It was 1986 and Mary Carillo was working as an analyst for its weekday coverage of the US Open. Typically, CBS would take over weekend coverage but when the women’s final between Navratilova and Helena Sukova was pushed by rain to Sunday, not surprisingly, the network went with NFL programming.
“So guess what?” Carillo said. “I get to call the US Open women’s final on USA Network -- my first major final. You can imagine how excited I was.”
As is her habit, Carillo had been diligent in researching the lesser-known Sukova.
“I knew the hospital she was born in, blood type, what food she was allergic to, whether she’d ever had a parking violation,” Carillo said. “I get to the booth four hours early. I’ve got my notes spread all over the place. They do that swirly animation and the epic music and then the voice of God says, “Because of the following USA Network sports presentation, Monkey Kung Fu will not be seen at its regular time.”
Carillo, suddenly disoriented, pasted on that smile you’ve seen a million times when the camera moves in. The Sukova information flew out of her head.
“I couldn’t even remember her name,” Carillo said. “I’m wondering, is it really monkeys doing kung fu? Have we got irate Monkey Kung Fu viewers who are lighting up the switchboard?”
Today she knows that Navratilova won in straight sets, but that’s what Carillo remembers of the 1986 final.
“Little moments become big moments,” she told a supportive crowd a year ago in New York, when she was honored with the Georgina Clark Motherhood Award at a WTA Legends & Friends Reunion before the US Open.
Among those on hand at the New York Historical Society were Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova, Chris Evert, John McEnroe and emcee Pam Shriver.
“Just makes me smile thinking about it,” she said 36 years after that fleeting lapse in memory.
“I still have a place at the table.”
A media trailblazer
Carillo played 110 WTA tour-level matches between 1976-82 and finished with a record of 56-54. Today, among many other things, she is a rabid reporter for HBO’s “Real Sports” and produces marvelously eclectic, award-winning features for NBC’s Olympic coverage.
Rare is the sports figure who becomes bigger after their time in the arena, but Carillo, now 66, along with Michael Strahan, Robin Roberts and John Madden belongs on that very short list.
She is a renaissance woman. Carillo has covered 15 Olympic Games, hosted the beloved Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, co-written three books and worked for virtually every network you can name. Her short dark hair, glasses and deep voice are immediately recognizable.
“It doesn’t matter if she’s writing, it doesn’t matter if she’s producing, it doesn’t matter if she’s announcing -- it doesn’t matter,” Billie Jean King said. “Mary has done so much for our sport, to elevate professional tennis. Bottom line, Mary tells the best story.”
How many people on earth have won a Grand Slam title -- and two Peabody Awards for journalistic excellence? One: Carillo.
'Let’s give this a shot’
Carillo grew up four blocks from John McEnroe in Douglaston, a neighborhood in the New York City borough of Queens.
They played tennis at the Douglaston Club, a yacht, tennis and pool facility with a quaint white, three-story clubhouse. Carillo liked his fire; McEnroe liked hers. Plus, how many 12-year-old girls are willing to hang around 10-year-old boys? In the early 1970s, they played a lot.
“Every once in a while I’d actually win a set from him,” Carillo said. “One day on Court 4 at the Douglaston Club, the teaching court, all of a sudden he was gone from me. All of a sudden, he just leaped forward.
“We were sitting on the bench drinking out of [tennis ball] cans. And I said to John, ‘You are going to be the No.1 tennis player in the world one day.’”
Not even looking up, McEnroe said, “Shut up, you don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Carillo has always considered that to be her first commentary, her first professional critique. And, as it turned out, she was absolutely correct.
At the Georgina Clark Award celebration, McEnroe acknowledged his debt to Carillo.
“You helped me get to be the player I became,” he said. “Your belief in those first years, no matter what I was doing. You stuck with me, you made me believe in myself before I believed in myself.”
McEnroe reigned as the ATP’s No.1 player for 170 weeks, seventh all-time. He would go on to win four US Open titles and three more at Wimbledon. And another Grand Slam title at Roland Garros with an obscure (but familiar) partner in 1977.
“I was sent over to play juniors in Paris, and [Mary] said let’s play mixed doubles,” McEnroe said. “I said, ‘OK, let’s give this a shot. You never know.’
“We win the whole damn thing.”
The underdog’s wit and wisdom
Carillo, a lefty serve-and-volleyer, often makes light of herself by reminding us she never reached the weekend of a tennis tournament.
“Growing up, I was in this universe with John McEnroe and Vitas Gerulaitis,” Carillo said. “Their goal was winning Wimbledon; my goal was playing Wimbledon. My game wasn’t big. I never would have gotten to my dream of Wimbledon in this generation’s tour.”
Still, she had her moments.
Carillo played Wimbledon three times, advancing to the third round in 1979, defeating Betsy Nagelsen and Ann Kiyomura-Hayashi. Carillo went 24-13 that year and faced Navratilova twice in the month of October.
“In Phoenix, Mary aced me, and as we were changing sides, I gave her a high five," Navratilova said. "I did that because those aces did not happen that often.”
