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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!

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.

19 Comments on Talking Heads: Comments on the Commentators

  1. Toni Larsen // March 28, 2018 at 5:32 pm // Reply

    I have been watching tennis for years both in the UK and here in Canada. I played and also have been fortunate enough to attend Wimbledon. I wish the commentators would realise that Tennis is a sport where the viewer has most likely played, knows the game and even follows the players otherwise why would we tune in. We are not blind or deaf so we can hear the score read the board for other information. We do not need to be treated like idiots and have every point explained to us, be bored with statistics and most importantly be allowed to watch the game. Treat the viewers as if you were sitting next to them at the match and like the chair umpire says please refrain from comments or applause during the shots. The best times are when it is announced that it will be a commentary free game – hurrah for that; I wish there were more of those.

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  2. 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!!!

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  3. 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!!!

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  4. Poor commentators and poor camera work are hurting tennis and as well as tennis is doing could be so much better. If I hear Lindsay Davenport say “it was not that good-of-a-shot” one more time I am going to barf. The grammar of many announcers is deplorable. There are many good broadcasters, John McEnroe, Chris Evert, Justin Gumelstob, Jon Wertheim, Ted Robinson, Mary Joe Fernandez and others are great. Patrick McEnroe, Martina, Davenport, Drysdal who is almost 80 and still colors his hair, Stubbs, and others are useless.

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  5. If these masters of psychobabble, ALL of them— think their cliche’s and constant, annoying, distracting, infuriating commentary, during points, tie-breaks, etc, jabbering as though we were blind, retarded pygmies were valuable information, just let them put it on loud speakers for the gallery and guess what their life-expectancy would be!

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  6. Dear Tennis Channel can not live without you, BUT Gimelstob drives me bananas. Would rather hear ball striking racket etc. His motor mouth makes me mute my tv often. Love you Roger Federer!!! Congrats to Coric at Gerry
    Webber. Motor mouth has bugged be for years, sorry I’m complaining.

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  7. Anna P Bralove // July 31, 2018 at 3:03 pm // Reply

    Someone please, please, please tell Brett Haber who announces many tennis matches that his incessant chatter about statistical data is not helpful and is actually an aggravating distraction! I have to ‘mute’ or simply turn off any broadcast that Haber is doing. He contributes nothing but distraction. Seems as though he is only interested in showing everyone how much he knows. Can he actually play tennis????? Please tell him to shut up and stop distracting from the tennis.His comments are irrelevant! Right now he is chatting during the Stephens & Mattek-Sands match in DC on 7/31/18 and I am screaming at Haber and not enjoying the match. He is chatting like he is at a social event. He is a distraction. People want to watch tennis, not listen to Haber.. Finally muted the broadcast so I can continue watching! Please, no more Haber!

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  8. On aug 10 watching a match Simon halep/ Caroline Garcia . Terrible conversation all praise for halep , and all criticism for Garcia . One comment the difference in play was the mentality between the ears . This is terrible broadcasting .

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  9. Interesting discussion and variety of opinions. Aside from Chris Fowler and Dan Hicks (golf), both of whom are nonstop talkers who don’t know their place, and get me to change the channel when I get tired of yelling “shut up!,” I don’t find anyone so objectionable that I need to yell at or walk away from (though are obvious not equal). Contrary to others, I do like Cliff Drysdale because he’s a true thinking man’s announcer, but I can understand why some wouldn’t respond to that. Mary Joe Fernandez, Darin Cahill, Chanda Rubin, Lindsay Davenport, P-Mac and Ted Robinson, who does know his place, are others I like for their insight. Yes, Mary Carillo is sometimes over the top, and has a jaded quality that says she’s been around too long, but in between she’s often fun.

    I think what’s missed in this discussion are substantive bad habits of many announcers, especially the ESPN staples (J McEnroe, Evert, Shriver, Fowler).. Here are some that come to mind:
    – missing the big picture in a match, instead treating the last point or two as if they were a trend or had been going on indefinitely – or will
    – treating all errors late in a set or match as primarily or entirely the result of player nerves
    – trreating all player “negativity” as bad; some use that as a way of motivating themselves.
    – not paying attention to player’s faces for understanding what’s going on; e.g., if a player is sick, that usually shows on their face. Or also in the case of Serena, she’s a whiner, whether as a stage of getting motivated or as an end state on a truly bad day, and that invariably shows on her face, just like it does with the rest of us.

