Tennis Commentators Power Rankings
By David Zakhodin
As the 2017 tennis season finds itself in a bit of a lull following the conclusion of an epic Australian Open, it only seems fitting to avert our attention toward those who make a living outside the confines of the tennis court. For a long time, tennis viewers have debated both in person and over social media the merit and quality of the announcers and commentators who bring tennis right into our living room. Not only do we love to criticize many of these individuals, but we even sometimes blame them for the outcomes of matches. Below is a comprehensive Power Rankings list of the men and women whom we constantly deal with when watching tennis coverage on ESPN, TennisChannel, and other affiliate networks.
THE ABSOLUTE MEDIOCRITY CLUB
- Patrick McEnroe (ESPN): Coming in atop the rankings of the mediocrity club is the lesser of the McEnroe brothers. It is without question that Patrick is knowledgeable about the game of tennis and has the pedigree to be calling Slam finals. However, I’m often confused as to what he has to contribute to the actual telecast. First and foremost, his problem is that his only signature commentary comes in scenarios of extraordinary shot-making when he just yells “Oh, Hello!” As much as we’ve come to appreciate that show of excitement, does this really enhance the analysis of the miraculous Rafa banana passing shot or the Federer passing shot tweener? Now, in addition to Patrick’s strange reactions to players’ talent level, I can never take it seriously when he talks about the state of American tennis. Every time he opens his mouth and starts the discussion about Next Generation stars coming out of the American ranks, I can’t get past the fact that he miserably failed as the head of USTA Player Development. All in all, Patrick seems like a really good guy who just never reached the top 20 of the professional ranks and was one of those cases where Touch of Gray went wrong. I’m sure he’ll respond with “Hello” when I send him the link to this piece on Twitter.
2. Bill Macatee (TennisChannel): When I think of Bill Macatee, I feel like he’s sitting on some fancy porch in the 13th arrondissement of Paris with the backdrop of the Seine River and Eiffel Tower. It’s time for French Open Tonight! A not-so-successful French Open recap show that seems to feature more wine bottles than actual men’s tennis matches headed by Bill Macatee, the ageless wonder. I’m not sure if he’s trying to give Bob Costas a run for his money, but how much Rogaine and Touch of Gray do you have to use to not have any gray hair at age 62? Aside from Macatee’s young appearance, the guy seems to be a very versatile commentator. He does some NFL football for CBS as well as PGA Tour Golf, but he really shines when the lights are brightest on TennisChannel replays of the previous day’s tennis coverage. More specifically, he seems to love cozying up next to Martina Navratilova in the booth to call women’s matches. His voice is very powerful, but I feel like his only purpose is to just be there. He doesn’t add any value to a broadcast, and I don’t see how his tennis work differs from what he does in football or golf. In September he at least gets to present the Wannamaker Trophy to the winner of the PGA Championship, but in a tennis context he is no longer that relevant. Maybe it all started with the cancellation of French Open Tonight… not sure how much free wine they would have had to provide to Macatee to make that show worth watching.
3. Ted Robinson (TennisChannel, NBC): Ted Robinson is probably one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet, coming from someone who has never met him. His voice is very warming and full of love and passion for tennis when he calls matches. Whether it be the French Open Final on NBC or an American Davis Cup match in dumps like Birmingham, Alabama or Hoffman Estates, Illinois on Tennis Channel, Ted will have the call. Whether Rafa is falling on his back at Roland Garros or John Isner is hitting a backhand into the bottom of the net on a Davis Cup court. Ted, keep doing what you’re doing because you’ve been a tennis lifer, and we cannot wait to keep hearing your enthusiastic calls as long as awful NBC continues covering the last rounds of the French Open.
4. Chris Evert (ESPN): Chris Evert has had it pretty rough of late. Not only does it seem that Chris’ appearances on Grand Slam telecasts have decreased recently, but her favorite player in Maria Sharapova has been out of action for more than a year. Before, Chrissy took pride in two things: her illustrious rivalry with Martina Navratilova and the fact that she picked Maria Sharapova to win every tournament. With the Navratilova narrative getting a bit old and the Sharapova storyline stale thanks to meldonium, Chrissy has been a bit quiet of late. But expect her to be locked in and ready to go for the two hours that ESPN covers the French Open when Sharapova returns this May.
