NEW YORK (AP) For the first time since 2007, the U.S. Open men’s final could be played on a Sunday.
That is the traditional final day of a Grand Slam tennis tournament, including in New York – until five straight years of rain, followed by a two-year schedule change partly prompted by that wet weather, pushed the last match to Monday. Now, under the U.S. Tennis Association’s new TV contract with ESPN, the sport’s fourth major of the season will look like the first three.
Gone for good is “Super Saturday,” the old format pairing the men’s semis and women’s final. The men get their desired day off between the last two rounds, while the women’s semis are now in Thursday prime time.
“`Super Saturday’ was great, but the intensity of the game and the physicality of the game really made that inappropriate,” said Gordon Smith, the USTA’s executive director, adding it became clear in the last 5-7 years that it wasn’t viable for the top men to play hugely important five-set matches on back-to-back days.
“It wasn’t fair to the players and it wasn’t fair to the fans,” Smith said.
After rain postponed the men’s final to Monday from 2008-12, the USTA decided before the 2013 edition to plan for a 15-day tournament from the start – a temporary fix under CBS’s contract at the time to air the late rounds. That meant no “Super Saturday” and the day off for the men they had long been lobbying for.
“The problem was, before, it was `Super Saturday’ and Sunday, and I know it was very popular with the fans … but you could have 12 days of beautiful sunshine, and then one rain and everything would be all over the place,” said five-time U.S. Open champ Roger Federer said, who’s thrilled one day of rain will no longer be a problem next year once the roof over Arthur Ashe Stadium is completed.
When the USTA agreed to an 11-year contract with ESPN to broadcast the entire tournament, that allowed it to reshape the schedule from scratch. Along with their semis moving to Friday to ensure a day of rest before the final, the men now will complete the first round in two days instead of the previous three.
Under the old format, one of the top men wouldn’t get on court until Wednesday, and players didn’t like waiting that long to start – or the possibility of squeezing seven matches into 12 days.
“That was a big conversation we had with the U.S. Open for a few years,” Federer said of both changes. “It took a lot of meetings and convincing to be done, but I hope happy players are going to make a happy tournament, and in the process everybody’s going to be really, really pleased with the outcome.”
For ESPN, a “Super Saturday” wasn’t appealing because of all the college football its networks air then, said Scott Guglielmino, the senior vice president for programming. What was enticing for ESPN, which also broadcasts all of the Australian Open and Wimbledon: following the same schedule as the other major tournaments.
“From the tennis fan perspective, we’re trying to set up a situation where that type of format is something that becomes expected and something fans look forward to,” Guglielmino said.
Also attractive for ESPN were the Thursday night women’s semifinals – and Friday men’s semis that will start in the late afternoon and likely run into prime time. Smith said the USTA wasn’t concerned about going up against the NFL’s first regular-season game that Thursday, confident the large number of women in the tennis audience will choose to watch the Open.
“We think that is going to be a home run,” he said.
With no singles matches on the afternoon of the final Thursday, the USTA will offer free grounds admission during the doubles semifinals.
The tournament was previously split among CBS, ESPN and Tennis Channel. Under the new deal, the first two hours of the day sessions will not always be televised as they were in the past but will be available to stream through ESPN3. The number of courts with TV cameras and live streaming is increasing from seven to 11.
With its new long-term contract, ESPN is making big investments in marketing and technology. What money can’t buy is a once-in-a-generation story line, and the network is enjoying the good fortune of Serena Williams chasing the first Grand Slam since 1988. ESPN is so committed to promoting her pursuit that it has been running a category on the scroll at the bottom of all its sports broadcasts that simply reads: “Serena.”
As Jamie Reynolds, ESPN’s vice president for event production, said: “It’s just an extraordinary way for us to launch this.”