This has been another dream year in a fantasy-like career for ESPN sportscaster Chris Fowler. He has called national and international championships in his two favorite sports, college football and tennis, and now is on an assignment for the ages—being behind the mic at the U.S. Open starting today to cover Serena Williams’ quest for tennis’ first singles Grand Slam in 27 years.
“In terms of documenting an achievement, it would be the most amazing thing I’ve seen,” says Fowler, who has spent nearly three decades covering a wide world of sports from high school games to World Cup matches. “Any Grand Slam event is a piece of tennis history. When you add on to it what Serena could achieve and put it in New York in the biggest tennis stadium in the world, it’s hard to imagine anything more. There will be a wild scene—it will be electric.”
Fowler has a chance to help lay down the soundtrack for potential sports history because ESPN is beginning an 11-year deal for start-to-finish coverage of the Open, ending CBS’ 47- year run at the Flushing, N.Y., fortnight. Fowler, who covered early-round Open matches for ESPN the past six years, will be in the booth three additional days (for a total of 10) and call three more matches (18 total) than last year.
But he will break away this weekend for his other big gig, as play-by-play guy on ESPN’s Saturday primetime, college football games on ABC, heading to Arlington, Texas, to cover Alabama vs. Wisconsin.
Fowler then will fly back East to call the Ohio State-Virginia Tech game on ESPN Labor Day evening before returning to New York for the last six days of the Open, including the women’s championship Saturday afternoon, Sept. 12, and the men’s final Sunday afternoon, Sept. 13.
Fowler will skip the Sept. 12 Oregon- Michigan State grid game to be at the Open. “It’s very important for me to call the finals,” he says. “For years I’ve eyeballed that booth, so finally it is kind of a dream to be able to do it.”
Fowler has called two of Williams’ three major tournament wins this year, the Australian Open and Wimbledon. A title in New York, along with her French Open trophy, would make Williams the first singles player to win all four majors in a calendar year—the Grand Slam—since Steffi Graf in 1988.
The Game’s the Thing
Fowler built his success as a host but has gradually gravitated back to his first love, play-by-play, which he fell hard for growing up in Rockford, Ill., listening to fabled Chicago sportscasters Lloyd Pettit and Jack Brick-house.
“Calling games always has been my passion, never reading scores or highlights,” he says.
About 95% of his tennis workload now is play-by-play, and although he would like to mix in some hosting at the Open, he’s hesitant to because of the unpredictable length of matches.
Fowler knows all about that. He and analyst Patrick McEnroe called the longest Grand Slam final in history, 5 hours and 53 minutes, between winner Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal at the 2012 Australian Open.
“I’m a little bit claustrophobic,” Fowler says, “so sometimes a tennis booth is not a comfortable place to be unless the action out the window is really fun and exciting. Then you forget about what a small space you’re in.”
Longtime ESPN executive John A. Walsh and other key talent evaluators considered Fowler a keeper early in his career and gave him his big break in 1990, tapping him to host weekly college football pregame show College GameDay.
“It soon became obvious to everyone that he was made for hosting, he was made for college sports, that he understood it all,” says Walsh, who retired this year as ESPN executive editor and senior VP. “Chris is very smart, very contemporary. He’s a student of everything that he does and is in a perpetual state of learning.”
Fowler hosted the award-winning GameDay road show for 25 years, turning over the role this year to Rece Davis. “I’ll miss it terribly. I’m not sure how easy it will be to be involved in the show, or even watch it,” Fowler says. “It’s a huge part of my life, and I’ll never have anything again like that. GameDay was a labor of love, something we built from the ground up.”
After Fowler replaced Brent Musburger last year in the Saturday-night football booth, it became difficult to juggle play-by-play and GameDay. One had to go, and the choice was clear to Fowler when ESPN offered him a nine-year contract as lead college football and tennis announcer for a reported $35 million.
“It’s been a tremendous run on GameDay, but I was offered the chance for a new challenge,” Fowler says. “College football and the playoffs is hugely important for the company, so there wasn’t any doubt what was best for me to do.”
In addition to finding fame and fortune at ESPN, Fowler met his wife, Jennifer Dempster, who appeared on the network’s ’90s exercise show BodyShaping. They are ardent travelers; France is one of Fowler’s favorite spots, and it’s where he proposed on the final day of the 1999 Tour de France. The couple married a year later.
“Travel is a passion and a hobby, and it’s a never-ending quest,” Fowler says. “As long as I’m able, we’ll be trotting around.”
Tennis is another of Fowler’s passions. He played frequently as a youngster and now considers himself just a recreational player, although he ventured into the big time a few years ago when he stepped onto a court at Wimbledon with one of the game’s heaviest hitters, top-ranked American John Isner.
Fowler was watching Isner, whose serves have been clocked at just shy of 150 miles per hour, practicing and told the 6-foot-10 pro he’d like to face his serve so he could describe it better on the air.
Fowler, wearing jeans and a hoodie at the hallowed tennis grounds where all-white attire is the law, grabbed a racket and braced for serves unlike anything he had ever faced. “The first two were down middle to my backhand, absolutely untouchable,” Fowler recalls. “Then I said, ‘Give me your fastball to my forehand.’”
Isner obliged, blasting one in the 130 mph range. Fowler, anticipating where the ball was headed, made contact, returning a shot back Isner’s way. The ball was pretty close to making it over the net, but hit the tape at the top and dropped back onto Fowler’s side—a success nevertheless.
“I was very proud to even make solid contact with it,” Fowler says.