‘We’ve talked about Darcis and his small height situation.’
There were many issues facing Steve Darcis in the first round of this year’s Wimbledon, though his small height situation was among the least of them. A more looming concern was incarnated by the man across the net, known in the business as the big Nadal situation. For those of us watching at home the real issue was the commentary, delivered by men whose intimate knowledge of the sport wasn’t matched by a commensurate command of the English language. As ever the urge to sound clever yielded pompous verbiage. Couldn’t they just say Darcis was short?
Of course, Darcis, who hails from the region of Western Europe known for its Belgian situation, ended up winning. His Nadal situation proved less parlous than had been forecast. The rest of us weren’t so lucky. Whereas a routine Nadal victory would have resulted in merely forgettable commentary, the upset of the year inspired many commentators to go for broke. Their instinct was to match spectacular visuals with coruscating wordplay. It was not necessarily a bad instinct to have, and in some cases worked out to everyone’s benefit, except perhaps Nadal’s. The best commentators rose heroically to the occasion, because they are the best talkers. In too many other cases, however, the sure instinct was undone by bad technique.
My eagerness to poke fun at poor commentary should not be construed as a comment upon the relative difficulty of the task. This should go without saying, but sadly cannot. The most common defence of bad commentary is that it is not as easy as the armchair critics fondly believe. This may well be true, and indeed we are afforded daily proof that it is in fact the hardest job in the world. But this in turn begs the question of why, if it is so hard, so many patently unqualified people blithely assume they can do it well. Maybe they were misled. I’m sure Barry Cowan didn’t think it a particularly taxing gig when Sky Sports offered it to him. I suspect he still doesn’t find it very taxing. Perhaps that’s the problem.
Either commentating is easy and anyone can do it, or it’s hard and few can. I’m not convinced it matters, because, whatever the case, there’s no reason to put up with professionals doing it badly. Nor does its putative difficulty disqualify anyone from criticising. Proficiency in a given profession is not a prerequisite for noting when it isn’t done well. If a tradesman does a shoddy job repairing my washing machine, he isn’t above reproach simply because I cannot do a better job. No doubt any attempt to fix it myself would instil a heightened respect for the complexity of the task, but it wouldn’t alter the fact that repairing white goods is something that can be done well, and that a more competent repairman would have left me with a working appliance. The existence of good commentary proves that bad commentary isn’t necessary, despite strong evidence to the contrary.
Commentary is a little like tennis, in that some are more suited to it than others. The key difference is that bad tennis is self-correcting. Players who underperform typically lose matches, and consequently see their ranking decline. Weak commentators get a pay rise. Of course one’s view of what constitutes weak commentary is ultimately a matter of preference: one person’s Robbie Koenig will be another’s Cliff Drysdale. (I’ll leave to one side the tendency of various fan-bases to organise themselves tribally according to perceptions of bias, measured with instruments so hypersensitive they leave the James Webb telescope looking like a dowsing rod.) Ultimately there’s no use arguing matters of taste. I understand that my preferences aren’t likely to be shared by others, especially since I place no importance on whatever opinions the commentators happen to hold. I don’t care which players they favour, so long as whatever they have to say is said well. Sometimes I’d prefer it if they didn’t talk about tennis at all. Indeed I invariably enjoy listening to Craig Willis on AO Radio more than any ‘proper’ commentator, and he only ever mentions the tennis when the person sharing the booth shoves their elbow into his ribs. But perhaps he isn’t to everyone’s tastes.
Some fans love Boris Becker. I find him tiresome and obvious. It has been pointed out elsewhere that many viewers initially like John McEnroe, but find him harder and harder to take as they grow more familiar with the sport. Lines that seem insightful at first sound platitudinous after a while, his inclination to self-promote can grow wearying, and his ignorance of players ranked beyond the top twenty is deplorable. Apparently there are Americans who enjoy Brad Gilbert’s work, but then there are Americans who enjoy spray-on cheese. Conversely some viewers cannot handle Mats Wilander, but I think he’s okay. I appreciate the way he doesn’t feel a serious point must be freighted down with excessive solemnity.
Granting for the moment the near-insurmountable difficulty of the job, surely we can conclude that the skillset required for a good commentator is not the same as the one required to be a great tennis player. Achieving renown as a player doesn’t necessarily preclude a talent for calling matches, but nor does it guarantee one. Why then do television networks fall over themselves to hire ex-greats? It probably comes down to trust, and the fact that most people watching coverage of a tennis match (or any sport) probably don’t really know all that much about it. For viewers who regard the basic rules as inscrutable arcana, there’s doubtless a measure of reassurance in having those rules explained by a well-known champion. Wedded to this is the assumption that the well-known champion boasts a deeper insight into what the players on court are currently thinking and feeling, having been there and done it themselves. All ex-pros believe they possess this special power, though only McEnroe seems convinced he is clairvoyant.
It is the natural conceit of all disciplines that their inner workings are impenetrable to the mere layperson, a conceit often propagated by a clergy intent on making its presence essential. In the case of theoretical physics this is justified. In other cases, such as tennis . . . not so much. Networks naturally milk this assumption for all it’s worth, and they aren’t wrong to do so. When Channel 7 brings in Lleyton Hewitt to commentate at the Australian Open – he usually enters the booth one round after he has exited the main draw – there is without fail a promo in which he promises us plebeians that we’ll be vouchsafed a unique glimpse into the workings of each player’s mind. For those of us who’ve both watched and played a great deal of tennis, Hewitt’s insight usually turns out to be less unique than advertised. Mostly he says the same stuff as the other commentators, although I hasten to concede that there’s enough original material to justify his spot.
