Mon, Jun 21, 2004 - Page 19 News List

ESPN's coverage lacks balance for American viewers

By Karen Crouse  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , WIMBLEDON, ENGLAND

There are underground tunnels running the length of the All England Club. They are beehives of activity that the average Wimbledon ticketholder is wholly unaware of.

The US television coverage of Wimbledon reminds me of those tunnels. There's so much going on right under ESPN's camera lenses that the US viewer sadly will never see.

ESPN -- it might as well stand for Extremely Sectarian and Parochial Network -- is providing blanket coverage of the tournament, its idea of a blanket being the Stars and Stripes.

The cable network is committed to showing all Americans, most of the time. In a conference call with reporters the other day, an ESPN spokesman unabashedly acknowledged as much, touting the upcoming fortnight of tennis as if provincialism is next to professionalism.

Patrick McEnroe, one of the commentators ESPN employs, is able to see the pageantry for all the flag waving even if his bosses can't.

"You're looking to find the right balance," he said, "between showing the Americans and [showing] great tennis, which is what people want to see."

Amen, brother. If the ESPN suits think their viewers would prefer a US player's rout over a riveting match involving non-Americans, they're sorely underestimating the sophistication of their audience.

Xenophobia is an infectious disease and ESPN is a carrier. US sports fans are like Pavlov's dog. They've been conditioned to perk up at the sight of Serena and Venus Williams or Andy Roddick because that's pretty much all they're treated to.

US sports fans need reprogramming, not the same old programming.

Trust me. You could watch Roger Federer, the Swiss Mister, hit forehands until the cows come home. And it never gets old following Tim Henman's quixotic quest to raise the echoes at the All England Club.

Henman has advanced at least as far as the quarterfinals in seven of his 10 Wimbledons, a feat that's all the more amazing when you consider he's carrying all of England on his back. A layer of angst settles over London like a fog this time of year, owing to the fact that no British man has won Wimbledon since Fred Perry in 1936.

Imagine the scrutiny that Chris Webber faces every postseason, being the most recognizable face on the only big-league team in town, and you have an inkling of what it's like to be Henman during Wimbledon.

"Every single move he makes is talked about ad nauseam," marveled McEnroe. "He's got so much pressure on him. He handles it well."

The Brits are famously fatalistic, which explains why, as Henman marched to the semifinals at the French Open earlier this month, his countrymen's joy was tempered by a nagging fear that Henman's run on the clay of Roland Garros was cutting into his preparation for Wimbledon's grass courts.

Fact or farce? I'd say stay tuned but, well, you know.

There are 29 US players (20 women, nine men) in the tournament and many more interesting stories. Indeed, you could grow tired of the strawberries before you do the storylines as long as you're not particular about passports.

There's Russian Marat Safin's spontaneity. South African Wayne Ferreira's constancy. Croatian Goran Ivanisevic's swan song. Frenchwoman Amelie Mauresmo's elegance. Indian Leander Paes' pluck. The list is longer than England's Wimbledon title drought.

Hall of Famer Chris Evert will tell you Safin, who's given to histrionics, is the best thing for tennis since cotton briefs.

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