Carillo, always downplaying, said, “It was a second serve that was so shaky she couldn’t reach it.”
She lost nine of her last 10 matches from 1980-82, her knees the culprit. The last came in Nassau and she had just turned 25. Carillo says she was lucky. Although she didn’t win much, she was interviewed a lot.
“Because I was considered a good quote,” she said. “I was a wisenheimer, and I made fun of myself. I would lose a match, and the Virginia Slims [communications] babe would say can you come in [to press]? And I would say, `Who the hell wants to talk to me?’ My explaining why I lost to Martina 0 and 1 was more interesting, I guess, than Martina explaining it.”
She spent a lot of time in the media tents, watching columnists like Mike Lupica cook up stories. She was amazed how quickly they turned them around -- and wondered if there was a way she could somehow transition to the business of telling tennis stories.
“My father is an art director, my mother is a novelist, my sister was an actress,” Carillo said. “We all think we have something to say.”
Voice of the court
Professional tennis is a traveling circus, populated by a wide range of personalities, that sets up shop in a different spot around the globe each week. Most involved will do almost anything to be part of the life.
Beyond the elite athletes, there are fringe players scuffling to qualify for events, trying to make ends meet with a no-frills budget. Racquet stringers, strength coaches, sometimes three to a room, the Polish radio freelancer -- all trying to cobble together a living on the road.
Initially, that was Carillo’s planned trajectory. “My buddy [journalist] Sally Jenkins said about me, ‘If you love something, really love something, it will love you back,’” she said. “I think that’s why I hung around tennis.
“Obviously, I couldn’t really let it go.”
Carillo carved out a career as an analyst, beginning in 1980 at USA Network. She multitasked, working gigs for the Public Broadcasting System, Madison Square Garden and, for two different stretches, ESPN, as well as overlapping stints for NBC, HBO, Turner Sports and Tennis Channel. When she broke in, women were not generally included in sports broadcasts.
“I admired her honesty and her TV commentary,” Evert said. “Martina, Lindsay Davenport, myself -- we all aspired to be like Mary on TV.”
After giving birth to son Anthony in 1987, Carillo was determined to work the US Open, but McEnroe begged her to reconsider.
“I said, `Don’t work the US Open,’” he said in New York. “What was that phrase -- you cannot be serious?
“Now, I get it. At that time, options [for women] were not that available. You had to prove yourself well beyond what a guy would have to prove at that time. So I commend you for sticking with it. I don’t have those Emmy nominations; I don’t have those Peabodys. And there’s a reason for that.”
Transitioning to … luge?
In 1992, CBS asked Carillo if she’d work the Winter Olympics in Albertville, France. They wanted her to be their skiing reporter at the bottom of the mountain. Without much deliberation, she said yes.
“I had so many questions,” Carillo said. “We’d get up at dawn and shoot the sunrise and the athletes would come out, and the first thing they’d do is look up at the sky. They were checking out the weather. And the wind. The mind of a winter athlete, what they take in. I was absolutely fascinated by that.
“So I took every winter sports assignment I could. I recognized the only sport I’m fluent in is tennis. I think once I got the chance to do other sports, that changed everything.”
Before the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Carillo got a similar call from NBC Sports asking her what she knew about the luge event.
“Is luge the one where the lunatics slide down the ice feet first,” Carillo thought. “Or is luge the one where the idiots slide down the ice headfirst?
“I made it my passion. I was on the mountain covering luge, skeleton and bobsled. As it happened, eight American medalists came out of that, so I was on a lot, interviewing a bunch of guys, doing my thing.”
When she got back to her hotel after the last competition, her phone was ringing. It was Dick Ebersol, chairman of NBC Sports.
“Great work,” he told Carillo, “come on down the mountain. You’re going to do the closing ceremony.”
And that, according to Carillo, it opened up all kinds of doors.
“We get to tell stories about people who are in the absolute physical prime of their lives -- and it’s only going to be for a short while,” Carillo said. “We get to explore how they live -- how they do it and why they do it. That to me is fascinating.”
Sending the elevator back down
Carillo has been busy, cranking out pieces for HBO’s “Real Sports.” She took on the wide, wild world of agility dogs in the August edition, and next month it’s the life of NFL kickers.
“Most stressful job in sports,” Carillo said. “You either get an A -- or an F.”
Carillo gets a lot of questions from high school and college kids about how to break into the business.
“They say, ‘I’m going to Syracuse. I’m minoring in English Art, and invariably I will say, ‘Are you good company? Do people want to be around you?’
“It would be a good idea if they were interesting, engaging, curious. That’s kind of a big deal. No matter what you end up doing, you better be a team player. Getting along with other people and being interested.”
At the New York Historical Society, where she received the Georgina Clark Motherhood Award, Carillo thanked her WTA family.
“Abraham Lincoln, when he said to surround yourself with people and ideas you respect -- I’ve been able to do that my whole life,” Carillo said, stifling a tear or two. “And if you’re like me and you’re lucky enough to get somewhere, you’ve got to send the elevator back down. That’s just the rule.
“I’m so honored to have a place at this table. The world is too much lately. Thank God we all have each other.”