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Steve Flink: Arias Holds Court

9/14/2008 12:01:00 AM

by Steve Flink

Towards the end of the U.S. Open, as he approached the final day of a grueling couple of weeks in the commentary booth, I ran into Jimmy Arias. He was on his way to the media elevator, headed to the top of Arthur Ashe Stadium to call another match. I told Arias that after the tournament was over I wanted to interview him about his career as an announcer. He gave me his cell phone number. Several days later, we spoke for about 40 minutes. It was time well spent, because Arias has one of the better minds in his business, and an ability to break down the strengths and weaknesses of the competitors that is second to none in his field. I believe he may be the single most under-rated color analyst of them all.

What makes Arias such an outstanding man behind a microphone is his striking candor. He pulls no punches with his remarks. It doesn't matter whether he is talking about Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic or Andy Murray, Serena Williams or Maria Sharapova. No matter who is on the court, Arias tells you precisely what he likes or doesn't like about their performances. He treats the players with reverence and praises them effusively, but exposes their flaws just as meticulously. I find it refreshing to listen attentively whenever Arias is on the air, knowing he is giving the viewers the unvarnished truth--- at least as he sees it.

Arias had a distinguished pro career on the court, peaking at No. 5 in the world in 1984 after reaching the semifinals of the 1983 U.S. Open. But when he is commentating, he does not ever sound protective of the players. As he explains, "I am just saying what I think 100% of the time. I don't know these players and I am not buddies with them. Don't get me wrong. I think they are great. I am amazed how athletic they are, and how hard they hit the ball. For the way they hit the ball, they don't miss at all. But, if I notice they are getting tight in a match, I throw that out there. That was how I was as a player when I did press conferences. I just said what I thought, and I try to do the same thing with the commentary."

His career in the booth began in the mid-1990's, when he started working for ESPN International. He still works regularly for that network, but lends his talent to others including Tennis Channel. He calls the Grand Slam events "wall to wall", day after day for a fortnight. Watching the best players in the world so frequently has given Arias an unrestricted view of their styles and their patterns. As he says, "I have seen them all play a million times. I probably know their games almost as well as their coaches and I know when they might be choking. A lot of times I will make a guess that someone might get uptight and generally they do when I say that. People have come up to me telling me about players who were unhappy with things I said. I feel bad when that happens because I am not trying to offend anyone; I just say what is on my mind."

I wanted to know some of his impressions coming out of the U.S. Open after his long stretch behind the microphone in New York, and Arias was forthcoming on the subject of the leading players. Speaking of Federer, he said, "In Australia and in the early part of the year, he was definitely slower, no question about that. He lost confidence, mostly with his forehand, which started flying on him. At the U.S. Open that did not happen. He was getting up to his forehand quicker. But I also think he was helped at the Open quite a bit because it seemed like half the field was exhausted. Nadal seemed tired and Djokovic was acting strange through much of the tournament. With Roger, it looked for a while that he would break the Sampras record for Grand Slam titles easily the way things were shaking out, but now I am not sure. He probably will. The one caveat is that when Federer is not making unforced errors he is still the best player to me, although he has a real problem with Nadal and that match-up is not a good one for him."

Arias turns his attention to Federer's health, and the talk that was still swirling during the Open about lingering problems with mononucleosis. Arias says, "The whole mono thing is surprising to me only because I had mono in 1983 and I was bed ridden for two months. Federer's is the strangest case of mono I have ever heard of. Mine was completely different and I can only speak from that experience, but I remember my throat was on fire. I felt badly for a long time and I just didn't have the same energy. Maybe he didn't have as acute a case as I did and there is no question his movement was off at the start of the year. That led to a loss of confidence and all of a sudden he was not invincible."

Shifting his thoughts to Nadal, Arias says, "He has got to solve this problem of not being at his best at the U.S. Open. I know the Olympics made it complicated for him this year, but he needs to find a way to be fresher for the Open. But overall it seems like he is improving and until that trajectory stops he will keep getting better. The grass has changed a lot at Wimbledon. I saw a replay of Agassi-Ivanisevic from 1992 in the final and the ball was skidding through. It was so much faster back then. Now the ball bounces up like a hard court. So it seems like Nadal should have a good chance at Wimbledon for a long time, and I don't know how you beat him in a best of five set match on clay. I just can't see how it can be done, and he hasn't lost a best of five set match yet on that surface."