THE WORST OF THE WORST
- Mary Carillo (TennisChannel, NBC): I remember the day several years ago when it was announced that Mary Carrillo was no longer going to be doing ESPN commentary for TennisChannel. I, along with many other tennis fans, could not have been more thrilled not to have to hear her analysis anymore. But fear not, she had a resurgence on TennisChannel and NBC. I don’t have anything personally against Mary, but everything she says is the epitome of pointless. Not only does she make mistakes and talk at inopportune times of matches, but she brings up the same irrelevant stories over, and over, and over again. How many times has she uttered the phrase “Venus and her kid sister Serena?” It’s 2017! This isn’t the 1998 Australian Open during their first meeting when they were both teenagers. To top it all off, The Fan’s Country Club’s anonymous sources once met Mary Carillo’s cousin at a Chili’s in the Miami airport and were told firsthand that she has no idea what she’s doing when she’s in that commentary booth. The fact that she’s been a part of so many epic finals on NBC is simply a disservice to the sport of tennis.
2. Justin Gimelstob (TennisChannel): Justin Gimelstob, or the President of the 1-man John Isner Fan Club as I like to call him, is another absolute gem. He’s like that kid you knew in your third grade class who would always raise his hand to participate, but it would take him three full minutes to actually make a point and say what he wanted to say. I think even that characterization may be giving Gimelstob too much credit for the work he does on TV. He talks all day about tennis, and I respect his passion for the game considering the shortcomings of his professional career. However, it just pains me to see the kind of homer he is for American tennis, especially when you think of how much of a letdown American tennis has been for the last decade. Gimelstob makes awful predictions, hogs up the airtime of other commentators I like such as Paul Annacone, and just needs to set a word limit on the amount of B.S. that comes out of his mouth every time he’s on TV.
3. Pam Shriver (ESPN): There’s not much good to say about Pam Shriver. She was once the lead women’s commentator for all the finals that ESPN broadcasted. Now, she has been relegated to either uncomfortable Spanglish interviews with Uncle Toni at the U.S. Open or she’s sitting on Court 17 at the Australian Open with a bucket hat on in 120-degree heat watching a first round debacle between two unranked players. How the mighty have fallen…
4. Chris McKendry (ESPN): Why is she there…? I can understand when ESPN brought in a popular guy like Mike Tirico to do some tennis matches, but Chris McKendry hardly knows the difference between a forehand and a backhand. I’m sure if you flash back five years, she was one of those SportsCenter hosts who would be doing late night tennis highlights and say that a return sailed out of control when in reality the highlight was of a passing shot winner. She doesn’t know how to pronounce the last names of any Eastern European players, and she just seems like a placeholder in the studio set. I wish Chris Fowler hadn’t gotten promoted to actual matches, would have been nice to still have him running the show in the studio. The difference is that Rece Davis took over for him in college football and has been outstanding whereas Chris McKendry took over in tennis and has been not-so-outstanding.
5. Darren Cahill (ESPN): Alright, for Cahill things are pretty simple. He needs to make a decision: either pour your heart and soul into ESPN tennis or coach Simona Halep. Make up your mind, dude! Can’t be stuck halfway in between both of these endeavors. Simona has been losing early pretty often of late, and Cahill has been taking a lot of L’s from fans regarding his commentating. I get that the guy is super knowledgeable about tennis, but I prefer when he’s courtside and all he talks about is the breeze and the minimal effect it has on the outcome of a match. When he’s in the booth, it’s like opening up a Pandora’s Box. You never what he’s going to say to jinx the player you’re rooting for. I’m a strong believer in the commentator’s curse, and when it comes to that curse, this guy is the devil. I don’t know how many times he’s jinxed Federer in a big match; I’ve lost count.
