INSIDE TENNIS: Tennis is so revealing of c
haracter. For such a little sport, you see everything. You’re out there naked.
MARY CARILLO: Yet coaching is allowed in women’s tennis. I find that to be so sexist. Men don’t have it, but the women are allowed to say, “Daddy, she’s breaking my serve,” or, “Mom, how come I can’t?” Are you kidding me? This is the biggest women’s sport in the world. We’ve had decades of mental toughness. It was always, “Give me the ball, I’m going to figure a way to walk off winning this. I refuse to lose.” But women’s tennis is basically saying, “I can’t figure this out by myself, I’m just a woman.” That galls me. And it’s supposed to be good for TV. They’re speaking Spanish or whispering. You’re telling the audience that she can’t figure it out. What kind of a message is that?
IT: Some players look at their box continually.
MC: Nadal got nailed at Wimbledon, finally. That’s another one of my beefs. Are you telling me that you can’t throw out a coach for illegal coaching? You can’t say, “Get out of the stadium?” It’s like parenting. I don’t want my kid saying, “Mommy, I need money.” “Mommy, I’m stranded.” I want to make them whole, human, grown-up — people who can take care of themselves. You’re suppose to problem solve. That’s the whole, beautiful point of it. I don’t see how the WTA thinks it’s a good thing.
IT: You’re the only female broadcaster in any sport who’s there in the booth to broadcast the final.
MC: Not the Wimbledon men’s final. It’s hard to sit it out because I love it. This year’s final wasn’t great, but the last three Wimbledon’s men’s finals were incredible.
IT: There’s still a glass ceiling?
MC: Oh, absolutely. Not even a question mark.
IT: When you were taken off a U.S. Davis Cup tie a while back, you said, “They took the broad out of broadcasting.” Great line. Will it ever be changed?
MC: The reason given by network honchos, the decision-makers, is that as soon as someone big retires from a sport, they want to include them. And, clearly, women don’t play pro basketball, football or baseball, so they’re automatically marked out of that conversation. Pam Ward is a terrific college football play-by-play woman. Will she ever get to do play-by-play in the NFL? Those kinds of things are hard. What I’ve faced with John McEnroe is that he says I don’t know what it’s like to be a champion, which is very true. He says I don’t know what it’s like to be a guy. Very true. That’s what the USTA did before they allowed me to do the Davis Cup. It wasn’t ESPN that was holding me back. The USTA said we only want former Davis Cuppers. What the hell kind of cockamamie rule is that? That was their way of saying, “No, we don’t want her.” So yes, things still exist. You just keep chipping away. You keep your head down, do your work and hope it gets rewarded. You hope you set a standard that makes people think, “I want her on my team.”
IT: Were you happy when Katie Couric, who, by the way, has a career win over Walter Cronkite, got her evening news anchor spot?
MC: Billie Jean used to impress that upon me that you have to have all those victories, whether it is women in the board room, blacks or younger or older people. You have to change the chemistry of the room. The more women who are in the room, the more the chemistry changes.
IT: Has broadcasting our prime marquee event, the Wimbledon men’s final, been the most disappointing…
MC: Yeah, I’d like a chance. I would love to. It’s hard because I don’t even have a place to watch it. It’s frustrating to take something all the way to the final. You want to be there.
IT: There’s no better place to be at that time.
MC: Especially that booth. I love it there.
IT: Is that John saying I want a two-person booth?
MC: Yes. They agree, they [the broadcast executives] allow it. I get to do every other final.
IT: Let’s talk about the mighty Roger Federer. Is his tank getting low?
MC: He can still win majors, but I don’t think he’ll win them in the way that Serena can win them. It’s like watching John McEnroe. He was always so quick and got to the ball so early. Then all of a sudden the ball was playing him. That’s happened with Roger, especially with these big hitters. To get that back, when his back is bad, it’s going to be tough.
