After a quarter-century, USA Network's singles play as the cable window to the U.S. Open will give way to the doubles team of ESPN and Tennis Channel.
The networks — through a six-year deal reached in May 2008 with the United States Tennis Association — will team up to provide literally round-the-clock coverage over a fortnight from the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing, N.Y., from Aug. 31, through Sept. 13. The networks will become the first to provide coverage of all four of the sport's Grand Slam events during the same calendar year.
In conjunction with longtime Open broadcaster CBS Sports, Tennis and ESPN2 will chronicle Roger Federer's quest to win a sixth consecutive men's title; Rafael Nadal's attempt to overcome knee problems and win the only major that has eluded him; and whether sisters Serena and Venus Williams or the returning Kim Clijsters can add another trophy to their showcases.
Marshalling vast on-air talent rosters and technical enhancements, ESPN and Tennis both aspire to afford a comprehensive look at a late summer rite that makes the Open the most popular single-venue, annual sporting event in the world: 720,000 people attended in 2008.
ESPN2, which is expected to present some 100 hours of match coverage in high definition, while Tennis will serve up 72 hours and CBS about 40 — not to mention highlight shows, encores and match streaming.
“Like our coverage of the other slams, we'll be in and around the venue, providing a look at New York,” said Tennis chairman and CEO Ken Solomon. “We'll have action on the show courts, but we'll move to the outer courts when ESPN2 is on the air. Tennis Channel's goal is to be like a grounds pass.”
Jamie Reynolds, a vice president in the event production department who oversees all of ESPN's tennis productions, has a similar game plan.
“Our strategy is to make you feel like you're at the National Tennis Center during the day session,” said Reynolds. “We want to provide viewers with access through fast-paced telecasts that give fans a sense for all the action, the important moments from around the grounds.”
That feeling will be underlined by match coverage on broadband service ESPN360.com totaling some 300 hours.
The Bristol, Conn.-headquartered programming giant will toss in the first serve on its multimedia coverage with the tournament's inaugural draw show on ESPNews at noon on Aug. 27. Chris McKendry, along with Mary Joe Fernandez and Patrick McEnroe, will analyze the tourney's brackets on both the men's and women's sides during a commercial-free, half-hour show.
On the eve of the Open (Aug. 30), ESPN Classic will offer a 12-hour marathon of great matches from the championships, culminating with Jimmy Connors celebrating his 39th birthday with a five-set victory over Aaron Krickstein to reach the 1991 quarterfinals. ESPNews will air a two-hour U.S. Open Update at noon throughout the tourney.
Unlike at the other slams, where the network is at the behest of the world feeds, ESPN2 will also be able to tap into CBS's coverage of the five principal courts and “give our directors/producers the ability to cut matches to our style and talent,” according to Reynolds.
He added that each of tennis' Grand Slams has its own unique character — from the “summertime excitement and vacation destination” that is the Australian Open, the “elegance of the Parisian spring” at the French and the “class and tradition of Wimbledon.” As for the American Slam, he said there is no “grander stage than New York,” particularly with the “spotlight and passion of the night sessions.”
Like its predecessor, ESPN2 will stay with the night matches until they are decided — and they often extend well past their scheduled conclusion at 11 p.m.
Reynolds said ESPN2 will bridge the day — 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday the first week, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sept. 8-10 the second week — and night sessions with the U.S. Open Scorecard Show in the 6 p.m. hour. He said there would be updates, highlights, interviews with players and guests: “As they let the day crowd out and the night crowd comes in, we'll deconstruct the action from the day, while teeing things up for the evening session.”
Chris Fowler, the programmer's Grand Slam tennis host since 2003, will lead the way in that capacity and also call matches. He will be joined by Mike Tirico and Hannah Storm, newcomers to ESPN tennis-hosting roles. “That level of talent is a pretty strong statement about our commitment to the volume of the event and how we're going to blanket it,” said Reynolds.
They will team with Fernandez, Darren Cahill, Mary Carillo, Brad Gilbert, Pam Shriver, Bud Collins and Cliff Drysdale, a U.S. Open finalist in 1965 who is completing his 30th year with ESPN.
Moreover, McEnroe will be teamed with his brother John on occasion to form a sibling booth pairing.
