Emmy Award-winning broadcaster and former tennis star Mary Carillo recently came to Wilmington to support the Rodney Street Tennis and Tutoring Association. Carillo teamed with childhood neighbor John McEnroe to win the French Open mixed doubles title in 1977.
TownSquareDelaware: You’re in town to support the Rodney Street Tennis and Tutoring Association – a really fantastic local program promoting tennis, education and life skills. How did you come to be involved in this effort?
Mary Carillo: Over the years the USTA (United States Tennis Association) has supported this great organization. [Former USTA President, and local resident] Jane Brown, who has spent so much time helping Rodney Street, told me about it, and asked if I could spend a day here to see their great work and I’m so glad I have.
TSD: Have you been to Delaware before?
MC: I have been in Delaware over the years… I have friend here and they are going to be here supporting [the RSTTA event] – I have looked forward to this, this time of year especially.
TSD: Tennis has become an increasingly international sport – more and more of the elite players hail from Europe and Asia … and it seems like fewer each year from the US. How do you account for that? Is tennis any less popular than when you were coming up?
MC: I was so lucky, because I came around to tennis in its boom years in the early 70’s and 80’s. I got to play tennis at the time when you didn’t have to be a great player to be a professional. I honestly think there was such a great tennis boom in the 70’s because there were so many good American players. When I was growing up Billy Jean King was my idol. And then there was Arthur Ashe and then Jimmy Connors and Chris Everett and John McEnroe. So we had this wealth of talent, and it just seemed to keep coming and coming. Not necessarily born out of any great tennis federation in the country. A lot of them were kids with first generation parents like Michael Chang, Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi — people who would come from another country to raise their kids here and the kids and their parents were hungry for success.
It’s a great pity [the decline in US tennis]. France is a very healthy tennis country. Argentina, Spain is exploding. So many athletes in our country want to be Kobe Bryant or NFL star and in Spain and especially in a small country like Serbia, Novak Djokovic has made tennis a bigger sport than soccer. A bigger sport than basketball. So in those small countries where people are trying to change their economic situation, they can use tennis as a tool to get out in a manner of ways. That’s still a very big piece of it I think. And there are so many different things to point to…And the other big thing I think is that a lot of best players in the world grow up on clay and American kids don’t. And clay teaches offense, it teaches defense, it teaches patience it teaches fitness. And I think it is a very good move that in the last several years the USTA has tried to bring clay court tennis to kids at a younger age.
TSD: Tens of millions of dollars in US college scholarships go to foreign-born players each year and some American tennis watchers are voicing concern that this comes at the expense of US athletes. What’s your take on this trend?
MC: What do you do? Do you put a cap on the number of foreigners you take? I don’t know that we have encouraged our young players enough to go to college. They’re turning pro. A lot of them aren’t even taking high school seriously. There was a very famous story that Lindsay Davenport told. She skips the tournament right before Wimbledon because she wants to go to her high school graduation. It meant something to her. So, she shows up, cold, at Wimbledon that year in the locker room waving her diploma. And she says “not a lot of you have ever seen one of these babies before” So, what do you do? What coach is going to turn them [foreign players] away? But it’s a pity that it’s gone that way.
TSD: How did you first break-in to broadcasting?
MC: I played professional tennis. Not very well and not very long but. I quit in 1980, and a producer had heard me do some walk-on commentary one night. And my knee had blown out for pretty much the last time. USA Network was starting to cover women’s tennis and he had asked me if I wanted to do it, and I was unemployed at the time. So I ended up doing a couple of women’s tournaments for USA Network, and we did a few more the next year, and then I started covering men’s tennis so it became an actual profession. I was teaching tennis as well and doing other things. So that’s how it started.
TSD: What is the best match you ever covered?
MC: I was around for Jimmy Connor’s great run in 1991 at the U.S. Open when at the age of 39 he got himself all the way to the semis, which is still one of the great runs. I’ve called a lot of Rodger Federer’s great matches. Lindsay Davenport playing Venus when Lindsay had match point on her at Wimbledon, and Venus still figured out a way to win. Monica Seles and Stefi Graf, Martina and Chris … My favorite Davis Cup was the U.S. against France in Lyon… I’ve been very, very lucky.
TSD: The best players? Federer?
MC: Certainly, of the best I’ve ever seen I’d put Federer above everyone else, but I don’t even know if Roger will be the best player of his time. Rafa Nadal has a winning record over him, is catching up in majors and is five years younger than him. I loved Pete Sampras, such an exquisite player. When I was young, I thought Rod Laver was the greatest, I’m a lefty myself, I loved how he played, how he comported himself. Among the most talented I’d include John McEnroe, Steffi Graff. But if you’re talking singles, doubles, mixed – I’d say Martina (Navratilova) for sure. Monica Seles, she might have been better than anyone if she had not been attacked.
TSD: Tennis is a small community – do you find it difficult to be candid, and even tough, in your assessment of a player’s performance when you are bound to be running into them pretty regularly?
MC: Yes, its not easy…I tend to say what I think. I don’t go out of my way to be diplomatic if it is an outrage. I’d like to think I have considered opinions. I’ve been in everyone’s penalty box over the years. Do you say it or do you hold back? More often than not I say it, knowing the consequences. I get paid to say what I think.
TSD: You’ve also covered the Olympics, both winter and summer games. How does that compare to commenting on individual tennis matches?
MC: The first couple of Olympics I did were Winter Olympics. And then I did some tennis in Sydney. And that’s not what I wanted to cover anymore. At the Olympics you want to do team sports – they need to change that, to play as a team. It is very different. I really like team sports.
TSD: Do you still play competitively? Do your children play tennis?
MC: I play sometimes. My knees – I’ve had four surgeries. I still play with my kids and my friends – I’m playing Monday … I auctioned myself off for my kid’s high school. I try now, but I don’t move well. I try and hit good shots from very bad positions.
TSD: What kind of advice would you give a junior player on the rise?
MC: Their level of commitment is what its all about. They have to know, especially if they are men, all they have to do is look at the top men players and see how incredibly committed and fit and focused they are. And if they are a girl, I’d tell them they have to work on their serves (laughs) – the biggest problem in women’s tennis these days is holding serve. Everyone’s got big swinging returns but there isn’t a woman on the tour – when Serena’s not around – who can hold serve with any regularity. So I tell girls to hold serve!