Update: ESPN announced this week the Serena Williams U.S. Open finale match scored the highest ratings ever for a tennis match drawing 4.6 million viewers.
This holiday weekend millions of tennis fans were glued to their TVs or streaming devices watching the 2022 U.S. Open. When we started this story on Friday, Serena Williams’s “evolution away from the sport” dominated the headlines. According to the U.S. Open, a record 29,402 fans showed up to watch Williams return to Arthur Ashe Stadium on Opening Night, the largest attendance ever recorded for an evening session. That number, combined with the Opening Day Session record of 41,930 fans, set the second-highest single-day attendance mark in US Open history: a total of 71,332 people. An estimated 3.2 million were watching the match on TV or online.
As the tournament has progressed, new stories began to dominate the news. The big story on Sunday was Australian Nick Kyrgios taking out number-one-ranked Daniil Medvedev of Russia. The next day, it was American Frances Tiafoe eliminating 22-time Gland Slam champion Raphael Nadel in a stunning upset.
“It’s professional sports, anything can happen,” said Zach Gilbert, Director of Tennis at the Los Angeles Tennis Club. Until he joined LATC int 2021, Gilbert spent nine years at ESPN covering all the major tournaments, the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon, and the U.S. Open. He was part of the team research and stats team supporting the tennis analysts and commentators presenting the match.
“Each match, each day, each tournament has a narrative arc,” said Gilbert. “The narrative for this tournament is Serena Williams. Serena is one of the biggest storylines in the sport in a really long time, maybe not since the retirement of Andre Agassi in 2006.”
We got a chance to sit down with Gilbert last week for the inside buzz on what it was like to work broadcasting a grand slam tennis tournament.
“It’s a huge team effort,” said Gilbert. “It’s awesome to get paid to watch a sport you love.”
“At ESPN, I was part of a five person team, all of us were steeped in the game and really love tennis, but I was the only one who played college level tennis, which really helped me anticipate what could happen in a match and what we might need to tell the story for the fans,” explained Gilbert. “We were always working one day ahead preparing notes on each player, looking at their stats, trends in their game and any personal issues like injuries that might be affect their play at the tournament. We’d feed all the information to the producer who would decide what material would be fed to the commentators.”
Gilbert also got to know the commentators and was able to anticipate what kind of questions they would have during the match. He has a great deal of respect for the commentators who do the job well.
“It takes a really special person to be able to assimilate all the information we are feeding them about every match and present it in a coherent, smooth voice while someone is likely giving them direction in their headset,” explained Gilbert.
“It’s also challenging to make a match compelling for fans, especially if it’s a blow out and one player is just dominating the scoreboard,” said Gilbert. “It’s much easier to call a close match where everyone is already on the edge of their seat.”
Gilbert, the oldest son of former professional player, author, commentator and coach Brad Gilbert, told us he got a chance to work a match as an intern when he was in college. He really enjoyed it and his bosses found he had an aptitude for the work. Gilbert told us he really appreciated the vote of confidence the got from Chris Fowler, one of the commentators who serves as the play-by-play announcer for ESPN’s tennis coverage, as well as Saturday Night Football on ABC. Gilbert also worked with Fowler for four years on College GameDay, which Fowler hosted between 1990 and 2014.
Gilbert’s last slam in person was in 2019, but he worked the 2020 U.S. Open remotely before deciding it was time to make a change and try something different. At one time, ESPN had nearly 600 staffers working at the U.S. Open with teams of 100-200 hundred covering for Wimbledon and between 100-200 for the French and Aussie Opens. But, like so many industries, the pandemic changed the way the networks cover the matches, allowing them to reduce staffing costs…so it seemed like a good time to pursue his other interests of coaching and teaching.
We had the chance to attend the opening day of this year’s U.S. Open. If you’ve never been, it’s an experience. Even if you are not a tennis player or an avid fan, it’s amazing to see the 400 or so best players in the world gather together for two weeks battling for the right to claim the championship title, not to mention the $2.6 million prize. It’s also amazing to catch a glimpse of what it takes to produce such a huge event that stretches over ten days. The extensive coverage makes the at home viewing experience just as good, sometimes better, especially if you don’t have great seats. We spent this past weekend watching as many matches as we could find but with a greater appreciation for all that goes into producing the broadcast and the research and stats that accompany the tennis analysis.
The tournament continues through next weekend, and we’re going to watching to keep up with the daily stories!
About Patricia Lombard
Patricia Lombard is the co-editor and publisher of the Larchmont Buzz. Patty lives with her family in Fremont Place. She has been active in neighborhood issues since moving here in 1989. Her pictorial history, "Larchmont" for Arcadia Press is available at Chevalier's Books.
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One thought on “Behind the Scenes at the US Open Open Tournament”
Great article, Patty! Love the story, the interview with Zach and the amazing photos. Great tennis!