Annabel Croft is part of the BBC’s team of commentators and reporters providing coverage for this year’s Wimbledon fortnight. We spoke to the former tennis player about her career, the sport she loves, and what she brings to her commentary.
What are you doing at Wimbledon?
I’m mixing quite a lot of roles actually. I’ve taken part in studio discussion with Sue Barker. I’ve done some court interviews which I’ve really enjoyed. I’ve mixed it all with some commentaries and some reporting for the highlights programme as well. It’s a multi-roleIt’s a bit of everything.
Is Wimbledon the high-point of the tennis calendar for you?
It is. It really is. I cover tennis from January to November anyway – my whole is life is doing what I do.But I think of all the tournaments we cover. On the whole most players will say that Wimbledon is the greatest tournament in the world.
What is it that makes them say that?
I think it’s the history here. A lot of them will have grown up watching tennis from an early age and will remember watching Wimbledon for the first time. At Wimbledon it’s so beautifully organised; the planting is pristine; nothing is out of place. There’s something about the way the tournament is run which gives it this aura. It’s really special.
It’s the grass too. For some players, that takes many years to get to grips with. The fact that it’s so unusual also makes it really special. When you arrive here, the atmosphere is so special – – itreally buzzes. I think too that when you see the game in real life you get a real sense of the physicality of the game.
What was the transition from tennis to broadcasting like for you?
When I stopped playing it was twenty-odd years ago. In those days tennis wasn’t really covered on television that much apart from the Wimbledon fortnight. Broadcasting in tennis wasn’t an option for me. I definitely felt like I wanted to do something in television generally – I’d really enjoyed being interviewed and being around television cameras. But back then wasn’t really a career option. I had some opportunities to do Treasure Hunt on Channel 4 and, before that, Network 7 which meant surviving on a desert island in Sri Lanka – a raw early version of what we know now as I’m a Celebrity.
I think because I’d been a tennis player – I hadn’t really had a normal childhood because my life had been all tennis since I was quite young so then doing broadcasting opportunities was really fun. I didn’t have to think about backhands and forehands and all that sort of thing. Life was a lot less stressful! I just went after every opportunity that came my way.
Away from tennis I found that doing these other broadcasting jobs gave me an opportunity to mature as an individual away from tennis. That in itself helped me gain some perspective and a deeper understanding of what it was I wanted to talk about when I was commentating or reporting on tennis. I definitely see that when I see young players on the tour, some of whom haven’t known anything other than tennis. Some of them might get injuries and are forced to take time away from the game. That’s when they might study something and gain a different perspective, even for a short while. They come back to the game and end up playing better tennis because in the intervening period they’ve got a sense of what it is they’re trying to achieve in their match play.
I went off and did pantomimes at Christmas, did a murder-mystery musical play across the country, and I did a magic show and interceptor. All sorts of different fun events. That’s what I say to young people: walk through every door that’s open and see what you find.
Tell me about the mechanics of broadcasting. Commentating on a tennis match is like telling the most fantastic story, isn’t it?
It is. I agree. It’s one of the best sports to take an audience on an emotional rollercoaster ride. I think that’s why it’s such a great spectator sport. The scoring system in tennis creates many pressure moments. Not only do the players’ emotions get exposed during that rollercoaster, the audience experience it too. It’s basically modern-day gladiators. The audience is picking their gladiator and then going with them on that emotional journey.
When I watch a tennis match I always find myself backing whoever the person is who is battling: I don’t want to automatically back the person who I assume will win. Is that a common experience for the viewer do you think?
I think that’s a very British narrative. We love our underdogs. We love our fighters. We love the personalities. The other thing about tennis is that the personality of the player comes out when they move around the court. That’s something special about tennis. The body language gives away quite a lot. You can start to get behind somebody purely based on how they’re behaving on the court and how they’re winning you over. Tennis matches have momentum and they have momentum shifts. That’s another excitement element of tennis: it pulls you in and draws you closer.
As a commentator what do you need to do in order to convey that?
What I personally try to bring is my knowledge of what players might be feeling at a particular moment. So I like to bring my experience as a player into the commentary in that way. I like to describe any small body language changes, or any signs of stress.
Sometimes, because they’re under stress – and it might be very very subtle – they can alter the swing and start to pull back from and put extra spin on the ball. That’s when they could playing more ‘safe’ instead of going for it. And that will all be psychological but I try to explain that to the audience.
Or it can go the other way: a player can hit the ball harder and harder and harder as a way of controlling their nerves. It depends on the personality, but as a commentator you try and capture those small moments and feed that into the commentary.
Sometimes you just need to let the pictures breathe and pick the moments when it’s best. On the flip side You want to get a flow to your commentary, and you want to get a flow with commentating partner too. Oh and don’t speak over the umpire!