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Melbourne Malaise: ESPN Botches '99 Australian Open Coverage
by Christopher Gerby
Bemoaning the mediocre-to-poor quality and quantity of American tennis TV coverage is like beating a dead horse. However, the horse has new relevance in light of the news that ESPN has signed on for three more years of exclusive U.S. coverage of the Australian Open. Why is that significant? Because the season's first Grand Slam event is also the one which annually gets the worst coverage in the States. Granted, "Oz" is the least prestigious of the four Grand Slam events and the most geographically remote. Still, it's alarming to note that ESPN's efforts Down Under actually decreased in '99, backsliding after a couple years of improvement.
After broadcasting live from Melbourne Park on every day of the '97 and '98 tournaments (a feat their announcers were always keen to point out), ESPN and its baby brother ESPN 2 were a good deal less thorough in '99. Live coverage was abandoned altogether on the first, second, and fifth days of the fortnight. Some of the most action packed afternoons in Australia (late nights in the U.S., thanks to the time zone discrepancy) were crammed into unsatsifying one-hour highlight shows...which were more like 40 minutes if you subtract the ceaseless commercials.
Opting to essentially ignore the first round of a major tournament is pretty risky, particularly when the unseeded players include Michael Chang, Serena Williams, Jim Courier, Jennifer Capriati, Thomas Muster, Mary Joe Fernandez, controversial defending champion Petr Korda, and perennial Rebound Ace threat Anke Huber. With floaters of that caliber free to land anywhere in the draw (like right next to a fellow big name), the door was wide open for marquee matchups right off the bat.
ESPN dodged a bullet somewhat in that respect, but the opening round of this year's Open did feature eventual champ Yevgeny Kafelnikov battling former Top 5 player Jonas Bjorkman, Huber meeting #13 seed Irina Spirlea, and French Open king Carlos Moya squaring off with fellow young star Nicolas Kiefer. If you live in the United States, you didn't see more than a minute from any of those matches.
Of course, the first round thrillers sometimes feature players who may not be household names. Such was the case when unheralded wild card Takao Suzuki served his brains out in nearly eliminating Alex Corretja, the highest ranked player in the entire men's draw. Their tense, grueling four hour war was melted down into a bite-size four and a half minutes by ESPN. Remember when young upstart Moya bumped off defending champion Boris Becker to open the '97 tournament? That five-set classic -- a breakthrough for Moya and an Australian swan song for Becker -- was carried live by ESPN 2. Had it taken place this year, viewers would have gotten only a few games, rendered suspenseless by being shown on tape a good twelve hours or so after the fact.
Why ESPN 2 also had to skip their Thursday late night coverage, I'm not entirely sure. What I know is that it caused American tennis fans to completely miss Tim Henman's upset loss to Marc Rosset, Maria Antonia Sanchez Lorenzo's shocking rout of Jana Novotna, and Thomas Enqvist's dramatic dismissal of crowd favorite Patrick Rafter. Throughout the fortnight we got an earful about the great form Enqvist was in, but we barely got a glimpse of the talented Swede in the early rounds.
ESPN 2 stayed with the gripping Mark Philippoussis/Michael Chang second round showdown well into the wee hours, but that bright sign turned out to be an abberation. ESPN 2 was ultimately content to abandon coverage while intriguing matches were still going on, making way for whatever urgent programming "The Deuce" carries at 2:30 in the morning. Of course, American networks define an intriguing match as one featuring Andre Agassi. Period. Countless upsets and nail-biters went unseen while ESPN stayed glued to Brooke Shields' hubby. Never mind that his first three matches were numbingly dull, one-sided thumpings of overmatched, little-known journeymen. It's no wonder the sport's popularity continues to lag in this country when some of the only exposure Americans get to tennis consists of snoozefests like Andre Agassi vs. Jiri Novak.
Even when ESPN 2 had a viewer-friendly match thrown in its lap, it did an almost criminally negligent job of downplaying and then abandoning it. With roughly 30 minutes to go in its Friday night coverage, ESPN 2 was left with little choice but to cover a doubles match of almost unparalelled star quality, as "Spice Girls" Martina Hingis and Anna Kournikova were dueling Wimbledon champion Jana Novotna and 9-time Grand Slam winner Monica Seles. How did Cliff Drysdale hype this all-star affair? He said there would be "some ladies doubles on Court 1" after the commercial break. The sound you heard was countless people grabbing the remote and clicking over to another channel, figuring there must not be anything special going on if even ESPN's own announcers couldn't come up with a more stirring tease than "some ladies doubles on Court 1".
