Sunday, June 03, 2007

Tennis Channel Scores: Game, Set, Match

The 2007 French Open

I got Comcast Digital Cable with the Sports Pack mainly to get the Fox Soccer Channel and GOL TV. But with most of the world soccer seasons over (except for the lame-ass MLS), I've been watching nothing but tennis on The Tennis Channel. And I gotta say, I love it. Especially their inaugural coverage of the 2007 French Open. Not only is it the Tennis Channel's first French Open, it's their first live broadcast of a Grand Slam event.

In January, the network inked an alliance with ESPN through 2011, under which ESPN2 gains the right from Tennis to present French Open coverage, as well as new-media capabilities. In exchange, Tennis nets 100 hours of live and taped coverage rights to the Australian Open from ESPN. Together, Tennis and ESPN2 will provide around the clock coverage during the tournament’s fortnight of May 27 through June 10.

It's a big assignment, but they've aced it, presenting a slick, intelligient and informative package that more than holds it own with more experienced networks and cable channels. In the weeks leading up to the happenings at Roland Garros, Tennis Channel played all kinds of specials about the tournament, its history, great past matches, and Rene Lacoste and The Four Musketeers. And now that they've nabbed the uber-suave Bill Macatee to host the tournament, it's great - already much better than NBC and the USA Network coverage.

Besides John McEnroe (though I actually prefer his brother Patrick as a color commentator) and Aussie highlights recapper Meike Buchan (a seasoned pro who's not very hard on the eyes, as seen at left - a fact not lost of FHM magazine, which placed her No. 40 in its 2003 100 Sexiest Women in the World list), they've brought my celebrity lookalike Martina Navratilova (below right) in to do commentary and she is really good (picking up broadcasting as easily as she picked up tennis titles), as one might expect with all her expertise. But what really sets her apart is that she's not afraid to tell it like it is. She's diplomatic, but when, for example, she sees Serena Williams repeatedly not move her feet and try to cheat her way through games solely on power - she calls the former French Open champion to task on her lack of technique.

About the only weak link are the painfully glib "Paris culture segments" offered up by the always giggling bimbette Roshumba Williams, who in between her carefully rehearsed (and over-stressed) French pronuciations acts likes she's still what she is, a former model (and author of The Complete Idiots's Guide To Being a Model) doing vapid soundbites for Entertainment Tonight and the Oxygen Network (where she's in the cast of the hair show Tease).

Macatee politely indulges her, but its clear that he views her pieces as ephemeral time-killers. She is nothing more than a trendy haircut with a nice smile. And I've counted as least three times that she's described wherever she is, be it the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, the Latin Quarter - as being, like you know, a "surreal" experience. Please, tennis Channel, don't dumb the coverage down to this level.

And I could do without French Open Tonight's “Maria’s PowerShots of Paris” segments, which supposedly highlight the work of photographers from around the city of lights but basically are just an excuse to sell advertising to Canon and hype Canon-shilling spokesmodel Maria Sharapova, the tournament's No. 2 seed.

From Russia - But Not With Love

And speaking of the media's current darling, I have a bone to pick with her. If I hear one more tennis "tourist" spout off about how hot she is I think I'll scream. That kind of line is for people who don't follow tennis and think all Russian chicks are the next Anna Kournikova - who, by the way, wasn't all that cute and never won anything anyway. Maria is a fiery competitor - I'll give her that - but how the media can spin someone who's 6 feet tall, flat-chested, pimply-faced, with shoulders wider than an NFL tight end, and whose body is 75 percent consumed by mannnish legs as somehow "sexy" is beyond my comprehension. Yes, she's blond, but she's built like Baby Huey. And that primordial grunting! So annoying! As are the clenched fist pumps and the looks over at her Daddy between every friggin' point.

Don't Believe the Hype

And while the warrior spirit is admirable, it's also ugly at times. In the third set of her come from behind win over Swiss underdog Patty Schynder (one of my faves, admittedly, and possessor of one of the best and fittest figures on the women's tour - not to mention a mysterious and controversial past that included a dalliance in 1999, when she was 20, with then 42-year-old trainer/coach/faith healer Rainer Hennecker, who supposedly brainwashed her and put her on a strict diet of orange juice and Baunscheidt acupuncture), Sharapova showed that she may be a winner, but she lacks class.

Sharapova came from a set down and saved three match points before beating No. 15-ranked Patty Schnyder in an exciting and controversial clash, 3-6, 6-4, 9-7. Schnyder served for the match three times, at 5-4, 6-5 and 7-6 in the third set. She was one point away from ending the match in the 10th game and again in the 14th -- and she also was two points away from victory on 11 occasions.

Talk to the Hand

But there was some controversy in the 15th game of the third set when, with Sharapova serving at 30-love, Schnyder held up her hand to signal she was distracted by a shout from the crowd. Schnyder watched the serve land in the box, complaining to the ump that she wasn't ready. But the umpire ruled she was ready and gave the ace to Sharapova who moved 40-0 in front and soon won the game. The fans booed in sympathy with Schynder, but Sharapova, the competitive bulldog, simply moved to the ad court as if nothing at happened. A class opponent would have sided with Schnyder - who clearly stopped play and made no effort to hit the ball - and played the point over. It's called sportsmanship. My God, I even saw feisty John McEnroe do this in a "Champions" (seniors) Tour game this year. And you know how competitive McEnroe is!

Anyway, it made me think back to one of two black marks in Justine Henin's permanent record (the other being Henin's retiring from her 2006 Australian Open final against Amelie Maresmo). Remember in the semifinals of the 2003 French Open when Serena Williams held up her held to indicate she wasn't ready for an Henin serve? Henin claimed she never saw it and won the point. Henin left with her first Grand Slam title, while a clearly pissed Serena left the court in tears. The incident has dogged Henin's stature ever since.

Or as Sharapova's countryman Vladimir Nabokov so eloquently put it: "Nothing revives the past so completely as a smell that was once associated with it." In this case, a bad smell, because her actions stunk.

But back to the present moment...As Sharpova and Schnyder met at the net after the match, there was a mix of boos and applause from the Roland Garros crowd. For her part, Schnyder (whose best result at a major was reaching the 2004 Australian Open semifinals) showed class at the end. quoted her as saying, "At the end she was the big champion and I'm the little one who couldn't win."

Sharapova, perhaps a little guilty, excused herself by saying cooly, "It's pretty hard being a tennis player and Mother Teresa at the same time. You're fighting for every single point out there."

"Grrrr! Don't call me Mother Teresa!"

Yeah, whatever, Miss Canon Sure Shot. At the end of the day, Patty still has the greater body of work, looking more like a woman than a duck:

Patty Cake: Prettier than any Canon Power Shot

And if Sharapova is lucky enough to advance, I'm sure Serena Williams will once again hand her her ass in a one-sided massacre.


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