Battle of the balls
It may be a silly game for rich fops, but the tennis commentary sure out does the football says Mark Lewis
So goodbye to a summer of sport. It hardly seems fair to compare Wimbledon to the football, when we weren’t even aware there was any tennis on until England crashed out of the World Cup - in the clash of summer sports it was men against boys.
But then tennis coverage is used to that. In Amelie Mauresmo, Justine Henin-Hardenne, a mere slip of a boy, faced a full grown man. It was the Wimbledon women’s final (Saturday, BBC1 1.30pm) and the BBC rolled out the big guns. In this case it meant John McEnroe, simply the best pundit on television. In any sport.
He is helped, by the seriousness with which tennis analysis is treated on the BBC. Hawkeye is used with intelligence and purpose, showing speed, angles and line calls. Then there are the statistics. "Don’t you hate statistics," said Gary Linekar as the World Cup final (BBC1, 7pm) was about to kick off. To be fair, it was part of Linekar’s standard repetoire of gag-tastic anchoring, but it might as well have been an epitaph for the BBC’s World Cup coverage to date.
At the beginning of the Wimbledon men’s final (Sunday, BBC1 1.30pm) we learned that Federer was about to serve his 80th unbroken service game in a row. There were figures for, amongst others, the number of first serves completed, the number of first serve points won, and the number of unforced errors. Better still, there was analysis of what that meant; of why, for example, Nadal was unwilling to come to the net.
Best of all there were only measured interjections throughout; no mindless commentary while there was a rally on. I don’t know whether that is because the players can hear while the commentators talk but it is nevertheless welcome. Certainly the main commentators are helped by the colour commentators’ adherence to convention.
In David Pleat, ITV’s World Cup final coverage (Sunday, 6pm) had no such luck. There is a real sense that Pleat believes that whatever he might be saying is more important than what is happening on the screen. As, for example, we were shown Thierry Henry flinching from the stench of smelling salts after a suspected concussion which could have ended his tournament, Pleat ploughed on about the merits of Italy’s formation.
And this is no isolated case. The truth is that by the time Pleat has finished ruminating on what colour trousers the referee might have turned up to the match in, we could have missed two goals, a sending off, a 21-man brawl, and the Pussycat Dolls streaking away from an angry tiger.
He and Tyldsley were trying manfully to outstupid each other. Pleat kicked off with the observation that, "Henry is god in the air, there is no doubt about that," despite that being the only doubt about the France strikers’s all-round game.
Tyldsley chipped in with, "anybody who’s anybody is here," over a crowd shot of two people I’ve never seen.
We need to be fair here. Perhaps tennis lends itself better to statistics and analysis. But where the BBC has spent its football spondulas on bringing an army of former England International cheerleaders, the tennis bucks have gone on an army of analysts. And I can see no reason why there cannot be a Football equivalent of tennis’s James Goodall or Channel 4 cricket’s Simon Hughes whose job it is to analyse the small things which viewers cannot; crunch the numbers and come up with real new information.
Tennis is also not hampered by any real sense that a Briton could do well, and the jingo-free commentary reflects this. So by the time the England-free football final occurred the bellicoseness of the commentary (which I admit I rather enjoyed) in the past few weeks was gone. And so, the BBC disposed of Ian Wright to be replaced with Martin O’Neill.
for sure, there was some good early analysis from Alan Hansen on Lillian Thuram in which Alan Shearer added nothing of interest, before an interminable package on the Italian scandal from Garth Crooks. There were some flourishes from O’Neill. And yet still nobody noticed. Real pundits would have spotted how much both the France and Italy coaches looked like the recently ill Paul O’Grady.
McEnroe would. And given ITV's bizarre invitation to cricket's Shane Warne to analyse one of Australia's games earlier in the tournament, it would not stretch credulity too far to imagine him there in four years time.
Instead we had to enjoy him on the tennis, and to marvel at Sue Barker who anchored with consummate professionalism but who (I am reliably informed) is a marriage wrecker who tried, unsuccessfully, to lure a former England cricket player to her bosom while being friendly with his wife.
So, at least in the battle between football and tennis commentary, (and for the sake of a weak joke) we can console ourselves that she is a sexual deviant. And that, my friends, is something that could never be said about Pleat.