As ESPN readies for its 10th Wimbledon and a new era of the famed event for U.S. tennis fans, a look back at the memorable moments since the network’s first tennis telecast – just one week after its September 1979 launch – shows the growth and impact of ESPN’s coverage over nearly 33 years.
The unprecedented all new, all live and all ESPN Wimbledon begins Monday, June 25, and concludes with the Ladies’ and Gentlemen’s Finals, July 7 and 8, respectively. The schedule includes ESPN, ESPN2, ESPN3, ESPN on ABC, ESPN 3D, ESPN Deportes, ESPN International, ESPN.com and more.
ESPN’s original lead commentator, Jim Simpson (left), worked many tennis events with Cliff Drysdale.
ESPN debuted September 7, 1979 and the first tennis telecast was exactly one week later, September 14, a Davis Cup tie, Argentina at U.S. from Memphis with Cliff Drysdale on the call. In one matchup, John McEnroe defeated Guillermo Vilas. Since then, tennis has provided many great moments over the last 33 years:
- A pair of Davis Cup marathons – in July 1982, John McEnroe defeats Mats Wilander in St. Louis ’82 (9-7, 6-2, 15-17, 3-6, 8-6. The match lasted 6 hours, 32 minutes and the entire 9:17 telecast was the longest live sports telecast on national television to that point) and Boris Becker beats McEnroe in Hartford July 1987 (4-6, 15-13, 8-10, 6-2, 6-2, in a match that lasts 6 hours, 39 minutes).
- Helena Sukova upsets Martina Navratilova 1-6, 6-3, 7-5 in the 1984 Australian Open semifinals, ending Navratilova’s record 74-match win streak and thwarting her attempt at a seventh consecutive Grand Slam title.
- Michael Chang fights off exhaustion (even serving underhanded) in a long match en route to his 1989 French Open title.
- Numerous successes of Serena and Venus Williams, including unseeded Serena’s surprising 2007 Australian Open championship and her four other titles Down Under.
- Andy Roddick’s epic 21-19 fifth set vs. Younes el-Aynaoui in the 2003 Australian Open quarterfinals.
- Arguably the biggest upset in Wimbledon history as defending champion and #1 seed Lleyton Hewitt loses in the first round in 2003 by unknown qualifier Ivo Karlovic.
- The final 90 minutes of the longest match in tennis history (later surpassed at Wimbledon 2010, Isner-Mahut) – 6 hours and 33 minutes between Fabrice Santoro vs. Arnaud Clement at the 2004 French Open with Santoro surviving 6-4, 6-3, 6-7 (5), 3-6, 16-14.
- In a February 2004 first-round Davis Cup match in Connecticut, Andy Roddick records the fastest serve in tennis history, 150 mph, against Stefan Koubek of Austria. Later in the year, Roddick tops that mark with serves of 152 mph 155 mph effort, also in Davis Cup.
- In the November 2004, Roger Federer defeats Marat Safin 6-3, 7-6 (20-18) in the semifinals of the Tennis Masters Cup in Houston. The 38-point tiebreaker equals the longest tiebreaker in tennis history, accomplished just twice previously since it was created in 1970.
- ESPN2 sticks with live coverage of the 2008 Australian Open through two scheduled breaks, resulting in 14 hours, 43 minutes of consecutive live tennis (Friday at 9:54 p.m. – Saturday 12:37 p.m.), no doubt the longest live sports telecast in U.S. history. It was followed by a scheduled reair until 5 p.m., resulting in 19+ straight hours of tennis. The action was highlighted by three five-set matches: James Blake winning 4-6, 2-6, 6-0, 7-6, 6-2 over Sebastien Grosjean; Roger Federer outlasting Janko Tipsarevic 6-7, 7-6, 5-7, 6-1, 10-8; and Lleyton Hewitt ousting Marcos Baghdatis 4-6, 7-5, 7-5, 6-7 (4), 6-3 in a match that ended at 4:32 a.m. in Melbourne. The fifth sets were aired commercial-free.
- At the 2009 Australian Open men’s semifinals, top-seeded Rafael Nadal outlasts fellow Spaniard #14 Fernando Verdasco 6-7 (4), 6-4, 7-6 (2), 6-7 (1), 6-4, the longest match in the tournament’s history (5:14, and surpassed in 2012). Just 48 hours later, Nadal wins another five-setter, denying #2 Roger Federer a record-tying 14th Grand Slam title, 7-5, 3-6, 7-6(3), 3-6, 6-2.
