Tennis coverage on American television was so much worse several years ago.
The rise of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal created ample demand for the product itself, but the quality of the product didn’t always meet the standards of tennis fans new and old. In recent years, however, a number of problems have been solved. As much as ESPN sometimes detracts from the viewer’s experience of a sporting event, the WorldWide Leader stands at the center of multiple enhancements to tennis broadcasting.
5 – NO MORE TAPE-DELAYED WIMBLEDON SEMIFINALS
The willingness of ESPN to devote more resources to tennis broadcasting has made the cable sports giant a worthy home for the tennis majors. There are still flaws around the edges, but the bulk of ESPN’s coverage has served the interests of American tennis fans. The biggest value to be found in ESPN’s coverage is simply that it is live, unlike NBC’s treatment of Wimbledon singles semifinals through 2011. When ESPN gained exclusive broadcast rights at Wimbledon in 2012, it aired both semifinals (women and men) live. Just doing that is enough of a reason to thank the WWL for replacing NBC at SW19 in suburban London.
Now, Roland Garros (where NBC still has contractual rights for one men’s semifinal) is the only major tournament in which (most) Americans are still saddled with a tape-delayed broadcast. It’s a small but significant step forward for the sport as seen through the prism of American television coverage.
4 – THE EMERGENCE OF TWO-CHANNEL COVERAGE AT WIMBLEDON
The next step is for ESPN to take this approach to the rest of the majors, but at least it exists at the most important and prestigious major of all.
Wimbledon is the signature event on the tennis calendar. It is the first major tournament, the one with the most history and the deepest roots in the sport’s evolution. The tradition, the weight of significance, the freedom from the NBA and NHL playoffs (which typically end by the time Wimbledon begins), and various other factors make “The Championships” the one tennis event no American broadcaster should fail to cover in less than complete detail.
ESPN has generally managed to provide coverage worthy of the event, and it has done so by devoting two channels to the fourth round and the quarterfinals. When stacks of important high-profile matches are waiting to be covered, ESPN and ESPN2 have managed to address the needs of viewers. This is enlightened modern-day coverage, and its existence shows that the model can be extended to other tournaments. If so, tennis will become an even more TV-friendly sport.
3 – BETTER ANALYSTS
If the best coaches in tennis are immersed in that line of work, they can’t go to the booth on a full-time basis. Brad Gilbert and especially Darren Cahill are two of ESPN’s better analysts, but they both coached Andre Agassi in the past. Gilbert briefly coached Andy Murray as well before parting from the Scot. They really couldn’t devote all of their time to commentary. Now that they’re less centrally involved in coaching (though certainly not removed from it entirely), they can comment on matches. Paul Annacone was front and center as a coach when he guided both Pete Sampras and Roger Federer. After the end of his partnership with Federer, he has been able to join Tennis Channel’s “Center Court” program, providing commentary on various weekend matches that are covered in whip-around fashion from TC’s studios.
American tennis broadcasters have increased the number of analysts they bring to the majors. Not all of these analysts are exceptionally good, but some are. Tennis has come a long way from the 1980s, when the size of a stable of commentators at a major tournament (play-by-play and analysis) was much smaller than it is today. You might hear several voices you don’t like, but a larger group of commentators means it’s more likely you’ll enjoy a few as well — that’s progress.
2 – TENNIS CHANNEL
The network dedicated solely to the coverage of tennis has been around for only seven years, and for the first few years, it did not possess enough resources to offer live coverage of various tournaments from start to finish. Even now, the network has to pick its spots a little bit; acquiring live feeds for tournaments played outside North America costs money. Tennis Channel wasn’t able to cover as many tournaments during the weeks when multiple tournaments took place. When it did cover tournaments, broadcasts wouldn’t start until Thursday (the round of 16 at any tournament that ends on a Sunday). These practices are still in evidence, but they’re not as common.
Today, the Tennis Channel covers the prestigious Indian Wells and Miami tournaments, the two most important non-major events on the calendar other than the year-end championships for both the ATP and WTA Tours. TC gained the rights for Indian Wells and Miami from the previous primary rightsholder, Fox Sports Net. It only makes sense that a network dedicated to tennis is the network which carries the workload for the events one tier below the majors. (It also makes sense that a high-visibility network with more expansive distribution such as ESPN carries the majors, when the greatest number of casual sports fans will tune in. Tennis Channel does provide substantial live coverage of the non-Wimbledon majors, but as the secondary broadcaster, not the primary one.)
Tennis Channel has thereby provided an important service for American viewers. For all its flaws, its mere existence is still a big plus for United States tennis fans (though the patience of said fans gets tested on a regular basis).
This year, Tennis Channel has become even more effective and innovative in its weekly coverage of tennis. Fridays through Sundays, TC offers the aforementioned Center Court, with studio analysis and whip-around coverage of multiple tournaments. On Fridays through Sundays, tournaments work their way from the quarterfinal round to the championship round, so these are high-stakes matches for the players involved (and their fan bases).
In different cities and (sometimes) different continents, it’s hard to pull together coverage of simultaneously played matches. Center Court is a smart way to achieve that goal while also saving money by not sending analysts to the actual match sites. Center Court has become a perfect way for Tennis Channel to televise the Davis Cup, one of the sport’s great events and a competition that has generally not received much of any coverage from ESPN in recent years.
There are still plenty of things Tennis Channel fails to do as well as it could. Yet, this network is definitely improving with each successive year. TC is growing in size and strength, and also in terms of the wisdom it brings to a television broadcast. This is welcome news for American tennis fans, who have a TV home dedicated to their sport.
1 – THE NEW U.S. OPEN SETUP (STARTING IN 2015)
This is not something which will help American viewers this year, but it’s still worth pointing out and celebrating. During CBS’s relationship with the U.S. Open, American tennis enthusiasts have had to deal with multi-network men’s singles finals (2010) and poorly handled trophy ceremonies (2009, 2010), not to mention the pre-empting of the men’s final in some markets (2008 through 2013, possibly again in 2014). In 2015, though, ESPN takes over the U.S. Open, which removes the above debacles from the realm of possibility in the future.
That’s not the only set of benefits awaiting U.S. tennis viewers.
ESPN’s stewardship of the U.S. Open will lead to a couple of shifts in the tournament’s schedule. First, the men’s singles final will go back to Sunday from Monday. That helps viewers who generally have to work on Monday afternoon in the non-Eastern time zones. (The men’s singles final currently begins at or near 5:10 p.m. Eastern time.)
The other big shift, though, is that the women’s singles semifinals will be aired in prime time on Thursday night. Currently, they are (and have been) aired on Friday afternoon, from 1:40 to 6 p.m. Eastern on CBS. Women’s tennis is likely to overtake men’s tennis in terms of quality and popularity four to six years from now, when the current crop of non-Federer male superstars passes the age of 30. It’s a big step forward for the women to gain prime-time semifinals instead of a mid-afternoon slot.
ESPN’s increased commitment to tennis is what has made this change possible. It’s one important reflection of the extent to which this sport is being taken more seriously by America’s most visible and resource-laden sports network.