ESPN's coverage of the 2023 U.S. Open tennis championships kicks off on August 28, marking the cable network’s ninth year as the exclusive TV home of the Open. While professional tennis remains a comparatively niche sport in the U.S. when compared to the likes of pro-football or pro-basketball, it is a niche that is rife with fascinating personalities, grudges, conflicts of interest, and figures who are revered and others who elicit eye-rolls. That holds true for both the active players on the tour as well as those in the press booth. Hardcore tennis fans are familiar with these personalities and get a whole other level of enjoyment out of watching the matches as they call out the commentators' well-known biases, groan at the Brad Gilbert nicknames, and giggle as Pam Shriver's antics drive everyone else to distraction.
The product on the court is sure to be thrilling, but the personalities in the ESPN booth are a show all their own. Here's a quick guide to the major personalities.
Tennis legend McEnroe has been the big dog when it comes to color commentating on men's tennis since the late '90s and has been with ESPN specifically since 2009. The enfant terrible reputation McEnroe cultivated as a player has morphed into a cranky dad persona in the booth. He's obsessed with player fitness. He'll fully ignore the match he's calling to talk about top-ranked players like Novak Djokovic instead. He either can't or won't pronounce certain players' names correctly (top 5 Greek player Stefanos Tsitsipas has been "Sissypas" for McEnroe for years). And he's prone to starting weird beefs, like the time he said Serena Williams wouldn't be in the top 700 on the men's tour. This kind of thing is especially irksome when ESPN puts him in the booth for women's matches. But he's a tennis legend and nine times out of ten, he's the most famous person in the stadium, including the players on the court, so we all have to put up with him.
The Frank Stallone to his brother John's Sylvester — or the Haylie Duff to John's Hilary, if you want a slightly more contemporary reference — Patrick McEnroe is doomed to forever sit in his brother's shadow, especially now that ESPN has put both them together for their main commentary team. Patrick carved out more of an identity for himself in the tennis world when he ran player development for the USTA from 2008 through 2014. That tenure was a rocky one, though, and it tends to crop up on the broadcast every now and then, like when American Taylor Townsend side-eyed McEnroe in an on-court interview, alluding to the time when he denied her a wild-card entry into the U.S. Open for not being fit enough.
ESPN's other legend-in-residence is Chrissie Evert, the 18-time Grand Slam champion and recent cancer survivor who serves as lead color commentator for the women's matches. Evert's status within the pantheon of American women's tennis has cast her in a complicated light for fans. Her exacting standards from the booth are a splash of cold water amid some of the more cheerleader-y commentary you get elsewhere, and Evert is one of the few players whose record can back up her words. But that attitude has earned her the ire of a generation of younger tennis fans who haven't appreciated her sometimes critical (or worse yet, to some, insufficiently enthusiastic) commentary when it comes to certain players, Serena Williams in particular.
If the world of tennis commentary were The Gilded Age, Chrissie Evert would be the demanding Christine Baranski, while Pam Shriver would be the disrespected, scattershot Cynthia Nixon. Shriver peaked at #3 in the world in singles and was one of the great doubles players of her era, but she came to prominence in the era of Evert and Martina Navratilova, so she was doomed to forever exist in their considerable shadow.
That status has persisted on ESPN, with Shriver the consummate B-team commentator. She's also easily the most fun, a benign kook who calls a tennis match like your unfiltered aunt. She's the closest thing the tennis world has to a sitcom character. Listening to Evert constantly needle Pam about her third-banana status throughout her career is a master class in negging. And you never have to feel too bad for Pam, because she's constantly putting her foot in her mouth about other players, like when she denigrated James Blake's late-career woes so loudly from the booth at Wimbledon that he could hear her on court, or the time she wasopenly booed by the crowd at the U.S. Open for slighting low-ranked Belgian player Yanina Wickmayer. Pam is a disaster and a delight in equal measure.
