"There's the Borg family," said Bud Collins during the fourth set. "Wonder what their innards look like?"
Breakfast at Wimbledon was like French toast -- a treat, but after four pieces early on a Saturday morning, well, enough. Let's do it again, say in a year.
Only when NBC switched over to BBC announcer Andy Maskill for one game and Maskill made only one short comment during the entire game did you get the feeling that you really were watching tennis.
Then Dick Enberg cut in to tell us that the British announcers tended to refrain from a lot of comments. The old wake-up-it's-time-for-your-sleeping-pill routine.
It's not entirely the announcers' faults that 3 1/2 hours of tennis doesn't translate on television, a medium with an attention span of about nine minutes. Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe always play good tennis, and this was good tennis. But when the television is your only eye for 3 1/2 hours and the only point-of-view shift is a few commercials every two games, it only takes about four games to discover that Bugs Bunny (doing a singing barber) is on the next channel.
The words got in the way. Donald Dell's vocabulary was punctuated by things like "groundies," "crosser," "nails," "sitter" (as in, "Give him a sitter, he never misses it") and sentences like. "He dips into the bottomless pit for adrenaline and grit." The low point in the entire program was when they pulled Billie Jean King from Collins' side, exiled her to the Greek chorus with Enberg and let Dell inside to do the color. (The highlight was that there were no shots from the Goodyear blimp.)
King fluffs now and then ("It's easier to be negative than positive"), but is prone toward quiet unless she has something at least minimally enlightening to say -- that Borg was serving with new balls at one point, for instance. That may not sound like cogent analysis to jaded veterans of tape-delayed late-night Murgani tournaments, but to the novice it's pretty good -- it explained why two of the next three points were lost on balls that sailed. She also said that Borg's little blue eyes got closer together the more he concentrated.(What King failed to point out, inexplicably, was that for the last two years, both menhs singles finalists have worn headbands. Is this really coincidence?)
Collins metaphors are usual, and for this we can thank him. How many television announcers are willing to take a chance? As for the metaphors themselves, that's different. Sometimes Collins just talks without thinking and it's like a figure skater going into a spin and losing control. No one expects him to be William Faulkner, but he's not supposed to be Don King, either: "The archangel is about to have his feathers plucked?" (also: "The archangel has all the reflexes," There's an extra dimension to the archangel," "Borg with his celestial reach," and, "Thou shalt not second-serve Bjorn Borg.")
(Also: "This is boxing without bloodshed," "Is the antiaircraft out today?", "He stepped out of the electric chair for a moment," and a personal favorite, whatever it meant, "Breakfast at Wimbledon -- be careful of the spoon at breakfast, don't hurt yourself."
It wasn't all just a case of television getting in the way. Sometimes the camera gave a respite from its usual fixed eye and switched to a linesman, or the referee, all of whom looked like gargoyles. And it would flash back to McEnroe and his subtle mugs. McEnroe's court persona, in fact, seems to be perfect for television -- he overreacts with his face to each and every shot, good or bad, like an acting student, and after tough points he looks like he really is going to cry. This is pathos for television sports.
The commercials, thankfully, grew stronger as the hours wore on. After an hour of "Life in These Here United States"-type heart-tug revues by Coke and GE, the Lite commercials took over. In between, a camera company told us its product was an addition and a bowling ball company told us that reaction could be more relaxing than sitting around. When it was all over, E. G. Marshall told us that America was going to go to the sea for electric power.
In fact, maybe E. G. Marshall should have done the play by play. Or maybe it's just that tennis and television don't mix. Tennis is static. Television is itching to give us collisions. The pauses in tennis are important, too, like baseball. Television hurries to fill in the cracks with cement.
But it's easy enough to isolate a television commentator's words and pick them apart like an artichoke. When you're speaking spontaneously for 3 1/2 hours, you're bound to hit a few patches of illiteracy. Anyone who can come out of four sets sounding articulate should be in Parliament. So next time, how about no words? Just the pop of the ball, like that one game, when you could hear the crowd react to each point with a rolling murmur. That was like tennis. Instead of television tennis.