You remember NBC's "Breakfast at Wimbledon" last summer. At the top of the screen is John McEnroe. At the top of the scream, Bud Collins.
Actually, most of the time it wasn't even John McEnroe--it was Johnny McEnroe, and the opponent Johnny marched home to Sweden was not Bjorn Borg but "the angelic assassin of Centre Court." Not even Wimbledon itself--the All-England tennis club's 105-year-old carnival of dignified restraint--escaped the breathless bark of Bud Collins, who called it "The Big W."
In all fairness, The Big W wouldn't be half as big today in this country if not for Collins and The Big N, as in NBC. Today, NBC will begin its 15th year of coverage of tennis' most prestigious competition (sharing qualifying-round weekday coverage with Home Box Office).
But it's a shaky relationship. The British, fans and announcers alike, do not talk, move or presumably even breathe during points (just watch HBO's coverage, which is a direct feed from the BBC). In their midst is Collins, this professionally astonished American, who's called the Wimbledon shots for NBC since 1972. The line on Collins is familiar: you either love him or love The Noble Game of Tennis and you wish he would, too--quietly.
"First of all, one of the best letters anybody ever wrote me, the person said, 'Whenever you're doing the show I turn off the sound and put on Brahms,' " Collins says amiably from London, where he also covers Wimbledon for his longtime employer, The Boston Globe. "I wrote back and said I wished I could do the same.
"I just enjoy it," he says. "It's just a game--a high stakes game, yes--but I think it should be fun. So turn off the sound if you don't think so. I turn off the sound lots of times when I'm watching an event."
In this year's Wimbledon coverage, there is good news for both lovers and haters of Bud Collins: More of him. And perhaps less chatter.
NBC will carry nearly 25 hours of Wimbledon coverage this year--about 10 hours more than in 1981--starting with a one-hour preview, "Wimbledon '82: a Fortnight of Tradition" today, and continuing through same-day match coverage next weekend, nightly updates through the second week and climaxing with two editions of "Breakfast at Wimbledon" the weekend of July 3. For the first time, Wimbledon has scheduled a Sunday match--the men's final, to be preceded by Saturday's women's championship. NBC will carry both live at 9 a.m.
"I tend to think at times we overdo it," says Geoff Mason, NBC Sports executive producer who's handled most of NBC's tennis coverage since 1978. He also is a self-described tennis purist who says he often sits in his London hotel room on Wimbledon weekdays watching the relatively straight BBC coverage. "We all agree that maybe we need to do more--that there's room for less, well . . . I think we'll let the action speak for itself more than we have before."
"People say, 'Gee, why can't you be more like the British?' " says Collins. "There are a couple of reasons. The most important is that we're commercial television; British television doesn't have commercials, so they have plenty of time between games for catching up. We don't have that time so we must neccesarily impinge on the games."
And the second reason?
"We just talk more, that's all," he says. "Wimbledon to Americans is like Christmas, it just comes on once a year. As far as the British know, it's just a part of their lives."
Besides toning things down a little, Mason says, NBC is moving Dick Enberg from his all-around Wimbledon host slot into the booth with Collins. Mason says it's "a unique arrangement we've used successfully down in Hilton Head. And for us to attach titles ('play by play' or 'color') would be inappropriate."
Mason will have his hands full this year. When he and director Ted Nathanson are not shuttling among 10 cameras (seven run by the BBC, three by NBC) and 20 microphones or droning encouragement and countdowns into the ears of Collins and Enberg, Mason will be worrying about the quality of the merchandise: the players. Wimbledon promises to be short of stars this summer.
Borg, whom McEnroe last year toppled from a string of five Wimbledon championships, will spend the 1982 Fortnight of Tradition on his island in Sweden, in a dispute over qualifying rules. Argentinians Guillermo Vilas and Jose-Luis Clerc are not expected because of the Falklands crisis. Ivan Lendl doesn't like to play on grass and has announced he will not play. McEnroe probably will be there, but he's having problems with a bad ankle.
To all but diehard strategists and angle-watchers, mediocre tennis can make for numbing television. And Mason also knows there's only so much that television can do with a dull match.
"Tennis is not a sport that looks good or plays well just because you get fancy," he says. "It's not like, say, NBA basketball, which is a game that lends itself to what you might call creative visualization."
"The idea in tennis is to cover the action better, not to show off," Mason says. "We're basically a bunch of showoffs in sports. You can't really do that at Wimbledon."
He's talking mostly about camera angles--which are predetermined, incidentally, by the Wimbledon people--but the idea extends just as easily to announcers.
Cliff Drysdale is the South African player-turned-announcer who covers tennis for the ESPN cable network. He shares the courtside booth with ESPN's Jim Simpson and strikes probably the best balance between lucid analysis and appropriate tongue-holding. He says: "American audiences are a lot more attuned to a lot more explanation than English audiences." But "it's a mistake to try to carry a match" with your mouth.
"I've always felt you cannot make a racehorse out of a pig," Drysdale says. "The best you can do is perhaps a little quicker pig."