Speaking of hall of famers, Tennis' on-air Open team is led by analysts Martina Navratilova and Jimmy Connors and host Bill Macatee, who together will call matches from the main court at Arthur Ashe Stadium and other courts.
Tennis will operate from atop Louis Armstrong Stadium, overlooking the common area, fountains, Court of Champions and Unisphere. From this perch, the network will centralize its coverage via a 20-foot by 24-foot, glass-encased booth that will house announcers Ted Robinson and Ian Eagle, a pair of cameras inside and a jib camera outside.
“The USTA [United States Tennis Association, which owns a stake in Tennis] has never allowed a studio to be built on the roof of Armstrong,” said Solomon.
Back at its Santa Monica, Calif., headquarters, Tennis will give rise to a virtual studio, said Solomon, replete with a spiral staircase, wood balcony, brick walls, a tennis court for demonstrations, lounge area and multiple video screens and graphic elements. “There is nothing else like it,” said Solomon.
Virtual components aside, the facility will house a podium, tennis net, couch and chairs, as well as hosts Kevin Frazier (Entertainment Tonight) and 1998 Open champion Lindsay Davenport.
A la French Open Tonight, Tennis will originate its comprehensive U.S. Open Tonight wrap-up show from this location from 11 p.m. to 3 a.m. (which encores from 3 a.m. through 6 a.m.), as well as its five-hour Breakfast at the Open lead-in show, as a warm-up for its daytime match coverage starting at 11 a.m.
Tennis, through the Open's first-time use of a rolling jib camera, will provide extensive looks from outer courts during the fortnight. Wireless reporters, in the form of ex-players Justin Gimelstob and Corina Morariu, will appear on camera at different courts and sites around the venue.
All told, Tennis will present almost 240 hours of programming, encompassing 72 hours of live, first-run match play, 48 hours of first-run nightly news, highlights and area stories via U.S. Open Tonight and 60 hours of Breakfast at the Open.
“Week in, week out we cover the sport around the world, but Tennis is a domestic network and the U.S. Open is the crown jewel,” said Solomon. “We're taking this to another level.”
As has been the case with other recent Grand Slam events, Tennis Channel, which counts some 25 million subscribers, will expand its distribution roster to 55 million for the Open. The network has secured free previews in select markets with a number of cable providers, including Armstrong Cable, Bright House Networks, Comcast, Cox Communications, Insight Communications, Knology, RCN and Time Warner Cable. Tennis' coverage will also be available nationwide to Dish Network, DirecTV and Verizon Communications FiOS TV subscribers during the Open.
AT&T, Cable One and Cablevision Systems have yet to reach carriage agreements with Tennis, with the latter a particularly glaring hole in its distribution lineup given its predominant position in the New York DMA.
Solomon said Tennis remains hopeful that an accord could be reached before the Open, but noted that “we have not made significant progress with Cablevision” in the four years he has headed the network.
Cablevision returned serve thusly: “We've made offer after offer to the Tennis Channel and they've turned a deaf ear.”
Earlier this month, the Cablevision-owned newspaper Newsday in Melville, N.Y., rejected a Tennis advertisement taking the operator to task for not carrying the channel. The ad, which shows a cable box getting hit by a racket, reads: “Thanks for nothing Cablevision.”
In a statement, Cablevision dismissed the ad as “nasty, unfair and intentionally misleading.”
Meanwhile, DirecTV will also have its racquet in Queens, with the U.S. Open Experience, forged through a partnership with the three networks. The planned coverage comprises more than 435 hours of live tennis action, 140 extra matches, with five extra court channels in addition to the main feeds from ESPN2 and CBS — all of which is displayed on DirecTV's six-on-one-screen Mix Channel, and presented in HD.
DirecTV will offer ESPN2's national coverage during the tournament's first five days, Aug. 31 through Sept. 4, and then three days of coverage from CBS, Sept. 4 to 7.
The U.S. Open Experience will be showcased on Aug. 26 at Manhattan's Bryant Park, where DirecTV is sponsoring a free exhibition that will feature a USTA clinic with the Williams sisters, the Bryan and Jensen brothers, Anna Kournikova and James Blake.