In Depth

Mary Carillo: A Jump to the Nets

By Hillary Atkin

Sportscaster Mary Carillo knows her way around a field, a gymnasium, an Olympic mountaintop — and most definitely, a tennis court. The versatile broadcaster played on the professional women’s tennis circuit from 1977-80, even winning the French Open mixed doubles title with longtime pal John McEnroe, before she traded in her tennis racquet for a microphone. Now, she’s often paired with the former bad boy of tennis in the broadcast booth.

In the past three decades, after starting her career at USA Network, she’s had award-winning stints as a commentator, reporter and host across the dial — from HBO to PBS, CBS, NBC and ESPN.

But perhaps there’s been nothing as satisfying as the job she completed in February as host of “Late Night at the Olympics” on NBC, the nightly wrap-up of all the competition and the biggest stories at the Vancouver Winter Games. Adding to the excitement was the novelty of having a moose in the studio, which became a de facto mascot for the NBC team.

Carillo has covered seven Winter Olympics and two Summer Olympic Games, the first in Albertville, France, in 1992 for CBS.

“I’ve had some remarkable experiences,” Carillo said. “I have a great affinity for winter sports. Tennis is pretty straightforward. But winter sports are so dangerous and crazy and take you to beautiful mountain villages throughout the world.”

In Canada, she covered everything from the tragic luge track death that marred the opening of the games to the grand finale, which saw the host country joyfully winning the gold medal for hockey. The Western time zone worked in the broadcast’s favor, especially compared with doing the late show from Beijing in the summer of 2008 at 1 p.m. local time.

“The good part was we were abler to react to what had just happened,” Carrillo said. “As soon as we were off live air, they would package things for the late show. Anyone who missed prime time got a nice feel. I thought my assignment was pretty easy, because the stuff we were given was so strong.”

As a former professional tennis player, Carillo is a frequent presence behind the mic on the Grand Slam tour and is currently working on four features for the upcoming French Open for ESPN. She’s been covering the sport for 30 years.

“I’ve seen everyone. It’s been a remarkable time in the sport,” she said. “The game used to be played with wooden racquets on grass. It’s so different and there are so many different styles of player. The racquets are much more powerful and produce so much more spin. It’s been a tremendous time in the evolution of tennis to cover it.”

Much as a player has to adapt to conditions, Carillo must adjust her style accordingly for each network.

“The coverage is different, with different producers and directors. There is a different sound at every network,” she said. “At CBS, less is more, while at ESPN there is a lot of talking with a lot of announcers. They like a lot of people to have a discussion on one topic or one match. Given a choice between quieter and noisier, I like quieter. My personal choice is to set people up.

Something extraordinary has to be happening for me to talk at the end of a match. You want the viewer to see it unfold.”

Carillo initially transitioned from being a player to covering sports when she was asked to do pickup commentary when she was sidelined with injuries. That led to requests to cover women’s and then men’s tennis — and then a host of other sports.

“I’ve covered events as a reporter, studio host, done features — they kind of throw me around and I get to experience events around the country and the world — that’s a great gig,” she said.