It all seemed to be going to so well for the U.S. Open, at least for a minute or two.
The tournament has been heavily criticized by players and media in recent years on at least two fronts: (1) for not having a roof in place, even as rain has forced the event to go a day longer than scheduled on five straight occasions; and (2) for clinging to the television-driven concept of Super Saturday, which makes it the only Grand Slam that forces the men's and women's finalists to play on consecutive days. Throw in the fact that, like the other Slams, the Open shared something in the range of 15 percent of its total revenue with the players, and you had one increasingly unpopular major event.
With that in mind, this weekend the Open announced that it would abandon Super Saturday for the first time in 35 years, in favor of a Sunday women's final and a Monday men's final in 2013, and that it would up the total prize money by $4 million. Andy Murray, a player who had complained publicly about the tournament's schedule in the past, said he was happy that officials had "listened to the ATP board." On the women's side, Serena Williams and WTA chief Stacey Allaster also signaled their approval.
This era of good feelings drew to a rapid close Tuesday, when the ATP came out against the Monday final, and called the prize money increases a step in the right direction, but nothing more. The tour maintained that it shouldn't be a problem for the Open to wrap up on Sunday and still give the finalists a day of rest; all of the other Slams pull it off. And while the extra cash was "appreciated," it still didn't "fully recognize the fundamental role of the players in driving U.S. Open revenues, which are the largest in our sport."
In the wake of these surprisingly strong words from the players, we've been told that the schedule change was just a one-year "experiment," and that things will likely be different when the tournament's TV contract with CBS runs out the following season.
We really do seem to be dealing with an emboldened ATP, when it comes to its dealings with the majors. At first glance, you might think that it's trying to have it both ways -- asking for more money while at the same time asking the tournament to dismantle Super Saturday, a keystone of its biggest TV contract. But the men are right.
Super Saturday was an alliance made by U.S. Open tournament director Slew Hester with CBS in 1978. That year, he had moved the Open to a new facility at Flushing Meadows. Costs, naturally, had been higher than anticipated, so he and the network got creative. Three decades later, the Open isn't that desperate. The time for back-to-back semis and finals is over; Super Saturday, once celebrated, makes less sense in this era of long matches and ultra-physical play. And there's no reason to push the event to Monday, one day closer to the Davis Cup ties that start the following weekend. Ratings are higher on Sunday afternoons.
One issue is the tournament's insistence on stretching the first round over three days, and six separate day and night sessions; Wimbledon, by contrast, gets the same number of matches done in two sessions. This lets the Open sell many more tickets, while CBS, which starts broadcasting the third round on Labor Day weekend, is given the best chance possible to show the sport's biggest stars -- Federer, Serena, Nadal, Djokovic, Sharapova -- twice over those three days. Meanwhile, spectators paying to attend one of the six opening sessions are much less likely to get a glimpse of those players, and the tournament's schedule is unnecessarily jammed up from then on. (It should be noted that whatever compromises the Open has made for TV, it has helped make the tournament the most lucrative Slam for the players for many years. The Open was also well ahead of the other majors in offering equal prize money in 1973.)
Contracts, as I've said, are set to run out. We'll see what happens, who's involved, and what the demands are after next year. But the ATP should continue to hang tough. It has finally changed how the tournament ends. Let's see if it can do something about how it begins.