Saturday, January 21, 2012

ESPN loses with jingoistic tennis coverage

Once upon a time, you could not tell the players without a scoreboard at the ballpark. Nowadays, you cannot watch tennis on ESPN without using the mute button on your remote control.

Unless you make tennis on ESPN sound like the award-winning silent film, "The Artist," ESPN's jingoistic "America versus the world" approach to the sport would render its coverage completely unwatchable.

"Serena Williams is the only American left in the main draw," ESPN told viewers often during its Friday night/Saturday morning presentation of the Australian Open before the mute button was pressed.

As if a player's nationality matters in tennis. It doesn't. It never has. And never will to the vast majority of viewers despite ESPN's attempt to brainwash people.

Tennis is an individualistic sport. Serena Williams does not play for Team USA any more than Rafael Nadal plays for the Spanish Armadas or Roger Federer represents the Swiss Cheeses.

Serena plays for Serena. If she wins the Aussie Open, it is her victory, not a reason for a flag-waving public celebration. A Serena triumph Down Under would not validate the American way of life, whatever that is, any more than a Serena defeat would bring shame to those values Americans hold dear (which in our increasingly divisive political climate is harder than ever to define).

Yet ESPN insists on sabotaging its tennis coverage with constant prattle about how the Americans are doing in a given tournament, even though that is not why tennis fans watch tennis.

Tennis fans love the drama, contrasting styles and prodigious artistry of a Nadal-Federer match. That neither player is American is utterly irrelevant. Always has been.

Unfortunately, ESPN remains tone-deaf to the truth: Tennis will not achieve NFL-type ratings here if such American players as Mardy Fish, Donald Young, Christina McHale and Melanie Oudin (who has done nothing since the 2009 U.S. Open) join Serena in the second week of a major tournament.

Tennis is a niche sport in America. Most sports fans don't watch tennis. But avid fans will watch the Grand Slam tournaments regardless of who wins the events. Why? Because we enjoy tennis. We especially enjoy our tennis with intelligent and insightful commentary that enhances our appreciation of the players involved, their biographies, strategies, strengths and weaknesses.

Alas, intelligent and insightful commentary on ESPN tennis coverage has been in such short supply that the sport's best TV analyst, Mary Carillo, finally got fed up two years ago and left the network.

Carillo wants to talk tennis, which she does now for Tennis Channel and for CBS at the U.S. Open. She does not want to wave pom-poms for American players. She does not want to spend infinitely more time talking about an American teen-ager making her Wimbledon debut than Novak Djokovic trying to repeat as the tournament champion.

Now that Disney-owned ESPN has wrested the TV rights to Wimbledon from NBC, we will no longer be able to hear Carillo's commentary of the tournament during championship weekend. Our loss.

What constitutes an even bigger loss for viewers is the realization that ESPN can substantially outbid other networks for the right to televise marquee tennis events without having any clue as to how to present the sport properly.

So, like many tennis fans, I'll be watching "Breakfast at Wimbledon" this July, ESPN-style--with my oatmeal and fresh fruit on the table, and the audio on mute.