Shiny Shelf

Wimbledon 2005

By Eddie Robson on 29 June 2005

It’s just as well Wimbledon came along when it did, as it’s saved me from endless days of playing ‘Fragmented Narrative Big Brother’ (this involves flipping between live ‘Big Brother’ on E4 and the one-hour-delayed footage on E4+1, so that consequences precede actions – it’s like watching an exceptionally slow and badly made Atom Egoyan movie).

This is my first year enjoying the tournament with the wonder of BBCi, which offers two extra live matches in addition to those on BBC1 and/or BBC2. This is obviously brilliant (if you like tennis), but watching the bonus matches has an unexpected benefit in that the coverage is slightly stripped-down. Whizzo features such as the Hawkeye computer-mapping of the court are still in place, but BBC Sport appears to have decided that it’s not worth its while to employ any more than two commentators to cover these matches.

The effect is to underline just how unnecessary is the BBC’s proliferation of commentators in the bigger games. Just as the Corporation apparently feels a responsibility to take just about every retired British athlete of note to the Olympics, so Wimbledon coverage is now stuffed with all the former professionals they can get their hands on. And, unlike athletics, there’s a pressing need to recruit overseas talent for tennis commentary as the authority of retired British players is limited by their never having won anything at all. This results in an even greater superfluity as British never-weres jostle for space with bona fide legends of the sport.

As an example, Saturday’s game between new British hope Andrew Murray and David Nalbandian boasted a four-person commentary team. Given that tennis commentary is far more economical than, say, football – commentators keep quiet during points, rather than filling every moment with random inanities – this seems frankly unnecessary. Given the Daily Mail’s penchant both for attacking any perceived excess on the BBC’s part and for hysterically fretting about British jobs being taken by people who aren’t British, it’s a wonder we haven’t seen headlines screaming FOREIGN SPORTSMEN AWARDED LARGE SALARIES ‘FOR DOING MORE OR LESS TIT ALL’ SAYS BBC INSIDER.

One way of cutting the dead wood would be to lose some of those who’ve had a free pass to this event for years, but are not actually very good. Apart from possessing a nails-down-the-blackboard voice, Virginia Wade is quite breathtakingly rude (on Tuesday she was admonishing the massively accomplished and successful Venus Williams for her ‘lack of respect for tennis’).

Another would be to instantly sack anybody who says ‘Chalk flew up… though of course these days we should say that titanium pigment flew up, ha ha!’ Anybody who watches the game is well aware that (a) chalk has long since been replaced by titanium pigment as a means of marking the lines of the court and (b) this fact is not inherently hilarious. It is literally impossible to watch a day of tennis at Wimbledon without hearing a waggish remark regarding the use of titanium pigment and it has never, ever been funny. In my line of work I often make use of a pencil, but do I feel the need to constantly point out that pencil ‘lead’ is actually a form of graphite? I do not. Admittedly there’s rarely anybody to point it out to as I work at home on my own, but the principle remains.

Whilst it can undoubtedly be beneficial to have seasoned pros adding their insight, they almost admire the sport too much: they’re more interested in seeing it played well than seeing a dramatic, competitive contest. This is what led to endless fawning over Pete Sampras and his ‘immaculate grass-court game’ back in the 1990s. Nobody on the presentation side appeared to realise that it was deadly tedious that the same bloke was winning every single year.

Compare this to the deranged entertainment provided by Goran Ivanesevic in 2001, when he arrived a has-been on a wild card claiming wildly that God had promised him victory and walked away two weeks later with the trophy. I don’t watch sport principally to see spectacular displays of physical prowess: mainly, I watch because I don’t know what’s going to happen, and when it becomes predictable I tend to lose interest.

There is one other annoying thing about the old pros, which has been particularly apparent this year: they talk an awful lot about how much the game has changed since their day. Awestruck voices proclaim how much harder players train, how professional they have to be, how much more brutal the game often is. To the viewer at home, however, this is largely irrelevant. We’re much more concerned with how tennis has changed since last year than how it’s changed since 1980. One tends to imagine McEnroe, Becker and Connors sitting in the commentary box in rocking-chairs with blankets over their knees, gibbering that they remember the days when all this was fields, a can of tennis balls only cost a shilling and chalk was real chalk, none of your titanium pigment nonsense.

Line Break

By Eddie Robson

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