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Review — Don Van Natta’s “Serena Versus The Umpire”

Matt Zemek

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Robert Deutsch - USA TODAY Sports

I didn’t WANT or NEED more coverage of the Serena Williams-Carlos Ramos clash in the 2018 U.S. Open women’s final, with Naomi Osaka relegated to the background, but I did receive it.

Therefore, I had to evaluate it.

You can say, quite reasonably, that ESPN/ABC is engaging in overkill by dedicating one hour to the Serena-Ramos drama a year ago in New York.

You can very reasonably point out that tennis shouldn’t get more attention solely for an ugly incident.

You can very accurately and rightly note that tennis ought to get one-hour special presentations on American broadcast television for good reasons, not bad ones. Why not an hour on Serena’s luminous career? Why not an hour on the Big 3? Why not an hour on U.S. Open history, or on the prevalence of Russian-born players making their way to the United States and creating new and prosperous lives?

Why focus on THIS?

It is all reasonable. It is all logical. I agree.

Again, I didn’t want or need more Serena-Ramos coverage in this week before the 2019 U.S. Open begins… and yet, we received it.

The fact might be disappointing, but it is nevertheless important: A large mainstream media entity — ESPN (in conjunction with ABC) — gave tennis this platform.

As the editor of a tennis blog based in the United States, I think I have to review this hour of TV. I wouldn’t be doing my job (sufficiently) if I ignored this.

So, here is my review of Don Van Natta’s latest edition of his occasional series, “Backstory.”

This episode: “Serena Versus The Umpire,” which first aired on Sunday and will air again in the coming days.

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Given how complicated, divisive and explosive the 2018 U.S. Open women’s final became, I don’t think it was or is reasonable to expect Don Van Natta — or anyone else — to provide a one-hour report which will make everyone happy or satisfy every constituency or vantage point.

Let’s be clear about that reality up front: Do not expect your views to be fully vindicated by this program, if you haven’t yet seen it. This story contained too many competing tension points for only one or two to dominate or overshadow everything else. An honest telling of this story, in a journalistically responsible way, was going to get at the story from several different angles.

Van Natta and his team — in terms of the people they interviewed, the actual match contents provided (audio, video, behind the scenes), and their evaluation of the story itself — did a commendable job.

The focus of this report was necessarily wide-ranging. Many different voices were consulted to offer a fair reflection of the competing vantage points involved in the drama. Every position on this story (or at least, 97 percent of all possible positions one could take) received a fair hearing. You might say your set of views wasn’t perfectly represented, but every viewpoint was presented honestly and gained at least a minute or two of explanation.

For a one-hour program, that’s not bad at all. Two hours would have demanded that specific views gained more explanation, but one hour (minus commercial breaks) should not have been expected to do much more than represent the key tension points of the story.

Van Natta talked to former players who are now TV commentators. He also talked to independent journalists, a former chair umpire (retired), a linesperson, people from the USTA, Patrick Mouratoglou, black journalists and commentators, a black female culture writer, and tennis writers. Van Natta did not leave major gaps in his story.

The program included all the relevant audio clips of the interactions between Serena and Carlos Ramos during and immediately after the women’s final (on the court). The program included the video of Mouratoglou’s signals.

Viewers were walked through the various important points of the story. The report focused on the material in the story. In its latter 15 to 20 minutes, the report explored the nature of the rules of tennis and what should be considered to adjust them in the wake of last September’s events.

This program was a lot less sensationalist and tabloid-oriented than I feared it would be. Yes, there was some cultural criticism — the kind of “woke identity” content which is (in my opinion) far too prevalent in mainstream tennis coverage — but not too much of it.

Van Natta’s balance or mixture of content (again) won’t satisfy everyone. If you watch his program, love it or hate it, this much is clear: He stuck with the central substance of the story. He might not have taken it in a direction you personally liked, but he didn’t turn this into an hour of TV which was meant to generate a cheap emotional reaction.

Van Natta used this hour the way it should have been used: to attempt to educate an audience about the fuller context of a complicated story, what it means today, and what can be done (if anything) to address it.

I thought it was a very impressive production which will leave viewers thinking that their intelligence was respected. They might not like the ultimate conclusions or verdicts, but they will not walk away from the TV thinking they were talked down to. We could use more hours of TV which were as levelheaded and exploratory as this one.

If I had one central critique of this program, it is that the selection of some of the experts left something to be desired. This is nitpicking — I am aware of that — but it remains that if one is to deliver the BEST possible report on a given subject, picking the BEST experts (not merely the moderately good or sometimes enlightening ones) is essential.

Van Natta interviewed Chris Evert, for instance… and not Tracy Austin. Evert has her good moments, but she is not one of the very best tennis commentators in the world. Austin is CLEARLY better, and while that might not be a unanimous view among people in the global tennis industry, it is certainly a majority view.

Yes, Evert works for ESPN, and this was an ESPN production, but is it more important to do something “in house,” or do it right?

To get the chair umpire’s point of view, Van Natta interviewed Norm Chryst, who umpired several U.S. Open men’s singles finals.

Chryst was a decent chair umpire, but I can recall him being hit-or-miss in some of his bigger assignments. Pascal Maria, to give but one example among others, would have made a much better choice.

Seeking “experts” at tennis commentary or chair umpiring who aren’t or weren’t the very best in those fields slightly undercut what Van Natta tried to achieve.

Yet, all in all, viewers who watch this program in the coming days will get something much more responsible and measured — and good — than they might have feared.

Van Natta and his team should feel happy about what they did. That’s no small thing on a topic which was — and is — this controversial, nearly 12 months after it blew up in front of a global audience.

Matt Zemek is the co-editor of Tennis With An Accent with Saqib Ali. Matt is the lead writer for the site and helps Saqib with the TWAA podcast, produced by Radio Influence at radioinfluence.com. Matt has written professionally about men's and women's tennis since 2014 for multiple outlets: Comeback Media, FanRagSports, and independently at Patreon, where he maintains a tennis site. You can reach Matt by e-mail: mzemek@hotmail.com. You can find him on Twitter at @mzemek.

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