- At the 2009 Wimbledon Championships, ESPN2 televises the first match played completely under Centre Court’s new retractable roof. Andy Murray thrilled the home crowd with a 2-6, 6-3, 6-3, 5-7, 6-3 victory over Stanislas Wawrinka. The match ended at 10:38 p.m. local time, by far, of course, the latest ever at Wimbledon. The previous latest match was ended at 9:49 p.m. in 2006, limited by the settting sun.
- In 2009, at ESPN’s first-ever US Open – completing a “Grand Slam” – more than 100 hours on ESPN2 includes the network’s two most-watched tennis telecasts. In addition, the Women’s Final, postponed a day by rain and, along with a men’s semifinal, added to ESPN2’s schedule, saw 2005 champion and wild card entry Kim Clijsters win in only her third tournament following a two-year retirement to get married and give birth. She defeated #9 Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark 7-5, 6-3, to become the first mom to win a major title since Yvonne Goolagong Cawley at Wimbledon in 1980.
- Opening day 2010 is the longest day ever at Wimbledon, with thrilling five-setters bookending the day. Roger Federer rallied from two sets down to defeat Alejandro Falla, and later the Centre Court roof was used to continue the Olivier Rochus-Novak Djokovic match, making for an 11.5-hour telecast – all live – on ESPN2. Djokovic won just before the 11 p.m. local time curfew.
- In 2010, on the day Queen Elizabeth II makes her first appearance at Wimbledon since 1977, American John Isner and Nicolas Mahut of France conclude the first-round match started two days earlier with a multi-record-breaking 6-4, 3-6, 6-7, 7-6, 70-68 score. Stopped for darkness on Tuesday, June 22 after four sets and nearly 3 hours of play, the fifth set started Wednesday and each held serve to 59-59 when darkness fell a second evening. After more than an hour of play Thursday – making for a total of 11 hours, 5 minutes – the American triumphed in the longest match (in time and in games) in tennis history (the 8 hour, 11 minute, 138-game fifth set alone would hold the record). Each player broke the record for Aces in a tennis match.
- With the 2010 US Open men’s final delayed a day to Monday, and then again by rain at 4-4 in the second set, the action moves from CBS to ESPN2 and Rafael Nadal completes a career Grand Slam, defeating Novak Djokovic 6-4, 5-7, 6-4, 6-2.
- In the fourth round of the 2011 Australian Open, Francesca Schiavone defeats Svetlana Kuznetsova in the longest women’s match ever at a Grand Slam event – 6-4, 1-6, 16-14. The match lasted 4:44.
- In tennis’ longest Grand Slam final ever, No. 1 Novak Djokovic outlasts No. 2 Rafael Nadal 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-7 (5), 7-5 in 5 hours and 53 minutes at the 2012 Australian Open on ESPN2. It was Djokovic’s fourth title in the last five Majors.
ESPN – All Four Slams, All In One Place
Tennis has been part of ESPN since its first week on the air and provided many memorable moments, but it has never been as important as today, with the US Open joining the lineup in 2009, giving ESPN all four Grand Slam events, something no other U.S. network has ever done, let alone in one year. ESPN has presented the Australian Open since 1984, the French Open since 2002 (plus 1986 – 1993), and Wimbledon since 2003, with exclusivity for live television with all other rights extended in a 12-year agreement starting in 2012.
ESPN debuted September 7, 1979, and the first tennis telecast was exactly one week later, September 14, a Davis Cup tie, Argentina at U.S. from Memphis with Cliff Drysdale on the call and John McEnroe playing.
In addition, broadband network ESPN3, now in nearly 72 million homes, carries thousands of hours of tennis annually, including all four Grand Slam events, plus ATP 1000 and 500 tournaments and WTA Premier Events, and season-ending championships for both tours. Also, ESPN Classic shows great matches from the past and the sport receives extensive coverage on SportsCenter, ESPNEWS, Spanish-language ESPN Deportes, ESPN Radio, ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. ESPN 3D aired its first tennis at Wimbledon in 2011.