IT: He was Mr. Grace — like Baryshnikov. Everything was so easy. But he hasn’t been looking that wonderful. He’s been going down to Gulbis, Montanes…
MC: This is where it gets interesting. This is a guy who loves every bit of the process. Now he’s got twins. Mary Joe [Fernandez] was telling me that after the Australian Open he decided to take a two-week vacation with Mirka and the babies in the Swiss mountains. But they made a rookie parenting error. They decided not to take nannies with them. Then the kids get sick. Mirka gets sick and is in the hospital, so now it’s Roger with a sick Mirka and sick baby twins and then he got a lung infection. So he isn’t feeling great. He doesn’t get any rest and doesn’t practice. And that guy grinds. So I’m not that surprised that he doesn’t get the traction he’s used to having.
IT: As for career arcs, Pete Sampras had his great U.S. Open farewell win when he was 31, but Agassi is about the only guy recently who’s been able to consistantly bring it late in his career. Roger’s 29. New York should tell us something. And what about the Open? It’s like blaring saxophones and 23,000 drunk brokers from Great Neck.
MC: Do you think that’s why Borg never won it?
IT: Yes. It’s a world apart.
MC: I grew up there. My mom let me start school late every year so I could watch. I’d sneak in. I loved Forest Hills. I love Flushing. It’s such a different major. It’s hard. Some players have avoided the summer hard courts to save themselves or they’ve played too much. A lot of tennis has happened. They’re either trying to salvage their season or saying, “Here’s my one last shot.” It’s seriously a different vibe.
IT: Almost everyone agrees Roger is a great ambassador and the best player of all time. Debate over. Still, Nadal’s 14-7 against Fed, and has won three of the last five times on all surfaces. Plus Rafa, even though he’s five years younger, has significantly better stats when it comes to the Davis Cup, the Olympics and Masters titles.
MC: The greatest player of all time isn’t the greatest player of his time.
IT: How do we deal with that?
MC: It’s tricky. What was really something was to hear that Nadal was so embarrassed to be told that. He said, “Anybody here who thinks I’m better than Roger knows nothing about tennis.”
IT: Do you know whom he was talking to?
MC: You’re the only person who would ask that. You ask all the questions I would want to ask.
IT: But why not? It’s an interesting question. It’s not personal.
MC: Rafa is always so deferential [to Roger]. More than he needs to be at this point.
IT: In a way, it’s a tool. Mac and Connors were at each other’s throats. Sampras and Agassi weren’t quite as bad, but were still fierce rivals. Now it’s Kumbaya. Andy’s texting Blake, Isner or Querrey — “How sad you lost,” or “Let’s play poker.”
MC: That doesn’t bother me, but McEnroe disagrees. He wants there to be more tension. As soon as Rafa and Roger walk out, he wants them to beat each other’s brains out. Isner, Querry, Roddick and Mardy — they’re so classy. There’s such a stability to these guys. From the time Rafa was just a boy, [his coach] Toni would always tell him, “Stay hungry. Stay humble.” That makes all kinds of sense to that kid. He lives it. So, when people say that he’s trying to take the pressure off himself, I don’t think so. It’s inculcated in his being that this is how you’re supposed to behave.
IT: He’s a kind of Spanish nationalist. He’s into all sports. He was very deferential to the Queen. He respects everyone. It’s like, where is the sassy street fighter?
MC: But it shows up on the court.
IT: Oh yeah.
MC: He wants every single point.
IT: On court he reminds me of Connors.
MC: That’s a good call. He does it without that snarl Jimmy brought along. There’s nothing obscene about what Rafa does. He’s a remarkable counter-point to Roger because his game is so physical. There’s so much more sweat, so much more blood coursing through.
IT: Roger seems like a flowing stream. Rafa’s almost animalistic. He’s got touch, but he’s an explosion. You and John McEnroe go way back. You sat on his bed listening to tales, played doubles…
MC: The thing about John is that he’s really attached to his old friends, his past. He remembers a linesman who opposed him 25 years ago. He’s sentimental in a funny way.
IT: The old days — Billy Maze, Peter Rennert, Vitas?
MC: Exactly. That’s why he feels so strongly for Borg. We have this history, and it hasn’t always been smooth. He grew up a couple blocks away from me. We played at the same club. We carpooled. We argued. We hung around.
IT: Heady times?
