Simon Reed has become one of the undisputed voices of tennis. Since 1995, he has been Head of Commentators for Eurosport and has taken many of us through the most memorable moments in the sport over the past three decades. From the ferocious atmosphere of a Davis Cup final to the red dirt of Roland Garros, Reed has an engaging way of sharing the story of a tennis match.
In this exclusive interview with journalist Stuart Appleby, conducted during the 2011 US Open, Simon talks about how he started his journalistic career in BBC Radio, the art of commentating, his favourite moments with the mic and what John McEnroe is like to commentate with.
Q) Simon, take me back to the start of your career in broadcasting…
“It all started for me at BBC Radio London and it was back in the late 1960’s. It was a terrific learning experience for me. I was doing sports news bulletins that led into the main news programme and then I was doing the live sports programme on a Saturday afternoon for up to four hours.
“My background was in newspapers and I was the Sports Editor of the Croydon Times. I then moved to the BBC first as staff and then moved into freelancing. Over a period of time I was doing interviews and working on news desks at BBC Radio 4, BBC Radio 2 as it was then, BBC World Service, BBC Radio London and getting involved in a whole variety of programming. I was always picking up new skills along the way.”
Q) Having learnt your trade as a journalist, what was it like to move into sport commentary?
“The first commentary I did was actually in Figure skating for ITV, I was working with them and they got a contract. It was something I quite liked the idea of doing and it was a great chance for me. However, my sporting background was in cricket and when Sky (Sports) started I began working on their cricket coverage. I hosted it and commentated on cricket for a couple of years but then I could see the ways things were going.
“It looked like there was going to be a lock-in of Test players and players who had played at the highest level moving into cricket broadcasting. The powers that be, didn’t see journalist-broadcasters like myself having a role in cricket commentary. I thought this was a great mistake but that’s the way it has been and I think cricket has suffered as a result.
“I still believe there’s a strong rule for a journalist-broadcaster to have a role in cricket commentary. I mean I played cricket at quite a high level (captaining the national champions, Teddington in the 1980’s) and I know enough about cricket to commentate and to provoke the other co-commentator to work a bit harder than these guys do now. Anyway, I argued the toss and I could see the way things were going.
“Meanwhile, Channel 4, who I was doing quite a lot of work for started covering the Davis Cup. I went to both Australia and Sweden to cover Davis Cup Finals and realised that tennis was a fantastic sport to commentate on. I see it as a cross between chess and boxing – I think it’s the best sport to commentate on and I’ve got no regrets. With my background being in cricket, I had to learn tennis along the way.”
Q) What is the key to becoming a good commentator?
“I think heavy research is essential and an ability to get the best out of the colour commentator who is working with you. It’s important that the leading commentator works hard to find out what type of person the colour commentator is and how you can get the best out of them.
“Having a good voice is also vital and a personality that viewers appreciate. Sometimes people with a voice that a viewer doesn’t appreciate can say off the wall remarks or make mistakes and if the general audience doesn’t like that voice – that’s when criticism floods in. It’s almost subliminal.
“If the viewer likes the voice that is giving the wrong information and I’ve been guilty in my life of making mistakes like everybody else has of giving wrong information and making mistakes then that helps you. I’m lucky that I’ve got a voice that people don’t take offence to. I haven’t received as much criticism as maybe I should have! It’s a vital allie for commentators to have a voice that is viewer friendly.”
Q) Having commentated on some memorable matches over the years, particularly in each of the four Grand Slams, do you have any commentating highlights?
“Early on, I can remember when Sweden won the Davis Cup in 1984 and beat the USA who had Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe playing for them. That was the moment I really thought that tennis is the sport for me. It was just fantastic that this youthful country (who had new stars emerging) could beat the Americans. They were soundly beaten and that was an uplifting experience for me.
“Lately, the great matches this year, Novak Djokovic’s performances in the semi-finals and final of the US Open standout. In addition, the match between Marat Safin and Roger Federer in the semi-final of the Australian Open in 2005 was a fantastic match. Federer had match point in the fourth set and ended up losing the match in five. I think that was probably the best match I’ve ever seen.”
Q) Of course, we see you in the commentary box at Wimbledon every year and you have co-commentated alongside some of the best players to have ever picked up a tennis racket. Specifically, what is it like to commentate on matches at SW19 alongside John McEnroe?
“It’s exhausting. To gain McEnroe’s respect you have to be concentrating 100% of the time and not put a word out of place because as soon as you say something that is incorrect or he doesn’t fancy, then he just switches off. You have to engage him for however long the match lasts, concentrate for the whole time and get to know him, if you want to get the best out of him. I always come away from matches that I’ve been commentating with McEnroe feeling absolutely exhausted. It’s a total concentration thing.”
Q) Recently, you wrote a piece on your Eurosport blog commentating that you believe Novak Djokovic is the best player you’ve ever seen, what grounds do you hold this opinion on?
“I think it’s a tricky one and is subjective to a large degree. Let’s roll the clock back a couple of years and Federer was regarded the best player not just of his generation but the best player of all time. He won 16 major titles, he played pretty tennis that everyone loved and very few people were not calling him the best player of all time. Along the way, even at that time, he was being beaten two-thirds of the time by Rafael Nadal. For me, at that stage, it was difficult to call Federer the best of all time as he was consistently being beaten by his closest rival.
“Nadal has probably been the best player over the last three years and has Federer’s standard dropped during that time? Maybe it did for a year but right now he is playing as well as ever. In the last year, Djokovic has reinvented himself and now not only is he better than Federer but he’s comfortably better than Nadal – he beats him everytime they play. So for me there’s an argument that says Djokovic is the best player I’ve ever seen. To mark him down as the greatest player of all time, he’s got to win Grand Slams for the next two or three years. Djokovic at his best surely beats every other player at their best.
“Frew McMillan thinks that Lew Hoad is the best player he ever saw and I understand that. If you gave Hoad the modern training techniques, equipment and everything that applies to the modern day player (including the mental and physical approach) then there’s an argument that Hoad, perhaps even Rod Laver were better. It’s a tricky one and it’s difficult to be adamant about it, but who has been the best player over the last five or six years? I’m sure that’s Novak Djokovic.”
Q) You mentioned Frew McMillan in your previous answer, he is someone who you have co-commentated with for many years, what is it that makes it such a good partnership between you both?
“When you work with someone as long as I’ve worked with Frew, it’s almost like a marriage really, a ‘sixth sense’. You know when he wants to speak, he knows when I’m getting into a hole and he can dig me out of it. He knows when I want to quickly come back on something he said. Over and above that, I value his opinion more than anybody in tennis so that makes commentating with him a joy. He’s also quite funny and he keeps in touch with the modern game. He’s 69-years-old but he’s still very much in touch with the modern game. For me he’s a stand out. McEnroe is very, very good and so are Jimmy Connors and others but for me Frew’s the top.”
Click below to listen to the full length audio version of this interview. Simon commentates on tennis throughout the year on Eurosport and on the BBC during Wimbledon.