Mary Carillo will be the first to inform you that her three-year stint as a professional on the WTA Tour didn't exactly make her opponents shake in their boots. But her tenure on tour from 1977 to 1980 was a dream come true for the quick-witted Queens, New York native. Playing alongside her idol Billie Jean King, winning the 1977 mixed doubles title with her childhood friend John McEnroe, and building bonds that have lasted a lifetime with the legends of the game paved her path to becoming an award-winning sports broadcaster and one of the most influential women working in the field.
Carillo has spent the last 40 years in the world of sports broadcasting and journalism, having kicked off her career as an analyst for USA Networks in 1980 and went on to join CBS Sports to cover the US Open ever since. Carillo's role quickly expanded outside of tennis, as she would go on to cover the Olympic Games for CBS and NBC. In 1996, Carillo joined HBO Sports to host Wimbledon coverage and work as a correspondent on Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel. Her reporting has garnered her two Peabody Awards, a Sports Emmy, and she became the first woman to receive the Dick Schaap Award for Outstanding Journalism in 2010. In 2018, Carillo was inducted into the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame.
Carillo spoke to WTA Insider about her amazing experience on the WTA Tour, how she came to pursue broadcasting and journalism after hanging up her racquet, and what it is about sports that continues to inspire her as a storyteller.
WTA Insider: Did your experience playing on the tour and rubbing elbows with the likes of Billie Jean King, Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, did any of that experience pave the way for your future career in sports journalism?
Carillo: Oh, absolutely, because all those players you've just named and many more, I lost to them all. So I had a great sense of who I was not (laughs). So that's always good.
Obviously, Billie Jean King continues to be my idol. Chrissy and Martina have become very valuable and great friends of mine. Pam Shriver, I've known since she was a little kid. I was playing at the same tournament she was playing in when she came from pre-qualifying and won the damn thing in Columbus, Ohio.
So, yes, I absolutely was formed and informed by those days. I had always wanted to be an athlete. It was a dream to be a professional athlete, although in high school my knees were already bad. So I knew that I had a very small amount of time to play professional tennis and then I was going to have to get another gig.
When you know you're riding on rims, you play every tournament you can enter and you meet every single person, get to every city.
I think I had pretty great awareness of what I could do, and especially because I grew up a couple of blocks away from a kid younger than me, John McEnroe. I saw greatness at such a young age. I saw how talented he was. I saw how much less he had to work than I did just to get somewhere.
So I think when you grow up like that and you have an obvious awareness of the timeframe you've got in which to go after something, then you kind of know, even as it's happening, that you're going to have to do something else at some point. So, yes, all of that helped.
But, boy, I sure did love playing professional tennis.
WTA Insider: Especially at that time. It must be so different for you as the tour has evolved and you having experience on both sides of the dais. What was it like being a player on the tour in the late 70s?
Carillo: It was the greatest! I understand people talk about the greatness of these modern times, but come on. You have to remember, I was a 20-year-old rookie. Everybody around me, except for when Tracy Austin started showing up, they're all grown-ups in that locker room. It was Billie Jean and Margaret Court and Virginia Wade and Rosie Casals. They were grown-ups.
What was very fortunate for me was that when I was ranked in the 70s in my second year on tour, Billie Jean decided that the WTA Board of Directors needed a voice from that end of the rankings. I walk into my first board room meeting and it's Chris Evert, Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova, Rosie Casals. I'm just ready to be yanked right out of there.
So, again, I had a distinct awareness of what kind of a universe I had been allowed into. I've been kicked out of a lot smaller joints than that.
So I got a very good sense of how hard all those players in that room worked to create the tour that I was now enjoying. I never went to college and I certainly have my academic regrets, but sitting in those kinds of rooms, or walking into those kinds of locker rooms, or watching a great player comfort another great player after she's beaten her, come on. It was very, very special. I'm smiling just remembering all this as I'm saying it back to you.
And the great thing is that so many of us have gotten to stay in this world. Now we're behind a microphone or we're writing about it, but it's all those same people that I continue to admire and respect beyond measure.
WTA Insider: During that time, the relationship players had with the media was more casual and collegial than it is nowadays. Why did you make the leap to journalism? Were there members of the media that encouraged you to go into broadcasting?
Carillo: Well, even when I was playing I was writing articles. The WTA used to have a newspaper that came out once a month so I was writing some stuff for them, just first-person stuff. I wrote for World Tennis magazine and Tennis magazine during the time I was playing and after I played.
There's a man named Jim Roach who was a sports editor of The New York Times. He lived on my block in Douglaston in Queens, New York. The New York Times had its own box at the U.S. Open when it was at Forest Hills. There were days where Mr. Roach or his wife, would say, Mary, we have an extra ticket. Do you want it?
It was a great view. I watched Chris Evert get to the semis of the U.S. Open when she was 16 years old.
So I had these great seats and I would go home and I'd read the papers the next day and they'd be writing about a match and I’d be thinking that wasn't a good match! Why you're writing about that? I would get all crazy.