It is in the specific details that players like Hewitt add real value. When, during David Ferrer’s abject loss to Novak Djokovic at this year’s Australian Open, Hewitt revealed precisely how he himself had responded in a near-identical situation the year before, he was providing a level of insight available nowhere else. It was excellent commentary. In his first year with Channel 7 he mentioned that he and Nadal often play golf, and that the Spaniard is just as competitive on the course as he is on the court. Again, it was specific detail, and fascinating. Koenig is another with a tremendous memory for the key facts, often acquired personally. What a treat it was to hear him discuss Radek Stepanek’s early days on tour, and how the Czech had grown so disillusioned he’d almost quit. I’d never heard that anywhere else, but even if I had it’d be worth hearing it again from someone who’d seen it firsthand. Koenig was there.
But no one can sound like that all the time. There’s only so much to say. Even Darren Cahill, who I consider to be the best commentator in the world, has to repeat himself from time to time (and he is justified in doing so, since his material isn’t infinite and he must assume that today’s viewers weren’t necessarily yesterday’s). Most commentary is merely filler, and it is here that the real pros earn their salary. This is the moment when weak commentary becomes helplessly mired in cliché – the essence of which is not falsity but lifelessness – and homilies. The capacity to make a general point in an interesting way is one that I am bound to consider exceptional among ex-champions. The colour guy is there to supply just that, but the backbone of the call must be provided by those with an assured command of language, such as Jason Goodall or Gigi Salmon. One mustn’t necessarily speak flawless Queen’s English, like Frew McMillan; again, Cahill’s conversational style is fine, as is Peter Fleming’s. All share the ability to convey serious points with a light tone, and to let the tennis speak for itself when it can.
The real problem comes from those giftless orators convinced they are Cato the Younger, especially the type who believe that ‘small height situation’ is an improvement on ‘short’. Becker has some notoriety in this area, and Roger Rasheed’s passion for jargon is unsurpassed. For me the exemplar remains the cosmically pretentious John Alexander, now mercifully retired. It is always worse for a commentator to overestimate their stylistic mastery than to be ignorant of style at all. For anyone who works with language, including writers, dim awareness of the power of words is lethal when possessed by those ill-equipped to harness it. At least those innocent of linguistic intricacy will occasionally stumble out of their own way while they make a useful point. The overwrought stylist will never do that, though, since they instinctively know that the key moments should be accompanied by the most incandescent displays of technique. Thus it is that a merely workmanlike commentator such as John Fitzgerald is far preferable to a portentous buffoon like Alexander.
Alexander, or JA as he was called by those forced to work with him, was without question the worst commentator I have ever heard across any sport. His dark gift was to combine a narrow and dated knowledge of tennis with a delivery so relentlessly grating that you were left to wonder (and regret) how phrases that lacerated your brain could somehow leave your eardrums intact. Temporary deafness would have been a mercy. Apparently unaware that television differs from radio in its ability to transmit images, Alexander’s most reliable trick was to very slowly recount the point everyone had just watched, in granular detail and a reverential murmur, as though he was narrating Napoleon’s coronation.
The early stages of Jim Courier’s current tenure with Channel 7 was a fraught time for the American, quite aside from the moment he first laid eyes on the anchor Joanna Griggs and inquired on air who ‘that bimbo’ was. He clearly felt nothing but contempt for Alexander, a feeling that was apparently reciprocated. Channel 7, subscribing to the dirt-common belief that mutual animosity might generate memorable frisson, ensured they always shared the commentary booth. Alexander’s knowledge of tennis more or less atrophied in 1986, while Courier as an elite player popularised the tactic of running around the backhand to unload on the off forehand, one of the pillars of the modern game. Thus would Alexander roundly admonish any player who ran around his backhand for leaving the court open, while Courier would wearily point out that this is how tennis is now played. Alexander felt it was too risky. Indeed, he was a passionate advocate of caution, believing that everyone should ‘play within himself’. This was a common phrase of his, along with ‘he measured the ball, and hit it for what it was worth.’ He would condemn qualifiers who over-hit against Nadal for not playing within themselves. Courier, his patience at an end, would try to point out that their only chance was to go for everything and hope it went in. JA wouldn’t hear of it. Courier told JA he sounded like a broken record, in a tone of voice that suggested he’d be perfectly willing to make JA look like a broken record. He clearly wanted to hit JA for what he was worth.
We are sometimes cautioned that sports and politics should not mix, in the naïve belief that sport could remain free of politics even if it wanted to. Personally, I’m thankful politics does intervene from time to time. In 2010 Alexander became a member of Australia’s federal parliament, winning the seat of Bennelong as a conservative candidate – his platform was radically progressive compared to his approach to tennis – defeating the immensely capable Maxine McKew. It was a shame McKew had to go, but it was probably worth it to get JA off my television. His politics aren’t mine, but long may he serve.
If you believe, as I do, that the means by which professional tennis is transmitted to the general public cannot be usefully subtracted from the overall package – i.e. that television is not tangential to the sport’s function as entertainment, but fundamental to it – then it follows that the commentary matters. I have always written about it as if it does. Nevertheless, I’ve no desire to run through a list of all the commentators to whom I’ve ever been subjected. Even if there was space there would be no point. I’m sure I’ve mentioned most of them over the years. Suffice it to say that there are a couple more whose work I enjoy, and many more whose efforts I find ridiculous, yet still enjoy. There are very few from whom I can derive no value at all, and mostly they sin through being dull rather than mistaken. Invariably their dullness reflects a degree of verbal poverty – people who don’t speak well tend to sound the same – which is mostly the result of the mistaken assumption that their business is tennis and not words. The result is not the end of the world, however, merely tedium, or as some would have it: a boring talking situation. But such cases are rare. The truth is that for the most part bad commentary only makes writing about tennis more fun. In the final reckoning I probably wouldn’t be without it.