A professional sports commentator is expected to know several things before he or she sits down behind a live mic. Among them are the status of every player involved in the sport that is being presented to the viewing public, a public which now, thanks to social media improved national and global communication, is many times as informed if not more so than the comms.
Obviously this makes the commentators job more difficult. What are you going to say that enhances the enjoyment of the fans who have turned in to watch the game, meet or match? They know the stats. They know the strategies that the adversaries will use to try and neutralize each other. The days are gone when the comm is the one who informs the viewer.
What about casual viewers you ask? What if a person’s introduction to the NBA was Game 2 of the NBA Final played last night in Oakland? How do you introduce that viewer to the nuances of the game without making the commentary so basic as to turn off the more in the know viewer? It’s a job not everyone can do. This is why the top commentators start out working local broadcasts side by side with someone who is probably more experienced in his or her work. You would never find a novice announcer working the NBA Finals, the Super Bowl, the World Series or the World Cup. The Stanley Cup? Nope. No major sporting event would have hacks behind the mic at their penultimate event. So why does tennis, a sport struggling to become more than a niche sport, allow hacks to be it’s eyes and ears during it’s four yearly major events?
I don’t use the term hacks lightly. I should also say not all broadcasters are hacks. Vladimíra Uhlířová, known to fans as “Vladka”, is the best of the bunch right now. Marion Bartoli is very good. So is Lindsay Davenport. Two years ago I would’ve included Robbie Koenig. So who do we get from NBC, the network tasked with presenting Grand Slam tennis to millions who may never watch tennis except when a Slam is being contested? In the US we get comms who seem, like many viewers, to never watch or study tennis except when they sit down behind a live mic. This results in commentary that is often downright wrong, patronizing, and that borders at times on jingoistic.
NBC’s commentary during the women’s final – I didn’t watch the men’s final – focused on Garbiñe Muguruza’s beat down of the WTA #1 Serena Williams. Mention was made of Serena’s injury but that was quickly glossed over and emphasis put on Muguruza’s outstanding level of play. Forget that it was obvious to anyone who knows anything about tennis that Serena was unable to get anything on her shots or even use her acknowledged best in the world serve to her advantage. A casual, four times a year viewer, had to have come away thinking that Serena is over rated and that this new kid on the block is the next big thing. Knowledgeable viewers were simply appalled.
The tours are complicit in this. During Serena’s dominance the narrative has been that admitted doper Maria Sharapova is the definition of women’s tennis. Allegations of Serena using illegal means to perpetuate her stranglehold on the top spot went unchallenged by WTA officials. Gamesmanship? Only as it applied to Ms Williams. I’m not going to touch on what was recently revealed about Ms Sharapova except to say, once again, that if it had been Serena who’d been caught and admitted to using a PED for ten years she’d have been run out of the sport and her titles taken away. If the women’s tennis organization doesn’t want it’s top player to be the face of tennis played by women why should the networks and the people it hires to present the sport do any different?
So if you’re a sometime viewer of tennis I understand your coming away from Saturday’s match thinking that Serena Williams is washed up. What else can you think?
In the end tennis is still a niche sport for many and it’s comms become the portal by which interested fans are introduced to it. Every other sport knows commentary can make or break it. It can cause a casual viewer to become more interested or fall back on sports already familiar to him or her. I think tennis fans have to go beyond calling out the commentators and start holding the tours responsible. The tours determine what image they want presented to the world. Right now it seems they’re interested in keeping fans in the dark and deriding those who want to bring knowledgable intelligent commentary to tennis and making it more exciting for those who right now are not interested except for four times a year.
It’s a damn shame.
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