Brad Gilbert is the worst. He's not a villain on a geopolitical level like certain highly ranked players or on a social policy level like certain legends of yesteryear. He's merely the single most annoying person to ever set foot in a press booth. Since 2004, he's been a mainstay on the ESPN commentary team, terrorizing viewers with his aggressively corny, barely informed takes.
And the nicknames, dear god the nicknames. Gilbert's calling card has become his dedication to granting sweaty, cringey nicknames to as many players as he can. Romanian Simona Halep is "Halep-eño." Argentine Diego Schwartzman is "FAO Schwartzman." Croatian Borna Coric is "The Borna Identity." Sometimes you end up internalizing these nicknames and use them yourself (veteran Swiss backhander Stan Wawrinka is regrettably "Stanimal" to me now). Other times, like when he busted out "Hey Makarova" for Ekaterina Makarova, you really do wish someone would call the police. This year, Gilbert has been coaching American Coco Gauff through a hugely successful swing through the summer tournaments, so expect that to get talked about a lot.
A former top 5 player from the Steffi Graf/Monica Seles era, Fernandez has been an ESPN tennis mainstay since 2000. She tends to maintain a middle-of-the-road persona, so tennis fans tend to not have many strong feelings about her. The closest she's come to real controversy was when people started piping up about conflicts of interest regarding her husband, sports agent Tony Godsick, managing the now-retired Roger Federer.
If there's a conflict of interest with Brad Gilbert coaching Coco Gauff while commentating for ESPN this year, that ground has been thoroughly trod over the years by Darren Cahill. An Aussie who once made it to the semifinals of the U.S. Open in 1988, Cahill has seen his greatest career success as a coach. He's helped guide players like Lleyton Hewitt and Simona Halep to #1 in the world, and is currently coaching Italian contender Jannik Sinner.
The great mystery of ESPN's tennis coverage continues to be “Why Alexandra Stevenson? Why?” She was a middling American player in the aughts, peaking at #18 in the world and making one flukey Wimbledon semi-final appearance. Two decades removed from that footnote in tennis history, Stevenson is inexplicably a regular presence in ESPN tennis commentary. That presence is not good. Her commentary is insubstantial, spacey, and awkward, and it hasn't improved in the four years she's been with the network. She's at least willing to praise the butts of men's tennis players, which is certainly relatable, if less than professional. If your tennis group chat is blowing up about something ridiculous that one of the commentators said during a match, odds are it was Alexandra Stevenson.
Rennae Stubbs is the cool one on the ESPN commentary team, which is unsurprising considering she used to be on Serena Williams' coaching team. As a player, Stubbs was a doubles great for Australia. As a commentator, she's fearless and frank, not afraid to call out bad behavior in players like Nick Kyrgios and able to do so without sounding like a moralizing scold. That forthrightness sometimes bleeds into heedlessness, like when she stumbled while asking Naomi Osaka about her support for Black Lives Matter at the 2020 U.S. Open. But more often than not, Stubbs gives good takes and insightful commentary.
Ah, Cliffy. The old war horse. Drysdale was a tennis player back in the 1960s and '70s who won the U.S. Open doubles title in 1972. He's been with ESPN since they broadcast their first tennis match back in 1979. His dry South African delivery just sounds like tennis commentary. There's something comforting about his presence, even as he gets up in age (he's 82) and his attention span can sometimes wander.
Blake is one of the youngest members of the ESPN coverage team, and he's also been the biggest breath of fresh air over the last few years. As a player, Blake reached #4 in the world, but despite a mid-career peak that included high-profile wins over the likes of Rafael Nadal (at the 2005 U.S. Open) and Roger Federer (at the Beijing Olympics), Blake never quite fulfilled his fans' highest hopes. But he was a hugely likable player, and he retains that quality as a booth and studio analyst, all while delivering commentary that's more insightful about today's players than some of ESPN's more mature talent.
ESPN's coverage of the 2023 U.S. Open kicks off at 12:00 PM ET on August 28, with additional coverage across various ESPN networks and streaming on ESPN+. You can find the full schedule here.
Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.