Monday Night Maneuvers
In a conversation earlier today, a USTA spokesperson somewhat surprisingly suggested to me that the five consecutive Monday finals at the U.S. Open may have been a blessing in disguise. For all the frustration, confusion, and anguish they’ve caused, the rain delays have provided the players with something they’ve wanted ever since the beginning of the “Super Saturday” tradition: A day of rest for the winning semifinalists before the championship match.
By adhering to the Super Saturday regimen in an era when tennis players are putting demands on muscles and joints that an NFL player might appreciate, the USTA was courting disaster. Until the rains came. So on paper, the USTA’s recent two-pronged announcement—that the men’s final will be moved to Monday for 2013, and that the U.S. Open would boost its prize money outlay by $4 million (the same amount that was recently added to the Australian Open purse)—seemed like cause for at least a minor celebration.
But not so, to the ATP. Its response was, at best, tepid. Among other concerns, the ATP described the USTA’s announcement as “unilateral,” which is another way of suggesting that it’s being viewed as the opening gambit in a negotiation.
“The prize money increase announced by the US Open for 2013 is appreciated and, together with the 2012 increase, represents the largest increase since the ATP Tour began in 1990,” the official ATP press release regarding the announcement said. “However, over the last nine months the ATP and its players have asked that the US Open fully recognize the fundamental role of the players in driving US Open revenues, which are the largest in our sport.
“The ATP therefore remains committed to continuing discussions on this issue, with the objective of ensuring that the players' share of the revenues at the US Open truly reflects the value that they generate for the event.”
The confusing thing here is that this budding controversy is a train running on two tracks: The duration of the event is one; compensation is the other. The relation between the two is tenuous as well as limited.
Very few players have to mull over the disadvantages of having to travel on a Tuesday following a U.S. Open final (although the extra day could impact the following weekend’s Davis Cup clashes). But those that do don’t seem to like the idea of a 15-day Grand Slam. Rafael Nadal has been too busy with rehab to wade deeply into this issue, and Novak Djokovic, after expressing an interest in having discussions with the USTA, has allegedly backed away from those talks.
Roger Federer, though, hasn’t shied away from the issue and remains the most vociferous dissident when it comes to extended majors. He fumed when the French Open opted for a Sunday start, and he’s adamant about not pushing to a Monday final at any major unless it’s demanded by unforeseen circumstances. (On his behalf, it ought to be noted that with the Sunday start, the French Open became a three-weekend major—something even the USTA hasn’t tried to float.)
Justin Gimelstob, the television commentator and “Americas” player representative on the ATP Board of Directors told me: “There will be a lot more discussion about these moves (Monday final and increased compensation) at the player meeting in Australia and with USTA executives. There's high level of intensity and disappointment regarding the Monday final and the level of prize money increase. While the $4 million increase is positive step, we still view it as a disproportionate ratio of talent to overall revenue generated.”
Gimelstob understands that by stretching out the early rounds, the U.S. Open may offer its domestic television partners—CBS, ESPN2, and Tennis Channel—more premium names and match-ups over the critical (middle) Labor Day weekend. But that only creates massive scheduling problems—which really means “fairness” issues because of the backlog of matches—in the event of the inclement weather. Storms have become the norm rather than the exception recently during the transition from August to September, the time of year when the Open is contested.
“The players remain concerned about a 15-day event and have consistently voiced this to the French Open,” Gimelstob said. “From the player perspective the biggest issue remaining with the scheduling is playing the first round over three days. The good news is USTA has shown willingness to engage with players, the player council, and the ATP board, so there's optimism that the dialogue will result in some mutually beneficial progress.”
The obvious question is, Why doesn’t the USTA just do things the way the other majors do, and play the men’s semis on Friday and the final on Sunday? The equally obvious answer is: Television.
But before you go trashing CBS or its co-conspirators, keep in mind that USTA has had a 35-year partnership with the network, and there’s no doubt that the marketing and scheduling strategies these partners pursued over the years have had an enormous impact on the popularity of the game. I don’t want to be Ameri-centric here, but the tennis boom led by the U.S. back in the early 1970s probably had more to do with the burgeoning and now irreversible popularity of tennis worldwide—to the extent that the world may not even need a strong tennis front in the U.S. anymore to keep the sport healthy and growing.
Given all this history, as well as the current geo-politics of the game, it’s a good time to re-examine the way the U.S. Open has operated—and ought to operate going forward. Right now, even the most stalwart ATP minions readily admit that having the men’s semis on Saturday and a Monday final is less of a commercial problem for CBS than the one presented by the typical Grand Slam menu: The men’s semis on Friday, and the final on Sunday (the women, of course, follow the Thursday/Saturday model).
This is one reason that the USTA has taken pains to point out that this upcoming Monday final is a one-off experiment. What that really means is that starting next month, the USTA will begin to re-negotiate its long-standing television contract with CBS, which expires at the end of 2014. USTA sources told me that switching to the more common men’s finish of Friday semis/Sunday final would represent an eight to 10 million dollar hit to the current contract. Add that $4 million raise in prize money, and now we’re throwing around some significant numbers.
Personally, I like the Saturday-Monday schedule the USTA is proposing. I think anyone who remembers those wonderful PBS Monday night finals during the U.S. clay-court summer season way back in the 1970s might agree. There was nothing “un-traditional” about them; they were downright refreshing on those steamy, indolent, slow Monday evenings. They were a novelty then, but in the interim Monday has become a big sports night in America. And all other sports have come to stand in awe of that other great American institution, Monday Night Football.
Yet even the once all-encompassing tradition of Monday Night Football has been gradually diluted to the point where it no longer seems to tower over the television landscape that night—we now have Sunday night and Thursday night football as well. But I think tennis would benefit from this close, implied association with the institution of Monday Night Football, or Monday night sports mania—especially if the honchos can come up with a creative association between the U.S. Open final and the football game that will follow (and almost invariably overlap).
As a concession—and a sensible, welcome one at that—the USTA ought to abandon this tedious, three-day first-round routine. That might help mollify Federer and others, even if the “good of the game” argument alone doesn’t do the trick.
As for that second track issue, when the players argue that the U.S. Open makes a lot more money than the Australian Open, the USTA will be able to point to the financial changes they may face by abandoning the Super Saturday model. If the players want a tournament that conforms more closely to the 13- or 14-day model, they may be asked to settle for a smaller payout than if the USTA can maximize its television revenues.
But there’s going to be a lot more back-and-forth on this subject in the days to come, once the players convene for their meeting in Australia. This battle could become a bitter one, and we don’t even know how the USTA plans to distribute that additional $4 million (which is really just $2 million to the ATP, given the equal prize-money mandate). It’s best to wait until we hear more on this one. We surely will.