Mary Carillo is, hands down, my favorite professional athlete of all time. She was born and raised in New York City and came of age in the 1970s when American tennis was at its apex. She was a top-30 player and she won the 1977 French Open mixed doubles titles with John McEnroe but what I love about her—what makes her utterly unique in sports—is that she has the mind of a nerd and the soul of a writer, trapped inside the body of a jock.
Over the last couple of decades, Carillo has moved into broadcast journalism, doing commentary for tennis, work for HBO Sports and NBC’s Olympic’s coverage, and a documentary filmmaker. A few years ago I was listening to her call an Andre Agassi match and she quoted George Eliot in the course of the broadcast. She’s that kind of special.
Every four years, during the summer Olympics, an essay she did during the 2004 Games in Athens about badminton, goes viral. If you haven’t seen it, it will change your life.
I talked with Mary over email, about tennis and writing and storytelling—and the legend of Christopher Birr. Here’s an unabridged transcript of our conversation.
Jonathan V. Last: What was life like for you on the tour in the late ’70s? Was it all parties at Studio 54? Or was it more low-key?
Mary Carillo: I am the first to admit how prejudicial my response to this question will be, but I think the ’70s were the very best time to be a tennis player and a tennis fan.
American tennis was in full flight—Billie Jean King, Jimmy Connors, Chris Evert, John McEnroe, the flashy and stylish New Yorker Vitas Gerulaitis—and the foreign players included the crazily talented and downright crazy Ilie Nastase and the extraordinarily cool Bjorn Borg.
World Team Tennis was fun and noisy and packed with stars. The game was booming and even casual viewers cared about the sport.
That was my time.
I was a kid from Queens and had grown up a few blocks away from John McEnroe, and we went to the most famous tennis academy at the time, where another Queens native, Vitas Gerulaitis also trained. I was then and am still a certifiable nerd, but Vitas’ kid sister, Ruta, became my best friend and John and I were pretty close back then—which allowed me to get absorbed into parties, concerts, and dinners I’d never have breathed near on my own.
I went to Studio 54 exactly twice—not exactly my scene, but the back stage concert access was extraordinary. The dinners were my favorite part of that time—in London or Paris or New York—Vitas would pick a place and the table would often be populated with a rock star, a famous model, Bjorn Borg, McEnroe, Ruta, and me.
Invariably Vitas would grab the check. We were once at a restaurant in London in the days before Wimbledon and someone at another table wished Vitas, Bjorn, and John good luck. Vitas quietly called over the waiter and told him that he’d pay for that table’s meal too. There was no tennis player more charismatic than that guy.
I once described to Vitas a funny dinner conversation from a few years earlier. “Jesus,” he said. “How the hell did you remember that?” I tried to explain to him how much those moments meant to me. For him it had just been another Thursday night; but that Thursday was one of the best nights of my life.
JVL: If your life depended on someone winning one set of tennis, who would you want playing on your behalf? The ground rules here being that the player you pick will be in their prime and having a very good day. Give me one man and one woman.
MC: This one’s easy for me—Monica Seles and Pancho Gonzalez. Monica is still the most impressive match player I’ve ever seen. Every shot she struck was intense, meaningful, full of effort and power. Serena Williams says that Seles was her idol growing up and I believe her, but while Serena can hit with great authority and abandon, she can also make a helluva lot of errors, so if it’s one set of tennis, I choose Monica.
I used to call matches of hers and at the end of the first set she’d have struck 19 winners and made 1 error. She dominated the sport without fear until she was stabbed in the back . . . and when she finally came back on tour, fear had become a dominant player in her life. But at her best, boy . . .
. . . and though I was too young to see Gonzales at his best, I got to see him play on the grass of Forest Hills a few times and had heard all the stories about him—his arrogance, his imperiousness , his lone-wolf life. But what a stylishly sinister serve and volley game he had, even late in his career. Jimmy Connors—the ultimate fighter—said that if one man could play for his life he’d want it to be Pancho Gonzales. I’ll take him too.
JVL: It’s obvious that you have the soul of a writer trapped inside the body of a professional athlete. Which is why you’re such a tremendous broadcaster: You have an incredible eye for stories and a writing voice that’s clear and effortless and un-affected. The first time I saw your badminton essay I was just agog at how the writing was simultaneously both breezy and ruthlessly efficient.
The work you do on HBO and for NBC’s Olympics coverage are all perfectly-wrought, miniature essays. And you’ve worked on documentaries, too.
Why did you decide to do your writing for broadcast, as opposed to print?
MC: It started very early. My father was an art director for an ad agency, Young and Rubicam, and he was great at his job. He would design commercials by drawing storyboards, but unlike all the other art directors and utterly different from today’s computerized storyboards, my dad used India ink watercolors to create his scenes. They were so beautiful that plenty of his clients asked to keep them.
Sometimes he would draw at home, and I would sit by his side as he created one panel after another—a helicopter view of an Oregon forest full of fir, an extreme closeup of a hand reaching for a coffee cup, a tight shot of a frenetic tap dance. Sometimes I’d get to go on his shoots. I loved watching how my father’s images would come to life on television.
