Sporting Life

From director's cabin to commentary box, a different view of tennis

Outside the Indoor Stadium, in an air-conditioned hut, a very pleasant man from Macclesfield in England, whose own tennis game is best not discussed, is about to decide what you are going to see as Caroline Garcia plays Caroline Wozniacki.

Nic Mills, director of the broadcast, sees more forehands all year than any rational human should have to, but it's not tennis he truly loves but TV. If players produce a fine geometry then he is the master of angles.

He sits in front of a wall of 30 screens (multiple cameras, replay screens, HawkEye, statistics), fingers poised like a concentrated pianist, but in fact he is a conductor. His orchestra includes sound men who manage 15 microphones, graphics folk and the people manning the 10 cameras on court.

"Seven minutes to The Walk," says Mills into his microphone, referring not to the fine film on a tightrope artist but the tense stroll which players make onto court. If you can taste the emotion of sport in your living room, then Mills is doing his job.

I am watching the first set alongside Mills as pictures are beamed to 38 international broadcasters worldwide by a team of over 50 people here, who are taking sound, numbers, visuals and turning every telecast into its own movie.

The cabin is quiet and Mills is talking in shorthand.

Nic Mills directing the broadcast of the match between Caroline Garcia and Caroline Wozniacki yesterday. The images are beamed to 38 international broadcasters worldwide by a team of over 50 people here.
Nic Mills directing the broadcast of the match between Caroline Garcia and Caroline Wozniacki yesterday. The images are beamed to 38 international broadcasters worldwide by a team of over 50 people here. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

"5 next, 5, 2 next, 2, standby 7, 7."

"Five next" means that the next image to be shown on your TV will arrive from camera five which is showing a stoic coach. It means camera five shouldn't wander off and find a nose-picking kid. When Mills says "five" it means that camera five is now live. It's on our screens.

Wozniacki is giving Garcia a public spanking early on and their fathers arrive on court. Lectures will soon follow. Coaches have to be miked up but are sometimes resistant and turn off mikes and later feign surprise. Right now it scarcely matters for the fathers of the two Carolines are understandable only to speakers of French and Polish.

Wozniacki leads 6-0 and I leave Mills' cabin and ascend to the attic of the stadium. In a small commentary shed, where foam is taped on walls in a rough attempt at sound-proofing, Alicia Molik and Mikey Perera are talking to the world.

Perera's diction probably has schoolteachers swooning and he is known to dance in the box with Mary Pierce at changeovers. Molik is a former Top Tenner in singles and doubles and is a penetrating Australian who recognises the value of silence in TV commentary.

Perera is enthusiastic, Molik is incisive. The toughest thing, she says, "is having enough time to explain thoroughly what you are trying to articulate". He searches through his computer for facts, she rummages through her memory for stories. She has never played Wozniacki, whose tennis temporarily resembles precision engineering, but tells tales of Martina Hingis' skill and how Elena Dementieva ran down balls. She is bringing colour to the pictures.

At their very best, those who talk tennis and film it can elevate the game, for they are the conveyors and translators of an athletic form. What is sport without its sound, its voices and its intimacy of pictures which let us feel a game?

A "net camera" is at work for the first time on the tour and it captures the speed of advancing players: If they volleyed more we would get balletic pictures. Meanwhile Garcia, a lean, limber player, who hits her forehand as if she's cracking Indiana Jones' whip, starts to play with an aggressive bravery and leaves even those who deal in words somewhat speechless.

"Oh wow", says Perera after a sublime point. It is a pithily appropriate description of Garcia's comeback.

At their very best, those who talk tennis and film it can elevate the game, for they are the conveyors and translators of an athletic form. What is sport without its sound, its voices and its intimacy of pictures which let us feel a game?

Outside light is dying, inside Garcia has won. WTA Media, which is a joint venture between the WTA and the Perform Group, a digital sports content and media group, has delivered over 2,000 matches this year and yet its work is not done yet.

It records every match it telecasts on USB sticks and sends them to the players' lounge. I wonder when the players watch the replays if they ever realise that in tennis' grand theatre there are more artists at work than those with the rackets.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 28, 2017, with the headline 'From director's cabin to commentary box, a different view of tennis'. Print Edition | Subscribe