A Few Minutes with Tennis Channel’s Ted Robinson: “Sometimes winning is measured by giving everything you have at 3 a.m. …”

International Blog – Michael Dickens

Ted Robinson calls a variety of sports each year, including American professional and collegiate football and college basketball, on both cable and network TV and radio. Every two years, he serves as an NBC Sports Olympics play-by-play broadcaster, commenting on a variety of sports such as short-track speed skating, springboard and platform diving, tennis and baseball. However, for many American sports fans on a national level, he’s most identified for his body of work as a tennis play-by-play commentator.

Since 2000, Robinson has anchored NBC’s tennis coverage. He’s called every French Open final alongside John McEnroe and Mary Carrillo since 2000, as well as the Wimbledon Championships from 2000-11. He was also the prime time host of the U.S. Open on USA Network for 22 years.

Robinson, 61, a New York native who resides near San Francisco, also anchors tennis broadcasts for Tennis Channel throughout the year, a position he’s held since 2007. It was in his capacity of hosting Tennis Channel’s night-time coverage of the recent ATP 500 Citi Open in Washington, D.C., televised to a mostly North American audience, that Robinson found himself perched inside the Stadium court broadcast booth at the Rock Creek Park Tennis Center in the early hours of August 3rd, commenting on Andy Murray’s third-round match against Darius Copil. He shared the call of the match with Hall of Famer Jim Courier.

Because of heavy rain, which delayed play on Stadium court by more than four hours, the Murray-Copil match didn’t begin until nearly midnight on Thursday, August 2nd. It was just Murray’s third competition since beginning his comeback from January hip surgery and his third Citi Open match in four days – and, as it happened, the Murray-Copil match didn’t end until 3:01 a.m. early Friday morning after three hard-fought sets by both players. Robinson remained focused throughout the broadcast and stayed on the air with Courier until after both players had exited the Stadium court to the applause of a hundred or so spectators who stayed to the very end, too.

Two days later, an hour before it was time for Robinson to call the Citi Open final between Alexander Zverev and Alex De Minaur, he sat down with me in the players’ dining hall for a 20-minute conversation. He re-lived commenting on Murray’s emotional match and how he handled the complexity of the moment by remaining silent for a solid 90 seconds once Murray began sobbing tears into a towel while seated at his bench after he won, letting the pictures and sound tell the story. Robinson also shared with me how he got his start in tennis broadcasting and what his relationship with tennis great and broadcast sidekick John McEnroe has meant to him. He described why the epic Federer-Nadal Wimbledon 2008 final remains the best tennis match he’s ever called 10 years after it was played. Finally, he spoke about how Tennis Channel is changing the landscape of tennis broadcasting in the U.S. as it attempts to reach larger audiences.

What do you remember most about Andy Murray’s match against Darius Copil that started at midnight on a Thursday night and lasted until 3:01 a.m. Friday morning?

“I’m used to late nights from all of my years at the U.S. Open, but this late? Never. I think the only time a match that we know of that had finished later than this one was at the (2008) Australian Open (between Lleyton Hewitt and Marcos Baghdatis) that lasted until (nearly) 5 a.m. It was quite a match.

“Honestly, it got to the point where I wasn’t really thinking about the hour as much as I was of the dynamic of Murray having not played much and coming back from his injury and his surgery – and how having to play yet another long match, coming from behind and, probably, mostly in the third set, it amazed me that he was putting the effort out. He could have easily, after losing a 5-0 lead, drop the first tie-break. I though, OK, he could put out an effort in the second set, just cash it in, and move on to Toronto. The fact that he didn’t do that, just to me, is admirable.

“It is a lot of what we saw during the years of great late night matches at the Open. There’s something about that environment that’s unusual. To play that late at night brings out a special competitiveness in players. That’s what we saw, why Murray’s a champ. He didn’t pack it in at all, and of course, the emotion at the end was unprecedented. I’ve never seen that. I don’t I’ve ever seen that in any sport, and it’s a point to really what the genesis of that reaction was. Everyone was asking. Everyone has theories. Andy is the only one who can know for sure.”

As a broadcaster, do you just sit back and let the pictures tell the story? You maintained quiet for 90 seconds after Murray sat down and began crying into his towel before you broke your silence.

