Tuning in to Mary Carillo
Certainly, you could call Mary Carillo one of the best announcers ever to call tennis on television. Few could argue the point. But in truth, stopping there would be to undersell all that Carillo has accomplished in her remarkable career behind a microphone. Since ending a brief pro career on the WTA Tour and beginning her broadcasting career in 1980, Carillo has never stopped evolving in her craft, transcending a single sport with a singularly remarkable sense of curiosity, an irrepressible personality, and an irresistibly engaging knack for telling a story.
Her voice has not only been the soundtrack for many of the most memorable moments in the history of tennis through her work on USA Network, CBS, ESPN, HBO and Tennis Channel, but now, as a regular contributor to HBO’s "Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel," and NBC’s Olympic coverage, Carillo shines especially brightly, employing her incomparable curiosity and story-telling ability to so brilliantly capture the unique essence of sport and of athletes. Maybe best, with Carillo, all of that is more than a talent; it seems much more of a calling.
USTA.com caught up with Carillo recently to talk about her career, her love of tennis, sports, and storytelling, and her influence on other women who’ve sought to make their mark following in her footsteps.
Q: So let’s start at the start. What got you interested in tennis in the first place?
Carillo: About four blocks from my house growing up was the Douglaston (NY) Club, which had a swimming pool, three clay courts and two hard courts. I was on the Douglaston Club swim team, and I kept getting earaches.
Then one night I climbed out of the pool and as I was standing there freezing, I saw a family of very good players from Douglaston out on one of the courts. They had on those cable sweaters and cream-colored shorts and I watched them hitting and they were having such fun and I thought to myself, ‘I am in the wrong business.’
Q: Cable sweaters are impossible to resist when you’re freezing.
Carillo: They are! So I started playing with my dad and another kid who lived right up the street from the Douglaston Club named John McEnroe. And I just really came to love the sport. The Douglaston Club had some really good coaches and I started with the late, great Dan Dwyer who’s in the [USTA] Eastern Tennis Hall of Fame. I used to pick up balls for him so I could watch him give lessons—and then I started taking them. And then along with John and his kid brother Patrick, we started going to the Port Washington Tennis Academy. When John started entering tennis tournaments, I started entering tournaments. I’m two years older than he is so I started a little late maybe, but when you hang around a guy like that and you recognize pretty early how good he is and how good you’re not, there was a reckoning that happened by the time I was 12.
Q: But even with that reckoning, you still were able to have a career as a professional player.
Carillo: I did, but I had really bad knees, so I was kind of riding on rims at a pretty early point. I knew I was going to have to do something else at some point. But yes, I was lucky enough to play in the pros for a couple of years.
Q: And when you were playing, those were really the formative years for women’s tennis. The women’s pro tour was only a few years old at the time and really a far cry from what women’s tennis is today. What was that like?
Carillo: It really was a great time. In the late 70s when I turned pro and played for my couple of years, it was the sport and America was really good at it. And Billie Jean King was my idol, so to be playing on tour with her was pretty special.
I was in the right place at the right time for my skill set (laughs). I could never have a job in professional tennis now; there’s just no way. But at that time, there were windows of opportunity and I took every one of them.
Q: Including winning a Grand Slam championship in mixed doubles with your friend John McEnroe at the 1977 French Open.
Carillo: Yeah, well, frankly, because of World TeamTennis, a lot of the best players didn’t play the French that year. John was still just 18 and I was a rookie pro; it was the first time either of us had been to Paris. But as we were signing up to play, I remember John looked down the list [of entries] and said, “We can win this thing.” And I said, ‘What the hell are you talking about? I can’t win anything!’
Q: So you pretty much just entered the mixed on a whim?
Carillo: Honestly, it was because it was a depleted field that we even got in, because we were just total unknowns. The USTA has sent John to play in the junior French and junior Wimbledon with a $500 stipend that was supposed to last him for like a month in Europe. And he won the juniors in Paris and then a couple of weeks later shows up to play the Wimbledon juniors. But he had also entered the qualies for the main draw and not only got himself through the qualies but into the semis of the main draw. That was the year he became John McEnroe. So we spent that summer traveling to these cities and one of us was becoming very famous—and it wasn’t me.
