Wimbledon Almanack: Do adjust your sets

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The Independent Online
JOHN McEnroe will be back on Centre Court at Wimbledon this year. But referees need not invest in ear-plugs: his comments will be reserved for the viewers of NBC television. McEnroe will be commentating in NBC's little box on Centre Court (the one next to the scoreboard) with another US star whose finest days probably now await alongside, rather than on the court, Tracy Austin.

Behind the wall of studios and trucks at the back of Court 14, approached through tunnels hung with liana-like cables, the NBC 'compound' is a temporary oasis of Astroturf and hanging baskets. Bronzed, brisk women talk of the 'turnamint', of 'Wimpletin'.

Here NBC's producer, John McGuinness, commands 80 staff - 40 flown over, 40 from Britain. Almanack asked him how Wimbledon rates as a challenge. 'The Olympics is hardest to cover in terms of sheer scale,' he said, 'but Wimbledon would be right up there with any others in terms of difficulty. You have the weather to contend with, of course, and the uh . . . ' he smiled a little bitterly, 'the possibility that the senior players you need for competitive action may get knocked out early.'

How have his star commentators adapted to the challenges of their new careers? 'John McEnroe brings the same style to the commentary box as he did to the court,' his boss reckons. Forthright, then? 'He's not afraid to say if a player is 'choking', or to praise a younger player.' And Tracy Austin, a fresh recruit? 'Tracy is terrific. She brings us that immediate, locker-room stuff. After all, if it hadn't been for the injury she'd be out there on court.'

NBC's team are not the only American stars on commentary duty this year. Pam Shriver is juggling her BBC commitments with the Ladies' Doubles and a strong, alas short-lived, run in the singles. Almanack caught up with her after a tough singles victory. How difficult is it to combine the long-term view of the pundit with short-term concentration? 'It's an art-form in tennis to have so many conflicts,' she admitted. 'But the TV people are understanding. If I win, they let me tape the show. If I lose, I do the show live. Now more than ever I don't want to turn my back on my next life.'

Tracy Austin, in the Portakabin marked 'Talent' on the NBC compound, is modest about her broadcasting. 'If you practise,' she said, 'you get better all the time. But I've had compliments from some of the players and that, to me, is the highest praise.' What's it like to work in the little NBC box on Centre Court? 'It's a great seat. You're that close to the court, and yet it's so quiet. There's three of you in there, though, and the stats person, so it's pretty tight.' So how about a pundit's prediction: who does she expect to watch in the final? 'I'd love it to be Martina, she's the sentimental favourite. And from the other half of the draw, maybe one of the youngsters - Lindsay Davenport is strong.' She smiles, and excuses herself, and Tracy Austin, once the youngest star at Wimbledon and now tipping her successor, strides off to the studio.

(Photograph omitted)