The match turned out to be fun and exciting. Novotna looked a bit flat and Seles is not a natural doubles player, but they still managed to engage Hingis and Kournikova in a number of highly entertaining rallies. The sheer spectacle of four superstars together on one court midway through a Grand Slam tournament was itself enough to keep a fan's attention. Sadly, it did not last. With the Spice Girls leading 4-1 in the second set, Patrick McEnroe announced that ESPN 2 "had to" halt its coverage. Talk about an anticlimax -- U.S. viewers never saw the end of that match. The coverage simply couldn't run 10 minutes long, even though it had gotten underway 15 minutes late to accomodate for the end of a college basketball game. Once again, tennis is the low sport on ESPN's totem pole, with a fascinating match interrupted before its conclusion so we could see the hockey highlights show "NHL 2 Night"...on a night when there weren't even any games played in the NHL!
Women's doubles likewise got the short end of the stick near the end of the tournament. Hingis and Kournikova ousted #1 seeds Lindsay Davenport and Natasha Zvereva in what was surely a high-caliber doubles final, but ESPN 2 only found time for less than 25 minutes of coverage. The very next afternoon ESPN had a full three hours of coverage scheduled, the last hour of which could have been devoted to that doubles final. Alas, they merely trotted out the exact same abbreviated coverage and ended half an hour EARLY, giving way to a simulcast of ESPNews (a move ESPN resorts to when it has absolutely nothing else to show). Of course, that was a veritable feast of coverage compared to what the men's doubles got. Bjorkman and Rafter edged out top-seeded Indian dynamos Mahesh Bhupathi and Leander Paes in a five-setter which received no American coverage whatsoever.
All of my harping on the insufficient quantity of coverage doesn't even account for the sometimes shoddy quality. Drysdale, Pam Shriver, and Fred Stolle all checked in with their usual fare -- repetitive, self-absorbed commentary which added nothing to the matches. By the second time Stolle claimed that Rafter lost to David Prinosil a few weeks ago in Adelaide (it was actually Slava Dosedel who beat Rafter there), you could be excused for thinking you'd stay better informed hitting the mute button. In the perpetually crowded ESPN booth, only Patrick McEnroe was worth listening to, although even he stumbled when attempting to comment on the women's matches.
ESPN saved some of its most egregious mistakes for the final weekend. The women's singles final pitting Hingis against story-of-the-tournament Amelie Mauresmo was compromised by ESPN's failure to come back from commercial breaks and features in time. After almost every changeover, fans missed out on the first point or two in the following game. Over the course of a match, that adds up. However, that's nothing compared to what happened after Kafelnikov beat Enqvist in the men's final. With 10 minutes of scheduled coverage left -- just about right for the customary trophy presentation and post-match speeches -- ESPN's announcers bid a hasty farewell and threw to "SportsCenter". Kafelnikov and Enqvist are not Americans and they may not possess the kind of charisma that jumps off the screen at you, but flat out ignoring a Grand Slam trophy ceremony is inexcusable and, for as far back as I can remember, unprecedented. Calling off the coverage early to do so is downright unfathomable.
I remember the years when ESPN didn't even start its Australian Open coverage until the second week. I know they do more than they did once upon a time and for that I'm thankful. On the other hand, I know what networks in other countries show and it blows ESPN away. In the Netherlands, you could watch the Australian Open for upwards of 10 hours a day if you saw fit. In Australia, the coverage was on virtually 'round the clock. Throughout Europe you could see far more of the tournament than anyone saw in what's allegedly the greatest nation on the planet.
If you want an idea of what you're missing, think about the amount of coverage HBO provides during Wimbledon and the USA Network delivers from the U.S. Open. Now think about the paltry Australian Open coverage...and think about three more years of it from ESPN.
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Here's what others had to say:
 1999-02-07  LT
 Favourite  male player  female player  male ever  female ever
   jonas bjorkman  steffi graf  stefan edberg  steffi graf
With regards to your article on ESPN coverage, it must have been downright irritating and frustrating to have such insensitive and senseless programming. Coming from Asia whereby tennis is not exactly the No. 1 sport (soccer is everything), nevertheless, there are huge followings of the game in many countries. Naturally for a game to grow, media coverage is very important. Obviously that does not apply to the programmers of ESPN. While people in America still get at the very least some coverage, ESPN Asia has never ever covered the Australian Open. They do not include Asia in their broadcast. There aren't even daily highlights for us to see. All we get are 2 minute updates on Sportcenter International daily. Even that happens only if there is a space or broadcast for the day. What we get instead are hours and hours and hours of college basketball coverage. I have nothing against basketball but to show 4 'Live' matches in a day followed by a repeat of all 4 matches on the same day is really trying
one's patience.
I really would like to ask ESPN one day if they have anything against women's tennis. There is NO coverage of the women's game at all except for the occasional Fed Cup matches and that only if USA is playing in the later rounds.
So believe me when I say that I know what suffering tennis fans go through when coverage sucks. Then again, I doubt many go through what we in Asia have to sit through each year. With regards....LT

 

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