From the outset -- when it gave us a stirring two-minute montage of memorable shots from the 1984 U.S. Open -- CBS Sports proved indisputably the past two weeks that America's premier tennis event is in capable hands, indeed. CBS stumbled from time to time, but not enough to taint its growing reputation as a dependable, big-event network.
Forty hours of tennis coverage might seem excessive, but CBS managed a solid mix of live matches, taped highlights and feature reports.
CBS was at its best following the story lines and presenting underrated John Tesh's stirring features. However, CBS sadly was not at its best with its camera work, which was uneven and unsettling during many matches.
Tennis often is overproduced, and Sunday's men's final between John McEnroe and Ivan Lendl demonstrated that again. CBS' on-air talent let the match speak for itself, but its production people kept jumbling the telecast with too many crowd shots and too many camera changes. After match point, CBS was so busy chronicling the stadium scene that it missed showing something as simple as the handshake between Lendl and McEnroe.
Whatever mistakes CBS made, it did not come from a lack of talent on hand. The network mobilized a small army for the '85 U.S. Open. It was as if Peter Lund, president of CBS Sports, walked into a staff meeting, asked who wanted to work the Open and every capable CBS sportscaster raised his hand. Brent Musburger, Pat Summerall, Verne Lundquist, Pat O'Brien, Tesh and analysts Tony Trabert, John Newcombe, Barry MacKay and Virginia Wade shared the microphones.
CBS' late-night highlights packages, hosted by Musburger, were fast-paced and informative. Watching them, one must wonder why CBS Sports, with such a strong studio operation, doesn't produce a Sunday late-night wrapup show similar to "The George Michael Sports Machine."
Summerall, as usual, was brilliantly understated working with Trabert and Newcombe. Normally, three is a crowd in a broadcasting booth, but this team picked its spots well and got in and out of comments quickly. It enhanced, rather than cluttered, the telecast.
Trabert, in particular, provided quite a low-keyed contrast to NBC analyst Bud Collins. "We're basically apples and oranges," Trabert said in an interview just before the Open. "He's a lot more flamboyant with nicknames. I try to stick more to the tennis aspect of what's going on. But we're both doing something that pleases somebody since we are where we are."
Trabert, however, might be hearing footsteps. Early in the Open, Jimmy Connors -- perhaps a future addition to CBS' tennis team -- made an appearance as an analyst during the McEnroe-Tomas Smid match. Connors was affable, almost angelic. In other words, he attempted the greatest con job on the U.S. public since Jimmy Carter convinced us he ought to be president. Whatever Connors is selling, I'm not buying.
But along with John Madden on pro football and Billy Packer on college basketball, Trabert and Newcombe on tennis give CBS the best in the business. They share polite disagreements and sharp eyes for turns and twists in matches. They always bring good preparation and good humor to the booth.
CBS' biggest problem was from a production standpoint. In the early rounds, it insisted on jumping from match to match, building our interest in one duel, then going to another it judged to be more urgent. During stadium matches, CBS continued its annoying tradition of switching camera angles frequently while the ball was in play. And on disputed calls -- invariably involving McEnroe -- the network chose not to show us any new angles on the point.
McEnroe was the focal point for most of the Open, partly because of his tennis shots, partly because of his verbal shots. For all of McEnroe's brilliant tennis, he undercuts himself and the game with his pouting and peevish behavior.
All of McEnroe's antics, however, do spice up telecasts. McEnroe, unfortunately, is good television. But for that matter, so would a game of "Pin the Tail on the Donkey," using him as a target.
McEnroe, in one of many penetrating interviews CBS did during the tournament, tried to explain his behavior Sunday in a talk with O'Brien. He said he uses his outbursts to inspire him to higher levels of play. Summerall and Newcombe sympathized with this assessment, but Trabert disagreed.
"I think it's an excuse," he said, succinctly dashing McEnroe's latest effort to revise public perception of himself.