Talking a good game: Commentators are more essential than ever

Talking a good game: Commentators are more essential than ever

But how much do you know about the people speaking through your screens, and how they do their jobs?

With attendance limited, tennis commentators are more essential than ever. But how much do you know about the people speaking through your screens, and how they do their jobs?

Commentators are our guides to the game, the soundtracks to our tennis-viewing lives. Their voices fill our ears every day. So it’s hardly a surprise that fans love to discuss their relative merits. But while we’re familiar with many of them from their playing days, what have they learned about the sport up in the booth?

“The story of a match isn’t obvious, the framing isn’t automatic,” says Ken Solomon, CEO of Tennis Channel. “It comes from the minds of the commentators, from former players with unique perspectives. They’re calling history as it’s happening.”

How do these former players see their craft? We’ve convened a roundtable of U.S. commentators—Tracy Austin, Brad Gilbert, Jimmy Arias, Leif Shiras, Pam Shriver, Chanda Rubin and Mark Knowles —to give us a glimpse into life on the other side of the screen.


Brett Haber, Paul Annacone, Jimmy Arias bring coaching and playing experience to the booth

How did you make the transition from player to commentator?

Leif Shiras (Tennis Channel): When I was a player, I filled in at the clay-court event in Stowe, Vt. I think availability was my strongest suit, because I usually lost early (laughs). I had long blond hair, so maybe I looked like a star, even though I wasn’t one. I was lucky enough to start working with Barry MacKay, who became my mentor. Later, in 2003, I got in on the ground floor at Tennis Channel, and I’ve been learning from all the champions I work with there ever since.

Jimmy Arias (Tennis Channel): After I retired, I started a junior academy, but I hated it. It was a disaster for my sanity. So I disbanded it and basically did nothing. One day I was at IMG’s offices and saw Jim Nagelsen, brother-in-law of Mark McCormack, who ran the company. He asked what I was doing, and I said, ‘Nothing!’ Then he asked, ‘Do you want to do TV?’ and I said, ‘Sure!’ A few days later I got an offer to commentate for ESPN International. I was nervous, and self-conscious about having a nasally Buffalo accent, so I lowered my voice a little. Early on, a producer said I sounded ‘flat.’ Personally, I thought I was rocking it, but then I listened to myself. She was right, I was flat. It took me awhile to really let go.

Pam Shriver (ESPN): When I was 19, I was asked to commentate at a Tournament of Champions event for CBS. There weren’t many female announcers then, and the big story at the time was the Billie Jean King-Marilyn Barnett palimony suit. So here I am at 19, and the first question I’m asked on TV is about that story—wow! After that, though, it came naturally. I learned from Don Candy, my coach when I was young. Sitting next to him was like sitting next to an analyst every day.

Tracy Austin (Tennis Channel): I was the second seed at Wimbledon in 1983, but I had to pull out with a stress fracture. NBC asked if I wanted to try commentary, and I said, ‘Sure, let’s do this.’ I’d always loved breaking the game down. I didn’t have a big serve, so I needed to think my way through matches. I love it as much in the booth today as I did on the court 40 years ago. I’m still addicted to the sport and its nuances.


From interviews with players to tracking down developing stories, tennis commentary is an all-encompassing job

As a player, did you ever listen to what commentators said about you?

Brad Gilbert (ESPN): People forget how much less tennis was on television 30 years ago. Most players were lucky to get on TV at all. I watched videos of my matches, and I never worried about the commentators’ opinions. That’s the great thing about sports—you just disagree.

Arias: I knew there were some guys who thought I was good, and others who didn’t think so. At the time, I think a lot of people wondered about my game, because I had a different style, and I wasn’t the biggest guy. But I don’t think anyone likes to be criticized. In tennis, it’s all directed at you.

Shriver: I wasn’t overly sensitive, but there weren’t matches on 24/7 back then. I don’t think a tape of my ’78 US Open final against Martina [Navratilova] even exists. Every so often, though, I’ll sit down and watch some of my win over [Steffi] Graf at the WTA Championships in ’88. I get a little narcissistic.

Chanda Rubin (Tennis Channel): It wasn’t a problem for me, because I always hated watching myself. I usually had a good idea of how I was playing, and what I wanted to do, anyway.


