There’s No $ in Monday
Funny what a difference 24 hours can make. It was barely that long ago that the USTA, bowing to years of pressure, finally decided to deep-six the increasingly outdated “Super Saturday”—a scheduling format at the U.S. Open that had always been a flashpoint for controversy.
Super Saturday was a tradition, but like many other traditions—for example, torching innocent bystanders’ automobiles after a given city’s sports team wins a championship—it’s not necessarily a good one. Originally, the format sandwiched the women’s final (with a locked-in 4 p.m. start time to accommodate television) between the two men’s semifinals. The idea was to promote tennis, and the USTA, with an all-day extravaganza.
Not such a bad idea, you might think, but for the fact that sitting through the entire day was a little like watching all the games of a World Series without a break. Or watching the entire Tour de France, start to finish, before the TV or at some propitious vantage point. In September 1984, Super Saturday began at 11:07 a.m. and ended when John McEnroe punched away a final volley to beat Jimmy Connors, 6-3 in the fifth, at 11:16 p.m. That was a 12-hour tennis day, seemingly even longer and more yawn-inducing than one of those nil-nil ties for which soccer is famous.
The U.S. Open being a New York event, the self-regarding locals flocked to Super Saturday because it was the hot ticket—“the place to be” when it came to tennis if you were anyone in Gotham’s elitist slag pit. Of course, many of those swells who scored tickets for Super Saturday (rich uncle, natch) also flocked to the exits after a few hours of the show. Cocktails and dinner reservations out on the East End, you know.
The real toll of Super Saturday wasn’t on the staff or the ink-stained wretches covering the event, though. It was on the players. The winner of the second semifinal had to return, sometimes less than 24 hours later, to play another five-set match (the final, no less) in the heat. Television executives and the USTA thought this was good for business (Super Saturday didn’t have to compete with the National Football League, and the men’s final could be more or less wedged in on Sunday after the early game). But the players universally believed it was terrible for their health, the game, and perhaps even the integrity of the U.S. Open.
Oddly enough, the longest Super Saturday—the aforementioned 1984 marathon—produced a surprisingly lopsided final won by the winner of the late match. McEnroe demolished Ivan Lendl in straight sets, but note that Lendl himself had played a five-setter in Saturday’s first match in brutal heat, and had to survive a match point before overcoming Pat Cash, 7-6 in the fifth. McEnroe’s legs didn’t win that final; Lendl’s lost it—but it may also be noteworthy that McEnroe never won another Grand Slam title after that one.
There was another, less publicized complaint about Super Saturday, and it led to one of the more valid if amusing work stoppages in tennis. In 1987, Stefan Edberg and Mats Wilander were scheduled to kick off Super Saturday with a 10 a.m. semifinal—you wouldn’t want a couple of mild-mannered, clog-wearing, ABBA-loving Swedes wrecking the big Connors vs. Lendl show, would you?
Well, knowing that the stadium is almost entirely empty at 10 a.m., and thus an insult to the very idea of a Grand Slam semifinal, the Swedes decided to stall. Edberg refused to leave the locker room, while tournament referee Gayle Bradshaw had to go smoke out Wilander in the men’s room and plead for the pair to go on. Being good soldiers, they did (Wilander would win the match, but lose the final to Lendl).
Curiously, for years on end the serial controversies and steady drone of complaints affected the USTA not at all. Super Saturday simply seemed like a cash cow with too big a bag to sell off. But five consecutive Sunday men’s final rainouts has, no pun intended, diluted the original Super Saturday concept and made a mockery of the entire vibe.
As well, keeping the players on tenterhooks through rainy Saturdays and Sundays, with so little wiggle room in the schedule, filled them with resentment and justified concern about their health, right down to the fear that the tournament organizers would force them to play on unsafe, slick courts just to get matches done on time—and thereby avoid lost streams of revenue. In 2011, Rafael Nadal, Andy Roddick, and Andy Murray confronted tournament referee Brian Earley and charged that they were being ordered to go out and play under “unsafe” conditions. The confrontation marked the beginning of the end of Super Saturday as we knew it.
Given these intersecting issues and concerns, the USTA finally capitulated last Friday, announcing the end of Super Saturday for 2013. The two men’s semifinals will still be played that Saturday, but the women’s final (recently a night match—and a separate Saturday ticket) will be moved to a more traditional Sunday afternoon slot. The men, with Sunday to rest, will play their final on Monday night.
The USTA stressed that this is just an experiment for 2013, but no matter how it all shakes out, it sure seems like a death knell for Super Saturday. However, there was one enormous, unanticipated glitch: On Monday, the ATP came out firmly and seemingly unequivocally against the change. So while Super Saturday seems dead as a doornail, we still don’t know what might replace it.
Is it possible that the USTA will fall in line with the other Grand Slams and do the obvious: Follow the alternating-day schedule that ends up with the women’s final played on Saturday and the men’s championship match on Sunday? Stay tuned on this one, as I plan to look further into this intriguing controversy in the coming days because it has some very tantalizing—and significant—subtexts that have not yet been mentioned and addressed.