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BILL DWYRE

ESPN's Pam Shriver talks as good a game as she played

The tennis Hall of Famer who won 22 Grand Slam doubles titles, 20 of them with Martina Navratilova, has found an equally impressive niche as a sideline reporter and commentator — smart, entertaining and unpredictable, though sometimes to her detriment.

September 04, 2010|Bill Dwyre

From New York — Little by little, after an athletic career most accurately described as one of best supporting actress, Pam Shriver is finding her own spotlight.

She is a sideline tennis reporter for ESPN. At the U.S. Open, she is everywhere. She does interviews as players go onto the court, then interviews them when they are done. In between, she finds a place in the stands and adds her two cents during the match.

"The microphone is open," she says. "There is no delay. If I see something and want to say it right now, I can."

So she does, with a style that irks those who think that sports journalism, especially the broadcast side, should be a warm-and-fuzzy cuddling of the players. She is direct, but with a sense of humor that, sadly, is lost on many.

"I love women's tennis, and I want it to do well," she says. "But I don't want to pander. I don't have to be warm and fuzzy. I just want to be respected."

That should be assumed. She is in the Tennis Hall of Fame. Fresh out of Baltimore at age 16, she served-and-volleyed her way to the U.S. Open final in 1978, before losing to Chris Evert. In 1984, she climbed as high as No. 3. After '78, she got to eight more major semifinals in her career.

But her legacy has been as Martina Navratilova's doubles partner, as the legend's supporting cast.

Of Shriver's 22 Grand Slam doubles titles, 20 were with Navratilova. Included in that was a record streak of 109 match victories over two years and three months in '83, '84 and '85. That included the women's doubles Grand Slam in 1984. In 1988, the first year tennis returned to the Olympics as a medal sport, she won the women's doubles gold with Zina Garrison.

For the fourth cousin of Maria Shriver, California's first lady, life after tennis has been a roller coaster.

She married Joe Shapiro, Disney general counsel, in 1999, when his cancer was in remission. He died less than a year later.

Three years after that, she married movie star George Lazenby, best known for playing James Bond in the 1969 film "On Her Majesty's Secret Service." They had three children. George is now 6 and twins Kaitlin and Sam are 5. Last year, her divorce from Lazenby, who turns 71 today, was finalized.

So her job as a tennis broadcaster has taken on new focus. It also has brought new headaches.

Last year at the U.S. Open, she was criticized for using a less-than-effusive tone during a post-match interview, while referring to semifinalist Yanina Wickmayer of Belgium.

"I didn't mean to offend anybody," Shriver says. "It's my filter. I constantly work on it. My semifinals were like Navratilova, Graf, Graf, Evert, Navratilova. So I see Wickmayer and it just comes out wrong. My fault."

Then she was working with an open microphone during a James Blake match at Wimbledon, on a new TV platform setup that hadn't been tested before. Blake overheard her comments, some of them not warm and fuzzy about his performance, and Shriver didn't know he could hear her. Eventually, he yelled at her and she yelled back.

"I just said, 'Focus, James,'" Shriver says. "My bad. I need to work on that filter. It failed me there."

The flip side has been good for ESPN viewers with a sense of adventure.

She got Serena Williams to do a flamboyant curtsy on camera. She also got opera icon Placido Domingo to sing a note before a night match he was attending.

"That's maybe my highlight moment," she says.

This year, after Maria Sharapova's second-round Open victory, she got the Russian talking on court about young players coming up, and when Sharapova lamented being old at 23, Shriver piped up, "Careful there, I'm 48."

Then she went for the home run. Shriver reminded Sharapova that Novak Djokovic had once imitated her during an on-court interview and wondered if she would like to get even. Unfortunately, Sharapova was caught off guard and declined, when, had she had a moment to think, she could have gone to the service line and bounced the ball 25-30 times, mocking Djokovic's tendency.

"I thought it showed how focused Maria is," Shriver said. "It wasn't quite time for fun."

But it was a good try, and you can count on more from Shriver, somebody who laughs at herself much more than at others.

After a weekend on CBS, the telecast will go back to ESPN. Shriver will miss Monday's night and Tuesday's day telecast. She'll be back home in Brentwood. First things first.

"Tuesday is the kids' first day in school," she says. "George is with them now and has them when I'm working, but I wouldn't miss that first day. School starts at 8 a.m. I'll be on the 10:40 flight out of LAX."

From microphone to mom, and back again.

bill.dwyre@latimes.com

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