Gilbert with John Isner (Getty Images)

What do you try to convey to viewers?

Arias: As a kid, I was sure I was going to be the No. 1 player in the world. Then, at a certain point, I didn’t want it anymore. So I feel like I can relate to the confidence and doubts of players. The only way I can do the job is just to say what I think. I’ve tried to memorize things beforehand, and I was terrible. Every player makes mistakes and chokes, and it’s important to point it out. It’s what viewers expect. Sometimes a player’s coach might ask me, “Why are you so negative?” Usually, though, the players like me after I meet them.

Rubin: Playing and analyzing are opposite skills in some ways; in the booth, your job is to say what you think, and a player’s goal is to think as little as possible. I know I did some boneheaded things as a player, so I try to come in with that perspective, that no one is perfect. I’m always looking for a way to say what’s not obvious, to give a different perspective. But when it’s Day 13 at Roland Garros, what else can you say about Rafael Nadal except, ‘Hey, he’s great on clay?’

Mark Knowles (Tennis Channel): I come at it from the player’s perspective; I think that’s where I can be most valuable. Rather than criticize, I want to respect what the performers do, and give an idea of what happens when you face adversity. There’s so much more going on than just analyzing forehands and backhands.

Austin: The fun part of tennis is that it’s this tug of war on more than one level. It’s our job to point out all the tactics taking place, but also to talk about the emotional side of the sport. You really want people to understand how much is happening out there. Once you see tennis as a chess match, you’re hooked.

Shriver: From courtside, you can understand a match in a way you can’t in the booth. You see the players’ expressions and feel what they’re feeling. And you have an opportunity to bring the audience inside. Uncle Toni [Nadal], David Witt [Venus Williams’ former coach]: they never said no to talking to me, and never sugarcoated anything—tennis broadcasts need more of that access. You can have fun down there, too. I’ll never forget getting [opera singer] Placido Domingo to sing a few notes for us at the US Open.


Steve Weissman and Rubin during a match

What do you think of today’s game?

Gilbert: I love it. I like the slower courts, because I like rallies. From the television side, I’d like to see more innovation. On-court coaching is a no-brainer. The viewer gets a different perspective, and it helps makes matches more competitive. What I want, and I think fans do too, are good matches. On-court coaching would give us more of them.

Shiras: I can’t believe how well everyone hits the ball now. But I do think players miss chances for all-court tennis, to use the forecourt, to play with variety. There’s this singular baseline style now, which can make their jobs harder than they need to be.

Arias: Everyone hits and moves great. When I played, we all had strengths and weaknesses, and we tried to exploit them. Now the weaknesses aren’t as obvious, but I still think players could do a better job of going after them. If I’m playing Nadal, I’m swinging my serve to his backhand in the deuce court and coming in. Most players are fed the same game at academies, and it works, but there’s a lack of flexibility to it.


A Hall-of-Famer, Shriver tries to give fans as much access to the sport and its personalities as she can (Getty Images)

What have you learned from your time in the booth?

Shriver: I understand the importance of the mental game more. After you’ve called match after match, you can predict that it’s the mentally stronger player who’s going to win. I think being a parent helps [Shriver has two sons and a daughter in their teens]. People watch Nick Kyrgios act out and say, ‘That should never happen.’ It’s familiar to me, though; his impulses are those of a young male brain. Having diversity in tennis also means having diversity of personality.

Austin: Tennis players are used to doing things by ourselves, but you always have a partner in the booth; it’s like doubles. I work for Tennis Channel and the BBC at Wimbledon, and I might have six different partners during a tournament. You need to be a chameleon; you need some variation in your game. But that keeps it fresh.

Gilbert: You can’t just rock up and start talking. You put in long days, 12 to 14 hours. But I hope I’m still doing this when I’m 90, because it feels like a dream to be courtside for the epics: Those times when both guys are cracking the ball, and you’ve got sweaty palms because you don’t know what’s going to happen.

Shiras: I’ve learned so much working with legends like Jimmy Connors and Martina. These are people with master’s degrees in tennis competition; there’s so much detail in what they see in each point. I still feel lucky after 20 years to be doing what I’m doing. Once the light in the booth goes on, and the first toss is in the air, things always get interesting.


You really want people to understand how much is happening out there