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Johnson To Johnson, Claudia You Read My Mind: A Commentary on Commentators

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

I absolutely love this article by Claudia Johnson that appears on SI.com. It captures my total disdain for inept commentators and why the mute button on my remote is practically worn out.

Color me cranky, but tennis commentators who talk during points chap my ass (as we used to say where I grew up in Texas). It's like trying to watch your favorite film with the director's commentary running -- and you can't turn it off. Or sinking into a soothing massage and your masseuse won't shut up.

Mind you, I think tennis commentators are the best in the biz -- smart, funny, insightful. I agree with SI.com's Jon Wertheim that they're "a competent bunch with a nice mix of styles" and that "critiques about the commentators are fairly muted," but I have to second Tennis Magazine Editor-in-Chief James Martin's suggestion:

"Television needs to come up with a new mute button. Not one that blocks out the sounds of the game. Listening to the ball come off the strings, the sliding (or squeaking, depending on surface) of the shoes, the grunts of the players, and the 'shhhs' of a crowd before a big point -- this is the soundtrack to my life, my passion. No, this new mute button will keep all of those sounds but simply, mercifully, block out the commentators' blather."

Get out of my head.

Before I read this last night, I planned to propose a small onscreen button --COMMENTARY OFF -- that viewers could click when commentators are driving them crazy. Yes, ESPN2's screen is getting so crowded it reminds me of the stateroom scene in A Night At The Opera, but viewers need some escape, some way to watch tennis with the sound of ball smacking, the calls, and the crowd, but without commentators who careen off into irrelevant land and schmooze celebs -- onscreen during games! -- like John McEnroe at last year's U.S. Open or otherwise blab during points like Brad Gilbert at this year's Australian Open.

Don't get me wrong. I like these guys. They're both rascals -- Johnny Mac, the legendary bad boy of tennis, and Gilbert, the loveable bonehead from Planet Goofy whose colorful lingo and self-slamming humor ("The older I get, the better I used to be") make him the whipping boy in the booth, like Karl in a Ricky Gervais Podcast. I'd love to hang out with them both and talk tennis -- just not when a match is in progress.

Still, you gotta hand it to Gilbert. He took talking off point during points to new heights in the Round of 16 match between James Blake and Igor Andreev. Sixth game, third set. ESPN2 cut away from the ongoing game (don't get me started) to show us a tease for that night's match between Murray and Meltzer, over which Gilbert said, "Both of them come in without losing a match this year."

Chris Fowler countered, "Melzer, though, gave him a five-set test at the U.S. Open, and Murray was able to dig out of a two-set hole and out of the final, of course."

We cut back to Blake hitting a killer forehand followed by a winning backhand volley. Great tennis! But Gilbert's still carrying on about Murray. "Not only was he down two sets but there was a third-set tie-break --"

ESPN2 replays Blake's brilliant performance, but Gilbert blabs on, "-- and Murray was two points from losing the match, and at 5-4 in the tie-breaker, Meltzer missed . . ."

The replay ended.

Alas, not Gilbert. ". . . and all of a sudden his game went back to Austria and he went home meekly after that."


We viewers were trying to watch an incredible point between Blake and Andreev onscreen, and Gilbert was giving us a blow-by-blow commentary of a different point between two different players in a different tournament in a different year.

But at least the subject was tennis. Earlier in the same match Fowler, distracted by a shot of Melbourne's harbor, asked Brad Gilbert if he could name the rivers that ran through the four Grand Slam cities. It took Gilbert a couple of games to figure it out.

"Hey," he said, clearly exasperated by Fowler's question, "I'm focused on tennis."

Fowler laughed. "For the first time."

So if Fowler knew that, why did he ask about rivers?

Maybe ESPN2's producers want the verbal equivalent of the visual cram they provide on their screen. Or maybe their commentators get paid by the word, like Charles Dickens. I just wish they'd all take to heart what James Martin said:

"Tennis is a beautiful sport. Watching a point play out with only the sounds of the players, ball, and crowd is enough. Really."

Then maybe they'll stop breaching tennis's own etiquette and shut their bazoo during play. Show more respect for the viewer.

And this beautiful sport.

Posted by Shelia

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