There is more to watching the French Open than just following the bouncing ball. What should a savvy tennis fan pay attention to during the season's second Grand Slam event? Footwork is a good place to start, according to Chris Evert.
Evert, of course, won a record seven singles titles on the red clay of Stade Roland Garros. She is working her first French Open as an ESPN analyst and last week she participated in a media conference call.
Asked about the chances of Serena Williams winning this year, Evert and fellow analyst Patrick McEnroe both noted that Serena is a little less consistent than she was in the past, but that she has apparently raised her fitness level in the last few months and will be a very dangerous opponent in Paris. She owns one French Open title, from 2002, among her 12 Grand Slams.
Evert said that Serena is sliding better, a skill that's needed at Roland Garros.
"I think you can't teach anybody how to slide on clay," she said. "It's very instinctive. She just seems to be very comfortable mobility-wise as far as the sliding and she's attacking the ball."
Evert noted that she started playing tennis on a clay court at age 6, so the footwork came pretty easily to her.
"I just see Serena sliding, and before, when I saw it, it was awkward for her and she was off-balance. And also, maybe wasn't as light on her feet as she is now.
"[Maria] Sharapova to me doesn't have that natural slide. When I watched her play a few clay court tournaments, she's still taking small steps to the ball and not really getting into that slide. So basically, the movement is important and I think that's why I was successful. I certainly wasn't the best mover of any of the girls. I wasn't even in the top five."
McEnroe, another member of ESPN's broadcast team in Paris, also discussed some of the fine points of footwork.
"To me, it's how you move to the ball," McEnroe said, "and the great clay court players sort of understand how to cut the court off and understand how to not slide after the shot. But a lot of it is balance. And Chris is 100 percent right. The more you grow up on it and just are accustomed to it. Roger Federer, who is arguably the greatest, certainly if not the greatest player of all time, the greatest grass court player of all time, slides beautifully, because he grew up playing a lot of tennis on clay."
There are three "broadcast partners" for the French Open, and all have coverage today. ESPN2 gets things started from 5-10 a.m. The Tennis Channel has coverage from 10 a.m. to
3 p.m., and NBC (Channel 2) from noon to 3 p.m.
One of the big story lines this year is Rafael Nadal trying for a record seventh French Open championship. He and Bjorn Borg each own six.
John McEnroe, a star attraction on NBC's broadcast team, acknowledged the historic importance of this year's tournament to the player they call Rafa.
"My buddy and rival Bjorn Borg won six out of eight and only lost twice at the French Open," McEnroe said last week. "Nadal's won six and lost only once, so he has a chance to basically say 'I'm the best ever.' "
The big three in men's tennis, obviously, are Nadal, Federer and Novak Djokovic. Does anyone have a chance to wrest the trophy from the members of that triumvirate?
Patrick McEnroe said to keep an eye on the big-serving American John Isner.
"He's got people talking about his serve, which is arguably the best in tennis, and his kicks are just phenomenal," McEnroe said. "But he's got one of the biggest forehands in the men's game, and if he has a little time to set it up, it's a pretty devastating shot. So that combination of that one-two punch is huge."
On the other hand, picking Isner is not without risks.
"As dangerous as he is against the top players," Patrick McEnroe said, "he's also vulnerable to losing to pretty much anyone; meaning someone that can hit a lot of balls and make a lot of shots. I said earlier this year that I believe he could be playing in the final weekend at the French, and a men's final four. I think he's got the game to go that far. But if he's not careful, he could also go out in the first round."
> Tribute to Wheldon
With all due respect to fans of open-wheel racing, the highlight of today's Indianapolis 500 broadcast on ABC (Channel 7) might take place before the race. The preview show from 11 a.m. to noon will feature a tribute to defending champion Dan Wheldon, who was killed last October in a race in Las Vegas.
The pre-race show and race broadcast are produced by ESPN for ABC.
"We're going to air a tribute to Dan that celebrates his life and certainly touches upon the thrilling victory that he achieved in the centennial anniversary of the Indy 500 last year," said Rich Feinberg, ESPN vice president of motorsports production. "We'll also touch on the tragedy of Las Vegas.
"The feature is a touching tribute to him. It's not meant to be an analytical breakdown of what happened in Las Vegas, but much more celebrate his life. It includes an exclusive interview and sit-down that we did with his wife, Susie Wheldon."
The tribute segment was not available for screening by critics, but it's a good bet that I'll give it a four-handkerchief rating for its tear-jerking power.
> Media monitors
Deadspin had a fascinating report this week on companies that monitor the social media accounts of college athletes, allowing athletic programs to keep tabs on their players' tweets, status updates and Instagram photos.
Varsity Monitor, Centrix Social and UDiligence are the three largest companies that are paid by big-time athletics departments to do electronic babysitting. And the snooping is big business. The University of North Carolina paid Varsity Monitor $8,640 to keep tab on its athletes for 2012-13, Deadspin said, while LSU paid UDiligence $7,700 for 2010-11.
Concludes Deadspin: "The lesson, as always: There is money to be made in college sports, so long as you're not playing them."