Federer-Murray Final Will Be Hard for ESPN to Match


ESPN’s “dream” Wimbledon gentlemen’s final of Roger Federer-Andy Murray produced dreamy ratings for the worldwide leader.

But just as the Swiss maestro established new standards with his four-set victory over the Scotsman that will be difficult to match, ESPN could be hard-pressed to equal the record Nielsen mark it set Sunday. The Bristol behemoth scored a 2.5 U.S. rating, a 2.9 coverage rating, 2.87 million households and some 3.93 million viewers for the final, the biggest tennis audience during its 33 years of covering the sport.

In its 10th year of coverage from the All England Club, but the first under a new U.S. exclusive 12-year pact that puts all of the action live on cable and broadband portal ESPN3, including the men’s and ladies’ marquee matches that analyst Brad Gilbert labels the “business end” of the tournament, the sports programmer set new Wimbledon audience and demo marks with 140 hours of coverage on ESPN2 and ESPN.

With Federer making like John McEnroe volleying at the net and displaying his all-around game, Murray and the hopes of a kingdom — whose wait now extends to a least 77 years since a Brit last win “their” tournament — fell short against the all-time Grand Slam leader.

Federer’s path to the title was not an easy one. On five separate occasions in the fourth set, he came within a couple of points from being dismissed in the third round by the No. 29 seed, Frenchman Julien Benneteau, before prevailing in the fifth. Then his back required off-court treatment versus another 30-something Xavier Malisse. Following his dispatch of top-ranked Novak Djokovic in the semifinals, Fed’s 17th major victory and his seventh at The Championships, which matched Pete Sampras and England’s 19th century king William Renshaw for the most in Wimbledon history on the men’s side, also propelled the soon-to-be 31-year-old past Nole to the No. 1 ranking. Next Monday, Federer will move past his hero Pistol Pete, whom he dethroned as the Slam sovereign with his five-set win over Andy Roddick at the 2009 Wimbledon for this then 15th Major, with 287 weeks atop the sport.

The stakes on the Federer side of the net were dwarfed, though, by Murray’s pursuit of his first Grand Slam. Having come through a hellish draw — albeit one cleared by Rafa Nadal’s stunning second-round exit to the power of the unheralded Lukas Rosol — Murray exorcised the ghost of Bunny Austin, the last Brit to make a Wimbledon and Slam final since 1938, with stirring four-set wins against David Ferrer in the quarters and Jo Wilfried Tsonga in the semis.

But after a fast start and two breaks that gave him the first set and no doubt stirred the attention of statue of Fred Perry on the grounds, Murray let the second set slip away late to Federer, 7-5. The rain forced roof closure over Centre Court — from a TV perspective, the contraption was the star of the rain-marred tourney — early in the third set. Those new conditions, as Patrick McEnroe was quick to point out on the ESPN telecast, favored the Swiss. Roger picked up five mph on his serve without having to worry about the wind and and any impending elements — although the pounding rain on the roof had to be distracting to both players — and seized control of the first-ever indoor Championships by breaking Murray in a 20-minute marathon game.

A ripped cross-court backhand passing shot opened the door early in the fourth, and Fed’s serving and touch staved off any real threat by Murray to remove the moniker from Perry as the last Brit to Wimbledon back in 1936.

Clearly, that was something a kingdom wanted to see. BBC1’s coverage averaged 11.4 million watchers, a 58 share, peaking with 16.9 million, which The Guardian pointed out was the highest viewing figure for a British player since at least 1990.

Back in the States, the 3.93 million average audience surpassed all but two of NBC’s Wimbledon finals since 2002. It trailed the 5.71 million in 2008 who watched Rafa thwart Federer’s effort to pass Bjorn Borg with six straight titles in what many consider to be the greatest match in the sport’s history; and Roger’s aforementioned win over Roddick a year later that netted 5.71 million.

Not having a Yank in the Majors mix is damping American’s appreciation and audience during this golden age of men’s tennis. Perhaps Murray, with his play in the final and the new-found fans he gathered with his emotional post-match speech on Centre Court, is finally poised to truly make it a Big Four.

Indeed, NBC in what would be its last Wimbledon telecast, only garnered 2.65 million viewers for the 2011 final between Djokovic and Nadal in which nothing less than the sport’s supremacy was at stake.

As Johnny Mac has been known to say: You cannot be serious.