"There are no people more patient, at least that we see at sporting arenas, than the Wimbledon customers," NBC play-by-play guy Ted Robinson said yesterday during yet another rain delay, this one during the men's final between Roger Federer and Andy Roddick. "And they've exhibited this patience to the max over the past two weeks."
They weren't alone.
It was hard to get a handle on Wimbledon this year. One minute, you'd be watching a match on ESPN, and the next it was gone, moved to NBC. One minute, play was progressing nicely, and then the rain came and you were stuck with a match from the day before. One minute, a live match filled the screen, and the next it was bumped for taped coverage from who knows when.
There's no way to blame NBC or ESPN for the rain, since it's a perennial problem at Wimbledon. And you can't blame them for the often-unwatchable play of the men's game, which with a few exceptions has become a monotonous onslaught of robotic big-hitters. Unfortunately, this might be a bigger problem for the networks than England's notorious weather or schizoid coverage agreements.
Oh, the NBC announcers were often on the defensive when talking about the men, hyping the Federer-Roddick final as the next chapter of the next big rivalry. In a conference call on Thursday, Mary Carillo said, "I would rather watch Roger Federer play tennis than anybody on the planet right now." Robinson took a very European tack. "I worry about Americans being America-centric," he said. "I guess the issue comes back to getting people somehow to pay attention to the fact that just because a guy may have a different-sounding name and be from a country we are all not familiar with, they still play entertaining tennis."
Leave it to John McEnroe to get to the heart of the matter. During the first Federer-Roddick rain delay, NBC switched to coverage of the boys' singles final between Gael Monfils of France and Miles Kasiri of Britain (apparently it was only raining on Centre Court and not on Court 3). "You realize how good Federer and Roddick are because now you can at least see the ball a little bit," he said. "The ball isn't struck at such an amazing pace. You take it for granted."
But in the men's game, the ball is hit with such force that service breaks have become rare (although there were breaks aplenty in the Federer-Roddick final) and rallies have become even rarer. It just doesn't make for entertaining television.
And there isn't much the networks can do except put a camera behind the players and let them have at each other. NBC and ESPN tried to at least make the close line calls a little more visible with the addition of something called the Hawkeye, which showed a computer graphic of where the ball landed. But isn't the technology available to use actual cameras to spot the ball? By using computer graphics without explaining the process that went into making them, it just seemed fake.
Of course, the women's game is still tremendously entertaining. It's nice to be able to see the ball, and the slower pace gives viewers a chance to get a feel for the strategy each player is employing. And it's not like they're politely hitting it back to each other. Serena Williams's serves reached 120 mph a few times during her run to the final.
But the men's game has become nothing but hit-hit-OUT, hit-hit-OUT, much like watching Mike Tyson fight when he was still worth watching. Maybe Federer and Roddick will overcome the blur of the men's game to develop a rivalry like McEnroe and Jimmy Connors once did. But unless things slow down, it'll all be invisible to the eyes of many.