6. Martina Navratilova (TennisChannel): If you want to see Martina at her best as a commentator, you have to find a time when she’s commentating a Svetlana Kuznetsova match. I don’t know what her obsession is with Kuznetsova, but it’s just as apparent as Chris Evert’s obsession with Sharapova. How fitting that these two rivals are both fascinated by two rival Russian tennis players. For Martina’s commentating prowess, it’s probably not ideal that she’s been often paired with Justin “Let’s Go John Isner!” Gimelstob and Bill “Give Me More French Open Tonight Sauvignon Blanc” Macatee. However, with Kuznetsova back in contention for Grand Slams on the women’s side, expect Martina’s level of excitement to be at an all-time high (even higher than when she won her own Slams) coming up. The issue I have with her commentary is that there’s absolutely no energy or excitement. Maybe it wasn’t quite as monotonous as the first TFCC Podcast, but she really needs to work on getting up for the many matches that don’t involve Kuznetsova.
THE SCRUB CLUB
- Cliff Drysdale (ESPN): It’s no secret that everybody loves Cliffy. The South African legend has long been a staple of ESPN tennis coverage but has recently been relegated to a very minimal role. I’m not sure if it’s because of his age or because the over/under for him saying something false during the course of a match is at 20, but he used to be the man. Whether it was being the guy who called all the Grand Slam finals following the exit of Dick Enberg or the guy with the coolest accent on ESPN, Drysdale was always the man. He had his clay court tennis academy down south where he charged over $200 for a private lesson, according to unnamed sources, and he was the king of the ESPN freeze frame. Before all the dumb Voya Financial trackers and Fidelity shot selection features, Drysdale would always (and still does) compare the strokes of two players side-by-side and give the casual fan a description as to what was going on. Cliff Drysdale may be headed toward retirement, but his good work at ESPN will always be remembered.
2. Lindsay Davenport (TennisChannel): I have nothing constructive to say about Lindsay Davenport’s commentary about tennis. She’s famous, and she’s just there in the TennisChannel studio. However, can we please tell someone behind the scenes at TennisChannel to up her energy level. I don’t know if she only gets excited for the Madison Keys matches, but her analysis of the matches is so bland sometimes that it’s almost as if she just rolled out of bed.
3. Steve Weissman (TennisChannel): There’s a pretty good chance that very few of you know who Steve Weissman is. He’s relatively new on TennisChannel and used to work at SportsCenter. Here’s all you need to know: he’s not very good at tennis commentary. He has recently taken on a bigger role commentating matches from the LA studio for TennisChannel’s “Center Court” broadcast of international tournaments, and he hasn’t been doing too great of a job. For example, during the Brisbane event this past January, instead of talking about an actually interesting match between young American Ernesto Escobedo and young Brit Kyle Edmund, Weissman talked about how he sucks at tennis and needs more coaching on his backhand. Great hire, TennisChannel!
4. Jim Courier (TennisChannel, 7 Australia): Jim Courier’s voice does seem very calming when he’s up in the booth, but I can never take him seriously. Maybe it’s because Jim takes himself way too seriously. Instead of being like every normal Davis Cup coach, he wears a suit and tie to clay court rubbers and sits on those filthy couches in his nicest clothes. I don’t know if he’s trying to channel his inner Steve Kerr, but he’s clearly not having the same rate of success in Davis Cup tennis with the Americans as the Warriors are in the NBA. Then, best of all, he’s the post-match on-court interview guy for Channel 7 Sport Australia. Why the hell does Australia have an American guy doing this? Are they reciprocating the fact that Darren Cahill gets some courtside post-match interviews after U.S. Open night sessions? To Courier’s credit, he does ask some funny questions to the top guys but rubs off as a little too cocky in the process. Seems like the ultimate definition of a scrub to me.
