“I hate sitting still,” said Pam Shriver. It was Tuesday evening, and Shriver, the ESPN tennis analyst, just introduced herself. She was sitting in a makeup room near a broadcast booth in Arthur Ashe Stadium, the home of the U.S. Open. Two women were flying around her, applying lipstick, makeup and spraying her hair. Shriver wasn’t enjoying it. She just wanted to get on with her night.
This story first appeared in the September 7, 2011 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
“I might get into trouble tonight with some interviews during [Rafael] Nadal,” she said. Shriver was explaining how her schedule was shaping up — courtside reporting and some in-the-stands interviews with celebrities — and she explained that by trouble she really meant “just having fun.” Fun? Sure. But trouble? More likely.
For the last three years, since ESPN2 became the cable home for the U.S. Open, Shriver has been the mischievous, batty and, by far and away, the most delightful component to the two weeks of hundreds of hours of televised tennis. Over the next 45 minutes with WWD, she would recall many memorable moments: How she interviewed Michael Phelps from the stands and asked to see his Speedo; how she got into a fight with James Blake in the middle of a first round match at Wimbledon; how she wound up getting booed by the Arthur Ashe Stadium crowd after a quarterfinal match a few years ago for mock-mispronouncing the name of a relatively unknown Belgian player.
Oh, and there’s the moment she inexplicably dumped her head into an ice cream freezer when asked by her bosses to “find something cool on the grounds” or how she desperately pleaded with Nadal to do an on-court interview with her shirtless. There are dozens of others.
“This tournament means the world to the athletes and it’s one of the four majors, but it’s still a sport,” she said. “We just survived a hurricane. Sometimes there needs to be a lightness to what this is. It’s entertainment and two people trying to win a tennis match.” “It became my fervent wish that ESPN2 would confine Pam Shriver’s role strictly to courtside analysis, and keep her from roaming Arthur Ashe Stadium,” wrote Richard Sandomir, The New York Times’ sports writer, in 2009. “She lacks strong interviewing skills and reporting chops…” Sandomir complained that Shriver was full of “unnecessary” distractions (see examples above).
There are plenty of tennis and beat reporters who roll their eyes when her name comes up. But this is also precisely why Shriver has become the best thing about ESPN’s coverage. As ESPN’s empire swallows up all of tennis — it is the cable home for all four majors, and, starting next year, will broadcast the men’s and women’s finals at Wimbledon, too — Shriver has become the network’s courtside jester and is quickly becoming this generation’s answer to Bud Collins.
Among tennis fans, particularly in New York, ESPN’s coverage has received mostly warm reviews. There are tennis experts employed by the channel crawling all over Flushing for these two weeks, but there’s a downside to this: You can’t help but get the feeling a lot of these folks have a horse in this race (Patrick McEnroe is the former Davis Cup coach for the U.S.; Mary Joe Fernandez is married to Roger Federer’s agent; Daren Cahill and Brad Gilbert have coached a share of the top men’s players). Then there was Mary Carillo, the best broadcaster in tennis, who walked away from ESPN in the middle of the U.S. Open last year after she was told to pipe down her rather blunt analysis.
That leaves Shriver. Not only does she seem to be the only member of the tennis crew who isn’t compromised in some way — she has no other job apart from the 60 or so days a year that she broadcasts tennis for ESPN — she also blurts out whatever she wants whenever she wants. There is no event like the U.S. Open where sport and celebrity coexist so comfortably. It’s up to Shriver, the Hall of Fame ex-tennis player, to fill that gap: To evaluate Roger Federer’s game as casually as she asks Alec Baldwin a perfectly inappropriate question.
“I’ve learned to really appreciate the courtside position and the art of picking up certain subtleties,” she said. “Player expression you can’t see from a camera angle, or the booth. [Where I am] you can see a little injury or a little concern a player has. I like that challenge.”
Then her voice picked up.
“Also, ESPN gives you an open mic,” she said.
This is the tool that allows Pam to just be Pam. And since ESPN started picking up the cable rights to more and more tennis matches, it seems the network has given her a longer and longer leash to say whatever she’d like into that open mic.
She certainly didn’t mind jawing at Blake. Last year, during the first round of Wimbledon, the fading American tennis star was playing on an outer court where Shriver was situated a few feet above. She was picking apart his game, his “woe-is-me” attitude and his dislike of Wimbledon. After an error, Blake screamed up at Shriver, “Amazing you used to play tennis. I can still hear you.”
Shriver, who wasn’t using her quietest voice, blurted out, rather unapologetically, “James just yelled at me. I’m way above the court, but evidently he can hear me. He’s got rabbit ears.”
She didn’t whisper.
“You have to be an ass about it, too?” Blake said after the next point. “And act like I’m at fault?”
Shriver didn’t whisper, again.
“And there he is, talking again,” she said.
This is typical Shriver. It’s unpredictable. It’s a little strange. It’s bizarrely self-assured. It’s also incredibly funny.
“You’re never going to please everybody, are you?” she said. “Even when I played, if they gave me the microphone after a match, whether a doubles final or a singles final, I’d handle the microphone pretty well.”
So how do these crazy things get in her head?
“It’s kind of a gut thing,” she said. “I try not to overthink it. I think sometimes when things are over thought, they don’t come out too well.” She said the more “scripted things are,” the more uncomfortable she is.
When she’s not in Flushing, she lives in Los Angeles, where she takes care of her young children (twins, age 6, and another child, age 7. She had fertility help and she’s not ashamed of it). She’s been married twice: First, to Joe Shapiro, a lawyer for Disney, who died in 1999 of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma; then to former James Bond actor George Lazenby before they called it quits in what turned out to be a rather nasty and public divorce.
She’s a minority owner of the Baltimore Orioles — along with Barry Levinson and Tom Clancy — and is a distant cousin to Maria Shriver. Her broadcasting ambitions are mostly limited to tennis, but she said she would love to do work for ESPN during the Par Three competition the day before the Masters officially begins.
During the interview, the 49-year-old Shriver was sensitive about only one thing: That she wants to be known for her tennis acumen as much as for her wild antics as a courtside reporter. Fair enough, but there’s a reason she has become one of the greatest things about the U.S. Open and it’s not only because she has a knack for analyzing Maria Sharapova’s serve. “There’s a Jimmy Buffett song,” she said, “‘If we couldn’t laugh, we would all go insane.’ And that’s true.”