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Steve Flink: Open For Change

10/25/2011 1:00:00 PM

The U.S. Open holds the distinction of being the last Grand Slam championship of each and every season, and the timing of the event is impeccable. It begins at the end of August, continues through Labor Day, and ends in the second or third week of September. Summer is ending. Kids are heading back to school. It is a festive time, a fortnight of high energy and exhilaration, a festival of tennis in America that we all cherish. I look forward to the Open every year and love the way sports fans pay attention so unabashedly to tennis during that stretch. The U.S. Open is a celebratory time for all of us who believe that tennis is the greatest of all games.

To be sure, there is always a cavalcade of positive developments surrounding the Open year after year. In many ways, the curtain closes for the year with the end of the U.S. Open. Only a fool would not appreciate the enduring importance of the Open and all that it represents. But the fact remains that the sweeping changes in weather patterns all over the world, and the undeniable threat of Global Warming, have had a significant impact on the U.S. Open in recent years. The unpredictability of the weather has resulted in four consecutive men’s finals being moved from the normal Sunday afternoon time slot over to Monday.

I believe the U.S.T.A. has to find a way to put a retractable roof over Arthur Ashe Stadium, or develop an alternative plan. In the long run, that is the only way to virtually guarantee that they finish the tournament on time. But—at least in the short term—an issue just as large is the ongoing problem at the Open of holding the men’s semifinals and final on successive days, making it the only major where the players do not get a much deserved day of rest between the last two rounds. A solution must be found to that problem. That is why I was so encouraged when I read the comments of tournament director Jim Curley when he spoke with the Associated Press last week.

Curley told the A.P. that the USTA has been actively involved in talks with CBS about resolving the issue of providing a day off for the players when they need it the most. The USTA and CBS are looking into the possibility of a planned Monday final. Under that plan, the men would play Saturday semifinals and have a day off on Sunday. The women would play their final Sunday rather than Saturday, and would also have a day off between the semis and the championship match. But another option the USTA is exploring along with CBS is moving the men’s semifinals to Friday and leaving the final on Sunday. As Curley told the A.P., “We are just getting into this process and right now everything is on the table.”

I think that is very good news. Curley acknowledges that the physicality of the sport has become increasingly demanding, and realizes that the players have a more than legitimate point when they insist that they need that day off to perform at their highest level for one of the most significant matches of the entire year. “The sport has become more physical over the years, “Curley concedes to the A.P., “to the point where players feel very strongly that they need to have a day off between the semis and the final.. While the players are an integral part of the U.S. Open, it’s one aspect we need to take into consideration, along with onsite fans, TV viewers, corporate sponsors, television partners, both domestic and international. It’s a Rubik’s Cube, since so many variables need to be taken into consideration.”

Curley is absolutely right that a Grand Slam event has to take into account a wide range of viewpoints and a number of constituencies. He also is justified when he points out that possible changes in dates and scheduling might mean that one or two sessions are lost for the tournament, which would have a substantial impact financially.  As Curley points out, “It’s fair to say that this type of change would have a negative financial impact on the USTA, and that’s another reason we’re being thoughtful in this process. We’re talking about millions of dollars.”

Curley told the A.P. that any changes might not occur until 2013 rather than 2012, although he added, “I just want to be clear that the goal is to get this done.”

That is admirable. But I would suggest that the USTA and CBS would be wise to move swiftly and give the players that day off next year. Both options are good. A planned Monday night final would have great appeal. But the notion of having the men’s semifinals on Friday and the final on Sunday is also excellent. I believe either plan would be met with universal approval, from both the players and the public. In any case, the hope here is that the alteration in the schedule occurs next year.

Recently I spoke with Roger Federer’s coach Paul Annacone, who has long been one of the sport’s most cerebral thinkers. Annacone said, “The Saturday-Sunday scenario for the semis and finals to me is borderline unfathomable these days with the level of physicality the guys have in three out of five sets. I am hard pressed to find any logical reason to do that. Sure it is better for television for the weekend, but for me if I am a tennis fan I want to see the best product at the end of the tournament. You significantly jeopardize that likelihood by having a Saturday-Sunday semis and final. After sitting in the front row and being on the court or in the middle of it for the last 25 years, I know that the physical effort that these guys put out in best of five sets is incredible. When you make the players go back to back in the semifinals and final, you are really jeopardizing the product you are putting on the court.”

A few weeks before Curley did his interview and addressed the scheduling issues, Annacone said of the U.S.T.A., “They should really take a long hard look at the Saturday-Sunday situation. To me that is a very organic and very simple theme that could be a catalyst to many other problems, such as the Monday-Tuesday-Wednesday [first round matches]. When you spread out the first round over the first three days and then jam the semifinals and final into two days at the end, it is not a recipe for leniency if the weather gets bad. You back yourself into a corner and that is what happened this year on a huge level, but even the three years before that we ended up with a Monday final. I am not the guy that signs the contract with CBS, so I know it is easy for me to sit here and say this. But the bottom line is to look for the best way to put the best product on the court on the last day of the tournament. And that is definitely not Saturday-Sunday: I can promise you that.”

Annacone makes an important point when he addresses the spreading out of the first round matches across three days. That slows everything down considerably. Those first round contests ought to be completed over two days. Annacone has been either playing at the Open or coaching since 1984 and he is perplexed by the scheduling. “It is antiquated,” he asserts. “It just doesn’t lend itself to the best possibility of the best tennis on the last day and that is a shame. This is one of the couple biggest tournaments in the world and your primary goal has to be to get the best possible tennis played on the last day. The USTA has some unique challenges but they have a lot of smart people. They can turn everything that happened this year at the Open into a positive. They have a lot of good people.”

Annacone would surely be encouraged by what Curley said in his A.P. interview. I know I am optimistic that something will get done in the near future, and the players will get their crucial day off between the semifinals and final before too long. But the view here is that the U.S.T.A should take these discussions to another level, make it the highest priority, and do everything possible to find a resolution to a longtime dilemma in time for the 2012 U.S. Open. If that happens, and the competitors are assured that their wishes will be honored, that would be a triumph not only for them but also for the fans, the general sporting public, and the U.S.T.A.

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