5. Leif Shiras & Jimmy Arias (TennisChannel): These two are sliding into the Scrub Club like a tag team. What a squad! You’ve got to respect guys who get up for the most boring 250 events in America, tournaments like Memphis, Houston, and Delray Beach. Whether they’re talking about how Jimmy Arias used to go nuts on the court back in his day or sitting in the luxury car in the corner of the court praying they don’t get smacked by another John Isner or Kevin Anderson ace, these guys are scrub central. Sometimes they’ve even been sent down to the minors to be commentators for the Champions Series events. Talk about a demotion.
6. Jeff Tarango (ESPN3): If you didn’t think ESPN3 would make an appearance in these Power Rankings, I didn’t think it would either. But Jeff Tarango gets pumped up for Grand Slam matches on the outer courts like no other. Whether it be continually ripping the umpires on the courts without the challenge system (a little personal connection there) or scolding players like Ernests Gulbis who don’t seem to care one bit about the tennis match they’re playing, Tarango is on top of it. I think his ultimate dream is to call the next match when a male player does the same thing he did at Wimbledon however many years ago and abandons the match for some outrageous reason. His tennis insights are minimal; I haven’t seen him on TV a single time since TennisChannel stopped doing its one-minute-clinics, but here he is doing a free ad for mixed doubles. Fortunately for Tarango, he’s not nearly the scrub that the final guy in this club is.
7. Doug Adler (Formerly of ESPN3 and TennisChannel): Coming into the Scrub Club like a stealth guerrilla force (too soon?) is Doug Adler who has always been known for making some rather uneducated remarks on air. Most recently, he referred to Venus Williams as employing either guerrilla or gorilla tactics at this year’s Australian Open, was removed from the telecast, and fired. Now, as any discouraged American would, Adler is suing ESPN for their actions. I don’t know if he’ll get some cash from this, but he doesn’t seem like the sharpest tool in the shed. Congrats, Doug! You’ll always be remembered as “that guy” who somehow managed to screw up on an ESPN3 women’s match that was probably being watched by 50–70 people.
A Scrub Club Honorable Mention goes out to Tracy Austin (TennisChannel) who appears often enough to be noticed but not often enough to have an impact on this Power Rankings post. This section about her was almost as short as her tennis career. Maybe she will have more time in the booth now that she no longer lurks around her son’s USTA tournaments.
THE BEST OF THE BEST: Counting down to the Iron Throne of Tennis Commentary
8. Brett Haber (TennisChannel): Many, including myself, thought Brett Haber was going to be another bust when he joined TennisChannel in a prominent host role. However, he has been nothing but solid. Haber gained a strong reputation for anchoring TennisChannel’s extended coverage of both the BNP Paribas Open and the Miami Open. Since then, he has taken on a very strong role and done a great job in the commentary booth with a guy like Paul Annacone. Look for Brett to become an even bigger presence at TennisChannel moving forward.
7. Mary Joe Fernandez (ESPN): Mary Joe has been nothing but a star for ESPN tennis. Even though she is mostly doing women’s matches, I’ve always enjoyed the way she analyzes the game. As a successful former player, she has great insight and makes the late rounds of Grand Slam women’s tennis interesting to watch. In addition to being on ESPN, Mary Joe was the longtime USA Fed Cup captain and a hell of a lot more successful than her scrub counterpart Courier. If only she hadn’t chosen to leave at the end of 2016, maybe the USTA would have played the right version of the German national anthem at last week’s competition.
6. Brad Gilbert (ESPN): Arguably the most polarizing commentator out there, Brad Gilbert has made his way into my Best of the Best club. While some may want him in the Worst of the Worst category, I think his energy is too good to be ignored. If you put aside the clown show that is made up of all his nicknames and check breakdowns, Brad actually gets it. Unlike Gimelstob, to whom he has often been compared side by side, Gilbert knows the game and isn’t just a homer for the American guys. He does great interviews with the players when given an opportunity and has had a great deal of success in tennis as a player, coach, and writer. Maybe he should write a book called “Commentating Ugly” because his style is very unorthodox, comes off the wrong way sometimes, but still makes us laugh. BG is good at what he does, is always present on Twitter, and is going to continue making tennis exciting for many years to come.