Then when I was a player, I loved going into the media centers and I loved watching writers put together their stories. History in a hurry, as newspaper writing is called.
And I would throw down quotes. On the Virginia Slims and then the Avon Tour, when I was a player, I lost a lot. I'm really not exaggerating. But they would say hey, can you go in and explain why Martina beat you again? Uh, sure. Let me tell you why this week was worse than last week!
I lost a match this one time and I was up a set and a break. I would just say ridiculous things. It was like the Avon Futures in Boise, Idaho and I would blame society because I couldn't serve out my match. They'd give me fishy looks.
You have to also keep in mind that my father's an artist. My brother's a novelist. My sister's an actress. My son's an actor. We all seem to think we have something to say. We're all pretty convinced of it, this Carillo family.
I remember when I got to be friends with Billie Jean, we were both living in New York at the time, I’d practice with her and she'd come over to my parent's house for dinner and by the third time, my brother was at the door to let her in and she just looked at my brother and said, Why do I feel like I should be paying admission? It was a lively house. There was plenty of conversation happening at the Carillo house.
I mean, you look at all the announcers who'd come out of Queens, New York, Vitas Gerulaitis to John and Patrick McEnroe and me, we all were New Yorkers. We got things on our mind.
WTA Insider: The work you've done as a broadcaster and journalist spans the range. From the Olympics to the Puppy Bowl, from Tennis Channel to the Slams, and documentary and investigative storytelling. What is it about broadcast journalism that you enjoy the most? What itch does it scratch for you?
Carillo: I'm genuinely curious about the athletic heart. I love the way it beats. I love the resilience of athletes. I genuinely have so much admiration and respect for what Simone Biles can do, just defying gravity and watching Usain Bolt for all those years and Michael Phelps in a pool. It genuinely inspires me. I get enthusiastic watching excellence in any form in any way. You just want to be around that.
People have been drawing on cave walls and on inside of pyramids. We have always had something to say. Everyone's trying to basically tell a story and we -- you and I -- we are lucky enough to be part of a sport we both adore telling the stories of that sport.
How lucky is that? I never forget how lucky I am, that I'm still banging around telling stories about people I truly, truly enjoy telling stories about.
In my house growing up, storytelling was the law. You had to know how to tell a story. You had to show your work. So what happened in the playground? And then what? You had to be able to hold up your end of the conversation.
My father was an art director for an ad agency and a terrific one. He used to do storyboards and he would lay out what a 30-second commercial would look like. I would watch him create these commercials and draw each panel to represent where the cameras are going to go and who's going to say what. And one day he was working on a working on a Goodyear Tire commercial.
He cut up all the panels and he told me to put him in order. I was a little kid, but I had been watching my dad tell stories like this. So I put them in pretty good order. He said that's pretty good because it was close-ups of the tire, and it was a race track and somebody was putting on their helmet and then they'd take it off at the end. The only thing is, this one that you put at the front, I’d put at the end. It turns out the driver was a woman and the whole point was that your wife is safer. I didn't know that.
I grew up with that sensibility. You got to tell a story and it's got to reveal everything you need people to know in a hurry. And that's why I love doing documentaries where you really have some time and there are no commercials and you get context and layers. I started off watching my father make 30-second commercials and then I just sort of kept going from there.
WTA Insider: Who fascinates you in tennis these days?
Carillo: Naomi Osaka. Here's a kid who seems shy and socially awkward and has a sly sense of humor that goes over a lot of our heads, including mine. But I think she has truly found her voice during this pandemic.
I think she has had plenty of time to think about her own personal power and what she can do with it, the value of her words and her actions. This kid could march in Minneapolis, marched in L.A., is speaking to not just an American audience, but a Japanese audience and a black audience. This kid has decided, all right I can take this on. I've got things to say, I feel things that I want people to know.
I mean, obviously, if the U.S. Open happens, Serena will be a big storyline. Will she get her 24. So obviously, she's fascinating. Serena and Naomi are incredible people to get to study and try to understand these things.
WTA Insider: Last question for you. I was reading through your extensive Wikipedia page, and this stood out to me and I just had to ask about it.
Which one of these two honors means most to you being inducted in 2018 into the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame or being inducted in 2008 to the National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame?
Carillo: That was tremendous! It was outstanding. Tommy Lasorda was the MC, so we gotta start there. He’s 427 years old and he’s still the MC of the Italian American Sports Hall of Fame. It was a lot of boxers, a lot of old baseball guys. In recent years, they tried to get in more women.
So I’d say yes to that. My parents had never before been to Chicago. There's an Italian American Sports Hall of Fame museum. For some reason, there's a picture of Frank Sinatra up there. I think that’s the law.
They asked if I would give a couple of awards to the museum that they could put under glass. So I gave them a Peabody and I gave them an Emmy. And my mom didn't seem to realize that they weren't going to give it back. For some reason, my 89-year-old mother recently tried to get them back.
I gave a ridiculous speech. You’ve heard me give ridiculous speeches and this one is right up there. I’m a proud part of the Italian American Sports Hall of Fame.