By Blair Henley | Monday, April 14, 2014
Thanks to a nine-year contract extension with ESPN, Chris Fowler will continue to be the voice of championship tennis through 2023.
(Photo Credit: Frederick M. Brown / Getty)
A member of ESPN’s tennis broadcast team since 2003, Chris Fowler’s commentary sounds effortless to the outside observer, like a friendly, focused conversation with a fellow tennis fan. But enhancing the rhythm of a match without obscuring its natural beauty is much like a Roger Federer backhand – harder than it looks.
Though Fowler has played recreationally since childhood, his current position requires him to talk tennis with the game’s former greats before millions of educated tennis enthusiasts. There is no room for error, which has forced him to become a straight-A student of the game. And in an age where fans can instantly voice their feedback on social media channels, Fowler’s 341,000 Twitter followers seem to indicate mass appeal.
ESPN acknowledged Fowler’s value when they signed the 51-year-old to a nine-year contract extension in March. He’ll continue to cover all four Grand Slams and four Masters events as well as his wildly popular College GameDay show through 2023.
Though he may be better known for his college football work, Fowler’s consistency and passion on the tennis side have made him an integral part of ESPN’s ever-expanding coverage. He is responsible for drawing insightful commentary from the network’s stable of tennis analysts, no matter how moving or mundane a match happens to be. Like the ice cream in a sundae, Fowler provides an appealing foundation no matter what topping, or in this case, analyst, is added to the mix. ESPN’s Vice President of Event Production Jamie Reynolds explained why Fowler is an irreplaceable member of the team.
“He has to have the unique skill to be able to dance with John McEnroe, Chrissie Evert, Brad Gilbert or Darren [Cahill] on a given day,” Reynolds told Tennis Now. “When you think about having to shift gears from one match to another, that’s an art. He has to have firsthand knowledge of so many players. That requires a lot of discipline for a guy that spends a lot of his year doing college football.”
Does it feel like the script has been flipped in a way? In your career, you’ve covered sports contracts and now people are covering your extension.
It’s unusual to have a long-term deal, but there’s really not a lot else out there that I’d rather be doing. Tennis and college football are my two favorite sports, and it’s fun to be able to be in a place that takes both to the championship level. Being there for big matches and big football games is as good as it gets for me. The GameDay show, it’s going to be my 25th year. I take a lot of pride in that. It’s amazing to think about something that’s going to go through 2023, but it doesn’t feel daunting because I love the assignments.
Catch us up on your tennis background.
I’ve always been a tennis fan. I was born in ‘62, so I was about 10 years old when Jimmy Connors and Chrissie Evert came on the scene. That’s what brought me to the sport in the early '70s. I played every day as a kid. I was not terribly talented, but I loved to play. I don’t play as much now as I would like to. Manhattan is not the easiest place for tennis. At tournaments, I wish I had time to hit more. Gilbert, Darren and Patrick [McEnroe] are great teachers, Brad especially. My game is very rusty. My forehand breaks down under pressure. My second serve is dodgy, same problems as a lot of hackers (laughs).
Commentators seem to commonly transition within the big four sports, but a move to tennis is unusual. How did that come about?
I went to Wimbledon for the first time in ‘86 and went to a lot of domestic tournaments as a fan. It wasn’t a strange transition for me. I started at the Australian Open in 2003. That year, tennis became more important to ESPN. I transitioned out of college basketball to do tennis, and it was a great move for me. Now ESPN’s commitment to the game is much greater than it was back then. I feel like I jumped on board something that started to gain momentum. It’s been fun to watch ESPN acquire rights and have tennis gain the importance that it has now.
As you know, people have definite opinions about what makes a good commentator or analyst. Is there a formula for success?
I don’t think there is one formula for success, but there are qualities that are important. No. 1 is the passion for the sport. All of the guys I work with share that. It’s been their life and they love to stay in it, stay current. When you step into a match, we have excitement about being ringside for a match regardless of who it is.
The fascinating thing about my role in tennis is that you work with so many different styles and personalities. In other sports, you have established teams, and it’s easy to fall into a natural rhythm. With tennis, you never know who you’re going to be in the booth with, and my job is getting the most out of them. Tennis is something I didn’t fully appreciate before I got into it, but it’s a tricky sport to call. My role is setting up the storylines, being a keen observer of what I see on the court, and asking the right questions of [the analysts]. I have command of the info and the history of players so you can embellish what’s going on. You get accused of talking too much, but you can never please everyone’s tastes.
I get a lot of comments from people saying I’ve really improved. It’s a nice thing to hear, but it probably means I had a long way to go when I started (laughs). It was a new challenge back in 2003, but it takes time and reps and experience to gain a feel and appreciation of how to do this. I’m happy people were patient.
After his first-round match at the 2011 US Open, Andy Roddick famously told you that being a tennis analyst is the “easiest job in the world.” Where do you think it actually falls on the spectrum?
It’s definitely not the hardest, but not as easy as people think and not as easy as players think. I think Andy would be a very good analyst. He’s quick and current. That was a particular moment where he was running high. I don’t think he refuted what they were saying. I think he just voiced frustration that everyone was analyzing his game. Most of the players understand that we’re going to be fair, but we have to be critical if it’s justified. It’s not for me to criticize strategy or tactics, it’s more for me to bring those points out of the person I’m working with, to ask the right questions to get them to opine. It was Patrick and especially John that Andy was upset with (laughs).
Unlike most tennis commentators, you may not be immersed in the game day in and day out. How much do you have to research before a match?
I always do research. I look back at videos on YouTube. I watch a lot of tape of previous matches between two players. I love the numbers. I get accused of using stats too much, but I love them and what they reflect.
I’m not immersed in a daily basis, but I definitely follow tennis year round. I’m a huge consumer of Tennis Channel, and I watch matches on the computer. I love this spring Euro clay swing. Obviously, with the events leading up to [tournaments we cover], I’m watching day and night. I don’t think there is any substitute for staying involved in the sport year round, and I don’t believe it’s right to cram at the last minute. The one challenge that I have in that regard is the Australian Open because I do college football and the BCS Championship right down until the time I leave for Melbourne. There is a lot to catch up on, so I use the long flight down there. That’s the one time that the two major responsibilities that I have collide.
Click here to read Part II of our exclusive interview.