My two young nephews are receiving private tennis coaching. They’ve taken to it brilliantly, displaying natural aptitude. In a dozen years, I expect to be sitting down to watch Wimbledon with the Watkins brothers mounting a stiff home challenge for the men’s title. If they do, though, I hope they get better quality TV coverage than today. Is there another sport where the reasonably informed fan is as badly served by sycophantically amateurish commentators?
It’s not simply the banalities of the pre- and post-match interviews with the players – and, my goodness, I admire their patience, because if I had someone outside my dressing room with a microphone as I was leaving for the court, they’d need the bleeper on permanent alert – it’s the general vicar’s tea party inanity of the whole presentation.
To be fair, French tennis lovers may not do much better. I’m assuming that the BBC’s broadcast of their recent Open came courtesy of a domestic unit, but the camera coverage of the women’s final between Francesca Schiavone and Li Na trivialised it, skittishly cutting from the action to faces in the crowd – usually celebrities or ex-players – as if the intensity on court was not enough. Admittedly, this was a contest that never caught fire, but this was an insult to the – too readily criticised – women’s game. Needless to say, the production was much tighter the following day when Nadal and Federer took centre stage.
I’m not letting British commentators off the hook, though, either. I recall the era of the dulcet-toned Dan Maskell, when the prime requirement of a sports commentator was to be easy on the ear. We expect more technical insight now, but Andrew Castle’s voice is really not pleasant, and his interjections are not insightful. He merely irritates, and when the analyst alongside him is the Eeyore-ish John Lloyd, a handsome chap who nonetheless always looks and sounds like he’s missed the last bus home, you know you are in for a long haul. In Paris, for the aforesaid women’s final, I detected a faint boredom in Castle’s voice but, luckily, he was paired with the excellent Sam Smith. While he busily pointed out every famous face the camera cut to, she politely remedied his omissions.
It made you wonder why we have yet to employ a female match commentator. You can’t count Sue Barker, giggly and girlish in the presence of Boris Becker, John McEnroe and Pat Cash, an inter-national trio who inject a much needed dose of big-time gravitas. She does say interesting things sometimes – but I pinpoint three underlying factors behind the shallow coverage.
Broadly speaking, British tennis viewers are casual, once-a-year, Wimbledon-time watchers. This leads to Castle saying obvious things like “they call them the Grand Slams, and there are four of them” because many of his audience are unaware that there are three other major championships during the year, played on different surfaces in different parts of the world. But ‘the team’ to some extent are culpable for problem two – the constant ‘bigging up’ of Wimbledon, as if it was the tournament the players really want to win above all others, whereas a Grand Slam is, of course, a Grand Slam, wherever it is played. Wimbledon has its tradition and a unique atmosphere, but this ‘best of’ emphasis panders too readily to the blinkered once-a-year set, and fails to develop tennis’s rich global narrative.
Finally, there’s the insular ‘Little Brit’problem and the desperate search for – ye gods, how many times have we heard it? – our first men’s singles winner since Fred Perry. This leads to (and it’s the same with press coverage) excessive concentration on Andy Murray. I like Murray for his touch and his deceptively dozy movements about the court, lacking the swan-like grace of Federer, perhaps, but distinguishable from the de rigueur baseline sluggers of the day. But he’s not the only player out there and those relentless inquests Barker conducts after his every match are tedious.
I write this just as the Championships begin. Murray may be out by the time you read it, but if he’s still there (slim chance though there is), I’ll be praying for a little bit of restraint.