Tuesday, August 25, 2009

McEnroe, Connors, Navratilova Headline Dense 2009 U.S. Open Coverage

Next week, die hard tennis fans are about to enter the euphoric state that can only be described as televised tennis nirvana.

Thanks to the USTA's landmark cable television deal with The Tennis Channel and ESPN, over 200 hours of live tennis will be broadcast (and many more taped hours as well) during the two week tournament, with an additional 435 hours coming from DirecTV's comprehensive and interactive U.S. Open Mix.

ESPN, which is making it's maiden voyage at the Open, has hired John McEnroe as it's lead analyst. McEnroe will be without his long time partner in the booth, Ted Robinson, who remains with NBC, but was not hired by ESPN (Robinson will be working on the Tennis Channel's broadcasts). Instead, the edgy American tennis icon (and 4-time U.S. Open singles champion) will be partnered with other ESPN regulars, most notably his younger brother Patrick.

ESPN's coverage of the tournament will be complemented nicely by The Tennis Channel, which has signed on with another American legend, Jimmy Connors, as it's lead analyst. Connors will be working alongside Martina Navratilova, and veteran Bill Macatee in the booth. Tennis fans can be confident that their analysts know the game - Navratilova and Connors boast a combined 26 Grand-Slam singles titles, and 9 combined U.S. Open singles titles.

"I'm excited about being part of the U.S. Open team and I can't wait to get back to New York," said Connors. "There's nothing in tennis like the U.S. Open. I'm looking forward to helping Bill, Martina, and everyone else at the network change the way the tournament is seen on television."

But many fans are lamenting the fact that USA is no longer covering the open, and for good reason: ESPN will be picking up its daily coverage of the Open at 1 o'clock - 2 hours after play has been underway. The Tennis Channel will cover the first two hours, in addition to continuing its coverage on the outer courts after ESPN picks up its coverage at 1 P.M. This seems like a neat solution but when you consider The Tennis Channels messy negotiations with a certain Cable provider, you realize that some fans will be hung out to dry for a few hours each day during week one of the Open.

Additionally, while ESPN is stepping up it's dedication to the sport, many fear that they may never recreate the charm and grassroots feel that USA imparted to its viewers with quirky on-court interviews from Michael Barkann and the very intimate "up-all-night" vibe that McEnroe and Robinson were notorious for fostering.

But for those who are fortunate enough to receive the Tennis Channel, a whole new level of comprehensive coverage awaits. Breakfast at the Open, and a plethora of match highlights and re-runs will complement the networks already intense broadcast schedule.

ESPN2's broadcast schedule will be even more intense, with its emphasis on flexibility more than ever, so that viewers can see the matches that are captivating instead of just watching whatever has been scheduled in it's entirety.

"Our Strategy is to make the viewer feel like he is at the National Tennis Center during the day session," said Jamie Reyonds, a vice president in ESPN's remote production department.

But viewers who do not receive the Tennis Channel from their cable channel may disagree with Reynolds. The two hour lapse in open coverage at the start of the day is sure to irk many viewers who are relying on ESPN as their sole provider of live match coverage during the week (CBS has the three day labor day weekend and the last three days of the tournament).

If you don't have Tennis Channel, then the truth of the matter is that you will be experiencing a downgrade of service (at least in the 11 to 1 slot) - and that's unfortunate. But Don't blame ESPN, blame the cable providers who aren't allowing you to get The Tennis Channel.

If you're like me and many others who do get the Tennis Channel, you are about to embark on a journey to the National Tennis Center without ever having to leave the comforts of your own couch. And instead of getting sunburn and paying $7 for Heineken's, you can hang out with Jimbo, Johny Mac, and Martina while drinking whatever was on sale at the local supermarket.

Between Tennis Channel, ESPN, DirecTV, CBS, and streaming video on usopen.org, their will be an unprecedented amount of tennis being broadcast beginning August 31.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

May 2, 2009/ Stuttgart Semi's/ Safina v. Pennetta

This match is being aired on The Tennis Channel.

Commentators: Corina Morariu, Paul Sunderland.

Corina and Paul give a pretty unbiased and detailed analysis of the players and the action on the court. Once you realize what kind of a career Corina had in professional tennis, and how much she has had to persevere through off the court (lukemia survivor), you realize just how valuable her insight is. Sunderland, meanwhile, is versatile, mellow, professional, and well versed in both the players and the sport.

Commentator Quotables:


Prior to set point for Pennetta: "In 5 previous matches Safina has only dropped one set to Pennetta." Nice timing by the savvy broadcaster who is based in L.A and has called L.A. Laker games in the past.

After a bad Safina stretch of points: "She (Safina) is playing a horrible match right now - half a dozen double faults, a multitude of unforced errors."

After Safina smashes her racquet @ 4-4, 2nd set: "Look at this...there we go...glad to see it...that was long overdue." Does he really think that's going to help her?


Regarding the fact that both commentators feel that Safina needs to let off some steam: "It's not a matter of losing your temper it's a matter of regaining your composure for the next point." So True!

While watching replay of a Pennetta passing attempt: "Pennetta could have driven a truck up the line on this pass (giggling)."

The Angles: As is the norm, after the serve is put in play, the action is followed from a camera that is behind the baseline at the center of the court. The viewing angle is sufficiently wide and the camera does not need to pan.

In the seventh game of the first set Tennis Channel went to a ground-level camera view of Pennetta returning Safina's serve (camera behind Pennetta). They only did it once and they need to do it more. It's very cutting-edge and kind of refreshes the viewers pallet, i.e. keeps it interesting for us.

* they just did it again in the 8th game, so maybe they're hearing my complaining (This technique is particularly compelling in Stuttgart because their is a larger-than-life video screen with images of the two players in the background, which makes the whole scene seem really futuristic and cool). * and again in the 8th game of the 2nd set. * and again in the eleventh game of the 2nd set (and this time they let this angle play for the whole point).

