When a point is being played in tennis, the predominant sound is silence, with little more than a swish, a thwack and, of late, an obscenity to break the spell. That should be part of the pleasure of watching Wimbledon over breakfast this weekend. Unfortunately, NBC serves up something more like four-alarm chili than eggs benedict and the result is often indigestion.
NBC has occasionally "tuned in" on the British Broadcasting Company's telecasts of Wimbledon and the contrast is as instructive as it is glaring. The BBC is faithful to the natural sounds of the sport. They interrupt with only slight murmurs of analysis and almost no play-by-play commentary. By comparison, NBC's broadcasts are a rip-roaring, cacophonous pain in the ear.
Though no less exciting than other sports, tennis is relatively self-evident. Its strategems are less complex and deliberate than football's; its statistics simple next to baseball's logarithms. Tennis is hard to play well--ask any hacker who has thrown his graphite investment over the fence and into the parking lot--but it is not a spectator sport that requires a tremendous amount of knowledge.
Few things are more infuriating than having someone tell you what you just saw, and the team of Dick Enberg and Bud Collins makes that intrusion all the time. John McEnroe hits a forehand down the line and, sure enough, one of the two will remark, "McEnroe! Forehand down the line! Ooooh!"
It's enough to make a viewer stand up and shout "I know! I saw! It's television!"
NBC also has a penchant for making out its host country to be Disneyland with an accent. The bits on London's double-decker buses, dicey weather and charming fellows with bowler hats who (gasp!) don't seem to know much about Wimbledon when stopped and questioned by Collins on the street, amount to the sort of condescending treatment usually found in old "travelogs" like "Surinam Sure is Swell." Britain is a nation, not a theme park.
The network has employed Tracy Austin and Bjorn Borg as guest commentators. Presumably Austin will do better at next year's tournament so we can watch her do what she does best. But Borg might make a return appearance. Too bad. Borg speaks English well enough, but he is reluctant to contribute much more than a "for sure" to the broadcast. Perhaps he figures Collins and Enberg are doing enough talking as it is. Borg, like an antsy adolescent, looks immensely uncomfortable in his suit and should be released from such formal misery.
But the biggest disappointment of all is Collins.
A columnist for the Boston Globe and a tennis expert on television since 1960, Collins knows the game as well as any journalist. He has been to everything and he knows everyone. It was always a pleasure to flip on PBS and hear him doing an intelligent, unobtrusive broadcast of some semi-big match being played here or there. He always added to the match without stepping on it and shouting it down.
Collins can still do his job with flair. His embarrassment and annoyance with McEnroe's antics last weekend were sincere and well-stated. He was even judicious enough to stand up for McEnroe over a series of foot-fault calls.
But then, while doing a little time-killing feature, he'd remark as to how this is the first time he's noticed that "English women have figures."
"I don't care if I'm sexist! Wimbledon is festive!" Collins gushed.
After the French Open, even Chris Evert Lloyd felt compelled to give Collins a little shot, jabbing him for "a stupid question."
Tennis fans, even of the most tepid variety, relish Wimbledon, and NBC has the good sense to broadcast the finals live. Bud Collins ought to lower his voice, especially so early in the day. Let us hear the silence in between the thwacks.