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  10. Michael Roth // March 25, 2019 at 7:33 pm // Reply

    When Ted Robinson an experienced commentator talks and gives information about the player ,it’s good to have this information otherwise, all should be quite accept Tracy Austin that gives a colorful explanation how the player should play ,a very refreshing view and most of the time she is right,we know tennis we don’t need “psychologists” like Paul Annacone that was an average player at his time 157 wins 131 losses, correct me if I am wrong….

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  11. WANDA CASTLE // May 19, 2019 at 8:52 pm // Reply

    I don’t appreciate how the commentators were making so many excuses about how fatigued Novak was which allowed Rafael Nadal’s win in the Rome finals. They went on and on about how fatigued Novak was as if Rafa didn’t play the day before too. And it isn’t Rafa’s fault that Novak’s match from the previous day went to three sets whereas Rafa won his in straight sets. They also failed to mention that the last time Rafa and Novak played (which they constantly referred to as a “Beat Down”), Rafa’s tendonitis started bothering him during the two matches prior to the match against Novak, thus he barely moved around when playing Novak. So in today’s match Novak was a little fatigued from the previous day’s match and Rafa also had to be fatigued from the previous day’s match as well. The last time the two played the commentators didn’t make any excuses for Rafa’s loss even he played with his knee bothering him. These commentators should keep their comments centered instead of showing so much preference and one-sidedness for one player.

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  12. Dino Thomspon // July 6, 2019 at 11:57 am // Reply

    Please ask McEnroe to allow us to watch a match. He can rant right through every point during an entire game about nothing in particular. Takes away all the tension and drama.

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  13. I have been trying to figure out to whom I should complain about the wretched 2020 US Open coverage. Brad Gilbert has to be the most annoying man commenting on tennis EVER! His nicknames are just ridiculous and disrespectful! Also, please tell Chris Evert and Cliff Drysdale to shut it! OK, that’s off my chest, so now I can get back to watching with the Mute ON!!

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  14. Jane Farlow // October 9, 2020 at 1:23 pm // Reply

    It seems as if there is an connectig subject link between these replies… too much babble/ talking
    useless information. I am old enough to remember the Wimbledon commentaries…. mostly silence!!!! The tipping point has come with Jim Courier, he just never, never stops talking so now I have to press the mute button when he (or Brad Gilbert) are commenting on the matches… not hearing the ball sound has diminished the enjoyment considerably to the point
    that I may just wait for the scores and not watch what is undeniably fantastic tennis.
    So please send a memo to all your announcers that we the audience would like to watch the
    tennis and not be irritated by the constant inanne babble vomiting from the TV.
    Thankyou from Jane Farlow.

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  15. Lindsay has gotten to be really annoying – talking through the point, saying the same thing over and over, and commenting on what the players SHOULD be doing.

    I’m watching with the sound muted most of the time.

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  16. Concetta Pipia // June 13, 2021 at 11:55 am // Reply

    Can someone please tell John McEnroe to be quiet during points and comment after the play has been made ? Is favorite to zoom towards a player Is very obvious went in comments. He is the most on objective commentator I have ever listened to.

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  17. It’s 2021, and Paul Annacone is STILL talking nonsense DURING the point!

    Is anyone paying any attention at all???

    The Tennis Channel management must be idiots!

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  18. Kathleen Weiss // September 6, 2021 at 6:52 pm // Reply

    Trying to enjoy the U.S. Open on ESPN has become a matter of just turning the volume down. I cannot stand all the blather out of Chris Evert, Chris Fowler, Cliff Drysdale, and the girl named Alexandra or Alexander who never made it on tour. I don’t mind commentary about what’s happening in a point, but I don’t need analysis of what the players did wrong every single point. Since when were these former players perfect in their delivery? And we certainly don’t need constant speculation about what’s going to happen next. That’s part of the fun of watching tennis and these commentators just take it all away. Why can’t they just be quiet and let the point be played? The same thing tends to happen on Tennis Channel, but not nearly as bad as ESPN. Martina has been working a little on trying to be more positive, but she’s constantly down on players for every little mistake. I do like the McEnroe Brothers, Pam, Renee and Darren Cahill. I can’t stand all the nicknames that Brad Gilbert has come up with for everybody. Does he wonder occasionally whether the players might not like that? Finally, the amount of proverbial ass-kissing that goes on with certain players is nauseating. Tennis players are all different personalities from different countries, and I think the commentators should focus on the tennis being played.

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