Jeff Tarango: The Best Pundit You've Probably Never Heard Of

If you went to bed instead of listening to the US Open final, you missed out on more than a great tennis match...
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If you went to bed instead of listening to the US Open final, you missed out on more than a great tennis match...

'Tim's punditry out of a million? I would have to say...'

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An apology by way of introduction: I still haven't recovered from the four hours of sleep I had on Monday night. If this article is full of typos, poor grammar and sloppy syntax, blame Jeff Tarango. In community with many thousands of non-Sky subscribers across the country, I was up until 2.30 listening to Andy Murray break his Grand Slam duck in the course of one of the greatest tennis matches in history. Without Jeff, I wouldn’t even have got close to the end.

Tennis is a very boring sport to listen to on the radio. The commentator is always three shots behind the rally, so your first sense of who has won the point comes from the roar of the crowd. It’s a bit like trying to follow the FA Cup Final by listening out of a window in Stanmore. It isn’t particularly satisfying.

Yet I made it to the end of a five hour match, and for that I fully credit Jeff Tarango, the best commentator I have heard on radio. He was engaging and thought-provoking, with a keen sense of critical analysis which the other commentators conspicuously lacked. They seemed to have two modes: ‘despair’ and ‘murrayhasmentallycrusheddjokovicismentallyandisgoingtocruisetohisfirstgrandslamtitle’. When at the beginning of the second set Djokovic kept missing with a series of ‘Hail Mary’ shots, the others' picture was that he was mentally shot and Murray's first Grand Slam as good as won. Not for Jeff. Jeff trusted Novak’s pedigree as the best scrapper in the world, if not in history. He fought back from 0-4 to 5-5. At the beginning of the fourth set, the wind was in Djokovic’s sails, the Serb having won five consecutive games. For the others it looked clear: Djokovic was marching inexorably towards another grand slam title. Not for Jeff. Jeff observed that Murray’s feet were moving marginally better than they had been. Marginally better every game. A small glimmer of hope. He was still losing games, but he was making Djokovic work for them. All was not lost. Murray rediscovered his best game and came back and played the best set of tennis of his life in the fifth. Who would have thought it? Jeff did.

Jeff probably wasn’t going to take a piss on air, but they weren't quite sure. You don’t get that kind of drama with Tim Henman.

In the cosy confines of the BBC tennis commentators' box, Jeff stands out like a sore thumb. You can imagine the others leaning on their putters on the 14th green together, bemoaning the fall in local house prices and chortling about Matt’s latest cartoon in the Daily Telegraph. It’s much easier to imagine Jeff in a smoky corner of a pool club with a double Jack Daniels resting on the table, playing for the prize of a crumpled 20 dollar note. At one point, Jeff said that he was going to relieve himself due to the tense state of the match at the end of the second set. They laughed nervously. He probably wasn’t going to take a piss on air, but they couldn't quite be sure. You don’t get that kind of drama with Tim Henman.

The BBC would be insane not to move him from the 5 Live to the TV presenting team for next year’s Wimbledon. I hope that they will announce that he is replacing the perennially vapid Garry Richardson as post-match interviewer, although it would remove from our screens the immensely entertaining spectacle of watching Andy Murray having to use every ounce of his self-control to prevent himself from using Richardson’s head for some impromptu forehand practice after yet another banal question.

For every great sportsman who becomes a great sports pundit, a McEnroe or a Warne or a Michael Johnson, there are countless more who seem to have graduated with first class honours from the Henman-Shearer academy of sporting platitudes

Jeff Tarango was not a great tennis player, but as he proved last night, there is no correlation between one’s ability to play a sport at the highest level and one’s ability to comment insightfully on it. For every great sportsman who becomes a great sports pundit, a McEnroe or a Warne or a Michael Johnson, there are countless more who seem to have graduated with first class honours from the Henman-Shearer academy of sporting platitudes.

Insight is a rarely-found quality in a sports pundit. The ability to entertain likewise. But possessing insight allied to the ability to entertain your audience without reducing yourself to a rent-a-quote caricature is the mark of a great sports commentator. Thank you Jeff. I’m off to have a nap.

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