Whirlwind woman

Mary Carillo brings insight, humor and energy onto television broadcasting, and also at home.

Published August 25, 2006

NAPLES - One minute, Mary Carillo is sitting down for conversation inside her modern, airy living room on another postcard morning by the gulf. The next, she has transformed her leather sofa into what seems like the couch of a late-night talk show. She's the guest on a roll, and everyone else is the studio audience that gets to come along for the fun.

You want stories? Has she got stories. You want insight or opinion? Please. She delivers her words with humor and capital-letter gusto: arms gesturing to underscore points, big laugh punctuating tales from a life in tennis and television, voice shifting at any moment into a classic "Whaddya KIDDIN' ME?" Catskill shtick, then back to the engaging, personable tone TV sports viewers have come to know over a quarter century.

Her upbeat, whirlwind presence is a mirror of her work. Today the native New Yorker is a fixture on no fewer than four networks - CBS, where she will serve as an analyst at the U.S. Open for the 20th year starting Monday; HBO, where she makes documentaries and serves as a correspondent/writer on the monthly magazine Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel; NBC, which uses her on tennis and has sent her to report on the past five Olympics, after her long tenure of Winter Games duty on CBS; and ESPN, for which she covers a myriad of tennis events.

In between, she's a busy mom who keeps up with her two teenagers, 19-year-old Anthony, a sophomore at the University of Central Florida, and Rachel, 14, a high school freshman in Naples. She rarely slows down, waking up at dawn - and usually asleep before 10 p.m. to recharge for the next day.

"Anthony and Rach always joke with me - I can't make double digits!" she says, brown eyes lighting up with a smile on her tan, telegenic face. "If I haven't gone to bed by 10, it's like, "MOM'S STILL UP." Anthony - he can sleep until 2 o'clock in the afternoon. I NEVER did that. There's a lot out there, like, 'What are you doin'? You're burnin' daylight!' "

Ask anyone about her. They all agree.

There's something about Mary.

* * *

She was the outgoing kid from Queens who grew up volleying with a neighborhood boy named John McEnroe, years later teaming with him to win the mixed doubles title at the 1977 French Open.

She was the player whose pro career was cut to three years by knee injuries and the woman who made a mark on network TV calling the game on the men's side.

Now, at 49, she is an award-winning journalist. Her knack for storytelling landed her a share of a George Foster Peabody Award for HBO's documentary, Dare to Compete: The Struggle of Women In Sports, in 2000. She earned a Sports Emmy last year on Real Sports for a moving segment about a father who tows, pushes and pedals his profoundly disabled son in grueling triathlons to allow him to experience the thrill of competition. And she served as interviewer and story adviser on the acclaimed 2006 HBO documentary, Billie Jean King: Portrait of a Pioneer.

"At this point in her career, she's probably the preeminent women's broadcaster in sports," says Ross Greenburg, president of HBO Sports. Greenburg hired Carillo in 1996 to do Wimbledon play-by-play - for the women and men - alongside tennis icons Martina Navratilova and King. He saw something special in her style at the mike and as host of a one-hour, late-night recap show. That opened the door to Real Sports in 1997.

"Obviously I saw real potential as a tennis analyst but more than that, I saw her blossoming into a high-powered sports broadcaster," he says. "I look at her as a hardcore journalist. It's almost as if she was never a tennis player or pro athlete."

Carillo dives into stories, scatter-gunning ideas and views in planning meetings, poring through endless background material, and interviewing with insight and compassion. On the women in sports project, she began as an adviser but impressed Greenburg so much with her drive that she ended up serving as one of the interviewers and splitting the scriptwriting with Frank Deford.

To Greenburg, Carillo's natural communicative skills truly set her apart. "Mary's gift of gab is legendary," he says. "She's someone you want to have dinner with, not just watch on television. I'm just glad to call her a friend. Every time you pick up the phone, she'll make your day."

Best-selling author John Feinstein has known Carillo for years and profiled her in his 1991 book about pro tennis, Hard Courts. He wrote a column suggesting that the best way to solve the game's problems was to put everybody in the same room and blow it up, though he would save five people.

