The second week of a major tennis tournament will regularly offer broadcast outlets fewer chances to make mistakes in terms of programming and match selection. The first week is chock full of matches, so in many ways, that week tests a network’s commitment to tennis in ways the second week can never really match.
The obvious significance of the second week of a major — when viewed through a television-specific lens — is that the importance of the matches demands mature treatment on the part of the broadcaster. This was obviously missing from NBC’s treatment of the second men’s semifinal at Roland Garros, as is the case on a relentlessly (and sadly) annual basis. For a complete overview of that particular (and annual) mess, just check this piece, which was picked up by Bloguin’s partner site, Awful Announcing.
For all TV-coverage issues not pertaining to Friday of the past week, here’s our week-two rundown of Roland Garros. As was the case in our week-one overview, we’ll merely document the decisions made by various networks, and then close with a few brief remarks.
COVERING THE COVERAGE:
WEEK TWO OF ROLAND GARROS, AS IT HAPPENED ON AMERICAN TV
Monday, 10 a.m. ET: ESPN2 goes beyond its slotted broadcast window to show the conclusion of a women’s match between Sara Errani and Jelena Jankovic. Tennis Channel, coming on the air at this time, shows the Sloane Stephens-Simona Halep match.
12:38 p.m. ET: Tennis Channel shows the opening game of the third set in a men’s match between Andy Murray and Fernando Verdasco, even though Murray has a two-set lead and another match (between Gael Monfils and Guillermo Garcia-Lopez) is at a more critical juncture. Monfils won the first two sets, but Garcia-Lopez – at 12:38 p.m. ET – had gained a break lead at 4-2 in the third, trying to mount a comeback.
12:53 p.m. ET: Monfils gets the break back and stays on serve at 5-4 in a tight third set against Garcia-Lopez. Tennis Channel sticks with the Murray-Verdasco match, as Murray leads 3-1 in the third set.
1:08 p.m. ET: Monfils breaks for 6-5 in the third. Murray remains in front 4-2 in the third. Tennis Channel sticks with the Murray match.
1:11 p.m. ET: Tennis Channel moves to Monfils-Garcia-Lopez as Monfils gains match point. Monfils wins, and coverage goes back to the end of Murray-Verdasco.
Tuesday, 8:44 a.m. ET: On the first of two quarterfinal days at the French Open, two matches occupy the same time window and compete against each other. The first matches of the day are women’s quarterfinals, one between Maria Sharapova and Garbine Muguruza, the other between Carla Suarez Navarro and Eugenie Bouchard. At this point in time, Bouchard is serving to stay in the first set at 3-5, while the second set of Sharapova-Muguruza is just starting, with Muguruza leading 1-0. Tennis Channel showed Bouchard breaking from 2-5 to get to 3-5, but it then switched back to the Sharapova match instead of showing Bouchard serving at 3-5.
8:52 a.m. ET: Bouchard holds, forcing Suarez Navarro to serve again for the first set at 5-4. Tennis Channel stays with the Sharapova match.
9:04 a.m. ET: The Suarez Navarro-Bouchard match works its way into a first-set tiebreaker, and Tennis Channel finally picks it up.
10:13 a.m. ET: Sharapova takes a 4-1, double-break lead in the third set of her match, while Suarez Navarro and Bouchard stand at 4-4 in the third of their match. Tennis Channel sticks with the Sharapova match.
10:15 a.m. ET: Sharapova holds for 5-1. Tennis Channel sticks with the Sharapova match.
10:18 a.m. ET: Sharapova wins her match, 6-1, with Suarez Navarro leading 5-4 in the third. Upon the end of the Sharapova match, Tennis Channel replays match point and then goes to commercial as Bouchard serves at 4-5 in the third.
10:21 a.m. ET: Tennis Channel comes back from commercial, with Bouchard having held for 5-all and leading 0-15 on Suarez Navarro’s serve.
11:28 a.m. ET: Tennis Channel, with the men’s quarterfinals going on, uses a changeover during the Novak Djokovic-Milos Raonic match to show Ernests Gulbis serving at 5-3, 30-all, in the first set against Tomas Berdych. Gulbis serves out the set, and Tennis Channel returns to Djokovic-Raonic with Raonic serving at 5-6 in the first set.
12:42 p.m. ET: With both matches being led by two sets, Gulbis-Berdych stands at 4-3 in the third, while Djokovic-Raonic is 3-0 in the third. Tennis Channel stays with the Djokovic match.
12:44 p.m. ET: Djokovic moves to 4-0 in the third. Tennis Channel stays with the Djokovic match.
12:50 p.m. ET: Tennis Channel, sticking with the Djokovic match even though Berdych saved a match point against Gulbis, continues to stay with Djokovic-Raonic even as the Serbian moves ahead 5-1 in the third.
12:53 p.m. ET: Djokovic and Raonic have a changeover at 5-2. Gulbis serves for the match at 5-4. Tennis Channel goes to commercial and barely gets to match point in time to see Gulbis win.
1:05 p.m. ET: With ESPN2 beginning its coverage window, Djokovic finishes off the match against Raonic. ESPN2’s coverage window therefore consists solely of taped tennis. In response to this reality, ESPN Tennis’s Twitter account proceeds to tweet about the taped quarterfinal matches as though they were live. (Hat tip to tennis tweep Nicole for pointing this out to Attacking The Net.)
Notice the time stamps for the tweets (Pacific time, but even if they were Eastern time, they still wouldn’t have been live). Also notice the (appropriate, justified) snark from tennis fans and writers who can’t believe ESPN would carry on this pretense so consistently.
