Before Mary Carillo ever began her pro tennis career, she knew it would be a short one because of chronically bad knees. Still, she made the most of her brief opportunity. She and partner John McEnroe won the mixed doubles at the French Open in 1977, and she eventually rose to 33rd in the world on the women’s tennis circuit. Then, at age 23, it was over.
What did the future hold? Well, all Carillo had to do was look skyward—toward the broadcast booth. Over the past 27 years, she has become one of the leading TV sports journalists and currently is under contract with four separate networks. As an analyst at the major tennis tournaments, she works alternately for CBS, NBC and ESPN. She’s also done documentaries for HBO on subjects as diverse as track, horseracing and golf. "And I’ve never played a round of golf in my life," she says, laughing. No matter. Carillo is a born storyteller—"I love the power of words," she says—and her talent has been further recognized with Peabody Awards for two of her documentaries.
Carillo first came to Naples in 1991 with her former husband, Bill Bowden, who is director of Pelican Bay’s tennis, fitness and community center programs. She has a cottage in Old Naples, and Bowden and the couple’s two children—Anthony, a college junior, and Rachel, 16, a student at Seacrest Country Day School—live nearby. Even though Carillo also has a place in Greenwich Village, she says, "Naples is my primary residence. It’s a great change of pace from all my work."
Q: Let’s start with John McEnroe. You’ve been his childhood playmate, a fellow pupil of famed tennis coach Harry Hopman, John’s doubles partner, his broadcast partner and, presumably, his friend. But have there been some difficult times along the way because of his notorious temper?
A: Oh, sure. Growing up in Douglaston, N.Y., I played baseball with him, and other sports, and I had to tell him plenty of times that I disapproved of some of his actions. Then, when I went into broadcasting, and he was still playing, I was critical of him for defaulting out of the Australian Open in the early ’90s. He had forgotten that they had changed the rules about how many warnings you were allowed. So he cursed out the chair umpire once too often, and they threw him out. He thought I was being a bad friend by criticizing him, and I just thought I was being an accurate journalist.
Q: Did he ever forgive you?
A: Last Thursday he started getting over it (laughs). Even now, when we’re on the air together, we certainly have disagreements. But I think we do it with respect, and I think people get a kick out of the fact that we have differing opinions. It keeps things lively.
Q: Among today’s players, how would you assess the careers, for example, of Venus and Serena Williams?
A: Venus has proven to be the best grass-court player of her generation, winning Wimbledon four times. For most of her career she’s been faster and fitter than Serena, and the best athletes are the ones that win on grass. But I have always felt Serena would have the better overall career, and so far she has—eight majors to Venus’ six. I’m just surprised they haven’t won more; by now I figured it would be something like 18 to 16. Two of their problems have been injuries and keeping their focus. They also have other things they want to do, and you just can’t play part-time tennis and become one of the all-time greats. At a certain point, numbers do count, and they don’t have the numbers yet to put them alongside Steffi Graf, Chrissie Evert, Martina Navratilova or Billie Jean King.
Q: Since Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe have already claimed the racial breakthroughs in tennis, what do you think the Williams sisters’ legacy will be?
A: They’ve added more physicality and have forced other women to become stronger and more offensive. Justine Henin isn’t even five-foot-six, and she beat them both at the U.S. Open. She did that by becoming as physically fit and aggressive as she could be. So the Williamses have raised the bar, just as Chrissie had to step it up when Martina started getting in shape.
Q: Henin is No. 1 in the world, yet you’ve been critical of her, along with the Williamses, and other top women players, for not playing often enough.
A: Yes, and I’ve gotten a lot of heat for that. I just think that players’ attendance is the single biggest problem in women’s tennis. Henin took the title in seven of the 11 tournaments she played in this past year, so when she enters something, she’s in it to win. But do I think she should be playing more often? Absolutely. She pulled out of a big tournament in China she was supposed to play in right after the U.S. Open. She’ll cite exhaustion, but sometimes you’ve got to play hurt and honor those commitments. Otherwise tournament directors are failing their audience and TV sponsors by not delivering the athletes they promised. Look at someone like Billie Jean King: Accountability was always so important to her, recognizing that the fans are the lifeblood of the sport.
Q: What does Billie Jean personally mean to you?
A: She was my idol growing up, and by the time I was 19, I was practicing with her. She’s been just a remarkable friend and supporter. And she’s made things better for the rest of us—not just in sports, but as an activist and feminist. Her life really matters. She’s taken the arrows in her back so that people like me wouldn’t have to. She’s been very, very special.
Q: How do you feel about the level of American tennis today, now that so many international players seem to be dominating?
A: I’m OK with it. I don’t care where someone is from. John cares a lot more than I do, because he speaks as a Davis Cup player. I’m not naïve. Every time Andre Agassi or Jimmy Connors walked on the court, our TV ratings bounced. The same with Venus and Serena. I understand the business of it. But as a tennis fan? My favorite player at the U.S. Open this year was from Serbia (laughs).
Q: How about Roger Federer—is he capable of winning so many Grand Slam tournaments that we may never see his equal?
A: I hesitate to say that, but in Roger’s case, who knows? He’s at 12, and Pete Sampras has the record at 14. Roger has already said that he wants to play in the 2012 Olympics, so we can assume he’ll win one a year, maybe two, from now till then. Those would be numbers that would be very hard to duplicate.
Q: Andy Roddick is still No. 1 among American men, but what is he going to have to do to consistently win the biggest matches?
A: I don’t think he’s a one-slam wonder, but after Federer beat him the first time in the Wimbledon finals, Roddick tried to become Federer. But Roddick will never move the way Federer does, nor have the variety of strokes. So now he’s back to using his big serve and forehand and playing power points. He’s being Roddick again, which is a much better call. And having Jimmy Connors alongside him means the world to Roddick. Look, Jimmy isn’t telling this kid anything he hasn’t heard before, but it’s Jimmy telling him—it’s the messenger, not the message. When Jimmy played, he put himself in position to make something happen even when [Björn] Borg and McEnroe were dominating. Jimmy waited for his moment, and he got some big wins. Now he’s trying to instill that in Roddick, and the kid is responding to that.
Q: Your career was cut short because of physical problems. Are kids today being taught in a way that will help them avoid early injuries?
A: A lot of players are being taught by their fathers, who are just telling them to hit the ball hard, and if that’s not working, hit it even harder. But it’s more important to teach them how to run hard. If kids don’t get behind the ball quickly enough, they will just "arm" the ball over. That will cause wrist, elbow and even leg problems. So they’re putting demands on a growing body, when the bones are still soft. There’s plenty of sports science now that can explain that to parents and coaches—that tennis is not really a "hitting" sport, it’s a "running" sport. And that’s the biggest difference between Federer and Henin, versus their contemporaries. The way they move is just exquisite.