The stakes are higher than ever at this year's Wimbleon. The top spot in the men's game is up for grabs as Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, who have won 28 of tennis' last 29 Grand Slams, can all claim the world's No. 1 ranking at the end of The Championships.
However that plays out, or if a grass-court interloper can break the Big 3s Slam stranglehold, ESPN will have all the gentlemen's and ladies' action covered, thanks to an lucrative, long-term exclusive U.S. rights deal with the All England Lawn and Tennis Club that ended NBC's 43-year ties to tennis' most prestigious tournament. The Peacock, though, can take some solace, knowing it will return to Wimbledon Village next month as part of its coverage of the London Summer Olympics.
Signaling a new era for U.S. television coverage at The Big W, the worldwide leader and its various vehicles will be, for the first time, the exclusive U.S. home for all live coverage of the action from the 2012 Wimbledon tournament, starting on June 25.
In what will be its 10th year at the tourney and the first under a new 12-year agreement, ESPN2 and ESPN will present some 140 hours of live, high-definition grass court fare. Included are the jewels of The Championships, the ladies and gentlemen's semifinals and finals matches, which previously aired on NBC, and are expected to deliver significant ratings, especially if form holds.
Djokovic, the current world No. 1, who gained the top spot by beating No. 2 Nadal at last year's Wimbledon, will retain that position if he makes a return trip to the final. To do that, he presumably would have to take out No. 3 Federer in the semifinals, something he has done in that round at the last three majors - the U.S., Australian and French Opens.
Looking to overcome his adversaries, including one named Father Time, the 30-year-old Federer, the all-time Slam king with 16 majors on his mantle, would regain top billing, with a win. A victory - many consider this Fed' last best chance to capture a major--would tie him with Pete Sampras and Willie Renshaw with seven Wimbledon crowns. It would also enable the Swiss to match Pistol Pete's run of 286 weeks at No. 1.
Nadal, who thwarted Djokovic's bid to hold all four Grand Slams with his record seventh title at Roland Garros earlier this month, can reclaim the top ranking with his third Wimbledon crown, provided Nole falls short of the semis.
The above scenarios could unravel if No. 4 seed Andy Murray -- the Scot is again on Nadal's side of the draw -- fulfills his potential and ends the U.K's Wimbledon drought that dates back to Fred Perry lifting the trophy in 1936. Hard-hitting No. 5 Jo Wilfred Tsonga and No. 6 Tomas Berdych, each of whom eliminated Federer in the quarters during the last two Championships, could also serve to disrupt form and the oddsmakers. Thumpers American John Isner and Canadian Milos Raonic also bear watching.
On the distaff side of the court, Maria Sharapova, who regained the world No. 1 ranking when she completed the career Grand Slam with her win at the French Open, is a co-favorite with American Serena Williams, who flamed out in the first round in Paris. Sharapova, who won her first major as a 17-year-old by upsetting Serena in 2004, and Williams are on opposite sides of the draw, so if form holds they would meet in the championship match on July 7.
Defending champion Petra Kvitova, who could meet Williams in the quarters, is the third favorite, ahead of Victoria Azarenka, the Australian Open champion who has spent most of the year at No. 1.
Others with a chance: Williams' unseeded older sister, who appropriately counts a quintet of Venus Rosewater Dishes, among her seven-Slam collection; 2011 French Open queen Li Na; 2011 U.S. Open Sam Stosur; Agnieszka Radwanska the No. 3 seed, but who has never reached a semfinal at a major; the German duo of Angeligue Kerber and Sabine Lisicki; and Kim Clijsters, the former top-ranked player, who is playing in her last Wimbledon.
Under the new contract that extends to 2023, the linear networks -- ESPN is stepping onto the grass, alongside primary presenter ESPN 2 -- will proffer 140 hours of live coverage, up from 100 under the old agreement. In addition, ESPN3 will also increase its schedule from 650 hours in 2011 to more than 800 via a multiscreen offering -- up to nine courts presented from first to the last ball each day -- which will be available along with ESPN and ESPN2's action via the WatchESPN app. The broadband service will also offer matches on demand after they occur.
