NEW YORK — From his tiny booth near the top of Arthur Ashe Stadium, David Law paints pictures for the ear.
Thwacks of the balls, squeaks of the shoes, roars of the crowd, grunts and sometimes curses, from the players, are just the backdrop. Law, a BBC play-by-play announcer, layers in a flourish of rapid-fire descriptions of U.S. Open action that are aimed solely for the theater of the mind.
“Forehand cross-court from Djokovic, he’s pushing Nadal back, back. … He’s pummeling, but he just can’t put Nadal away. Nadal slices a backhand once again, he gets to every one of these balls, it’s just extraordinary retrieving from the Spaniard,” Law says in one of his most famous calls , of a 54-stroke rally from the 2013 final.
“Massive forehand by Nadal and again Djokovic reaches the ball. … Can the Serbian player finally find a chink of light in this armor of Nadal? … Midcourt forehand from Nadal, and still Djokovic reaches it and into the net goes Nadaaal!!”
Such play-by-play for an audio-only audience is among the rarest of niches in sports media. Nearly 400 media organizations from around the world are covering this year’s U.S. Open, but only two — the BBC and the U.S. Tennis Association’s U.S. Open Radio — call matches exclusively for the ear.
Television long ago overtook radio as sports fans’ preferred medium. There’s also the lightning-fast pace of tennis that makes it tough to call on the radio.
But to the hardy few who embrace tennis play by play, it’s an art form that conveys the drama and tension of the sport in a way television — with its commentary mostly between points — can’t.
“On the telly, you’re just in the way. They don’t need you. They can see it for themselves on the screen,” says Law, who is covering his 14th straight U.S. Open for the BBC. “On the radio, people are much more appreciative of what you are doing because you’re doing them a favor. They can’t see it.”
For Law, a veteran tennis journalist and podcaster , the goal is to engage a mass audience and not be too “tennisy.” ”We want people to experience it like they are there, but also have fun.”
BBC, which has called all of Andy Murray’s appearances and other top matches for the two weeks at Flushing Meadows, has a rich tradition of covering tennis, broadcasting live from Wimbledon since 1937 and at the U.S. Open for decades. Among its most famous calls was when Max Robertson hailed the 1977 Wimbledon victory by Britain’s own Virgina Wade with the words, “Virginia will take tea with the Queen!”
Literal, shot-by-shot descriptions have been replaced over the years by a more conversational style. Tweeted comments from listeners are often read between points. Color commentator, former top 50 player Jeff Tarango, offers light banter. And Law punctuates long rallies with lightning-fast asides to reflect the broader flow. “Wozniacki’s eyes are lasering in on the ball … Sevastova will have to worry about her own nerves here as much as anything else. Can she cope with it? … Sevastova has a nice bit of variety to her game. She won’t worry too much about keeping pace with Wozniacki.”
There’s a similar patter in the booth next door, where U.S. Open Radio announcers Brian Clark and Marc Ernay go wire-to-wire for the two-week run of the tournament, describing the action from Ashe and remotely from other courts. The other Grand Slam tournaments have their own such services, and they all take on the flavor of their home countries.
U.S. Open Radio, which is also fed live to SiriusXM satellite radio, offers a straightforward call. Clark and Ernay bounce their descriptions in polished sportscaster voices back and forth off a rotating cast of expert analysts, including former tour players Jimmy Arias, Jill Craybas, Elise Burgin, Kathy Rinaldi and the aforementioned Wade.
“Petra Kvitova serving first from the near baseline at Ashe into the looping forehand of Angelique Kerber, then cross-court forehand for both left-handed players and Kvitova flies hers long for the first point of this match,” Clark intones in a typical call. And then Burgin chimes in, “Any rally over four or five shots absolutely favors Kerber.” And so it goes in broadcast sessions that can go on for up to six hours.
U.S. Open Radio has only been on for the full tournament since 2004, and American tennis for the ear, in general, lacks any real tradition. Brian Beglane, the USTA official who runs U.S. Radio, says that unlike in Britain’s publicly funded radio system, there is no substantial commercial support in the U.S. for play-by-play audio tennis beyond a tournament-only smartphone app.
“Most of sports radio is built around a team, but tennis is a bunch of individual stars,” Beglane says. “You can’t build a radio franchise around it as well as you can for the Mets or the Yankees, a team.”
BBC gets about 5.8 million listeners a week on the main channel on which it broadcasts tennis, BBC 5 Live, but how that translates to a particular match is unclear. The USTA says U.S. Open Radio got 200,000 plays through the first week of the tournament.
Law is convinced, however, that the true BBC ratings are in the millions during a Murray match that airs in prime time in Britain. That was the case this week when Kei Nishikori defeated Murray, who in recent months had won Wimbledon and the Olympic gold medal.
But more meaningful to Law than calling the big matches are the comments from listeners, particularly those who can’t enjoy tennis any other way. Read one recent tweet: “As a blind listener, your commentary really gives me an understanding of the tennis these guys are playing.”
Says Law: “It’s a privilege to be their eyes and their senses. It means the world to me.”