Arias likes the way things are shaping up at the top of the men's game, with Federer and Nadal so well liked among the public, while Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray play different roles in the court of public opinion. "I like that group," he asserts, "because Federer and Nadal are so highly regarded by the fans and Djokovic and Murray are almost like the villains, at least right now. I didn't like the way Djokovic acted in his semifinal loss to Federer at the Open. The crowd was not rooting for him and was cheering for Federer and that caused Djokovic to almost tank the fourth set. It was almost like he was saying, "I am not going to try if you don't like me.' Murray looked like he was back to playing just as a counter-puncher in the final against Federer, but that was not so in his other matches and against Nadal. He has got some weapons now and he can rip the ball off both sides."

Speaking about the great young players he saw at the Open, Arias is, as is his custom, candid and precise. "Ernests Gulbis has a great game but I don't trust his forehand, which is a bit of a slap shot. Del Potro has great ground strokes but I don't like his serve. Cilic is maybe the most impressive of the three to me, but they are all dangerous and I expect to see them all in the top ten at some point."

Among the women, Arias projects, "The Williams sisters look like they are more dedicated now and I expect them to probably dominate [in the near future]. It is not just their serves, but the way they return serve. They make their opponents feel like they are standing a foot from the service line, saying, "I am going to munch your serve.' I am worried about Maria Sharapova's serve. Regardless of the shoulder problems that have kept her out, it seems to me that she has the yips on her serve. She is so strong mentally that she has overcome this problem to a degree, but not entirely. I am amazed, though, what Dementieva has done to improve her serve. And I just hit with Jankovic yesterday. When I call her matches on television, it seems like she is just massaging the ball around. But on the court I found that she has some good pop on her ground strokes."

He spent considerable time in this interview analyzing the players, offering his thoughtful critiques. But I wanted to hear more from Arias about how he approaches his job in the booth. Does he ever listen to tapes of himself as a means of self evaluation? He responds, "I have only listened to myself maybe once or twice, and that was early on. My producer at the time said he liked the things I was saying but he thought I sounded flat. And I had thought I was rocking and rolling. I believed that producer must be nuts, but he was right. I did sound flat. I had never had caffeine before I started commentating and never used to drink coffee. But now I have a cup of coffee or a soft drink with caffeine in it because you have got to be more up when you are on the air than you are in normal conversation. Otherwise, you do sound flat. I realized I needed to sound more upbeat, but that was really the only time I listened to tapes from my broadcasts."

Where does Arias want to go from here? He is highly respected, but would he like a major network role at a CBS or an NBC, and is that realistic with so many high profile commentators involved? "I suppose that could be a goal," he answers, "but I don't see it that way now. I don't require or hope for or want fame in any way. That is a weird dichotomy, since commentary gives you some recognition. But I am doing most of my work on smaller networks and have only occasionally gone on bigger networks. Getting on the bigger networks is not a priority for me, but do I want to just keep things the way they are? That is tough to say because usually when you do that, you tend to go backwards. Yes, I have some ambition and I want to keep going with this, but maybe it isn't as important as it should be. I haven't hired an agent yet."
Only a man of integrity can speak that freely, and be that willing to examine himself as honestly as he scrutinizes others. Arias wishes the players could feel the same way about expressing themselves because he believes the sport could develop a wider public following if personalities were more clearly defined. As he puts it, "I liked Martina Hingis because she would sometimes say ridiculous things that you probably shouldn't say, but would be willing to say those things anyway. I just wish the players would say what they actually think so it would be clear who the good guys are and who are the villains and the press would have so much to write about."

Meanwhile, Jimmy Arias finds himself needing to leave home about half of the year, doing his commentary, working on clinics, playing some of the Jim Courier Champion's Tour events. He has a 14-year-old daughter and a 12-year-old son, and would rather not have to be away from his family so often. But the 44-year-old American takes great pride in what he is doing, and is a professional broadcaster through and through.

As he reflects on his evolution as an announcer, Arias concludes, "I think what helped me with the commentary is that after I stopped playing I taught for a year or two. You learn a lot more from teaching than you do playing. One of my kids was Andre Sa from Brazil, and when he was 14 or 15 I would go with him to tournaments and it really helped me to break things down on the court. The fact that I both played and taught has made a real difference with my commentary. Sometimes I am trying to teach the people who are watching a match on television, and other times I am just breaking everything down that I see. Either way, I am having a good time with it."

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