatantly tells the whole of the tennis world that a win by one player against another player should not be counted because the surface favoured Player over Player B is just the worst piece of commentary I have ever heard.

The commentators themselves have a vested interest in seeing certain players either win or lose tournaments just because it fits into the narrative that they are schilling on the air.

As a fan, I can no longer sit and enjoy tennis and listen to the sounds of racquet against ball. Now, I have to watch with the mute on or really low. Fans of the sport deserve better than this.

lynney62 said... hit the nail on the head, Savannah! Thanx for the info....I suspected that was why Mary left; although I, too, was not a big fan of her, I'd much rather listen to her than the idiots I'm stuck with now!

Savannah said...

I always listen to ESPN2 just about on mute.

I agree about the way Wozniacki's match was handled.
I'm not a fan but since few if any think she's getting to the final it was a match most tennisheads would want to see. She did not play well coming into Melbourne and I for one wanted to see if her form got any better and if she was saving anything for the start of Oz. Dulko has had some surprising upsets and that made the match doubly interesting. Instead we got peeks because as you said Querrey was deemed more important.

Tamarine Tanasugarn has had some nice wins in Asia and also has had some surprising results. Sharapova's form has been iffy. You'll get no argument from me about the screen time Ms Tanasugarn got. Again no respect was shown to her. She's a tour veteran in the year of the vets on the WTA tour but the way they handled it she was just a nobody who stumbled onto the court.

Just don't forget that Sharapova is an IMG client. That is really all you need to know.

Savannah said...

Last night was especially bad. I had to turn off ESPN360 because they featured Jeff Tarango. He manages to make the Slob look like a reserved font of wisdom.

TennisAce said...

Savannah, perhaps if tennis fans started to unite with each other and protest about the unprofessionalism that pervades the commentary booth, maybe then they will start listening.

Federer did say to them at some point in time that it would be nice if the fans actually got to see the tennis. That is when Fox had coverage of both IW and the SEO.

IMG has its hands in many pies, not least of which it would seem in the ITF pie. I recall last season at a match at Stanford, Sharapova was playing Radwanska and it was like Radwanska was not there. The commentator who was doing the match on tennistv sounded as if he was reading from a prepared script.

It got so bad that folks actually started tweeting tennistv directly and asking it to stop. He eventually did but it just goes to show that the commentators are not there to inform the fans or indeed even the casual fans about the technical aspect of the game, but moreso about the personalities, how much they make, what they are wearing etc.

Savannah said...

Tweets have power. If you notice when people start getting on ESPN2's case the commentary gets better.