“Yes, I think all of my years of training probably paid off, in being taught by people – most notably Dick  Ebersol (former chairman of NBC Sports) – about how to handle those kind of moments. We don’t speculate; we’re not mind readers. We don’t speculate about injuries and health; we’re not doctors. … I’ll talk about or report, if it’s radio, what I see – but not what I think. So, the scenario here, everyone could see what was happening to Murray. But why? We could not even imagine to guess. I know we punctuated it. I said to Jim Courier that ‘winning is more than just being measured by championships. It’s about putting your heart out there at 3 a.m. in the third round of a regular tour match.’ And Jim said ‘winning is not just getting back on court.’ I think the blend of those two thoughts was the proper way to catch the moment. I’m sure, everyone has all kinds of theories about why he broke down. Maybe, some day I’m sure, Andy will talk to the BBC and address the moment.”

How did this rank with some of the other tennis broadcast moments you’ve done? After all, you called many Wimbledon and French Open finals, including Federer-Nadal in 2008, from which the book and documentary “Strokes of Genius” were written and produced?

“This was different because it wasn’t as much about tennis as it was about the human condition. It was a third-round match in a regular-season tour event. It wasn’t a championship match. Andy’s reaction compels us to put the moment in a much higher plateau. That’s what we’re all wondering about. So, the last question to it is: There were tears, and it was tears of ‘blank.’ Were they tears of joy? Were they tears of exhaustion? Were they tears of satisfaction? Were they tears of reality? Honestly, I don’t know. That’s why I won’t go there (to speculate). That’s really like playing the old ‘Match Game’ with Gene Rayburn. ‘Andy Murray broke down in his chair and he cried tears of blank.’ We just don’t know what the ‘blank’ is.”

I found it interesting that Murray said during a Citi Open press conference that he’s more interested and concerned with his health now than his world ranking. Why?

“I think anyone who has young kids would agree. He wants to be able to play with his kids. He wants to hit tennis balls with his kids, kick some soccer balls. I’m sure that’s what he’s thinking.

“It’s going to be a moment that will be re-lived and I hope Tennis Channel re-lives it for a long time. It’s a very powerful moment and it speaks to … you needed to be there at 3 a.m. to experience it.”

Speaking of the Federer-Nadal 2008 Wimbledon final, is that the best or most compelling match you’ve ever called?

“Yes, it inspired ‘Strokes of Genius.’ It will never be replicated for rivalry, stakes, drama and setting. There were multiple rain delays, darkness, looming curfew … all on the sport’s greatest stage.”

Robinson also noted some runners-up that he’s broadcast: Venus Williams-Lindsay Davenport, Wimbledon final 2005; Andre Agassi-Pete Sampras, U.S. Open quarterfinals 2001, “four tie-break sets and (the) Ashe (Stadium crowd) gave them a standing ‘O’ before the fourth tie-break began; Jennifer Capriati-Justine Henin, U.S. Open semifinals 2003.

You’ve broadcast a variety of sports, including baseball, basketball, football, the Olympic Games. How did you get started broadcasting tennis?

“When Dick Enberg (longtime NBC tennis commentator) decided to move to CBS, NBC’s tennis producer reached out to gauge my interest. He had watched the U.S. Open frequently. And to further my cause, John McEnroe went to bat for me with Dick Ebersol. That’s a debt I can never repay!

“I started with NBC in 2000, worked Wimbledon through 2011, and just finished my 19th French Open for them.

“Tennis Channel started through a connection with Larry Meyers, their executive producer. I began on some Davis Cup ties and then some Legends/Seniors events. As I had left baseball, my availability for Tennis Channel increased. They have welcomed me with more work each year. No surprise – they are essential for the sport!”

How does commenting on live matches on site, such as at the Citi Open in Washington, D.C., compare with sitting in Tennis Channel’s Los Angeles studios doing “live” broadcasts remotely?

“The number of events that we go to and do live presentations is what we’re all doing this for. To come and spend a week here and be able to interact with the players, the coaches, the officials, the trainers … that’s what’s important. At some point, we will reduce that. That will be the one trade off. The reality is that finances will dictate not just Tennis Channel but many channels that broadcast sports. Tennis Channel was actually at the front end of this.

