- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 2, 2009

Earlier this week, NBC Sports issued a statement boasting of its 30-year run in televising “Breakfast at Wimbledon.”

Ignored amid the self-congratulation was this: The network’s coverage of Grand Slam tennis has become one of the most loathed things in sports.

NBC once produced memorable coverage of tennis greats from McEnroe and Borg to Agassi, Sampras and Federer.

These days, the network is thoroughly reviled for its inability and refusal to show matches as they happen.

Time and again over the past two weeks, NBC aired tape-delayed coverage of Wimbledon matches rather than broadcast other matches live. The network did the same at the French Open, clinging to a practice as out-of-date as a wooden racket.

The result is a wave of unhappy fans, who have voiced their disdain on Twitter and other social-networking platforms.

Consider the fan experience Wednesday. The network began its coverage at 10 a.m. with tape of Roger Federer’s already-completed match against Ivo Karlovic - even as, unseen by NBC’s audience, Tommy Haas was pulling a major upset of fourth-seeded Novak Djokovic.

NBC then made a bad situation worse by sticking with taped tennis rather than showing matches involving two popular players, Andy Murray and Andy Roddick, that were getting under way.

Not until ESPN2 took over coverage at 1 p.m. were fans on the East Coast able to see live coverage of the remainder of a very exciting quarterfinal match between Roddick and Lleyton Hewitt.

“I don’t understand why NBC can’t show LIVE tennis. It really annoys me,” one irate fan wrote on Twitter.

“Why oh why can NBC not show the matches live? A business deal gone awry and not tennis fan friendly,” another wrote.

With the on-court stakes still higher Thursday, NBC offers only more of the same: Both women’s semifinal matches will be shown on tape delay.

None of NBC’s explanations are particularly satisfying.

The network declines to pre-empt its popular “Today” show, forcing tennis coverage to start at 10 a.m., at least two hours after matches have begun.

NBC also refuses to pre-empt its daytime drama lineup - leaving Wimbledon with a window of only 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.

NBC could show matches live in that window, but the network prefers tape-delay coverage because it fears it won’t be able to show live matches in their entirety before going off the air.

To its credit, NBC makes Wimbledon matches available live online free of charge. But such online broadcasts are meant to supplement, not replace, a network’s television coverage.

Online broadcasts are handy for fans who aren’t near a television - at the office, for example - or in instances when two or more events take place at the same time.

NBC will show the men’s and women’s finals live this weekend, as they have the past three decades.

“It makes a big, big difference watching stuff live,” NBC tennis analyst Mary Carillo said of the network’s decision to begin showing the finals live in 1979. “I remember being very affected by it. Those are moments that you just remember when it’s right there in front of you and you don’t know what’s going to happen. There’s nothing better.”

Carillo’s comment is ironic given NBC’s fetish for broadcasting matches on tape delay in every round of the tournament except the finals.

There is another irony here: The man in charge is Dick Ebersol, the chairman of NBC Universal Sports & Olympics. Few people are more respected than Ebersol. In May, SportsBusiness Journal named him its “sports executive of the year,” singling out NBC’s coverage of the Beijing Olympics last year.

If NBC Sports wants to keep its rights to Wimbledon and the French Open, the network should pre-empt other programming to broaden its coverage window. Failing that, NBC should negotiate for rights to show matches on NBC Universal’s cable networks, as it has done for Olympic events.

Without a change, the network’s vaunted history of televising tennis will be tarnished - like an old pro way past his prime.

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