SBJ/20090629/Opinion

At 30 years, ‘Breakfast at Wimbledon’ still making history

My first encounter with the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club as NBC Sports associate producer/liaison was not a happy one.

“Sorry ol’ chap, but the ball must be in the air at precisely 2 p.m. with the players on court at 1:50 p.m. Tradition, you know,” said Maj. David Mills, the longtime tournament director of Wimbledon. Bringing this bit of bad news back to my boss, Don Ohlmeyer, was also not a happy experience. (Being yelled at as an associate producer is common in TV production land).

The year was 1979, and as the hard-charging, inventive executive producer of NBC Sports, Ohlmeyer had persuaded the network to give up its usual Sunday morning religious programming to allow the Wimbledon Gentlemen’s Final to be aired live back to the U.S. The growing popularity of tennis, with Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe on the sports section front pages, had engendered this rather huge change in the world of NBC Sports.

Chet Simmons, then-president of NBC Sports, and Ohlmeyer were extremely well-liked within the NBC network and powerful figures with the affiliates. Their backing of the live final format was a huge part of the approval of replacing the religious programming block.

Six months before Wimbledon, our production team led by producer Geoff Mason, a cohort of Ohlmeyer’s years before under Roone Arledge when they were at ABC Sports, was running a brainstorming production seminar on how we would change our approach at Wimbledon for a live audience and at the unheard of hour of 9 a.m. on the East Coast.

With this early time in mind, I casually mentioned that I guess it would just be “Breakfast at Wimbledon.” There was silence in the conference room while everyone digested this perfect promotional tag, and the rest is history. … 30 years of it! Which brings me back to the production problem I previously mentioned.

Network broadcasts that begin at the top of the hour generally include several network announcements before programming actually begins, and that doesn’t include our traditional Wimbledon animated opening. In his quest for the perfect production of this historic event, Ohlmeyer wanted us to come on the air with the players making their traditional dramatic entrance onto the famed Centre Court. So in my role of liaison with the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, I was dispatched to have the player walk-on delayed by two or three minutes.  In the typical manner that network sports television usually dictates things like this, Mills’ refusal was also pretty historic, and infuriating to Ohlmeyer. So back and forth I went to other club executives but they remained steadfast in the 2 p.m. “first serve.” 

In his frustration Ohlmeyer asked Donald Dell and Bud Collins, our veteran expert commentators, if they had any ideas. Well, Dell did, and it was “brilliant,” as the Brits say.  In his role as an analyst and a player agent, Dell represented Roscoe Tanner, who had aced his way to the final against the then King of Wimbledon, Borg. (This was another frustration for us as we had expected a Borg vs. McEnroe final since they were the top two seeds. We figured that Borg would dispatch Tanner in an hour and we would have four more hours of airtime to fill. Ouch.)

But Dell thought he could persuade his man Tanner to purposely delay in the locker room, even when called by the club to make their entrance. And Tanner agreed. So when the club secretary who was in charge of the walk-out came into the locker room to fetch the players, it seemed that Tanner had a bathroom “emergency” and was in the stall … stalling. 

So with Mills pacing around the entrance, NBC was airing all the pre-programming elements and, three minutes later, we were live with the players walking through the famous portico. 

Wow! There was total exhilaration in the truck, but now we faced the issue of a blowout.  

Well, Roscoe “Bullet Man“ Tanner came through for us again winning the first and third sets to bring the match to a climactic fifth set. With Tanner’s deadly serve and volley game and Borg’s rule of the baseline, the tennis was thrilling. Borg took the last two sets to win 6-7, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4.  

Breakfast at Wimbledon was then cemented in history the following year by the legendary “Battle of 18-16” referring to the epic tiebreaker between Borg and McEnroe. Historic championship matches followed with teenager Boris Becker becoming the youngest-ever winner of the gentleman’s singles title in 1985 at the age of 17, the Williams sisters riveting the crowd with their athleticism, and of course Pete Sampras’ record run of Wimbledon crowns. And last year, Wimbledon showcased the stunning match between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal that McEnroe coined “the greatest match we’ve ever seen.” That epic five-setter started as “Breakfast at Wimbledon” and concluded near dinner time in the States and drew the best audience in 17 years.

And the All England Club has progressed significantly with the times, working with the global broadcast networks to allow us to present their championships in a true partnership manner, hiring professionals such as the current head of television, John Rowlinson, to make our jobs that much easier. 

And now, 30 years later, we will serve up possibly another historic Breakfast, with the potential of Federer winning his sixth Wimbledon title and record-setting 15th Grand Slam victory.

All this with a roof overhead to guarantee a dry Breakfast at Wimbledon.

Bob Basche (Bob.Basche@millsport.com) is chairman at Millsport and associate producer/tournament liaison for NBC Sports. This is his 31st Wimbledon with NBC Sports.

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