Replays: During replays a camera in the same position (elevated behind baseline at the T) uses the zoom to isolate each players strokes. As usual, I wish that the broadcast would experiment with this technique during live play, but they never do - not once.

Some extra slo-mo stuff when the Tennis Channel cuts back from commercial is really nice to watch.

A head-level cam does a great job giving the viewer a unique and informative view of each players service motion. This is the view that we all know as players so it is particularly informative with regard to pace and spin.

A ground-level cam captures the dazzling level of spin in a very cool way, during a replay in the fourth game of the first set. It is a beautiful angle to view from and in my opinion should be employed more often so the viewer can see how different shots move, i.e. slice, serves, topspin, flat - from that angle. They need to do this stuff more and more!

Graphics and stats: Not many statistical updates during the sets. First set statistics and analysis was nice, but they didn't leave it on the screen for very long.

Career 3rd set records shown immediately at the start of the 3rd set. Nice.

Pluses: Some great artistic shot of clay covered shoes. Great close-up shot of Safina's anxiety ridden face just prior to a huge break point opportunity. A willingness to at least try some experimental camera angles.

Minuses: As always, the reluctance to use more readily available alternative camera angles is baffling. The Tennis Channel has a modern and savvy viewership, they should give us more credit and challenge us more.

Final score: Safina d. Pennetta 3-6, 7-5, 6-0.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

April 18, 2009/ Family Circle Cup Semis/ Dementieva v. Wozniacki

This match is being aired on ESPN2.

Commentators: Cliff Drysdale, Mary Joe Fernandez, and Pam Shriver.

Cliff Drysdale is at his usual cheerful best, and Mary Joe and Pam are kind of letting him set the tone and pull them in either direction. It works well and they are pretty good about mixing small talk and focus on the match. Many viewers of tennis seem to want to complain about broadcasters talking during points and talking about other things besides tennis, but to me, as long as the camera is rolling I'm really not too worried about the commentators. They provide available insight, facts and statistics and I want to hear what they have to say.

The Angles: Once the serve is put in play, only one camera angle is used until the point is over. This camera is directly behind the players, probably about 30' high. While this is a great vantage point, it'd certainly be better if they mixed in a ground level camera at times. A question for you all: Shouldn't networks experiment with different angles?

The fact that ESPN always goes to this angle once the serve is hit gets a little redundant in my opinion. Why not mix in a ground-level cam, located either on the side of the baseline, or directly behind?

Replays: Camera angles are from many angles and give very interesting insight into the physicality of the ladies. The ground level cameras used for some replays give viewers a very realistic idea of spin and pace - it feels like you are out there. The fact that the cameras for the replays are at so many different angles leads me to again wish that they used more variety during live play. Why not?

Plus: Sensing the drama, the Camera's follow the athletes out of their chairs and onto the court before the climactic game of the match (very nicely done, espn).

Minus: Baseball scores are flashing on the bottom of the screen...isn't it about time that this bar becomes optional? Sure, I'm a huge baseball fan, but sometimes I want the whole screen for my tennis - is that so wrong?

To HD or not to HD? The match is being shown in 720 p HD, and for some reason the screen is cropped by about 4" on either side of my screen. Strange computer graphics which say ESPN2HD are scrolled across each side of the space, vertically. When will the day come that all broadcasts are 16x9?

Progressive Shot of the day (a nice feature of the telecast, though I wish they had a progressive shot for every set because I love these slo-mo stroke analysis type of spots): Wozniacki makes a brilliant scoop volley on the backhand in the first set. It looks great in slo-mo, her racquet hardly moves.

My Commentary: The hard green clay of the Southeastern U.S. is faster than the european red clay. This match looks very similar to a hard-court match, and both players are hitting with a lot of zing.

Wozniacki, the up-and-coming 18-yr-old is serving to stay in the match, 4-5, @ 15-15. If she can manage the win it would be her 2nd consecutive clay court final appearance in 2 weeks.

Meanwhile, Dementieva is screaming like a wild animal as she wallops the ball from the baseline. The commentators are pretty much silent for a spell and you can hear it as if you are there.

"Game, Wozniacki" over the P.A. is followed by hoots and whistles from the very enthusiastic crowd. 5-5 in the 3rd set. This is where you put your money where your mouth is, and both girls know it.

As play continues, it looks like Dementieva is having some nerve issues with her serve. The commentators are praising Wozniacki for being on the brink of winning this match even after blowing big opportunities to win it in straight sets.

The kid from Denmark breaks and will get a chance to serve it out.

Meanwhile another Progressive add comes on...

Early in the final game, Wozniacki sails a forehand 5' long and the camera searches her face for signs of fear, but there doesn't seem to be any. She has a face that is more childish than womanish. But she has the groundies of a woman, that's for sure. It is very impressive to see her battling in these tense matches with so much on the line.

A service winner gets Woz her 4th match point of the match, her 1st of the 3rd set - Can she nail it down?

Not yet - the best point of the match and Dementieva gets to deuce by letting it all hang out. Drysdale, as always, is resonating with the match and his enthusiasm adds to the excitement of the drama on TV. He seems jazzed that the match has turned out to be so competitive.

Mary Joe: "So close but still yet so far, for Wozniacki."

Drysdale: "She is a determined teenager...in this 3rd set she has not gone away...not for a moment.

A Wozniacki winner seals the match. "That's it!!!" shouts an adrenalized Drysdale - he is careful to give the hard-fought victory by Wozniacki it's due. The crowd is really letting her hear their appreciation.

Final: Wozniacki d. Dementieva 6-4, 5-7, 7-5.