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Douglaston’s Carillo back in Queens for Open

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But for the former touring pro and award-winning broadcast journalist from Douglaston, there is nothing quite like the two weeks of the U.S. Open.

“My love for tennis started by sneaking into Forest Hills as a little kid and watching [the U.S. Open] there,” said Carillo, 44, who is in her 15th year covering the Open for CBS and 21st overall as a reporter. “Once she realized how much I loved tennis, my mom used to let me cut school. I would skip a big part of my first week from school to go out to Forest Hills.”

And she had good reason to be there. After all, it’s where all her friends were. Future tennis star John McEnroe was cutting his teeth as a ballboy, as was her sister and several of her friends from Douglaston. It was her relationship with McEnroe that got Carillo interested in tennis, although she admits she wasn’t very good in the beginning.

“I had been good at every other sport, it was as easy as could be,” she said. “I started playing tennis at the Douglaston Club and I didn’t take to it at all. I couldn’t believe I could be so bad at a sport. I spent years just trying not to be stinky.”

It was with McEnroe that Carillo won her only Grand Slam title, capturing the French Open mixed doubles title in 1977, her rookie season.

“We signed up for it and it was a time when World Team Tennis was going on, so a lot of the best players weren’t there. We sign up like a couple of chowder heads and John is looking at the sign up list and says, ‘Oh God, we should win this thing,’” Carillo recalled. “And I said, ‘What are you kidding me, you think we can win a Grand Slam title?’ And two weeks later we did.”

It was a special time for Carillo as McEnroe — who was still in high school — made the semifinals at Wimbledon as a qualifier and Howard Beach resident Vitas Gerulaitis also advanced to the semifinals and lost a classic five-set thriller to Bjorn Borg.

“We all idolized that guy. He looked like a rock star,” Carillo said of Gerulaitis, who died in 1994 as a result of carbon monoxide poisoning from a faulty heater at a friend’s house in the Hamptons. “The first time he got to Wimbledon, I couldn’t believe I knew somebody who was playing at Wimbledon. It was just a great time. Tennis in New York had become such a big deal very quickly and I was lucky to be riding that one.”

Because of bad knees, Carillo’s professional career was short-lived and after just three years later she called it quits at Wimbledon. Unbeknown to her, that is where her life would take an interesting twist.

“Within a couple of weeks a USA Network producer who I never met, but he had seen me do pickup commentary one night, said ‘we’re doing a couple of women’s tournaments this year, do you want to do it? I heard you talk and I think you might like it,’” Carillo recalled. “I was madly available for comment, so I said, ‘Yeah, let’s go. Let’s give it a ride.’”

Little did Carillo know, but the little “side gig” as she called it, would turn into quite a successful career, which has spanned more than 20 years with a wide-range of assignments.

“I’m lucky as hell,” she said. “It’s just been one serendipitous move after another.”

Carillo said after Gerulaitis died CBS needed to fill his void in the broadcast booth. Enter John McEnroe.

“When he showed up, he said, ‘She shouldn’t be calling men’s tennis and why do we need three people in the booth.’ And I had already been doing men’s tennis at CBS for years,” Carillo said. “I was lucky that the guys in charge didn’t agree with him.”

Carillo said the brash and always-opinionated McEnroe, a natural for the broadcast booth, always entertains her.

“You never know what on earth he’s going to say,” she said. “There’s no editing in his head, there’s no filter. Honestly, something occurs to him and it goes out his lips and into the ozone and it’s out there and in the truck someone says, ‘Did he really say that?’ I just love it. I think I’ve got a very good seat sitting next to him.”

Carillo also works with John’s younger brother, Patrick McEnroe, who has followed his brother from the professional tour to being a Davis Cup captain to being a sports broadcaster.

“He’s very different and I’m sure a lot of his personality was shaped by the fact he had John as a brother,” said Carillo, who teams with Patrick McEnroe on CBS’ Late Night show. “For someone so young I think he’s come a long way very quickly. You know he’s prepared, you know he has a nice way of speaking; I love sitting next to Patrick, too. But they’re entirely different McEnroe-nian experiences. John calls matches like his hair’s on fire.”

While Carillo loves her annual trek to the National Tennis Center at Flushing Meadows Corona Park, it is her work for Real Sports, HBO’s sort-of 60 Minutes for sports magazine news program of which she is most proud.

“I’ve done really interesting stories there. I love the long length of the pieces,” said Carillo, who has also worked the Winter Olympics for CBS, the NBA playoffs for TNT and on HBO’s Inside the NFL. “If you can tell a story in 11 minutes without commercials, it’s a luxury. I’m so lucky HBO thought to even give it to me. When I signed up with HBO it was just to cover Wimbledon.”

But it is during her two weeks at the U.S. Open, when she sits beside John and Patrick McEnroe, that Carillo thinks about how strange it is that three kids from Douglaston are such a part of covering one of the most prestigious tennis tournaments in the world.

“It makes you smile, I know these people forever. You feel like a little kid and now you’re all dressed up,” she said. “I can’t believe I was around at a time when tennis was so interesting and so personal and I just had a great seat to the whole thing. I think we were all very lucky.”

Reach Associate Sports Editor Dylan Butler by e-mail at TimesLedgr@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 143.

Posted 7:23 pm, October 10, 2011
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