Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Watching the Pros Do Work: The Outer Courts Visit the Booth

Your Outer Courts bloggers with the great Ian Eagle

Being a blogger has its advantages. What you wear rarely matters (unless Tennis Channel decides to do a surprise feature on you and zoom in on your feet in HD...), you are able to take a detached look at the proceedings while feeding your audience's passion for snark and you aren't under the pressure of deadlines or editors trying to hold down your brilliance with antiquated notions like "journalism" or "grammar." However occasionally one wants to connect to their inner mainstream Jim Nantz. We all have a part of us that yearns to be a true professional and it is with that mindset that we visited the Tennis Channel booth to watch the experts call a match. The invitation was given to us by the great Ian Eagle, the epitome of professionalism, a master of his craft and a surprisingly hilarious person with a dry sense of humor that rivals a young Larry David with hair. He is a fan of "The Outer Courts" and he said we were welcome to watch he and Lindsay Davenport commentate the Maria Sharapova-Sloane Stephens match in the booth, so long as we didn't break anything or make sounds that could be audible over the airwaves. We agreed and the magic was allowed to happen.

When we bid farewell to old Kentucky, the place where we were born and raised, it was not without any experience in the area of television. We make appearances on a local television network there and have been fortunate to be around newscasts and sports reports for the last few years. But when one thinks about national television and the glamorous world of the ATP/WTA Tennis Tours, visions of pomp and circumstance immediately come to mind. This would not be me standing in the middle of a Lexington television studio talking about John Calipari, wearing a jacket, tie and khaki shorts. No, this would have the feel of  a luxurious event with all the accoutrement that accompanies stars of the sporting world on the Eagle/Davenport level. Thus walking into the Tennis Channel booth, I was surprised to see it look like this:

What I imagined in my head to be a palace of luxury was actually a room resembling a small closet, with five chairs, one desk, multiple sheets of paper stuck to the walls with masking tape and four empty water bottles. It had all the necessary technology, multiple monitors, a computer with stats and the required cough button, but as far as any add-ons for comfort or excitement, it was bare. My dreams of tennis matches past, with Bud Collins and John McEnroe receiving neck massages while being fed grapes during an Agassi-Sampras battle, were quickly diffused by the sight of Ian Eagle trying to such the remaining drops of backwash out of his depleted water bottle. Drew and I sat down to observe (in some nice outdoor patio furniture) and began to take notes of what was an impressive display. As the match began, we saw that Davenport did a good deal of communicating with the producer in the truck, suggesting camera angles, letting the technical people know who individuals were of note in the crowd and giving hints as to points she would like to make after a particular rally. Ian Eagle showed that he is a pro's pro, calling the match flawlessly, while coming up with random statistics (clearly based on research he had done beforehand) and keeping the commentary flowing. It truly is an art to be able to be a play by play person for any sport and Eagle is able to do it across a multitude of platforms including NFL Football, NBA basketball and college basketball. The fact that he also throws in tennis, a sport with little on the surface in common with the others is even more impressive. The first few games, I sat in awe of him and his ability to go through the notes on Stephens and Sharapova, while also setting Davenport up to make her expert comments on the technical part of the play. If one ever wanted to feel inadequate at their knowledge or broadcasting ability, watch Ian is quite the impressive display.

After a few games, my view changed (Justin Gimelstob walked in and...I am not kidding here...had to get on the computer to do what looked as if it were homework and an exam of some sort. I am not sure what it was, but Gimelstob was attacking it intently) and I ended up standing behind the twosome. One thing became increasingly clear...there is a great deal of silence in tennis announcing.  When I have watched on television, I am not sure that I realized just how much time is spent letting the sounds and visuals of the match take over. I come from the worlds of basketball and football, where every single moment of silence is engulfed by the chatter of announcers who seem to get paid by the word. But the tennis commentary of Eagle and Davenport was almost elegant, gliding through the match and allowing the visuals to tell stories that they need not. It was slightly, dare I say it, artistic and again is a testament to how good both of the two are at finding the right moment in which to interject. The fact that the two have good chemistry, like to needle each other (again, Eagle is hilarious) and clearly enjoy working together only increases their communicative ability. And without the distraction of anything resembling snacks or comfort in the booth, their focus can be intently on the strong product they produce.

The above may sound like a shill for the company's product (ok it "may" not sound like it, it does sound like it), but I honestly truly believe every word. Everyone from Tennis Channel puts a ton of work into making the telecast you see on television, and watching that come to fruition up close was fascinating. While I may still give Ian a hard time about his suit, company haircut and professional glasses, watching him do his job is a must for anyone who wants to be in this business. He is as good as it gets and when combined with a partner with the knowledge level of Davenport, you can see why the broadcasts from the Two Direction Open have been so strong.

(And by the way, I really feel like too much of a company man right now...I need to go out and photoshop Gimelstob's head on a picture of Justin Beiber now to reconnect with my rebellious self).