WIMBLEDON: ESPN Brings End to Two Most-Hated Words in Tennis, Matt Lauer. (Just Kidding: Tape Delay)

Novak Djokovic wins Wimbledon in last match on NBC

It took years for my friend, Dave, to let me talk to him during Wimbledon. It would have been nice to talk with a tennis nut during what might be the most important time of the sport’s year. But he shut off his phone, turned off his car radio, stayed away from newspapers and TV.

He couldn’t work out because his fingers were in his ears. He covered his eyes.

Hid under a desk.

And waited.

Over 43 years, NBC brought us things such as Breakfast at Wimbledon, Dick Enberg, Bud Collins. But it also turned my friend into a hermit. After years of building his trust, I finally got him to answer his phone. But the greeting wasn’t “Hello’’ so much as “Don’t tell me how the Roddick match is going.’’

Every American tennis fan knows what I’m talking about. It takes a contortionist to be a tennis fan, thanks to the two most-hated words in tennis.

Matt Lauer.

Just kidding: They are “tape delay.’’

ESPN has pushed NBC out of Wimbledon. You won’t have to hide anymore to avoid finding out how matches went, won’t have to wait for NBC to get around to showing matches after the Today show, or after Martha Stewart shows us how turn hydrangeas blue instead of pink.

Tennis fans can take their fingers out of their ears again, as ESPN vowed to show all important matches live on ESPN and ESPN2, and also to show early-round matches on outer courts streaming on ESPN3.com. The finals will be on live, and then on ABC later, on tape delay.

Perfect. Wimbledon coverage goes from old black and white sets with rabbit ears to a TV wall with all sorts of options. In some ways, tennis just moved ahead of the curve.

Wimbledon officials said it was about the coverage, and not the money. I’m always impressed when people say stuff like that with a straight face. The private All England club just signed a 12-year deal for half a billion dollars and then told us it’s not about money? Just know this: As snooty as the club is, it would step on a puppy to get to $5 bill.

I don’t think NBC understood what it was putting tennis fans through with its share of Wimbledon coverage, how bitter fans had become toward the network that had once meant so much to them. For the past several years, NBC has had the most-important parts of Wimbledon while ESPN has shown the bulk of the tournament.

It has been insulting for years.

NBC didn’t mean it that way. It was a business decision designed to maximize ad dollars. Tennis fans have tried to adjust, learned how to find matches live streaming on their computers, a little unsure as to whether some of these feeds are legal. (Are they?)

When Roddick played Andy Murray in the 2009 Wimbledon semifinal, ESPN2 was showing the previous year’s classic final between Federer and Nadal, NBC had its regular programming on, NBC.com wasn’t streaming, and Wimbledon.com had blocked the chance to purchase the match on your computer.

NBC had the rights to that match and wanted tennis fans to wait, expected them to.

I’m still not sure I understand what happened during the French Open men’s semis this year. During the Nadal-Murray match, Tennis Channel announcers seemed to be trying to explain where the match was going to. NBC suddenly announced the Federer-Djokovic match would be on NBC.com.

See how confusing it was? Matches could start on one channel, and go to another that wouldn’t show the conclusion until a few hours later on tape delay.

Tennis fandom has been a backward exercise. The rest of the year, you’d like to know results and see how things are going, but TV news doesn’t mention it, talk radio doesn’t talk about it, updates at the top of the hour won’t update it. Then, majors come along, and you want everyone to shut up while you wait for tape delay, but suddenly radio stations care about tennis and ruin it with updates.

Don’t blame them. Their job isn’t to sit on news until NBC decides to get around to it. Blame tennis for allowing it to happen.

The modern world doesn’t allow for this. Too much information comes too fast from too many places for NBC to act as if it’s still 1975.

It’s not just tape delay, either. It’s the whole treatment on TV. At the U.S. Open final last year, Nadal vs. Djokovic, rain pushed the match from Sunday to Monday. Then, on Monday, a delay pushed it back even more, and CBS decided it didn’t want the match anymore. Mid-match, it passed off one of tennis’ most important moments like a hot potato to ESPN2, which had NFL coming soon and would take the match for a while before pushing it off to ESPNClassic, which didn’t want to take down celebrity bowling.

The insults won’t end immediately, but soon. NBC still has the French Open. CBS still has the U.S. Open. Soon enough, NBC will learn to use its Versus channel the same way ESPN uses ESPN2.

I have the same feelings about NBC’s coverage as I do about Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, Dick Enberg and the wood racquet. Nice in its time, outdated now.

NBC was an important part of the sport’s growth in this country, but maybe part of its downfall, too. During Wimbledon, at least, U.S. tennis fans now will get to come out into the sunshine and be part of the real world.

About gregcouch

I can talk tennis all day long, and often do. And yet some of the people I talk to about it might rather I talk about something else. Or with someone else. That’s how it is with tennis, right? Sort of an addiction. Sort of a high. I am a national columnist at FoxSports.com and a FoxSports1 TV insider, and have been a columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times. In 2010, I was the only American sports writer to cover the full two weeks of all four majors, and also to cover each of the U.S. Masters series events. I’ve seen a lot of tennis, talked with a lot of players, coaches, agents. I watched from a few rows behind the line judge as Serena rolled her foot onto the baseline for the footfault, a good call, at the 2009 U.S. Open. I sat forever watching a John Isner marathon, leaving for Wimbledon village to watch an England World Cup soccer game at a pub and then returning for hours of Isner, sitting a few feet from his wrecked coach. I got to see Novak Djokovic and Robin Soderling joke around on a practice court on the middle Sunday at Wimbledon, placing a small wager on a tiebreaker. Djokovic won, and Soderling pulled a bill out of his wallet, crumpled it into his fist and threw it at Djokovic, who unwadded it, kissed it, and told me, “My work is done here.’’ And when Rafael Nadal won the French Open in 2010, I finished my column, walked back out onto the court, and filled an empty tic tac container with the red clay. I’m looking at it right now. Well, I don’t always see the game the same way others do. I can be hard on tennis, particularly on the characters in suits running it. Tennis has no less scandal and dirt than any other game. Yet somehow, it seems to be covered up, usually from an incredible web of conflicts of interest. I promise to always tell the truth as I see it. Of course, I would appreciate it if you’d let me know when I’m wrong. I love sports arguments and hope to be in a few of them with you here. Personal info: One-handed backhand, serve-and-volleyer. View all posts by gregcouch

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