"Mary was one of them," he says. "She's really smart. She's really funny. She makes people feel as if they're important, even if they're not. She's a wonderful friend. And what you see with Mary is real. When I walk around with her at the U.S. Open, it's a complete pain in the neck. Because every single person knows her and wants to stop her and wants to talk to her. And Mary not only stops and talks, but she'll see some woman and there will be this hug, and she'll go, 'And how are Jeannie and Johnny and Joey?'

"Afterwards I'll go, 'Who was that?' And she'll say, 'I don't know, some woman I just see here every year.' Yet she knows their kids' names. It's ridiculous."

Feinstein has written Carillo into his just-released, youth-oriented sports mystery called Vanishing Act, set at the U.S. Open. The fictional protagonist, a 13-year-old boy, gets tongue-tied when he meets her.

"Mary is one of the few people I've ever met in sports who truly has no enemies," Feinstein says. "I mean, there may be a few people in the television business who are jealous of her, because she's so good. But if you know Mary and don't like her, then there's something severely wrong with you. I don't gush about people. But Mary, I gush about."

Navratilova, who co-wrote her 1983 book Tennis My Way with Carillo, raves as well. "With Mary, you just listen, because there's always some gem coming out of her mouth," she says. "She's insightful and quick and looks at things from a slightly different point of view."

Her style was forged in a lively Italian-Irish family household in Douglaston, N.Y. That's where Tony Carillo, who worked as an art director for the Young & Rubicam advertising agency, and homemaker wife Terry gave their three kids - Charles, a newspaper man turned novelist, Mary and Gina, a former actor - a true appreciation of lively dinner discourse. To this day, family get-togethers remain boisterous, entertaining events.

"We ALL think we have something to say, we just feel we have SO MUCH to give," Carillo says, grinning. "I mean, if you get a seat at the Carillo dining table, you have a good seat." She's running with the thought now, injecting a little Regis Philbin-like cadence for emphasis: "We're just SPITBALLING ideas BACK AND FORTH. We're telling STORIES and there's flapping of ARMS and everyone's grabbing at the MIKE. Believe me, there's a lot of energy in that room."

In fact, from the start, energy is one thing Carillo has had in abundance.

* * *

Her family's old carriage home was a dream for an active girl - right off the inviting waters of Little Neck Bay and just down the street from a small family club with five tennis courts and a swimming pool.

"She'd be out in her little rowboat, scaring her mother to death," recalls Terry Carillo. "She was just like her father - always into everything. Whatever was out there, let's give it a shot."

But water was her passion, not tennis. She would fish nearby and, at 6, won a 10-and-under competition, catching the biggest flounder. "And by the way, there was a lot of cheating going on, with kids putting sand down the flounders' gullets to make them heavier!" she says. "I'm like, 'Hey, wait a minute.' But I won cleanly. And I could either choose a tackle box or an Alex Olmedo wooden racket that probably cost two bucks."

She went for the racket. And she used it for crabbing.

Soon she turned her attention to swimming. She loved the sport and became a standout by age 10. "She was amazing," says her mother, "but she got an ear infection and couldn't go in the pool for the rest of the summer. She was all upset, but I said, 'It's okay, Mare, I'll sign you up for tennis. I called my husband and said, 'I signed you and Mary up for tennis' and he says, 'I'm from Brooklyn, we don't play tennis.' I said, 'Well, she needs somebody to hit with.' And that began a love story with the game."

Before long, Carillo was hitting balls with a talented young player from the neighborhood who enjoyed tennis as much as she did, 8-year-old John McEnroe. The fellow lefties became fast friends and could easily play 14 sets a day. Recalls Terry Carillo: "It was John's mother, Kay McEnroe, who said to me one day, 'You know, she's good. Send her for lessons.' "

So Carillo began taking serious lessons and thrived. McEnroe soon passed her in ability with his deft touch, but continued to encourage her. A top junior, he got her to enter junior tournaments and eventually she excelled nationally. She spent countless hours at Port Washington Tennis Academy, where late Australian great Harry Hopman ran the program and helped hone her game.

By her senior year at St. Mary's Girls High School in Manhasset, Carillo's tennis prowess was well-known. She ranked No. 1 in the East and in the top 10 nationally. She was good friends with up-and-coming tennis ace Vitas Gerulaitis, who lived nearby, and his sister Ruta, another eventual pro. Ruta would pick Carillo up in a red Porsche at school - often well before the bell - and take her to practice. The school's sisters usually cut her some slack.