5. Jason Goodall (ESPN, TennisChannel/Tennis TV): Jason Goodall only recently started working with ESPN by doing some small statistical-based analyses of various players. Since then, the Brit has come into the forefront of ESPN tennis coverage in a much meaningful way. He has covered more matches and officially mastered what is known as the Voya Financial Tracker where a bunch of orange and green dots show up on the TV screen and show how well a certain player dictates the point. Jason’s claim to fame was that he was very successful with another commentator further down on this list as a part of the Tennis TV crew that covers the Masters 1000 event. His distinct accent and strong command of the game has enabled him to not only become popular but to be a very successful addition to the ESPN tennis coverage.
4. John McEnroe (ESPN, NBC): Since taking on a full-time role at ESPN as a tennis commentator, John McEnroe has been at all the big matches. I hesitate to use this phrase since its misconception has led to the downfall of American politics, but John indeed “tells it like it is.” His uncensored takes on the biggest matches in men’s tennis and signature long periods of silence during an intense match have become the hallmark of his commentary. Always seen as the perceptive guy willing to make an over-arching assessment on the state of anyone’s career, John is never afraid to praise or ridicule what he sees unfolding in front of him. He has witnessed so many historic moments, both during and after his career, that he his highly qualified to judge the greatest players in our sport. Along with his brother and the guy coming up next in these rankings, John has been a part of a very successful commentary booth (if you don’t include the one he shares with Mary Carillo). You’ve also got to love the fact that John still has some of that “bad boy” attitude in him and loves un-buttoning his dress shirts and loosening up his tie when the action heats up on the court.
3. Chris Fowler (ESPN): Most Americans know Chris Fowler as the former host of College Gameday and the guy who yelled “Ohio State wins!” and “Touchdown! Hunter Renfrow!” at the conclusion of the two most compelling games of the 2016 college football season. But we in the tennis world know Chris Fowler as the main guy for all the big matches on ESPN. While his persona is that of a very serious guy who leads the discussion in the booth, I love Fowler’s laid back side as well. He relishes talking about Vegas and who the odds-makers have pitted to win the title. He enjoys talking to Rafa about politics in the Australian Open lounge. And he truly loves calling the matches that have so much at stake. Fowler comes across as impartial, graceful in his commentary, and always willing to analyze both sides of the same coin. Moreover, his best commentator feature is that he has become very good at knowing when to step in and offer his own input vs. knowing when to stay quiet and let the tennis on screen do the talking. He has come a long way in both the worlds of college football and tennis, and I look forward to hearing him on the air for many more years in both sports.
2. Paul Annacone (TennisChannel): Hear me out on this one. Annacone is brilliant. Following his run as Federer’s coach, one that featured the 2012 Wimbledon title, Annacone came to TennisChannel part time while simultaneously coaching Sloane Stephens. Unlike Darren Indecisive Cahill, Annacone made the smart move to dedicate all of his efforts to the commentary booth. Since then, he has never looked back. I love the way Paul dissects what he sees happening on the tennis court, and he does so with passion while not having to yell like a maniac to get his point across. I don’t know if it’s the glasses that he wears in the TennisChannel studio, but he seems extremely perceptive and always has great reasons to back up his thoughts during a tennis match. I was definitely surprised when I first started hearing him commentate, but Paul Annacone is the real deal.
1. Robbie Koenig (TennisChannel, Tennis TV): After a very long list, we finally reach the number one commentator in all of tennis. Robbie Koenig is the definition of scintillating, a word he often uses while describing a backhand down the line passing shot from Novak Djokovic. I don’t know if it’s the South African accent or the fact that he’s so fired up for every point of every match, but Robbie is by far the most talented in this industry. He knows the game better than anyone and is prepared to take both the casual fan and the tennis geek inside the point like a pro. The guy loves tennis so much that it seems as if he is jumping out of his chair every time he sees a great point or an instance of great shot-making from a top player. If I could pick one tennis commentator to do a big match, it would be Robbie Koenig, the top guy in the Tennis Commentator Power Rankings!