WIMBLEDON '95: The big breakfast show

When America wakes up, it tunes in to Wimbledon. Bud Collins of NBC sweeps the cutting-room floor for memories of finals past

DURING his first Wimbledon men's final in the commentary box, Bjorn Borg looked at me and Dick Enberg in astonishment as though he were penned with a couple of loonies. This was 1983, and the man who was a hero to millions of New Zealand sheep (as well as the few scattered citizens) - Chris Lewis - was about to play John McEnroe for the singles title.

Borg, the five-times champion, was on home territory but as close as he would ever be again to Centre Court. He was flanked by me and Enberg in the NBC booth, a low-lying bunker in the arena's south-east sector. As the closing act of a brief, unwanted career (two tournaments) as commentator, Bjorn was involved in the customary shtick known as the opening stand- up, a three-way discussion on the afternoon's prospects.

After I'd rhapsodised on the unseeded Lewis's incredible odyssey to the highest level, through upset after upset, and the odds he now faced, Enberg called on Borg: "Bjorn, what does Chris Lewis have to do to beat McEnroe?"

Borg, who had lost his own Wimbledon eminence to McEnroe two years before, stared, stunned, wondering why these two madmen were applying such window- dressing to what he knew as the truth. His shocked reply, in three words: "Lewis can't win!"

Oh.

He was, of course, right on the money - 6-2 6-2 6-2. But what could our rejoinder to that expert analysis be? Enberg, the lead NBC tennis presenter for the past 16 years, got us into a commercial even as we realised that Bjorn's heart would never get into television.

That Breakfast at Wimbledon, as the productions of the men's and women's finals have been called since 1979, was a dramatic flop, - our first.

But by that time the revolutionary concept of showing the matches live at breakfast time was established. At first the idea was sneered at by the NBC executives, but thanks to the performance of Roscoe Tanner on and off court in the first live final, the programme became established.

As the climax of the men's competition approached, we received a couple of jolts. Despite our prayers, neither John McEnroe nor Jimmy Connors would be in the final. We felt that we needed one of them - or both, ideally - to spark interest in this innovation back home.

Instead, to face the invincible Borg, was Tanner. No great draw and, we believed, a certain pigeon for Sweden's angelic assassin. Further woe: the All England clubbies were not acceding to NBC's request that the final be delayed a short time, say to 2.10pm, in order that we could show the preliminary panoramic fluff and commercials prior to play when we came on air at 2pm.

"Not on," was the unsympathetic answer to the plea for a schedule alteration. "Never done it before."

That attitude would mellow in succeeding years with subsequent rises in rights fees. But in 1979 NBC was stunned. After all, wasn't the US Open schedule drawn up exactly according to the whims of CBS?

What to do? "By the time we get on the air Borg may have won the first set," wailed our commander, Don Ohlmeyer, whose feared that his brainchild of live transmission of the final might be stillborn.

Over my 24 years with NBC, I've had more partners than Elizabeth Taylor or Nell Gwynn, among them Ann Jones, Billie Jean King, Tracy Austin, John Newcombe, Jimmy Connors. One of them that year was Donald Dell, an ex- Davis Cup captain. He also happened to be Tanner's agent. Ohlmeyer had two questions for him. Did Tanner have a chance to win maybe one set and avoid a debacle?

Dell, a lawyer gifted in circumlocution, replied effusively: "No chance."

Then did Dell have any influence with the clubbies? Could he effect a delay? Ten minutes would be enough.

"No. But let me see what I can do."

Anyway, 2pm arrived - but there were no players. Was there hope? We went on the air warily. Minutes crept by. Our visuals of London and Wimbledon flooded the screen. Still no players appeared on court. Strange but good. After Enberg, Dell and I showed our faces and exhausted our wisdom in the 90-second stand-up, the all-important commercials began to roll.

Voila! As though on cue, at the first commercials' end, Borg and Tanner strode on to Centre Court and into our cameras. We gave them a more rousing reception than the multitude. "Perfect timing," the producer, Ted Nathanson, burbled into my earpiece. "We're saved."

But Part One of Tanner's NBC rescue was momentarily forgotten. Part Two was to be the piece de resistance, the match of Tanner's life, a thriller he very nearly stole from Borg 6-7 6-1 3-6 6-3 6-4 as brazenly as he had stolen those precious minutes from the traditional timetable.

Afterwards, Dell revealed that he'd asked Tanner to stall in the changing room if possible. He tried to make it sound casual, so as not to throw off his man before his career's foremost trial, saying something trivial, like the future of tennis in America depends, Roscoe, on your tardiness.

Tanner took it to heart. When Peter Morgan, the master of ceremonies, in charge of getting the combatants to the court on time, made his rounds Tanner was not in evidence. Morgan thought little of it at first, but then after a minute or so began conducting a search. Still no Tanner.

Roscoe had secreted himself in a lavatory cubicle. Morgan began knocking on doors. Reaching Tanner's, he heard a voice. "Be right out, Peter." Nerves, thought Morgan. "All right. Come along then, getting late." Tanner felt he could count on Morgan's propriety in not hauling him from the stall. Finally, waiting as long as he thought he could in good conscience, before they called in the Beefeaters to rouse him, Tanner emerged. Just right. The show went on, hardly anybody noticing the pause except grateful NBC.

Four years later, we came up with the empty Lewis v McEnroe match, which would probably have killed us had it been the first live transmission. This year we are beaming 40 hours to the US, our most ambitious production yet, and a far blab from 1972 when it started and we were reduced to airing abbreviated highlights to an audience that already knew the result. And the tape was subject to further cuts if the baseball game that preceded the tennis overran.

There was an upside to this, however. One year our camera panned over Princess Margaret in the Royal Box and inadvertently caught her making a nasal excavation. "Great forehand," analysed I. The Princess can thank a ball game that went to an extra- inning for saving her embarrassment. She wound up on the cutting room floor.

This year John McEnroe, who is considerably less reticent Borg, returns to the team and, after a year's maternity leave, so does Chris Evert. With Enberg, Hanna Stom and me rounding it out, we're proud to say that among the five of us we have six titles at the Big W (three each for Chris and John).

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