Once, to compete in the Caribbean Junior Championships, Carillo had to miss a few days of school before Thanksgiving. Her mother dutifully helped, calling in to say her daughter had the flu. The only problem: Carillo won and a story was carried in the Long Island Press.

"I come back to school Monday morning very tanned," Carillo recalls. "And I'll never forget - they were doing announcements and Sister Maria Del Ray is finishing up. She says, 'And finally, we would like to congratulate Mary Carillo, who over the weekend won the Caribbean Junior Championships - in spite of the fact that she had a terrible case of the flu.' "

* * *

She would soon reach a crossroads, and the path she chose would open doors to the life she knows today.

By the end of high school, Carillo had plenty of college scholarship offers stemming from her tennis - a path her parents fully expected. But she was also intrigued by the idea of turning pro. She sought out Hopman for advice, and he told her he was moving to Florida to start a tennis school. What's more, he invited her to come along as an instructor.

Carillo loved the idea. She figured she would have no chance at the pro tour if she blew out her increasingly sore knees with four years of college hardcourts. So she informed her parents that she was heading south.

"My mother was like, 'What are you talking about? That's irresponsible.' She turns to my father and goes, 'Tell her.' And he says, 'Mary, I think it's great!' "

Carillo earned $50 a week at Hopman's first location on Treasure Island. But after several months of hitting with pros, she began wondering if the time was right to turn pro herself. The decision came at an invitational in the Bahamas.

She had been winning all week and, according to winner's etiquette, buying rounds of drinks for other players. "I'd been buying all these fruity drinks with little umbrellas and I racked up a bill of $200 by the end of the week," she says. "I didn't really have it on me at the time, since I was still making chump change from Mr. Hopman. So I went to the tournament director and asked, 'How much does the semifinalist win here?' "

He told her $250.

"I looked at him and said, 'I'm turning professional,' " she says.

Years later, her mother, who had no inkling of the story, read an account in Feinstein's Hard Courts. "She says, 'MARY! I can't believe this is in print!' "

Carillo battled increasingly bad knees in a pro career that lasted from 1977-80. She was a top-30 player, but the real highlight was teaming with her old pal, McEnroe, at the '77 French Open. McEnroe, 18, had come to Paris as the best U.S. junior. In the days of World Team Tennis, many top players weren't there, so there was room in the mixed doubles.

"John is looking at the list of people who'd signed up and is like, 'Oh, geez, I mean we should win this thing,' " she says. "I'm a rookie pro and he's a high school amateur and we win it."

Carillo played her last tennis at Wimbledon in '80. She'd had several knee surgeries and they finally gave out. So she returned home on crutches to find a new direction. "I said, 'Mare, what are you going to do?' " says her mother, "and she said, 'I'm going to get a truck, and on the side I'm going to have it say: 'Mary Carillo, No Job Too Small.' That's her."

She'd done some writing for tennis magazines and thought about getting into film work. But while attending a match at Madison Square Garden, the venue's TV network was scrambling to fill on-air time before the match. Carillo was sent to the booth and did such a good job, the producer insisted she stay on-air the entire match.

She signed on with the USA Network in 1980 to do women's matches. The next year at the U.S. Open, she was hanging out in the booth as Al Trautwig called a men's match with Yannick Noah. She started passing notes to Trautwig with observations.

"He would read them and not use them," she says. "Now I'm aggravated at Al. So after the fourth note, I stopped. And at the end of the match, he took me by the arm and took me down to the USA producer, Gordon Beck, and said: 'She was passing me notes during that Noah match and I refused to use them because they should be coming out of her mouth.' And Gordon said, 'Okay,' and the next night I was calling men's tennis. That's how my career started. All of a sudden, I could pay my mortgage."

She can definitely pay it now. In addition to her carriage-style home in Naples, she has a place these days in Greenwich Village. Life is good. Her marriage of 15 years to tennis instructor Bill Bowden - they met at Port Washington - ended eight years ago, but he lives nearby and they remain on good terms.

"He's a great instructor and a very good guy," she says.

Her home is filled with family photos and mementoes and two big custom bookshelves. They hold everything from Seinfeld tapes to back episodes of Real Sports to hundreds of books.

"I have a great mix of stuff in my life," she says. "I go from being on the road and working to being a mother. You get the bends. But I love what I do."

And always has fun doing it.