I was a young kid when he once cut up the panels of one of his storyboards and handed them to me. He said, “Lay them out the way you think the commercial should run.” It was for Goodyear tires and it took place on a race track.
I started with the obvious—the pretty blond driver putting on her helmet, then getting behind the wheel. Shots of the tires on the race track. Tight shots of the driver’s face, hands. The tires grabbing the road . . . the final shot of the driver closing the car door, smiling.
I thought I’d gotten all the sequencing just right, just as my dad had imagined it. He looked over my storyboard and said, “That’s pretty close . . . but this panel”—it was the the first I’d chosen, of the pretty woman putting on her racing helmet—“goes on the end.”
It was a big reveal—the viewer doesn’t know it’s a woman driver until the last moment. Goodyear was selling the idea that their latest tire was high performance and built for safety. It’s still my favorite tire commercial of all time . . .
Of course I thought my dad was a great artist, a terrific storyteller, but he insisted that films were the best form of storytelling because they combine all the best things—acting, writing, music, cinematography, editing. He would wake me up in the middle of the night sometimes if one of our favorite movies was on. He’d gently squeeze one of my feet, say, “Mare—African Queen is on.” Or ,”You know what just started? The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.” Inherit the Wind. Birdman of Alcatraz.
I think I loved watching my dad watch movies as much as I loved the stories themselves. He was especially happy when I started working on documentaries.
About the badminton rant—it wasn’t written down. I was hosting an NBC Sports afternoon program at the Athens Olympics and badminton was coming up, but we had some fill time. I was supposed to use it to show the difference between the common backyard badminton equipment we all use and the high tech rackets and shuttlecocks that were used in the badminton bigs.
I started out on message, but I had a little time on my hands, and things devolved quickly into my own personal, ridiculous experience with badminton, which was really more about motherhood than anything. When my rant was finally over I threw to a commercial and my producer, the great Bill Kunz, calmly walked out of the control room and onto the set and gently said to me, “What the hell was that?” But every bit of what I described truly happened. There really is a Christopher Birr, and back in Pinewoods Circle in Naples, Florida, it always was Christopher Birr who escalated things. Have a look at one of my favorite Christmas cards of all time, and note the flames shooting out of Christopher Birr’s head. Ahem.
The famous Christopher Birr, far left, with flames behind his head. (Photo credit: Mary Birr, Christopher’s long-suffering mother.)
All of which is to say, it’s a nice job to be a storyteller when there’s so many stories to tell.
JVL: You seem to love underdog stories. What’s your favorite underdog story, ever?
MC: The 1969 Miracle Mets. I was 12-years-old and I went with Roddy Catapano and his father to one of the World Series games against the Baltimore Orioles. The Mets took the game and when it was over a bunch of chowderheads took to the field, grabbing pieces of grass as mementos.
When we got home, Phil Kelly, the kid across the street from the Catapanos, told us that the whole neighborhood knew we’d been to the game—that we could tell everyone that we’d run on the field and grabbed World Series grass and could sell it for a buck a hunk. We then proceeded to Phil’s backyard and started digging up his lawn, but even after we took scissors to the grass it still bore no resemblance to Shea Stadium’s. It looked a lot like Phil Kelly’s backyard, so we abandoned our dream of riches.
There’s plenty of great long-shot loving tennis stories—one of the best was the young and curly teenager Pete Sampras winning the 1990 US Open, mowing down Lendl, McEnroe, and then Agassi in the championship match. But my favorite tennis underdog story involves the fine Czech player and noted storyline spoiler Helena Sukova.
She’d stopped Martina Navratilova just two matches shy of a calendar Grand Slam back in 1984. Two years later at the U.S. Open, Martina had beaten Steffi Graf in an epic semi, 7-6 in the third, and Chris Evert was destined to be her final opponent . . . until Helena Sukova ruined the dream matchup, beating Chris in the other semi.
I’d been working for years at USA Network, which had weekday coverage of the U.S. Open, but on the weekends the tournament went to CBS. I’d never covered the final of a Grand Slam tournament, but plenty of rain knocked around the tournament schedule, and now the women’s championship match was going to be played on Sunday, not Saturday. CBS had football on Sunday. The network thought about their programming dilemma for about three seconds and then handed off the women’s championship match to USA Network. I was finally going to work on a weekend. The plucky cable underdog was going to come good . . .
Sunday afternoon. I was in the booth, a little jumpy, waiting to go on the air. At the top of the hour the opening animation began—anthemic music, swirling logo, then the deep Voice of God announcer, who declared, “Monkey Kung Fu will not be seen at its regular time so that we may show you this USA Sports special presentation.”
Championship Sunday was unspectacular—Martina won in two simple sets—which was probably a good thing because for most of the match I could not stop thinking about the irate Monkey Kung Fu viewers who were flooding USA Network’s phone lines, demanding to know why the hell they were watching Helena Sukova.
This post originally appeared on Weekly Standard