ESPN Tops Off Aussie Open Coverage With Epic Finale

As the Australian Open Men’s Singles Final pushed into the wee hours of Monday morning in Melbourne, tennis fans in the U.S. awoke Sunday to an unexpected offering of Breakfast at the Aussie Open on ESPN2. The longest final in Grand Slam history (5 hours and 53 minutes) finally concluded when Novak Djokovic’s forehand cross-court winner whipped past Rafael Nadal at 1:37 a.m. in Melbourne on Monday (9:37 a.m. ET Sunday), topping off a dream weekend of big-name draws for ESPN.

“It is a dream draw on both sides,” Jamie Reynolds, VP of ESPN Event Production, said over the weekend. “On the men’s side, having the big four — Roger Federer-Nadal and Djokovic-Andy Murray — [in the semis] and then Nadal-Djokovic [in the final] is just unbelievable. On the women’s side, you have the No. 1 ranking on the line for whoever wins the Open and [Maria] Sharapova in the mix. It is just amazing and goes a long way in [making up for the disappointing showing] from the Americans.”

ESPN Aims To Differentiate Coverage
With a cavalcade of broadcasters taking the world feed (produced by Channel 7/Seven Network in conjunction with Tennis Australia), ESPN once again looked to differentiate itself. That effort included two exclusive on-court cameras behind each baseline and a roving RF camera covering the grounds.

Last year, Spidercam debuted in Melbourne as an ESPN-exclusive camera asset. This year, however, ESPN opened up the four-point aerial camera system to the world feed, allowing fans around the world to view the Spidercam’s swooping aerial shots.

Anchored at the four corners of the top of Rod Laver Arena, Spidercam runs off a motorized winch that passes four Kevlar cables (two of which are fiber-optic) through a pulley. The fiber cables facilitate communication between the physical system and Spidercam’s XYZ coordinates software, operated by a pilot at the arena.

Spidercam, which ESPN also made available to the US Open world feed last year, captured one of the most compelling moments of the tournament, when it was in perfect position alongside an exhausted and sweat-drenched Djokovic as he tore off his shirt and let out a ferocious scream following his match-winning point.

No Shortage of EVS
ESPN has long been known for integrating massive on-site EVS networks at its larger remote productions. However, even for ESPN, the level of EVS resources and infrastructure at the Australian Open was unusual. In all, ESPN deployed 17 EVS production servers (most of which were XT-3’s), 23 EVS IP Directors, four EVS XTAccess hardware machines, two EVS XF2 removable servers, two EVS XStore-2 storage units, two EVS XL-2 servers to handle low-res proxies of the HD material.

“We have one of the largest EVS networks for an event of this size,” said Reynolds. “It’s an extremely heavy media-management operation that is probably a bit larger than what we take to London for Wimbledon. It is slightly smaller than what we do at the US Open [where ESPN] shared assets with CBS, but, in terms of a dedicated operation, it is just about the largest [EVS installation] that we do.”

Orad MVP Meets Hawk-Eye
ESPN once again deployed Orad’s MVP sports-graphics system, which allows the network to create advanced graphical elements based on MVP’s player/ball-tracking software. In addition, Orad’s ADVision allowed ESPN to insert full-motion virtual advertisements in real time without the need for camera sensors.

This year, ESPN integrated these systems with the Hawk-Eye electronic line-calling system used at the Open.

“We have now figured out how to editorially marry Orad MVP with the data that is coming off of Hawk-Eye, which has now started to develop its own proprietary player-tracking data and information technology,” says Reynolds. “We are presenting better stories, point deconstruction, and player analysis by utilizing what Orad can provide visually and with the data stream that Hawk-Eye can provide. That includes ball marks, ball landings, speed of a player running across the court, distance travelled by a player, and so on.”

The Compound Down Under
The production compound at Melbourne Park featured no mobile-production trucks; rather, on-site broadcasters used prebuilt production facilities to cover the eight show courts. Besides ESPN and Channel 7, Japan’s WOWOW, Fox Australia, and a handful of smaller broadcasters were on-site.

ESPN host Chris Fowler (left), tennis analyst Darren Cahill (center), and player Fernando Verdasco of Spain chat on an on-site set at Melbourne Park.

This year, ESPN partnered with Gearhouse Broadcast to help integrate its dedicated facilities within the Melbourne Park broadcast center. Gearhouse had previously worked with ESPN at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa and has worked closely with Channel 7 on the Australian Open in years past.

“Gearhouse was very competitive in their bid,” said Reynolds. “They have shown terrific support coming in as a first-time vendor under our multiyear deal.”

For transmission, ESPN had two dedicated fiber lines — primary and backup — running back to its broadcast headquarters in Bristol, CT. Both lines were available 24 hours a day throughout the tournament. Live match action for ESPN2 was transmitted over the primary path, and press conferences and ancillary content were sent on the backup line.

“We do so many hours live that it would cost more to ramp up the [fiber lines] each day than it would to just have it hot for the entire run,” says Reynolds. “So it just makes sense to have them hot the entire time.”

Although all in-game highlights for SportsCenter and other ESPN programs were produced out of Bristol, the Melbourne-based team produced 2- to 2½-minute highlight packages following each match and delivered them to Bristol for various ESPN linear and online outlets.

Audio Kicks It Up a Notch
Reynolds believes the most significant enhancement to this year’s coverage was on the audio side, with ESPN working closely with Channel 7 to perfect the placement of microphones around Rod Laver Arena.

“Working with several of the other broadcasters, we have figured out strategies to optimize the microphone placement on courts,” says Reynolds. “It’s all about the placement of microphones and the attention to detail when fine-tuning the .”

What About 3D?
Over the past two years, the French Open, US Open, and Wimbledon have all been produced and distributed in 3D. In addition, two leading 3D-production-technology vendors are familiar with Australia: CAMERON/PACE Group opened an office in Melbourne this month, and 3ality Technica has produced several high-profile sports events on the continent. This begs the obvious question: when will tennis’s fourth Grand Slam take the 3D plunge?

“I know 3D is an initiative for Tennis Australia and Channel 7,” says Reynolds. “Would we like to see it? Of course. I think Tennis Australia would love to be in the 3D business at some point, and I think, once they figure out their distribution scheme and host-broadcast arrangements, you will see some more movement in that direction.”