Thursday, 30 June 2011

Sports commentators get “up” themselves - except Frew MacMillan

I do apologise for yet another tennis-related blog – but I can’t help myself. A few days ago, a TV reviewer wrote about the overuse of the word “big” at this year’s Wimbledon championships. Everyone’s serving big, or hitting big, or playing big, or has “too big a game” for their opponent. (I fell into the same trap writing about Wimbledon yesterday – it’s evidently catching.)

For me, though, the word of the tournament is “up”. Perhaps it’s because Pixar released a superb animated film with that title two years ago, and jet-setting commentators keep seeing it on the film menu on their hotel room TVs. A George Clooney film – Up in the Air - was released around the same time. (There may very well be less family-friendly filmic fare with the word “up” in the title available in hotels, but I wouldn’t know about that.)

In tennis, you’ve always hit the ball up, had a knock-up, kept your chin up and looked up at the umpire. But now players also have match-ups and indulge in change-ups and step-ups and have to get themselves up for the next game.

For instance, in olden times, Dan Maskell would tell us that Gerulaitis against McEnroe could turn out to be “an excellent match”. Now, Sue Barker will invariably describe a forthcoming encounter between Tsonga and Djokovic (or similar) as “a really exciting match-up”. I sort of see what they’re doing: a match is an event, while a match-up precedes the event – it’s the pairing process they’re talking about, rather than the match itself. But now, they’ve taken to saying things like “this promises to be a great match-up”. No, it doesn’t – the match-up has already occurred. What it promises to be is a great match.

Having attached “up” to the word “match”, everyone now seems to feel compelled to append it to every other unaccompanied noun. When a player who’s been blamming serves out wide suddenly aims one at his opponent’s body, the commentator used to say things like “clever change of service direction there”. Now it’s “a real change-up on the serve there from Nadal”. I suppose they think “up” implies an improvement on what the player was doing previously. Maybe it does, but it’s horrible, so just stop it. The same goes for “step up”, which no doubt derives from the American phrase “step up to the plate”. But when they say, “Gasquet has really stepped up his game at the start of this third set”, all they mean is he’s playing better. Just say that.

Mind you, having whinged about this unnecessary desecration of our language, I have to say that commentators are generally a lot better than they used to be. The wholesale introduction of former players to the commentary box has proved a great bonus: these chaps know stuff (unlike many of the gentlemen commentators the BBC used to employ at Wimbledon, whose main function was to state the bleeding obvious – “that was a good shot”, “real danger here for Connors”, “he’ll be disappointed at having lost his opening service game”). Of course, the former players still give us all that nonsense, but there’s some detailed knowledge in there as well. Yesterday, they were pointing out that Tsonga has suddenly switched from a two-handed to a single-handed backhand (probably the first time any professional player has ever done this, mid-career). That snippet of information would probably leave you comatose with boredom, but to a tennis fan, it’s fascinating. 

As for my pick of the former-player commentators, John McEnroe talks too much, but his analysis is illuminating, and he is surprisingly self-effacing. Boris Becker – Britain’s favourite German – is a likable chap, but doesn’t actually say anything particularly interesting. John Lloyd is probably past his sell-by date. Greg Rusedski is - surprisingly - very good value. We’ve seen a marked change-up in Tim Henman’s performance following a decidedly shaky start three years ago. He has stepped up his game. He and McEnroe commentating together represents a good match-up.

But my favourite tennis commentator isn’t part of the TV commentary team (although he gets a look-in on Radio 5). I’m talking about the man with the big white cap and the oddest first name in the sport, Frew MacMillan, the South African former doubles partner of battling beardy baldie, Bob Hewitt (a mouthy sod whom dour Yorkshireman Roger Taylor once punched in the face during an altercation following a match at Wimbledon). MacMillan commentates on all the other major tournaments for Eurosport, and I don’t half miss his clipped, pithy, no-nonsense, manlycommentary. One suspects the modern world – and many aspects of the modern game (the endless recourse to towels, the sitting down between games, doinking the ball 83 times before a serve)– appear quite ridiculous to Frew. If you heard MacMillan talking about “match-ups”, it would be in a wryly sarcastic tone.

McEnroe and MacMillan would be a great commentating doubles team - unfortunately they don’t exactly get on!

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