MC: It was a great time, the late ’70s, when tennis was really growing. Especially if you were someone like me, who wasn’t a world-beater. I got to play World TeamTennis, to travel, to know Jimmy and Bjorn. I slipped into this. And I got to practice with Billie Jean. She put me on the board. It was a good time for John. Anti-heroes were big. The Sex Pistols were the background noise of his Wimbledon. There has been some rocky terrain, no two ways about it, but in the end, we go so far back. We know the same people, have eaten a lot of the same foods. And sometimes we disagree in a big way. I was calling the Serena-Clijsters match last year with Dick [Enberg] and John, and their first reaction was, “What a horrible time to call a foot fault!” And I’m like, “What a terrible time to foot fault!”
IT: Serena says she never foot faults.
MC: She said too much that night.
IT: Richard [her father] said the debacle would be good for Serena because she’ll learn from it. She’ll learn to wait, to accept.
MC: I read that in your magazine. I hope he’s right.
IT: It’s a great sentiment.
MC: The sisters are very smart. They don’t tend to repeat errors.
IT: I asked Serena is she feels any kind of responsibility to help us win the Fed Cup final. She said her only responsibility is to her two dogs. Then a couple of days later she said she really would like to play for Mary Joe. Whiplash city.
MC: Mary Joe has to keep reaching out to them. Venus would say something to her like, “I’m not ready to commit to committing.” Double-talk. What are you supposed to do with that? The sisters are going to take you for a ride and you have to hold on.
IT: It’s been that way for a while.
MC: John and Jimmy wanted to beat each other’s heads off. That was palpable. But John and Bjorn were totally different. Connors didn’t act like a jerk against Bjorn either. Maybe that’s just saying something about Borg. The dynamics of those rivalries were fascinating.
IT: When Pete first topped the rankings, Andre said, “Nobody should be ranked No. 1 who looks like he just swung from a tree.” Pete said that the only thing Andre had that he would want was his private jet.
MC: Years ago, Andre said, “The biggest nightmare in the world would be for us to have each other’s lives for one day?”
IT: In his book Andre said it was unimaginable to him that someone like Pete could have no original ideas. Ouch. Then there was that situation this March at Indian Wells. Unfortunate.
MC: So unnecessary.
IT: Then there’s McEnroe’s behavior this summer…
MC: My sister and her son went to the fundraiser [in L.A.]. When John started to get busted by Agassi [in the second set] John started hitting his racket and the rubber dampener popped out and hit somebody in a box seat who says, “Hey! You better be careful!” John lashed out. It’s a charity. Andre kept trying to diffuse it.
IT: Mac’s 51 and again won the senior doubles at the French and he took Roddick to what seemed like a legitimate team tennis tiebreak. But a couple of summers ago he got tossed out of an exo at the Newport Hall of Fame. He’s amazing.
MC: Yes he is. Very complicated. In L.A., my nephew asked my sister, “What are we watching? Is this real or not? Is John just playing or is he really angry?”
IT: One of his set pieces is saying, “It’s in my contract that I have to flip out.” Okay, we know you’re joking, then again…
MC: He worries about being such a character. One of the great things about him on court is that he could just constantly surprise you with his quickness, touch and imagination. Now, he thinks he runs the risk of becoming obvious. The greatest compliment you can pay John is saying, “You’re an artist.” But an artist doesn’t want to keep repeating himself.
IT: There’s no one else like John, with his corkscrew serve, his intuitive flicks, his misdirected shots, and no one’s had a post-playing career quite like John’s.
MC: It will be interesting to see how his New York academy goes because that’s stepping out of his comfort zone.
IT: It’s suggestive of how he campaigned so long and hard to coach the Davis Cup team, but then it was such a debacle, especially when we lost 5-0 in Spain.
MC: You remember that? How does an American journalist remember that? You and Bud [Collins.]
IT: After one of those horrid blown calls in the World Cup, Federer said soccer should have Hawk-Eye but tennis shouldn’t. He’s probably the only one who thinks Hawk-Eye shouldn’t be in tennis. He wants the human side and says one point doesn’t decide…
MC: He’s never trusted it. I like Hawk-Eye, but I don’t like the challenge system. People love replays and seeing how damn close it came to the line.
