Last week, many of you were perhaps eagerly awaiting the return of tennis after seven weeks of small tournaments and spotty television coverage. I ask you now: Has your eagerness devolved into sadness? Frustration? Perhaps beer-bottle-throwing anger?
Any of the above is justifiable — who wouldn't want to lash out after waiting so long only to suffer through the dismal Fox Sports Net (MSG Plus in New York) coverage of the Pacific Life Open?
The problem hasn't been the number of hours Fox broadcasts. Most tennis fans crave more than two hours of tennis at a time, whether it's in the middle of the afternoon or from 10 p.m. to midnight. But given tennis's place on the pecking order of sports in this country (not very far north of billiards and bowling), that amount of coverage is understandable. The problem is what Fox has done with these hours. Behold its Wednesday broadcasts, which were disastrous.
Rafael Nadal, the no. 2 player in the world, and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, the Australian Open finalist and one of the most charismatic youngsters on tour, were locked in a rematch of their semifinal contest in Melbourne. Tsonga won their first contest handily. He eked out the first set of the rematch in a tie-break. Nadal did the same in the second set. After that, Fox, which had gone over its two-hour allotment, disappeared. No one watching in the afternoon saw Nadal recover from a 5–2 deficit in the third set to win 6–7(4), 7–6(3), 7–5.
Fox tried to make up for this during its 10 p.m. to midnight slot and, in doing so, made matters worse. The network was supposed to show a women's quarterfinal match between Maria Sharapova (who won the Australian Open and hasn't lost a match all year) against the defending champion, Daniela Hantuchova. The match was delayed, so Fox showed James Blake defeat Richard Gasquet (good choice) and then moved on to Mardy Fish and Lleyton Hewitt (not a great choice, but not awful). After Fish completed a modest upset, Fox decided to take a pass on Sharapova and Hantuchova and show the third set of Nadal and Tsonga (as midnight neared, Sharapova and Hantuchova inched toward a first set tie-break). Once Nadal and Tsonga ended, Fox cut its broadcast short by six or seven minutes and showed NBA basketball highlights — but not before they graced us with an updated draw that had Tsonga winning the match (minor mistake). Lead announcer Barry Tompkins, who is handling the broadcast alongside former pros Justin Gimelstob (color commentator) and Chanda Rubin (sideline reporter), didn't update the women's quarterfinal score. Sharapova and Hantuchova essentially ceased to exist.
These sins, which you can attribute to the network's producers, are minor transgressions compared to the embarrassing commentary of Tompkins and Gimelstob. Tompkins has been around a long time and has done fine work, especially in boxing. Tennis is not his sport. He seems to enter the broadcast booth cold, with little prepared information about players, their families, and their ups and downs on the tour. He mispronounces names (Jelena Jankovic, the no. 4 player in the world, has a "y" sound; when you hear her name with a "J" it's, well, jjjarring). He becomes too excited when players hit the ball hard: They all do it — they're professional tennis players, for God's sake.
Gimelstob — who impressed the U.S. Open crowd last year when he interviewed Andy Roddick on the court after losing to Roddick in his last match as a professional — is good in small doses. Fox, though, offers a dose that could kill a bear. Gimelstob yells too often; he portrays too many moments in a match as monumental, and he uses too many clichés and inscrutable phrases ("Momentum is such a powerful force in sports!"; "It's what scientists call liquid power!"; "Yum, yum, those are some tender vittles!"). In the third set of Nadal's match, after the camera had panned, for the thousandth time, on the breasts of a woman cheering for Nadal (she sat next to a man holding a Spanish flag), Gimelstob said — and I'm paraphrasing from memory here, but only slightly — "The tennis is so incredible, I don't even have time to comment on all the beautiful women in the crowd!" Hey Justin, you just did! Or perhaps should I say "Jason," as Tompkins did when he signed off and thanked Gimelstob and Rubin. If you're wondering why I have nothing to say about Rubin, it's because the Fox folks seem to have forgotten that they hired her. They don't call on her to do anything. I have no idea why.
The Pacific Life Open and Sony Ericsson Open, the two largest tournaments in America outside the U.S. Open, deserve better than this. Until this year, ESPN had covered these tournaments. I've heard plenty of complaints from tennis fans about ESPN's past coverage, and I've bemoaned the network's choice of matches in the past, too. But whatever disagreements you might have had with ESPN, it was always professionally done — from what I heard after returning from Australia, tennis was on television all hours of the day, much to the delight of fans. Patrick McEnroe is reliable and often insightful. Mary Carillo never holds her tongue and has a great voice. Cliff Drysdale's voice is pitch-perfect, too. Darren Cahill, ESPN's new sideline reporter, has done fine work and, as a modern coach, is more up to speed on modern players than any modern player seems to be, save Andre Agassi. It took ESPN time to arrive at that point, and maybe that's all the Fox cast needs. Lots and lots and lots of it.
Mr. Perrotta is a senior editor at Tennis Magazine. He can be reached at [email protected]