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WIMBLEDON – The Wimbledon “Masters of Spin” award goes to … ESPN.
The network that employs Milos Raonic coaching consultant John McEnroe as an analyst (he also works for the BBC here) has now taken the awkward conflict of interest that is a coach calling his charge’s match and is milking it for all it’s worth.
McEnroe will be crowded into the little courtside booth during the Raonic-Murray men’s singles final Sunday along with his brother Patrick and Chris Fowler. But the network told the Associated Press that the elder McEnroe would have a “different” role.
"I'm not trying to put him in a box ... and have him be an objective observer of the match and wear two hats," ESPN vice-president Jamie Reynolds said. "I'm having him here as Milos' coach."
It’s probably easier than having him wear a microphone while he’s sitting in Raonic’s player box – how awesome would that be? – or having Pam Shriver go down during changeovers and get his thoughts.
Reynolds told AP the network “had avoided any perception of a conflict” by keeping McEnroe off the air during Raonic’s matches – not mentioning that McEnroe had done just that for the BBC, including Raonic's five-set win over Roger Federer in the semi-finals Friday.
"We were sensitive to it because at the end of the day we're trying to serve the audience. Let the audience decide whether or not John is still John. I think that's a win, as long as everybody understands what voice he's bringing into the booth,” Reynolds added.
Raonic was under the opposite impression.
“I remember when I played (American) Jack (Sock) in the third round, he messaged me and said, ‘Hey, they want me to call your match. Do you mind? If you need, I'll sort of request to call another match,’ ” Raonic said. “I said, ‘I don't mind at all. Hopefully I will have to face the situation where you can't call any other match.’ ”
So it’s good spin, although it’s a crock. For years, the network has had Patrick McEnroe and Mary Joe Fernandez, the former U.S. Davis Cup captain and current Fed Cup captain, calling matches involving Americans. A big part of that job involves securing the players’ commitments to play for the team; any objective criticism they might otherwise dispense in the course of doing their jobs properly would surely get back to those players. Tennis Channel (and the BBC) have also had Lindsay Davenport, the (now former) coach of American Madison Keys, talking about her on air.
ESPN has sidestepped that dilemma with the excellent analyst Darren Cahill, coach of WTA Tour player Simona Halep, who calls only men’s matches.
To casual fans, or those whose interest has been piqued in recent years in Canada because of the accomplishments of Genie Bouchard and Raonic, the massive conflict of interest that is tennis probably goes unnoticed.
Players move from the court to the broadcast booth. Some still are sponsored by tennis companies. Still others have academies that work with certain players. Others are former coaches of players they commentate about – players who fired them. Still others manage to be agents, commentators, coach a player, play seniors events, produce tennis TV shows – and sit on the ATP Tour board of directors (we’re looking at you, Justin Gimelstob).
Gimelstob is probably the most notorious example of what can happen when a coach commentates the match of his charge.
It can be epically awkward.
The fact that McEnroe is working for both ESPN and BBC during Wimbledon while also trying to find time for Raonic has led to questions every time the Canadian has played.
Most of those asking don’t realize that Raonic went through all this before the relationship even officially began, both with McEnroe and with the media. It was clear that once Wimbledon started, with McEnroe’s myriad commitments, that he might be on the practice court with him but it was entirely likely he wouldn’t be courtside for his matches.
It doesn’t make much difference if Coach Mac is sitting there while Raonic is playing – he can’t affect the outcome in any way, coaching not being allowed. But for whatever reason, it keeps coming up – as if Raonic now can’t make a move without his latest advisor, or will crumble if he doesn’t see him fist pumping up in the stands.
McEnroe is a bit of a loose cannon. Raonic wanted to wait until he was out of the French Open before announcing the new alliance, but McEnroe cut his grass by pre-emptively announcing it during one of his television gigs in Paris.
But if McEnroe wants the relationship to continue – and he has said he does – he’d be foolhardy to spill any of the true inside scoop on the air. You know, the inside stuff that people would really want to hear.
So, in reality, McEnroe won’t be on the air as “Raonic’s coach.” He’ll be on air as McEnroe, somewhat hamstrung by the fact that his “other” employer wouldn’t look too kindly on him spilling state secrets.
As an “enhancement to the experience,” as Reynolds spun it, it’s debatable.
ESPN should give McEnroe the day off, allowing him to sit courtside with his charge and cut to him looking antsy every few points or so. But having him in the booth is an unexpected bonus for a matchup that, let’s face it, ESPN would have preferred was Federer-Murray. Or Federer and anyone.
Raonic’s long-time coach Riccardo Piatti has not been here through Raonic’s run to the final – having three coaches on court would be, well, too many cooks.
But he arrived in London Friday, and will be there for the final. As he should be.
Raonic was asked after his semi-final win over Federer if it bothered him that McEnroe had been on his team only a few weeks, yet might “get credit” if Raonic won the title.
His answer was spectacular.
“At the end of the day, I get to win Wimbledon. Who cares?”