Telling It Straight
09/14/1992 at 01:00 AM EDT
AS A TENNIS REPORTER, MARY CARILLO plays an aggressive, straightforward game—pure serve-and-volley, with no tricky spin. She once accused flamboyant Andre Agassi of "tanking"—deliberately losing a set—after watching him drag his way through part of a 1989 match. And she roundly criticized the Women's Tennis Association for allowing Jennifer Capriati to turn pro at age 13 back in 1990. Her comments enraged Capriati's father. "Stefano hates me," admits Carillo. "But I've got strong feelings about kids and what happens to them in this sport. The only mature thing I see in some players is their tennis."
The sentiment is vintage Carillo. Currently one of CBS's top sports-casters, she has built a reputation based on her occasionally caustic, always incisive commentary. This week, for the seventh year, Carillo, 35, is holding down the CBS booth alongside veteran sports reporter Pat Summerall. "Mary breaks the boundaries of tennis commentary," says colleague Tim Ryan. "With the exception of Bud Collins, she's unique in her forthrightness, candor and knowledge of the game."
At times, Carillo's forthrightness raises issues other sportscasters might avoid. When Steffi Graf failed to win five consecutive grand slams (luring her father's involvement in a paternity suit in 1990 and 1991, Carillo, after much soul-searching, talked about the scandal. "If something's public, you can't act as if it's not there," she says. "I knew I was making it worse, but you have to make those kinds of decisions. They're the ones that keep you up at night."
Most players, though, respect Carillo for her directness. "She's a breath of fresh air," says Martina Navratilova, a friend whom Carillo has chided on occasion for choking during close points. "She's my idol," adds NBC commentator Chris Evert. "She's blunt and abrasive, but she's honest. I'm trying to be as good as she is."
Few in the game would dispute that Carillo knows the score. The second of three children of Tom Carillo, a retired art director at a New York City advertising agency, and Teresa, a housewife, Mary grew up in the Douglaston section of Queens, N.Y., practicing with a kid two years her junior, one John McEnroe. "I was the second-best player in Douglaston, so I was sort of pushed along," she says, laughing. "I went to the same tennis academy and had the same coach. If John hadn't been there, I wouldn't have gone so far."
By age 18, Carillo was ranked No. 1 in the East and No. 10 in the country. Against her parents' wishes, she decided to forgo college and took a job at coach Harry Hopman's tennis academy near Tampa. Shortly after, she took the next step out of necessity. "I was invited to play in a tournament in the Bahamas," she says with a laugh. "It was a great week, and I made $200 for getting to the semifinals. Then I saw my hotel bill. Even though the room was free, there were a few piña coladas here and there, and I had rented a Jet Ski. My bill was $280. I turned pro to pay off my bill."
Carillo competed on the tour for three years. Her peak ranking of 33 came in the spring of 1980. but the high point of her career occured in 1977 when her friend McEnroe—then still an amateur—suggested they enter the French Open mixed doubles together. The two unknowns won. Says Carillo: "I like to say it was his first grand-slam title and my last."
Carillo's court appearances ended in 1980 when she slipped on the wet grass of Wimbledon and tore cartilage in her knee. "It was no tragedy," she says wryly. "It wasn't like I'd left behind this great legacy." Fortunately USA Network had just begun broadcasting women's tennis, and a producer invited her to trade her racket for a mike. At the same time, she and Bill Bowden, an instructor she had met at Harry Hopman's academy, were rallying romantically. "It wasn't one of those love-at-first-sight deals," she says. "We were good friends for a long time. One morning I woke up and looked at him differently, sort of, 'Hey, he's kind of cool looking.' "
Carillo and Bowden married in April 1983. Anthony was born in 1987 and Rachel last year. Along the way, Carillo moved from USA to ESPN and CBS, becoming in 1988 the first female TV commentator to cover men's Davis Cup tennis. In deference to motherhood, however. Carillo tries to travel no more than 125 days a year. Bowden, now tennis director at a resort near their home in Naples, Fla., holds the fort with the help of a baby-sitter. "Too many long stretches aren't worth it," says Bowden. Carillo agrees. "One day my kids aren't going to be saying, 'Mom, fix me a Fop-Tart.' I just can't miss this time."
Still, when Carillo works, she works with passion. She was thrilled this year when CBS asked her to cover the Winter Olympics. "They weren't hiring me because of my tennis expertise," she says. "I'm not an ex-champion. I can't give the perspective of the superstar. The ultimate compliment to me is that they think I'm a good reporter who can do the job. That's what I've been fighting for."
CINDY DAMPIER in Naples and ALLISON LYNN in New York City