IT: They want to make the call themselves.
MC: The technology is tremendous. What’s stupid is that a player has to decide when to make a call. That’s insane. You’re on the run 80 feet away and you have to decide if it could cost you the set.
IT: Here’s my biggest beef with you: I want this sport to be intriguing. I want everyone, not just the committed fans, to be drawn in by a range of compelling storylines. I see it in the NFL with their challenge system. Choices that have consequences must be made.
MC: There’s plenty of drama.
IT: Sometimes yes, plenty of times no.
MC: You put that technology there to take the human element out, but now you’re asking the player to decide when to use it? How do you justify…
IT: Because it’s really interesting – a new twist for an old game. Early in a set Fed will waste three ridiculous, vanity challenges and guess what? Bad judgment and you’re out of challenges at crunch time.
MC: That’s my whole point.
IT: I know.
MC: Is that how matches should be decided?
IT: So are we going to stop the action and go to the video on every point?
MC: That’s not true. You like the game-show aspect.
IT: That’s crass. These days there has to be an entertainment value for a larger audience. There has to be some traction, otherwise, too often it will be Pavlyuchenkova vs. Kuzy. There are problems in this sport.
MC: In women’s tennis there’s no consistency. Players come up and then they go away. You wonder, “What was that? Was that an aberration?” When all that No. 1 swapping was going on it seemed like an inflated ranking because the woman everyone regards as No. 1 wasn’t playing enough to be No. 1. So all Serena had to do was play in a couple more tournaments and win a couple more rounds. What happened was people like Ana Ivanovic were clearly not ready to assume that title, that role, and it hurt them. They feel a certain insecurity about their station, and they lose their way. So now you have all these headcases and they get injured and it just becomes a spiral. Serena has played only six tournaments this year. She’s won two majors. But I’ve never been more admiring of her game because she’s much more consistent, fitter, faster and makes far fewer errors. Her game is much prettier to watch. Remember how ungainly she was? But I wish she’d play more and would care more about the non-majors. At least, in the last four seasons, she’s played in every major, which wasn’t true for a long time.
IT: Back in the days of Evert, Austin, Monica, Steffi, Capriati, Hingis — teens zoomed onto the scene and often stayed right at the top. Now we don’t have a teen in the top 20. Wozniacki reached the Open final, but then plateaued a bit, and Melanie Oudin, got to love her, hasn’t backed up her astounding Open run.
MC: Steffi, Monica, Chrissie — the most devastating part of their arsenal really was their mental fitness. They were fundamentally tough from a very young age and they stayed that way for a long time. That’s what’s missing in women’s tennis — mental toughness. It used to be what separated the women. Now what separates them is whether they can serve. Whichever woman serves best is going to win. It’s the dominant stroke. If you’re a guy who wants to be at the top, don’t even think about not being fit; mentally tough; not being fast; not winning tiebreaks. Now the only women I can count on to be mentally tough are Sharapova and Serena.
IT: There used to be all those uber individuals, the Monica’s, Steffi’s and Martina’s of the world, and then there was the Russian Revolution and the Eastern Euros…
MC: It’s how the game is played. Players are very big and hit very hard. They’re big babes. They’re taught to hit hard from the baseline. Whoever makes the fewest errors and hits the hardest wins. So if you’re having a crisis of confidence, and so many have, especially on their serve, and all you know is power and your father or coach is screaming at you from the sidelines, “Hit it harder!” Do you know how hard it is to hit it hard when you’re choking? Are you kidding? A lot of them can’t scramble or leg-out rallies; can’t keep spitting the ball back. So all of a sudden, they go away. They look strong, but all of a sudden a stiff breeze is going to knock them over. Tape is holding up their game. It’s frustrating to call those matches. I would love to see the women get mentally tougher. You see the guys getting so fit and fast and they’re hitting one-handed backhands, drop shots, adding layers to their games. I don’t see that from the women. Francesca Schiavone was like, “I remember that brand of tennis. I remember when people had a couple of different backhands.”
IT: She’s quite a character. Then again it’s a sport of characters.
MC: Hey, they fill our notebooks for us.