Aspiring to Tennis’s Play-by-Play Seat
By ROBIN FINN
Published: September 4, 2008
JUST out of spitting distance of the spray from the fountains that frame the Unisphere, Mary Carillo was waiting, and waiting, to interview Dinara Safina, the strapping young tennis player from Russia — a prospective world No. 1 — who had just earned the herculean task of confronting a resurgent Serena Williams
in the semifinals of the United States Open.
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Uli Seit for The New York Times
Which in turn earned her an off-court, on-camera chat with Ms. Carillo, herself a former player, albeit one who peaked and retired ranked 33rd in the world at age 23 after a career of just four years (chronically bum knees) and a single Grand Slam title (1977 French Open mixed doubles, partnered by a not-yet-iconic John McEnroe
A sports commentator since 1980, and the winner of an Emmy (for her work on “Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel
”) and two Peabodys (for the HBO
documentaries “Billie Jean King: Portrait of a Pioneer” and “Dare to Compete: The Struggle of Women in Sports”), she aspires to a somewhat loftier ranking in her second career. Her breakthrough goal: to provide play-by-play analysis, not color commentary and folksy features.
“In sports, it’s hard for a woman to get to sit in the big-boy chair,” she said. “Television sports are still, in the minds of the networks, the province of men, sort of the last bastion of machismo. And there is definitely, looking at sports like football and baseball, an attitude that a woman has no business in the booth doing play-by-play because women do not traditionally grow up playing those sports. But tennis is a little different; I’d like to think the day will come when I can sit in that big-boy chair for my sport and show them a woman can perform in that role.”
But for the moment, she was deep into Week 2 of the Open, standing next to a fountain with a microphone clipped to her shirt. Actually, pacing next to a fountain.
Ms. Carillo, 51, a Queens-born blithe spirit who gamely teams up with her childhood pal and co-anchor, Mr. McEnroe, in the CBS broadcast booth at this Grand Slam, was growing weary of the delay on what was, technically, her day off from television.
Considering that she flew straight to the Open from the Beijing Olympics — where she queasily sampled deep-fried scorpions, a local delicacy, for NBC
’s nightly travelogue feature and helped edit coverage of the closing ceremonies, among other things — she had cause to be slightly impatient. Not to mention that her luggage was briefly lost en route home. Circling the globe on behalf of sports isn’t always glamorous. Nor is hanging around a fountain in the end-of-summer sizzle.
“SHOULD we default her?” Ms. Carillo asked, irreverently but rhetorically, of the all-male CBS production crew micromanaging the shoot. Well, not quite managing. When a producer, Bob Mansbach, suggested that she add a query about Ms. Safina’s ultra-pink tennis costumes, she nonchalantly shot him down.
“That’s just the color Adidas is hawking here,” she protested. “It’s a sponsorship thing, not a Safina thing. No pink questions.” He acquiesced. As soon as Ms. Safina, partly in pink, roared up on a chauffeur-driven golf cart, the interview was cheerful, quick and painless. Time spent with Ms. Carillo, an approachable type likely to simultaneously juggle cellphone calls, autograph requests, photo signings and her professional obligations, usually is.
After loping away from the shoot and up the stairs of the Arthur Ashe Stadium (she avoids the elevator; any exercise is golden, particularly when her knees still prohibit meaningful tennis competitions), Ms. Carillo threaded her way through the CBS broadcast suite. She ended up in a private anteroom where Mr. McEnroe, whose duties include wall-to-wall weekday commentary for the USA Network, was bolting down a burger. They greeted each other with conspiratorial shrugs, not hugs; no dialogue necessary.
The two have known each other since growing up in tennis-friendly Douglaston, where both camped out on the courts at the Douglaston Club, playing 10 or more daily sets with the rest of the neighborhood kids before graduating to the renowned Port Washington Tennis Academy under the tutelage of Harry Hopman.
“Obviously, John had a huge impact on me,” she said. “He was such a gifted player that it inspired me to work harder, and I always just kind of tagged along after him even though I’m two years older. In the booth, yeah, sure, we have plenty of fights, but on the tennis court, never.”
Ms. Carillo, who divides her time between Florida, where her two children attend school, and a minuscule Greenwich Village pied-à-terre, was playing her first year as a professional in 1977 when Mr. McEnroe, still a Trinity High School student, arrived in Paris to play the French Open juniors. Although they had never played a mixed-doubles event together, on a lark they decided to sign up.
“As we were signing this list on the wall, John looked at the other names and said, ‘Oh, geez, we should be able to win this thing.’ And then we did.” When stage fright struck her in the final, she recalled, he provided this advice each time she served: “Mary, just throw the ball in, kick it in, anything, and I’ll do the rest.”
Their relationship cooled once Ms. Carillo, who tends to speak her mind, left the tennis court for the television booth: he thought she was being disloyal by critiquing his play. When he followed her into television just over a decade ago, he initially refused to cover women’s matches and opined that she ought not comment on men’s. Over the years, a truce was reached. “His is such an interesting, agile mind, and if you are sitting next to him at a Grand Slam match, you’ve got a really great seat. Unless of course,” she added in jest, “you want to say something about the match yourself. But seriously, I think John honestly feels he is a caretaker of the sport.”
So is she.