Wednesday, 11:24 a.m. ET: ESPN2, covering the women’s quarterfinals, makes its first shift of match, from Svetlana Kuznetsova-Simona Halep to Sara Errani-Andrea Petkovic, with Errani serving to stay in the first set at 2-5, love-30. Petkovic breaks to win the set, 6-2, and ESPN2 goes back to Kuznetsova-Halep with Halep leading, 3-2.
8:40 a.m. ET: ESPN2, after Halep wins the first set, goes to the more developed second set of Errani-Petkovic, with Errani leading 2-1 and serving at 40-30.
1:02 p.m. ET: Tennis Channel’s window begins, and it picks up the men’s quarterfinal match between Andy Murray and Gael Monfils, while ESPN2 continues its coverage, shifting over to the Rafael Nadal-David Ferrer quarterfinal. This two-channel setup with live tennis on separate matches represents – and has always represented – the simple yet bafflingly elusive solution for American tennis broadcasters at major tournaments over the decades.
Approx. 1:12-1:13 p.m. ET: ESPN2 quickly goes to the end of the first set of Murray-Monfils. Murray closes out the set, 6-4. ESPN2 then shifts back to Nadal-Ferrer and catches the break point that enables Nadal to trim a 3-1 deficit to 3-2 in the first.
For the remainder of the tournament (Thursday through Sunday), the reality of semifinal- or championship-stage matches meant that there was no longer any time-slot competition between any two singles matches.
THE SOLUTIONS ARE SIMPLE, AND ESPN RECOGNIZES THIS FAR MORE THAN TENNIS CHANNEL
The value of our week-two report on the performance of American TV outlets can be found in two basic affirmations of longstanding views:
First, two channels are needed to cover major tournaments. When Tennis Channel covered Murray-Monfils last Wednesday and ESPN2 covered Nadal-Ferrer, tennis fans were given a picture of paradise. That’s the way the whole enterprise is supposed to work. That’s how the whole project of covering a major tennis tournament should always work.
If you’re not a diehard tennis fan but merely a casual sports fan who peeks in at tennis during the majors, you can appreciate the following statement: Through the quarterfinals of a major, the presence of competing matches in the same time slot is akin to the first three rounds of the NCAA basketball tournament. In the round of 64, the round of 32, and the Sweet 16, games are shipped to separate channels. Every game can be watched on a different network. Obviously, you’re not going to be able to watch every tennis match in the rounds of 64, 32, and 16, but there should at least be one men’s match and one women’s match available on television (still the main driver and source of both coverage and availability) at the same time. This claim can be adjusted if women’s matches (or men’s matches) happen to be done, and there are multiple matches of only one gender in progress.
Having two channels team up for coverage, instead of splitting up their time windows and insisting on handoffs (as was usually the case at this French Open), gives television viewers the ideal match-watching experience. If networks care about bringing tennis to fans in the best possible way, they’re going to revise and reconsider the current “hand-the-baton” model.
You might wonder why Wednesday — with ESPN2 and Tennis Channel splitting the men’s quarterfinals — worked out so well. Here’s the answer: RAIN!
Had there not been a rain delay, ESPN2 might have gotten in both men’s quarterfinal matches before 1 p.m. ET, when Tennis Channel’s coverage window began. ESPN was given this window by Tennis Channel, so it could continue to cover the matches. Tennis Channel, though, was entitled to show matches when its window began. What happened on Wednesday was a happy accident in much the same way that the David Ferrer-Jo-Wilfried Tsonga men’s semifinal was shown live in the Central time zone last year (for reasons mentioned in the aforementioned and hyperlinked piece on NBC’s tape-delayed men’s semifinal).
When tennis broadcasters get it right, it’s often the result of schedules being thrown off track. One day, tennis broadcasters will hopefully cover major tournaments correctly because they plan to do so.
The second main remark on week-two coverage of Roland Garros by American TV outlets is that ESPN2 clearly outperformed Tennis Channel in one fundamental aspect of tennis coverage: scoreboard-based switching from one match to another. This is another topic in which the NCAA tournament can be invoked in a useful way.
What applies to the NCAA tournament should apply to major tennis tournaments: When the score of Game A is much closer than Game B, or if the close score in Game A is later in regulation time than the close score in Game B, it is plainly obvious that Game A should be presented to the television audience for that period of time. The scoreboard should almost always dictate what’s being shown on television whenever two or more games are taking place at the same time.
When the NCAA tournament was televised solely by CBS — before its new arrangement with Turner Broadcasting and its affiliated channels — it was entirely up to CBS to handle as many as four games in one NCAA tournament viewing window. CBS’s job was to ship viewers where the action was hot(test), and move viewers from one game to another in accordance with this core need.
It should not be any different with tennis, and from the above coverage log, it is nakedly apparent that ESPN — with its extensive experience in handling these kinds of issues for the diehard sports fan — is much more attuned to scoreboard-based switching than Tennis Channel.
It’s not enough to show a set point or match point. Showing the final game or the final few games of a set (or match) builds drama and enables viewers to more fully appreciate the drama they’re seeing. ESPN2 grasped this concept to a much greater extent in its week-two coverage of Roland Garros. Tennis Channel lagged well behind.
The final thing to be said on this matter is that TC should be better at this, since its Center Court program offers agile whiparound coverage of various lower-tier tournaments during the balance of the tennis season. At the majors, Tennis Channel loses its edge and tries to promote products (apps and streaming services) more than the product itself, which is known as live tennis coverage the way it was meant to be delivered.