‘You cannot be serious.’ John McEnroe to the chair umpire at Wimbledon.
If you’re a tennis buff, it’s great to watch big time action on the box. The Australian Open, the first of the calendar Grand Slams, held us in thrall for a fortnight. Fear not, dear reader, I am not going to analyse in depth the playing styles of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic. Nor am I about to shed crocodile tears over Andy Murray’s early exit from the Open, presaging his even earlier exit from the game altogether. The knighted Scot has shed enough tears on the subject already. I have something different in mind. Tennis running commentary on television.
Allow me to explain. During my wide eyed teenage years, tennis commentary generally meant the BBC World Service radio during Wimbledon and Radio Australia at the Australian Open. In terms of time difference these two Grand Slams offered us maximum opportunity to sit glued to our wireless sets. The French Open should also have been convenient, but somehow we were never able to tune into Radio France. In the main, we heard wonderful experts like Max Robertson and Fred Perry (who won the Wimbledon title thrice in a row) bringing the game alive through their brilliant descriptive prowess. Their English was mellifluous and the commentary rivetting. Since we couldn’t actually see them, the greats like Laver, Rosewall, Gonzalez and Krishnan assumed larger-than-life proportions.
Times have changed. Today, we have high definition telecasts of all the tournaments brought to our homes. We are able to enjoy the artistry and athleticism of some of the greatest tennis exponents of our generation. At times there is an excess of high quality sport on the box, which can take away the edge from the keen anticipation one evinced in Spartan days of yore. The modern day game, played at a frenetic pace, has brought with it a new breed of television commentators. They speak in English but their vocabulary is totally different to the measured style of the radio commentators. In those days, the chair umpires invariably had a clipped, plummy English accent. ‘Second set to Laver, he leads two sets to love. New balls please.’ And the commentators would remain deathly silent when a rally was in progress. All you could hear was the metronomic, onomatopoeiac ‘pock’ of the ball, and a crescendo from the crowd as the commentator intones, ‘Rosewall’s backhand is a thing of poetry.’
I have been closely observing the new generation commentators, some of them ex-players like Mark Petchey and Robbie Koenig. Not exactly household names that roll off the tongue, but they talk the talk. They are the new millennium boys bringing the game to us in their own unique way. Phrases that one had never heard before are now the staple diet of the television tennis commentator. Here is a typical selection.
‘You’ve got to be kidding me’ - Said apoplectically, this phrase is frequently employed when a player essays an outrageously impossible shot, particularly after a gruelling rally. The aim is to convey to the viewer that such a shot cannot even be contemplated, but there it was.
‘Right back at ya’ - When Federer plays a brilliant backhand cross court winner, and a point later, Nadal does the exact same thing to Federer, the commentator screams, ‘Right back at ya’. Expressed more elegantly, ‘Whatever you can do, I can do better.’
‘Reflexes like a mongoose on amphetamines’ - For the life of me I do not know what that means, never having seen a drugged-out mongoose, but I have heard that phrase used when one of the modern day greats plays a miraculous shot, purely on a reflex action.
‘Slam dunk’ - A common enough term in basketball when Michael Jordan climbs over everyone else to thrust the ball into the net, the term has now entered the tennis lexicon. When a player essays a weak lob, and Djokovic jumps up and nails it for a winner, the commentator goes wild, ‘It’s a slam dunk.’
‘Get out of here’ - A variant of ‘You’re kidding me’, it also means that the commentator can’t believe he played that shot.
‘You gotta love this’ - When normal words fail the tongue-tied commentator over a particularly piquant moment, like Murray shedding tears of joy or sorrow, or the Williams sisters hugging and crying over each other’s shoulders.
‘Trying to be too cute’- When someone tries to needlessly play a delicate drop shot from the baseline and fails to clear the net.
‘That was a bazooka’ - When Del Potro fires a vicious forehand cross court almost decapitating his opponent’s head.
‘Picked up from his shoelaces’ - When the ball comes straight at a player’s feet, almost yorking him, and he manages to half volley it back in play.
‘Caught at first slip’ - Australian and English commentators know their cricket, and use this term when the ball flies off the racket frame towards the ball boy standing around the 11o’clock, first slip position. At times the ball boy actually catches it and the crowd roars its approval.
One is also impressed when commentators wax lyrical about the ‘racket head being in front’, ‘Novak stretching like a yoga master’, ‘a naughty double fault from Sharapova’, ‘Nadal is really pumped’ and so on. Some amusing asides. Players apologising over a net cord winner is a laugh. They certainly don’t mean it, but will raise their racket anyway indicating regret. Birds dropping their bowels’ detritus, stopping play for the clean-up job. Indian players may not be making much of a mark but proud to see IT major Infosys handling all the data churning, graphic innovations like ‘Win Predictor’ and detailed statistical analysis of the games.
The hyperventilating Vijay Amritraj is missing in action, though I preferred his backhand to his spoken word. In sum, watching tennis on television is great fun, but I do miss the hushed radio silences amidst the dulcet tones, ‘Game, set and match to Newcombe.’