We lost in the quarters of the mixed at Wimbledon and then we spent the summer arguing over God knows what and we lost in the first round of the US Open. And that was the end of our mixed doubles career together.
Q: So you didn’t defend your French title?
Carillo: (Laughs) We absolutely did not defend our French title. I think John, by then, was smart enough to realize that he could be doing better things with his time than playing mixed doubles.
Q: So when did you wrap up your professional career?
Carillo: I lost in the first round of Wimbledon in 1980 and that ended it. I knew I needed to get cut again; I knew I needed more [knee] surgery. It wasn’t a hard thing to walk away from for me.
Q: And so how did you make the transition from player to media member? Was that something you’d always been interested in?
Carillo: Yeah, I loved the press rooms. Even as a kid I was lucky because a man named Jim Roach was a sports editor at the New York Times and he lived near us. The Times had a box at Forest Hills and when there was an extra ticket, he would give it to me, so I got to go to Forest Hills and at a very young age. And when I would pick up the paper the next day I remember I would always think to myself, ‘Why are they writing about that match? That match sucked. Why aren’t they writing about that great match I was watching?’
So I was aware at a very early age of newspapers and what they wrote and how they wrote it. And when I was playing I loved to go into the media centers—which used to be tents—and watch Bud Collins bang out his story. And he’d be with all these great writers like Pete Alfano and Mike Lupica and John Feinstein. So that became the place I would go to rather than go back to my hotel, because that was what I found interesting.
Q: So what was the break that got you involved in broadcasting?
Carillo: The first time I was ever on TV was complete happenstance. It was at Madison Square Garden, during the 1980 Avon Championships. They had already interviewed everybody they could in between matches, and I was hanging around for a late-night match. The Avon PR people had no one else to give to the announcers, so they said, ‘Oh, Carillo is pretty funny, let’s give her to them.'
So I ended up talking about why I was still hanging around to watch Tracy Austin play Evonne Goolagong; talking about their playing styles and how it figured to be a helluva match and one of the announcers said to his producer, ‘Why don’t we put her on?’ And so I wound up sitting there with my Larry King microphone, just yakking about the match.
Luckily one of the producers from USA Network who was producing a few women’s matches that summer—just a few weeks after my final Wimbledon—called me up and said ‘I heard you that night.’ And that’s how it began.
But it’s not like I grew up wanting to be on TV. There weren’t a lot of women doing it at that time, and the ones who did really only did women’s matches—and there weren’t a lot of those on TV then either.
Q: Who else helped you to find your feet in broadcasting? Who inspired you in that regard?
Carillo: Well, I was lucky, because I had listened for many, many years to Tony Trabert and Pat Summerall [of CBS]. To me, those were the voices of tennis—and they were minimalists. They just sort of let the match come to them. So when I got to sit next to those guys, that was something special. And I learned that if you open your mouth, it better be worth something.
You learn from different styles, and if you want to be good, you learn to do your homework. When you’re covering a tournament from the first day and there are people who no one’s ever heard of, you better know a lot about them. You better do your research and you better have stories about them.
Q: And you pretty quickly developed your own style that’s a combination of irreverence, knowledge, curiosity, insight and humor. In the beginning, that didn’t always go over so well with the tennis crowd.
Carillo: No, but I can’t be anybody but who I am. Sometimes I’m really quiet, sometimes I’m critical. As you know, there’s a lot of politics involved in this particular sport, and I’ve always been willing to say what I think about that. But yeah, as soon as the words come across your teeth and into the ozone, you know you’ve aggravated someone. You’ve just got to be willing to go with that.
Q: I’ve always felt that you were kind of a pivotal person in tennis not taking itself quite so seriously. What’s your take on that?
