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Hunkering Down in 'The Bunker' for the Greatest Day in Tennis

It’s one of the most cramped, claustrophobic TV booths in all of sports. Announcers and crew can’t stand up straight in it without banging their heads. It was built way back in the radio days, and not much has changed since then. But oh, the view…just 15 yards away from the players and the drama on Centre Court at Wimbledon. Welcome to “The Bunker,” tennis’ most intimate, unique broadcasting digs.

The cozy courtside “commentary box,” as Wimbledon’s host All England Club calls it, was the Centre Court home of NBC for 43 years until ESPN took over exclusive live U.S. coverage of the tournament this year. ESPN has covered the Grand Slam event since 2003, but it did not have access to the Bunker and reported on Centre Court action from a booth atop the stadium, which the network still uses to call matches on field courts around the AEC grounds. (There are actually two Bunkers — the BBC operates from the opposite end of Centre Court, in a matching terrible booth with fantastic view.)

The Bunker will figure prominently in ESPN’s marathon, two-network coverage of Wimbledon on Monday. The second Monday of Wimbledon is known as “the Greatest Day in Tennis,” as all 32 men and women left in the singles draws are scheduled to play their fourth-round matches. (Wimbledon is the only one of tennis’ four Grand Slams that by tradition suspends play on its first Sunday, creating a mid-tournament day of rest for competitors and the all-in super schedule on Monday.)

ESPN will air seven hours of Centre Court coverage Monday, with ESPN2 simultaneously serving up 10 hours of play from Court 1 and other courts. This is the first time all 16 of the second-Monday matches will be seen live across the U.S. — no more of the dreaded tape-delay coverage that frustrated viewers for decades.

Because the Bunker is too cramped to accommodate a manned camera, ESPN has affixed a small round robotic camera just outside the booth to grab shots of on-court action and between-games visits with announcers. The camera, dubbed the “cue ball,” sits on a rotating arm that can swing out and pan around for crowd shots, but with measured discretion. Wimbledon’s Royal Box is just a few feet away — no close-ups, please.

In addition to the cue ball, ESPN has installed robotics on both sides of the players’ entrance to the All England Club to show the stars having their credentials scanned and heading in for matches and practices.  In the past, player arrivals were occasionally shown using roaming RF Steadicams, “but now we are out there all the time [with the robotics] and can pick up anything that’s interesting,” said Jamie Reynolds, who oversees all of ESPN’s tennis coverage as VP of event production.

The robotic cameras, which Reynolds calls “our voyeuristic consorts,” are a first step in ESPN’s efforts to gain more behind-the-scenes access and offer viewers fresh perspectives of Wimbledon as part of the network’s new 12-year broadcast deal. The 135-year-old event is tennis’ crown jewel, steeped in tradition. Old habits die hard here. It may take several years of chipping away with small-steps innovations like the robocams before ESPN is able to get buy-in from the lords of the AEC to use more intrusive, game-changing production toys like the SpiderCam and FlyCam aerial cameras that zoom around stadiums and soar above the grounds during broadcasts of the U.S. and Australian Opens.  Of the cue ball camera adjacent to the Bunker, Reynolds said: “We’re quietly asking to swing it out a little bit more regularly.”

Almost every year, rain is one of the key story lines at Wimbledon. (Inside the Bunker, a sign cheerfully advises: “Installing British summer. Installation failed. Please try again.”) While the three-year-old roof over Centre Court will enable ESPN to keep humming with match play throughout the day Monday, ESPN2’s 10 hours of coverage from the other courts will take some vamping to fill if the heavens open.

Reynolds and his production team prepared by filming a bundle of profile segments with top players before the June 25-July 8 tournament began. The “My Spins” vignettes feature the stars reflecting on their early years (Serena Williams recalls how as kids, she and sister Venus spread grass clippings on the sidewalk in front of their home so they could play “Wimbledon” matches) and their off-the-court challenges (Mardy Fish recounts the frightening heart palpitations that left him gasping for breath and led to a heart procedure and his successful return to the tour just prior to Wimbledon).

Monday through Wednesday, Reynolds will be helming ESPN’s main Wimbledon control room and studio as well as a second unit the network built to produce its simultaneous dual-network coverage of the fourth-round and quarterfinal matches over the three days. All of the hardware and systems in ESPN’s control room A were updated as part of the effort. The second crew that will operate control B this week spent the first week of the tournament learning the ropes from their counterparts in control A.

“We needed a much more aggressive, more robust operation here in order to drive two channels at the same time for three days,” Reynolds said last week while showing off the facilities, which are in Wimbledon’s broadcast centre overlooking Court 18. “On Monday morning, we will flip the switch and have dual engines with dual exhausts.”

And “the Greatest Day in Tennis” will kick off just as every day of coverage does for ESPN’s tennis production team, with an audio guy filling their headsets with Leslie Nielsen’s rallying cry from Airplane!: “I just want to tell you both good luck. We’re all counting on you.”

ESPN’s Chris Evert (left) and Cliff Drysdale get their Bunker mentality on.