One Of A Kind
Mary Carillo is the reason we watch Wimbledon Primetime every day at 4 p.m. on Tennis Channel.
As you may know, ESPN let her get away in 2010 during the US Open, no less. There are unconfirmed reports that the “philosophical differences” cited behind her ankling of that network had to do with the graphics-creep that can crowd so many screens. You can’t see the tennis court, but you can read those graphics from the parking lot, right? I should note that ESPN’s coverage of Wimbledon as I write this is conspicuously free of such graphics overkill. Some of the best sports cam and mic work in the world is being pulled off, in and around tennis this week in London. Maybe Carillo landed a point on her way out the door.
Whether her departure from ESPN was based on that trend or something else, she was and is Tennis Channel CEO Ken Solomon’s greatest catch.
The top star of the network — its investors’ list includes Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, the US Tennis Association, and IMG — Carillo confers a dimension of legitimacy on the outfit’s programming that’s almost impossible to get from anyone other than, say, her former tennis partner John McEnroe. (They won the 1977 French Open mixed-doubles.)
As an author, Carillo has collaborated three times: with Martina Navratilova on Tennis My Way, with Rick Elstein on Tennis Kinetics, and with Paul Fein on Tennis Confidential II: More of Today’s Greatest Players, Matches, and Controversies.
But it’s the sportswriter in her who shines during her tournament coverage. The Sports Emmy and at least two Peabody awards have come to her for documentary work, notably Dare To Compete: The Struggle For Women In Sports, which she wrote with Frank Deford of Sports Illustrated and NPR.
And if you’ve never had the pleasure of spending time around truly accomplished sportswriters, you’ve missed one of the sweetest sidelines of news coverage out there. You can make up for it by watching Carillo.
- She’s her own woman. Tennis is a club, and it’s truly hard for anybody involved to stay centered and not betray affections and allegiances as they work through the commentary they’re asked to provide. Carillo does it. She recognizes her own influences and steadies her opinions, as the best critics in any field do: her analysis is therefore full of forthright POV, point of view. She makes it look easy. It’s not.
- She’s been there. But she never talks about walking five miles in the snow to the tennis academy. She made it to World No. 33 on the WTA rankings in 1980, knee injuries took her out, but she never brags or complains. She’s got the credentials, not the attitude.
- She’s smiling. Know why? Insight. Carillo has been at it so long and has so many details, experiences, ironies, and exceptions to every rule stored up that she’s seeing everything with more context than the rest of us. There’s a secret right behind her eyes as she listens to the meticulously tousled Jim Courier say the obvious and watches Paul Annacone, the Bob Newhart of coaches, try to come up with a response.
- She’s laughing. With millions in the balance in prize money and a small army of people in small shorts and big sneakers trundling through her studio, Carillo takes nothing and no one overly seriously. What is that centerpiece on the coffee table, anyway? Boxwood? Somewhere between Roger Federer’s RF logos and Serena Williams’ earrings, Carillo laughs with them. She laughs at herself. And we remember it’s a game.
- She’s respectful. For all the humor that tones her presence, she appreciates what these athletes are doing. She knows it’s not the game it was when she was on the circuit. She also knows that gravity still operates on the ball and that a player’s biggest match is going on inside his or her head. You get that Carillo likes these people. She’s pleased to be a stateswoman among them.
- She’s alive on cam. Watch her in analysis sessions with her colleagues. A big “I told you so” grin over at Navratilova, a #cmonson look of don’t-shit-me at Maria Sharapova (tennis’ most commercial lady)…even if the segment is boring, just keep an eye on Carillo. Like a super-clever fool in Shakespeare, she knows all the subtext and lets her expressions telegraph that to you. This is a grace on the set that comes only from years, lots of them, in TV and radio.
- She’s easy on the ear. What a great alto voice, almost the Mediterranean pitch, not the squeaky-girlish register you get from so many women in US television these days. In tennis sportscasters’ defense, we should note that there are fewer Munchkin-voiced reporters of either gender working this sport than some others. But Carillo remains the model. She sounds like the mature intelligence she is. She makes it easier to understand why, of all sports, tennis has come farther faster in working to bring parity to its women and men.
- She’s looking great. Let’s see what some of the people on the courts at the All England Club this week look like in their mid-fifties. I’ll be having what Carillo’s having, thanks.
- She’s loving it. Cool observer, wry wit, hard worker — this job is much more difficult than it looks — she convinces you that she likes doing what she’s doing. If she’s angling for something else, you won’t know it. She looks committed and glad of it. She’s very there.
- And Mary Carillo is doing the best Nick Bollettieri impression in the business. At 82, the longtime coach is being inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame this summer. On Wimbledon Primetime, Carillo did a follow to one of her segments on Sharapova — note that correct spelling — perfectly cinching Bollettieri’s native New York dialect:
“Mary, remember that name: Maria Shaparova.”