Unmuting Tennis Commentators

Bud Collins is the father of tennis journalism; Sports Illustrated described him as the tennis historian and the American voice of the sport in print and on TV for decades. With his passing on March 4, 2016, it is unlikely that we will ever have a tennis journalist with his panache and skills. Let’s take a moment to honor his life and contributions. If you have never read Collins’ work, read S. L. Price’s “Bud Collins’ Sportwriting Was Foundation of Career, Legacy.”

I know many would prefer to discuss the worst commentator, and while that would be fun, I have put my big girl colorful pants on today so I am going to be positive and constructive. So what makes a commentator great? Is it their technical knowledge, that is knowledge of the game; is it their knowledge of the tour (players and coaches); is it their ability to tell great stories or use engaging turns of phrases, word-smithing; is it their career on the court landing them legendary status; is it their personality; is it their preparedness?

tennis commentator checklist

The commentators I enjoy often possess a few of the listed characteristics and they can speak intelligently on more than the ATP Tour. OK, some will argue that a commentator should specialize on a specific tour or style of play to be most effective. In a perfect world that would be nice but I doubt the sport houses (BBC, Tennis Channel, ESPN, FOX) are signing six and seven-figure contracts for a one trick pony. They want as much bang for their buck as they can get. I don’t expect any commentator to be exemplary in every area during any match or tournament, but they should be proficient in all areas. When I have a performance appraisal I am expected to achieve minimal expectations. That’s all I am asking of commentators.

Be prepared, know the players’ game, and be able to analyze the effectiveness of players’ strategies. 

What keeps me from hitting that mute button is the commentators’ ability to move beyond trite narratives. Though Serena’s serve, Ivanovic’s errant toss, Roger’s backhand, Monfils’ court coverage and Fognini’s outbursts are legendary, I don’t want to hear about them countless times during a match if the commentator can’t make a unique point of analysis to add depth and insight to the narrative. I also don’t enjoy commentators’ over-reliance on producer or statistician produced graphics. You know which ones: IBM Points to the Game, Set Summary, Serve and Return points, etc… Sometimes minutes are spent on these graphics without any analysis, insight or discussion; I mean I have watched as commentators have simply read the graphic.

Say what you will about Cliff Drysdale, but he often does stop motion discussion of players’ serve or swing that is quite interesting. He was the first and I think the only one I have seen do that. I also really enjoy Lindsay Davenport’s ability to avoid gossip and focus on analysis. Her knowledge of the game as well as her obvious curiosity is refreshing. Her rapport with Mary Carillo is also enjoyable. Though, it must be said that Carillo could rap poetic with dead wood. Then there is Brett Haber and John McEnroe, the yin and yang of preparedness. I can always count on Haber for a comprehensive introduction of a player and McEnroe for an honest game assessment sans extraneous biographical and even game information. Then there is Mary Fernando Hernandez and Tracy Austin. Their rapport with ever-changing co-host is noteworthy as is their knowledge of the WTA players’ game. I have already expoused my yearning for Andy Roddick to join the commentating booth.

The best commentators just have it, just like movie stars. It is more than being a ‘triple threat’ so to speak. It is the energy they share and how they make the viewers feel that best describe the best commentators. It doesn’t hurt if they can be bold and honest enough to say what the viewers are thinking without being rude. Honesty and respect can co-exist.

From the commentators’ perspective, I understand that they watch the same players for ten months often in back-to-back tournaments. It must be difficult to find something new to share, but that is why they get the big bucks. I don’t want to hear the John McEnroe approach [read excuse]. His approach is to provide stream consciousness thoughts on the match as he sees it without any reliance on notes, ie preparedness. Though when he is ‘on’ he is honest, insightful, vulnerable and even humorous, but when he isn’t he is sharing stale if not inaccurate information, too many anecdotes from his time on the tour and worst incessant chatter during exciting games. At least the BBC commentators are generally quite during rallies.

As an aside I have been listening to a lot of podcasts of late and there are a few that I would love to hear commentate. These podcasters are brilliant, always add something to the tennis conversation with their unique perspectives and they know tennis! Though I don’t always agree with them, they would be a breath of fresh air to the commentator air-waves. Of course they may have absolutely no interest in this, but I had to put it out there. Now remember I don’t have any relationship with anyone in the tennis community so there is no nepotism or conflict of interest here. First, A Gallavant from RealzTennis Podcast. Jonathan Newman from The Body Serve Podcast and Karen from Overhead Spin Blog. We need to shake-up the track to tennis commentating. Given how blogging and tweeting is impacting the tennis culture, the podcaster to commentator track maybe closer than we think!

So who is your favorite commentator and what makes him or her great?


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