“My 11-or-so years of working for Tennis Channel, we’ve been calling matches from our studios in Los Angeles quite a bit because it’s financially reasonable. It’s already bled into other sports on other networks – and it will continue. But this is the thing … you can’t replace the personal touch and interaction, being here where the players see you, the players know you, they come sit at the desk with Justin (Gimelstob) all week – and Justin knows them. We do it here, we do it in Charleston (South Carolina), Houston, Indian Wells, and, of course, the four majors.”

Speaking of Justin Gimelstob (former tour professional turned Tennis Channel analyst and part-time coach of John Isner), what’s it like working with him?

“Justin is crazy smart. His match analysis is outstanding. I think he’s outstanding.”

How do you interact with each of your tennis broadcast partners, such as John McEnroe, Mary Carrillo and Jim Courier? Do you prepare differently based upon who you are paired with?

“Everybody knows it’s no secret that John McEnroe has been the most important part of my tennis broadcasting career. I wouldn’t have had the chance to call Wimbledon or the French Open for NBC without his support. Gosh, I’ve called tennis 25 years with him – and John’s a friend. He’s a friend. He knows my family, I know his family. I’ve been to his home, he’s been to my home. That’s special. I have a different level of appreciation for him.

“John is simply one of the great analysts across any sport that I’ve worked in. Without question, he ranks up with the best. We’ve had a special relationship. I say this a lot, but I really mean it – and all of the names you’ve mentioned are all champions. Jim (Courier), Lindsay (Davenport), Chrissie (Evert), Martina (Navratilova), Tracy (Austin). I worked with Chrissie my first three years with NBC. Martina, Tracy and Lindsay here (with Tennis Channel) and Jim at USA Network and Tennis Channel. There’s no other sport where the greatest champions who played the sport … almost all of them are commentators. That’s extraordinary! John has a special place because of the length of time we’ve been together and our friendship. That can’t be duplicated.”

Now that NBC no longer has the contract to broadcast Wimbledon, do you miss it?

“I went back to Wimbledon with Tennis Channel this year for the first time since the 2012 London Olympics, and I understood how much I missed it, how great it is. It’s very special. When you go back, you recognize it’s the one place that everyone has played the sport; the championship everyone dreams of winning no matter where they grew up or what surface they learned to play on. They want to win Wimbledon. The surface is now the outlier. There’s few tournaments played on grass, there’s fewer grass courts in America. I’ve never played on a grass court, have you?”

How did Tennis Channel approach its Wimbledon coverage differently from ESPN’s, aside from the fact that all of the matches it aired were on tape?

“A lot of the matches Tennis Channel was airing from Wimbledon were in the hours that people could watch them – and that was our strength. If you missed the live presentation on ESPN, you have a chance to watch it on Tennis Channel in more human hours. Tennis Channel just started doing this last year and I think it’s a very good service for the viewer, especially if you live in California, where live tennis is over by noon. Now, I get home at 4 o’clock in the afternoon and I didn’t see the Nadal match today … put on Tennis Channel and there’s a pretty good shot we’re going to have it on.”

Will you go to the U.S. Open this year?

“No, I don’t go to the Open any longer because of my broadcast commitments with football.” (Robinson is the radio play-by-play voice of the San Francisco 49ers). “Also, the way that television has changed there. Tennis Channel doesn’t call matches there any longer at the U.S. Open. I went back there a couple of years ago for Tennis Channel during the middle weekend, when ESPN would do its Bowling Green-Southern Mississippi football game (on Saturday night) instead of the Open. Those days are over.”

In addition to calling tennis, you also have broadcast baseball, basketball, football and Olympic sports such as springboard and platform diving and short-track speed skating. Do you have a favorite?

“That answer has changed a lot over the years. I used to think baseball, but I would say more now that I really appreciate the Olympics. The more I’ve done the Olympics, the more that I appreciate it. There’s something special about the Olympics. As corny as it sounds, having the world come together in relative peace every other year for two weeks is special. Wimbledon is special and I do love the atmosphere around college football. I enjoy going to stadiums. I enjoy the atmosphere of college football, the passion. College sports comes from the heart, whereas pro sports is more often from the head.”