Carillo: Yeah, well, I think, again, from the first time I ever called that match the first time in the Garden, I pretty much talk the way I’d talk if I were watching it from the stands or watching it from a bar. I think it’s emotive and conversational and it’s who I am. It’s storytelling, right? Tell me a story; tell me why I should keep watching.
Q: It’s real.
Carillo: It is. Look, I come from a very entertaining family. My father is an artist, my brother is a novelist, my sister was an actress, my son’s an actor now. We all seem to think we’ve got something to say.
You know, from the time I was a teenager, I was lucky enough to be under the wing of Billie Jean King, and she used to come out to my parents’ house in Douglaston to have dinner. It was always a thrill and my mom loved cooking for her and my brother—who’s the funniest person I know—opens the screen door for Billie—this is like the third time she’s come to the house—and as she’s coming through the door she stops and says, ‘Why do I feel like I should be charged admission?’
Q: I’ve always felt that one of the things that makes you so real—and so good—is that you’re genuinely curious. You really are interested in what makes people tick.
Carillo: That’s true. And I think that’s why I’ve been able to tell stories in a lot of other sports. I’ll be going to Tokyo this summer for my 15th Olympics, and the only sport I’m fluent in at all is tennis. But the Olympics fascinate me. I can’t believe what these Olympians do. Why on earth would you train so hard to wait every four years for the chance to shine and your race is over in about nine seconds? The athletic heart, to me, is one of the most fascinating things on earth.
Q: That fascination really comes across in your work at Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel. How did that come about?
Carillo: I was looking to pull back a little bit when my kids were young, and at the time, HBO Sports used to cover Wimbledon. They did 25 years of it and they did it great. And once again, my idol, my mentor, Billie Jean King, told the guy who was running HBO Sports, Ross Greenburg, ‘You should ask Mary to be a part of this.’ And that’s how I joined HBO for their Wimbledon coverage.
After the first year, Ross said to me, ‘Hey we’ve got this new show; would you be interested in doing a story with them?’ And I said, ‘absolutely!’ And they gave me a layup for my first story—which was a profile of Charles Barkley.
And then HBO Documentaries was doing a story on the history of women in sports called “Dare to Compete,” and I was called in as a consultant along with Billie and the great swimmer and announcer Donna de Varona. I was asked if I wanted to do some of the interviews and I jumped at the chance. By the end of it, the late, great Frank Deford was going to write it, and he ended up writing the first half of it. And basically from Billie Jean on, I wrote the second half of it. We wound up winning a Peabody Award for it. It was a great thrill; I think it’s the greatest kind of storytelling.
I think if you just keep raising your hand and saying, ‘Yeah I can do that,’ whether you can or not, if you’re any good at all or at least enthusiastic, it makes a difference. In the end, it all comes down to storytelling.
Q: What would you say you’re most proud of in your career?
Carillo: My Olympic experience has been tremendous, because I don’t just cover events, I do profiles, historical pieces, and cultural pieces. That has brought me great joy. And I loved working on the HBO documentaries. You don’t get rich doing them, but you do get enriched, I guess. And the Real Sports stories; I’m just proud to be in that mix. That show has won so many Emmys, and I’m proud to have won one of them. DuPont Awards, Peabody Awards…. It’s a thrill to be a part of that. It’s storytelling right? Tell me a good story.
Q: Do you see yourself as a role model, especially for women who’d like to follow in your footsteps?
Carillo: I’m happy that there are more opportunities for women today in this field. I don’t think I get the kind of attention or acclaim that some women in sports do, but I think I’ve helped put at least a crack or two in the glass ceiling. But we’re still way behind the guys. There are still plenty of men who don’t want to hear sports from women. Plenty who still say, ‘What are you doing in my man cave?’
But I’m lucky that tennis isn’t like that. Men and women are great at tennis. It’s the same scoring. It’s the same rules. So I think I was accepted a lot more than a lot of other women in other sports.
I just think I’m one of the lucky ones because my sport is more global in a lot of ways. And as Billie Jean always said, ‘Sports can change anything.’