For its part, ABC will show highlights on the tournament's off day, the middle Sunday, as well as encores of both singles finals.
There will also be expanded 3D coverage. Last year, ESPN 3D aired one live match and others on delay. This time around the enhanced network's live coverage begins with the men's quarters on July 4 and continues through the finals, with each day's telecast encoring that night at 9 p.m.
For the most part, ESPN's Wimbledon ratings have been steady over the years, averaging around a 0.5 rating with the morning and daytime coverage. Last year, the rating held steady at the aforementioned level, but household impressions grew 13% to 526,784 from 464,455 in 2010 and 11% among viewers to 586,306 from 528,697.
Those figures should bounce higher over the Nielsen net, now that ESPN will be televising the semifinals and finals for both genders (perhaps adding insult to NBC's injury, those matches will be preceded by one-hour preview shows entitled, Breakfast at Wimbledon). Moreover, in what is being billed as the first-ever "cross-court coverage," ESPN, from Centre Court, will join ESPN2 in providing concurrent presentations on July 2 of what is considered the greatest day in tennis - round of 16 action from both genders - followed by the distaff quarterfinal matches on July 3 and the men's equivalent on the Fourth of July.
An ESPN spokesman answered a question about potential second-weeks ratings uptick with this return: "Along with the All England Club, we're very excited to bring to fans during week two an unprecedented amount of live tennis all day long on whatever screen suits you best. We seek to crown champions on our network and Wimbledon is among the most precious titles in sports."
Last July, in another example of marquee sports properties migrating to cable from broadcast, ESPN wrested Wimbledon rights from NBC in a deal worth a reported $480 million or more. At that level, the deal represents a 74% increase over the combined $23 million - $13 million for NBC, $10 million for ESPN - under the former arrangement.
The new deal, superseding the final two years of ESPN's previous Wimbledon contract, ended the Peacock's 43-year run with the All England Club, while also effectively keeping national cable sports service NBC Sports Network off the court. NBC -- which had made "Breakfast at Wimbledon," namely its coverage of the women's and men's finals at 9 a.m. (ET) -- a U.S. summer programming staple since 1979, was looking to extend its network contract, which expired with the 2011 tourney, for two more years, and then bring NBC Sports Network to the net with weekday coverage. The plan called for full live TV - NBC was criticized for showing key matches on tape delay in deference to the profitability of Today - and streaming coverage, beginning with the 2014 fortnight.
The pounds and pence aside - NBC said at the time it was "simply outbid" -- the All England Club also pointed to "a single narrative voice" in making the announcement that it had awarded the rights to the sports programming giant.
That voice will be shaped by hall of famer John McEnroe, who had been calling Wimbledon with Ted Robinson under NBC's watch, and is now adding the Big W to his ESPN arsenal, having worked for the worldwide leader at the U.S. Open since 2009. He will be joined by returnees Darren Cahill, Mary Joe Fernandez, Brad Gilbert, Patrick McEnroe and Pam Shriver. Chris Fowler will call matches and serve as studio host, sharing that role with Hannah Storm and Mike Tirico. The voice of ESPN's Monday Night Football, Tirico has worked the U.S, Open for ESPN as a host and calling matches and will fill those roles in his Wimbledon debut. Tom Rinaldi will provide essays and features.
Cliff Drysdale, who has been with ESPN since its outset, calling its first tennis match -- the U.S.-Argentina Davis Cup tie from Memphis on Sept. 14, 1979, a week after the network's debut -- is back in the booth after missing the French.
Although it won't feature any live match coverage, Tennis Channel, which signed its own 12-year extension with the All England Club, is expanding and broadening its presentation of Wimbledon Tonight. Anchored from a new state-of-the-art set, Wimbledon Tonight will run all 14 nights of the tournament, up from 10 under the previous contract. Moreover, unlike the four-hour block of interviews and match coverage of the past, this fortnight Tennis will offer seven nightly hours of original Wimbledon programming. The four-hour Wimbledon Primetime's first edition each night will include three hours of on-court stories and encore match coverage, followed by an hour of fast-paced highlights and interviews. In turn, there will be a second edition with three entirely new hours of the day's best tennis before the concluding, catch-up hour.