Two years ago, with thousands of people watching live on television, I sat at a small table beside a relative stranger. I certainly knew who she was, from the hours I’d seen her on TV, but I didn’t know anything about her. Nor did I expect her to know anything about me.
Nevertheless, our segment about the US Open’s doomed Grandstand court needed to be engaging, entertaining and authentic, with a rapport that jumped through the screen. I uttered a few words to check the volume of my voice; I was then told in no uncertain terms to speak up. Just before the cameras rolled, I felt as doomed as the venue I was going to talk about.
Of course, when your partner in this doubles match against the mind is Mary Carillo, there’s a palpable sense of relief. There’s also a genuine feeling of excitement that anyone who spends five minutes with the 60-year-old “quintessential Pisces” (her words) can understand. The former US Open quarterfinalist hasn’t played tour-level doubles in decades, but she still carries teams—and herself—with deftness, verve and assurance.
An award-winning tennis analyst, Olympic correspondent and play-by-play commentator since the mid ‘80s for CBS, ESPN, NBC and Tennis Channel, Carillo was recently given the Eugene L. Scott Award at The Legends Ball, an annual fundraising event hosted by the International Tennis Hall of Fame.
“I love this sport so much that I should a be a guardian of it,” Carillo told me a few days before she was honored, and two years after our ultimately successful TV spot. “I want to be a caretaker of it.”
Carillo and I caught up away from the studio’s bright lights, on a couch underneath Tennis Channel's set inside Arthur Ashe Stadium, after one of her Tennis Channel Live episodes had wrapped. The eloquent orator instantly recalled our “sweet conversation” about the Grandstand—it was a “valentine,” as she put it. After hearing that apt description, I immediately regretted having not published the story in a February issue of Tennis magazine.
For Carillo, who has interviewed Roger Federer, Serena Williams and scores of other prominent players over the years, our segment on the Grandstand was a breeze. But what about her recent sit-down with the caustic Nick Kyrgios, I wondered? How did Carillo, never one to hold back, handle that potentially contentious exchange?
“I find him fascinating,” Carillo says, using her words and hands to illustrate the moment. “I didn’t want to puff him up. At a certain point in the interview I told him, ‘You want to know what your problem is?’ I wanted him to know that the problem with him, in my mind, is that he does show us how good he is—and then he takes it away from us.
“You take a risk when you go at someone like that. But I needed to ask him the questions I always wanted to ask. That’s the job. I want to be authentic, so that when I speak to them, they can bring it back.”
Mary Carillo interviewed Nick Kyrgios earlier this summer for Tennis Channel's 'Holding Serve'
If Carillo put me at ease, she put Kyrgios on the spot. But in both cases, she personified the tenets of the prestigious award she received: communicating honestly and critically about the game.
“When I see things that I think are going in the wrong direction, or going somewhere for the wrong reasons,” Carillo says, “I feel that it’s my responsibility to say something.”
Surrounded by this year’s Hall of Fame class, which included Kim Clijsters and Andy Roddick—along with her mother, whose 91st birthday fell on the very same night—Carillo delivered her own valentine to the late Eugene Scott, founder and publisher of Tennis Week magazine and an ardent supporter of tennis.
“He was a lifer in the sport; I admired that about him,” says Carillo. “I especially liked Gene’s column—the guy had some real opinions. He really cared about the game. He wasn’t afraid to take issue with things that were going wrong. Nobody owned him.”
Scott took notice of Carillo’s off-court skills during her playing days. One time, he asked Carillo to write a first-person story for his magazine. The pay was nominal, if that. Carillo gave it her best shot.
“You know, you could have worked a little harder on that thing,” recounted Carillo.
Scott may not have paid a lot, but he paid attention. And truth be told, he enjoyed the submission. To him, the value of the piece was giving Carillo a voice, and the confidence to say what she wanted—something she values to this day.
Today, Carillo takes cues from her fellow Eugene L. Scott Award winners, including former academy-mate John McEnroe (2006), Martina Navratilova (2010), Dick Enberg (2011)—who emceed this year's Legends Ball—and Pam Shriver (2014). But it's the 2008 recipient, Billie Jean King, who informs, instructs and inspires Carillo like no other.
“She’s my idol, she has been my mentor,” says Carillo.
King has also been her voice of reason, particularly when Carillo has grown frustrated about the progress of women as professionals.
“You have to stay in that room,” King, the ultimate advocate for women’s rights, has told Carillo. “You have to change the dynamic in those board rooms, and those broadcast booths.”
With more Grand Slam tennis tournaments, Olympic Games and—yes—even dog shows to be broadcast, the versatile and charming Carillo isn’t going anywhere. I’m happy about that, and I’m sure Eugene Scott would be, too.
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