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Talking Heads: Comments on the Commentators

By: Jane Voigt

We can’t get away from them unless we’re seated inside a stadium. The majority of tennis fans at their beck and call. You know them as broadcast journalists, announcers, tennis talking heads or, as they are sometimes abbreviated, “commies.”

But what good are they? Do we listen? Or, can we hold our tongues or stop our fingers from tapping tweets when one pipes up to say something inane, inaccurate or otherwise insipid?

If you can answer that question with a “yes,” count yourself as saintly.

Upfront, though, these commentators have a difficult job. They have to know what they’re talking about. Breaking them down to media groups, here’s a rundown on the callers of the matches. Vote for your favorite in the poll below:

The Tennis Channel Crew
Grade: B-

Brett Haber has a learned mastery of tennis. He’s been in sports for decades, anchoring ESPN’s Sport Center earlier in his career, but was not raised on a tennis court like his colleagues. As the naif in the booth, his job is central to a cohesive crew, which is ostensibly incongruent. He provokes expert opinions from his sidekicks, and does it in a professional manner, keeping them focused. From that angle, we can’t fault Haber. He’s enthusiastic, polished, and eager to please.

Lindsay Davenport, Leif Shiras, and Tracy Austin balance-out Haber in a pleasant relationship that perks along smoothly. Criticism of our commies often stems from their verbosity — ‘They should be quiet during points,’ is a common fan truth.

‘Just shut up’ is another.

Austin’s more monotonous delivery is acceptable if she would cut comments shorter, and let Shiras and Davenport steer the conversation. Davenport, who was inducted in the International Tennis Hall of Fame this July and was introduced by the more polarizing Justin Gimelstob, should be crowned TC Crew Captain for her handling of her friend and co-worker on air. She is the only one who can wrestle his verbosity in a way that doesn’t disrupt the broadcast.

Gimelstob’s steady stream of gobbledygook about players, technique, and strategy execution can be so totally incomprehensible his contemporaries sit by in silence.

Let’s take his initial Davis Cup belief that, at first, the Swiss didn’t have enough fire power to dislodge the French. Pair that with the notion that, “They [French] just don’t have a big enough weapon to disrupt the Swiss team.” His assessment crossed the net a couple more times, leaving fans fatigued, unsure who did or did not have the fire power while many rolled their eyes — what the heck, does he know he’s repeating himself?

His preposterous presentation of player techniques must to go the way of his sexist comments from 2008 about Anna Kournikova.

Explaining the benefits of topspin, or the purposefulness of slice forehands, or even the smooth nature of red-clay sliding from the Europeans – as if they deserved the consciousness of a rocket scientist – is theater of the absurd. The real downside lands on listeners.

Just what the heck do these mean:

“repeatability under pressure,” “That’s how you shadow at the net,” “His [Federer’s] organization supports Africa.”

Martina Navratilova can both illuminate and undermine. However, we cannot fault her for her absolutely steadfastness in calling the game as she sees it. Rennae Stubbs is not too far behind. Softened by cosmetics and a sporty wardrobe, “Stubbsie” has learned to temper her temper, which displayed personality rather than product.

The ESPN Team
Grade: B

In a nutshell, John McEnroe talks too much during points. Like, would you please just chill and reconcile with the fact that the current tennis landscape no longer lends itself as much to serve and volley?

Younger brother Patrick is an icon of tennis perfectionism. He knows, with the precision of a delicate “dropper,” when to stay and when to go with his gut instincts on the air. Rarely do we hear blather from Patrick, and rarely is he chided for his commentary. He is polite and anchors a booth as well as Haber over at Tennis Channel.

Darrin Cahill is another smooth master of the mic. He’s played, continues to coach, and has serves listeners well. His Aussie accent ties in the tennis history of his home, which polishes his polite and completely on-the-money observations.

God love Chris Evert, but perhaps time has come for her to retire, taking with her those outlandish colored print dresses. Some of her work might be valid and is certainly an improvement from her first verbal volleys for ESPN. Per Sports Illustrated, Colette Evert, Chrissie’s mother, taught her never to speak badly of anyone.

Maybe that’s why she can sound so parental and pejorative.

Take, for example, the incident at Wimbledon involving Serena Williams’ bizarre behavior in her doubles match. Evert raised the question of drugs: “Is it something unintentional or intentional in her system that they may drug test for?” It wasn’t so much that Evert was bold, it was her fussy delivery that rattled listeners.

Evert’s contract is up this year with ESPN. No word on a continuance has been made available.

The Outliers:
Grade: A

Without a doubt, Robbie Koenig, Jason Goodall and Nick Lester are the favorite sons. They are informative, play off one another, don’t rattle on during points, and can be down-right funny.

Koenig once described a Roger Federer slice as a “dead-cat bounce, only a couple inches off the ground.” His frequent use of “mind boggling stuff” perfectly describes repeated points and rallies, but isn’t tiring.

Mats Wilander on EuroSports takes heat for his severity. His insight is chilly and sometimes completely out of context.

Wilander, though, along with his European commentators silence themselves while points are played. The phenomena of prattling on about a match, clashes of personalities not in the match, or something that drew their attention on Twitter seems to be an American gig.

_____

The folks at Tennis Channel, ESPN and NBC could cool the backlash their crews get if they would ask them to sit in silence at times, rather than expound. Why not take a survey? People like giving their opinions, and have been donating them on social media for years.

Who is your favorite commentary box? Vote in our TTI poll, and follow Jane on Twitter @downthetee!

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About Jane Voigt (89 Articles)
Jane Voigt is a recognized tennis journalist who has covered the pro game for over 12 years. She created and owns DownTheTee.com, and has contributed to TennisGrandstand.com, WorldTennisMagazine,com, TennisWeek.com, Tennis Week Magazine, TennisServer.com, and Tennis.com.

2 Comments on Talking Heads: Comments on the Commentators

  1. When are we going to finally hear that the Tennis Channel will be releasing the inept Leif Shiras from his role.??? Tracy Austin should follow right behind and then, maybe, I can enjoy a match the way it’s supposed to viewed…..With sound!!!

    Like

  2. Correction: When are we going to finally hear that the Tennis Channel will be releasing the inept Leif Shiras from his role.??? Tracy Austin should follow right behind and then, maybe, I can enjoy a match the way it’s supposed to BE viewed…..With sound!!!

    Like

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