In tennis, a sport plagued by an endless parade of champions cum commentators, Mary Carillo's pedestrian pedigree as a player makes her an anomaly. "No one remembers me as a player," says Carillo, who topped out at a career-high No. 33 in singles, in 1980. "Even I don't remember me playing."
While Carillo, 44, may have been just another hacker on the WTA tour (although she did pair with her CBS colleague John McEnroe to win the French Open mixed doubles crown in 1977), she's without peer as a tennis analyst. Along with McEnroe, Carillo (left) is back at her usual perch this week as an analyst for CBS's coverage of the U.S. Open. "For a long time broadcasters felt that the role of a tennis commentator was to build the sport and bring people into it," says Carillo, who joined CBS Sports in 1986. "It was always a love-fest. I can't say I ever approached it like that I adore the sport, but my attitude continues to be, You hired me to tell you what I think, and that's what I'm going to do."
What separates Carillo from tennis's chattering classes is that she has bona fides as a journalist. While working as a correspondent the past four years on HBO's Real Sports, Carillo has reported on a melange of weighty subjects, from allegations of racial discrimination on the South Florida women's basketball team to former Philadelphia Flyers coach Roger Neilson's battle with cancer. This fall she'll tackle a new sport as a correspondent for HBO's Inside the NFL. (Try to imagine Chris Evert interviewing Ray Lewis or Warren Sapp.)
While most of her peers, such as NBC's Evert and USA Network's Tracy Austin, offer commentary as soft as one of Martina Hingis's drop volleys, Carillo hits smashes. "In a day and age of what I call puff commentary, Mary's not afraid to take a tough stand," says Brian Williams, a Canadian Broadcasting Company sports commentator who worked with Carillo earlier this month at the WTA's event in Toronto. "She's a shill for no one."
Unlike McEnroe, whose bombast occasionally overshadows the action, Carillo is understated and nuanced, often falling silent to let the pictures speak for themselves. "I believe I'll be the last non-champion to ever get a gig this good," Carillo says. "Networks like champions. They like stars. They like getting the freshest retired athletes into the booth. I just can't imagine someone who had as few credentials as I did from my playing days getting offered a hand into the booth. I don't think it will happen again."