xmlns:og='http://ogp.me/ns#' The Font of Noelage: Tennis, anyone?

Friday, 27 January 2017

Tennis, anyone?

One of the joys of the Australian summer is watching high class tennis being played in the Australian Open Tennis Championships at the Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne.

This world class event is preceded by tennis tournaments in Perth, Brisbane, Hobart and Sydney where we tennis fans get a chance to preview the form of the champions and the up and comers.
In earlier days, the ABC did a splendid job in broadcasting over its radio network the action taking place on the courts. Its broadcasters were world class in painting word pictures that virtually put us at courtside as champions like Sedgman, Rosewall, Hoad, Emmerson, Newcombe, Roche and even the great Rod Laver himself played their way into tennis history.

These days of course the ABC coverage is long gone. Commercial television discovered that sport is popular with Australians and that the necessary stoppages in various sports provide an ideal opportunity to play the commercials that bring in the money.

This was made abundantly clear when the media mogul, Kerry Packer, decided he wanted to show live cricket matches on his Channel Nine. History tells us that he prised cricket coverage away from the ABC by getting most of Australia’s top cricketers to sign contracts to play in Channel Nine’s World Series Cricket. It was hard for them to resist Packer’s very tempting salary offers which were in marked contrast to the low pay that Cricket Australia paid its players. To get its best players back Cricket Australia disposed of the ABC's services and signed a lucrative contract with Packer's Channel Nine.

Having made his World Series concept a reality, one of the first thing Packer did was change the traditional eight ball Australian over to a six ball over. I am not sure why Australian bowlers always bowled eight balls in an over in comparison to bowlers everywhere else who only bowled six. For Packer, the move was elementary. If there were only six balls in an over, he could get his TV commercials played more frequently in a day than if they bowled eight ball overs.

And so, the influence of television on sport and the way that is played had begun. Now, besides Test cricket and Sheffield Shield cricket, we now have One Day Internationals and Twenty/20 cricket. In these two latter forms of the game, players wear coloured clothing, there are American style ground announcements, music and fireballs interspersed with the action. The two TV channels involved, 9 and 10, also now set up a player or two with a microphone so that the commentators can chat to them while the game is on. Like most player/commentator conversations, nothing of any real importance is discussed. Just a lot of breathless "Yes, Maaate." "No, Maaate." "The team played really well, maaate." "Well, we will just take it one game at a time, maaate." Rivetting stuff!

This summer, Channel Seven decided to jolly up its tennis commentary performance. Apart from having three commentators talking about what we all can see with our own eyes on the TV screen, they have also clambered aboard the microphoned player scenario. In fact, they have gone a few steps further.

In the APIA international Tournament in Sydney, many viewers were surprised to suddenly see the coach of French Open Champion, Garbine Marguruza, come and kneel in front of her during a game changeover. Marguruza sat staring fixedly into space as her coach reminded her that she had a great backhand. Then he told her she also had a great forehand. Margaruza continued to stare straight ahead, probably wondering why her coach thought she had forgotten that she had world class forehand and backhand strokes.

Many viewers were also nonplussed. Up until that point it had been an iron cast practice that in major tournaments, unlike the Davis Cup,  there could be no communication whatsoever between a player and coach during a match. Yet, here it was happening right in front of everyone at the game and thousands of home viewers.

And it wasn’t a one off occurrence. In subsequent matches, other coaches sat mouthing unnecessary advice to stony faced players. One of the strangest was when Australia’s rising star, from Russia, Daria Gavrilova, slumped into her chair on a game break. Her coach, no doubt under the direction of the Channel Seven TV Director, quickly came and squatted in front of her.

We all waited with baited breath to hear what words of wisdom and encouragement the coach would offer. He gazed at Gavrilova and said, “Is there any question that you want to ask me? Gavrilova continued to stare straight ahead.

She was probably too surprised or polite to say, “Why are you here, in the middle of my match, asking me stupid questions?”

But the epitome of stupidity went to an unknown Channel Seven reporter who went and sat alongside Australia’s newest tennis rising star, from Samoa, Destanee Aiava, as she took a brief break between sets. 

Destanee, who is only 16 and had just lost the first set, was looking tired and obviously needed to regroup and refocus. What she did not need was the intrusion of a nosey journalist. As Destanee tried to regain her breath, our interruptive, investigative journalist leaned in with his microphone and said to Destanee, “What is your mother saying to you?”

Destanee looked in disbelief at the supposedly intelligent man who had just asked the most inane sporting question of the decade. She replied, “You mean, right now?” 

The implication being that her mother was not there and was not saying anything. Blatantly obvious to everyone but the reporter.

Destanee was too polite to say, “Are you mad? My mother is sitting in the grandstand 80 meters from where I am sitting, where I am trying to refocus in the middle of an important match. Who let you onto the court? Get out of here.”

Well, we could all ask, “Who let you onto the court?” The answer, no doubt about it, is that Tennis Australia did, because Channel Seven pays the bills. If Channel Seven wants it, Channel Seven gets it.

It is a sad reflection on how commercial media is bending our much-loved sporting occasions into something which is often more about the commentators than the contest.

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