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Australian Open: New rule nixes never-ending final sets

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Andy Roddick knows a thing or two about playing a tennis match that just won’t seem to end.

The Hall of Famer once won an Australian Open quarterfinal that ended 21-19 in the fifth set. He also lost a Wimbledon final against Roger Federer that went to 16-14 in the fifth set, a 2009 epic that Roddick says was “definitely the one I hear about the most and talk about the most and kind of think about the most.”

Those types of final sets are on the way out at Melbourne Park and the All England Club. The Australian Open and Wimbledon are finally doing what the U.S. Open started doing decades ago: putting an end to final sets before they get out of hand.

While some fans, and even players, might still like the idea that a match could go on and on and on forever – or seemingly forever – count Roddick among those who are just fine with the switch. One outcome is that each of the four Grand Slam tournaments now will resolve their lengthiest matches in a unique way, with the Australian Open – which begins Monday in Melbourne – the only one opting for a first-to-10, win-by-two tiebreaker at 6-all in a men’s fifth set or a women’s third set.

“You look back and everyone remembers those matches fondly, so I’m a little bit torn, but as a consumer of the sport, you have to know, at least within a semblance of a couple hours, how you’d even get through your day if you want to watch tennis,” Roddick said.

“Tennis is becoming more and more and more physical,” the 2003 U.S. Open champion said, “so I’ll miss the long matches, but I think it’s a positive change.”

Already a subject of debate after John Isner beat Nicolas Mahut in a 70-68 fifth set at Wimbledon in 2010, the issue reached a tipping point at the same tournament last year. Isner lost to Kevin Anderson in a 26-24 fifth set in the semifinals, pushing the conclusion of Novak Djokovic vs. Rafael Nadal into the following day and leaving Anderson compromised for the final.

“What John and Kevin did was amazing, but it was also impossible for a viewer to watch. … It put the tournament into a real tough spot with Novak and Rafa not being able to finish that day,” Roddick said. “It causes a whole lot of problems.”

Not surprisingly, Isner and Anderson both appreciated the adjustment.

“If they could name it, they probably would name it after me,” Isner joked about the new rule at Wimbledon, which calls for a first-to-seven, win-by-two traditional tiebreaker if a final set reaches 12-all, instead of the standard 6-all. “I personally do think it’s the right call. Chances are, it will not come into play next year for me – we do know it’s a possibility – or for anyone else. … When that does happen, I think it’ll be interesting to see how fans react.”

Also worth watching is how the differences in each major’s setups are viewed.

The U.S. Open is sticking with its first-to-seven, win-by-two tiebreaker at 6-all, which was introduced in the 1970s.

The French Open, meanwhile, is now the only Grand Slam tournament to continue to eschew final-set tiebreakers entirely and make players continue to compete until someone wins by two games.

“Ultimately, it’s a balancing act between elevating the uniqueness of each event, versus compromising on the uniformity of rules and potential clarity for fans,” ATP Chief Executive Chris Kermode said.

His counterpart at the WTA, CEO Steve Simon, would prefer more consistency across the Slams, but he likes the idea of reducing final sets, because, “I don’t think that matches that go extraordinarily long are healthy for the sport.”

The old setup at the Australian Open and Wimbledon created problems for athletes, without a doubt. And some spectators, whether in the stadium or at home on a couch, surely wished they could have fast-forwarded to the finish.

Simon is among those who think there still will be room for plenty of drama.

“For the fans, they’ve already watched five hours of tennis, so they don’t want to sit through another, potentially, hour or two hours. They want to see an ending. And they want it to be exciting, you know?” said Denis Shapovalov, a 19-year-old Canadian seeded 25th in Melbourne. “When you saw Isner and Anderson, I just felt awful for them. It’s not even tennis anymore. It’s just who can survive the longest. And even if they win, the next round, there’s no chance.”

Althea Gibson honored at U.S. Open

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NEW YORK — Althea Gibson basked in a ticker-tape parade in New York a decade before Arthur Ashe won the 1968 U.S. Open.

Gibson won 11 majors in three years from 1956-58, including the French Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open singles titles. She integrated two sports – tennis and golf – during an era of racial segregation in the United States.

“She’s our Jackie Robinson of tennis,” said Billie Jean King, who at 13 watched Gibson play. “I saw what it meant to be the best.”

One Love Tennis is an athletic and educational program for youth in Wilmington, North Carolina. During a rainy day in 2017, the girls watched the documentary “Althea and Arthur.” They learned Ashe has a stadium named for him at the U.S. Open on the grounds of the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in New York.

The mood in the room grew somber afterward, according to program director Lenny Simpson. The girls realized there wasn’t even a “dag-gone hot dog stand” named for Gibson.

Why wasn’t there a monument to the first African American to win a major title (1956 French Open) before winning both the U.S. Nationals (precursor to the U.S. Open) and Wimbledon in 1957-58?

Simpson suggested the girls be part of the solution by writing letters to his friend and then-U.S. Tennis Association President Katrina Adams. King and Adams had been working on the Gibson project for years. King’s advocacy before the U.S. Tennis Association board resulted in a unanimous vote. Adams later read letters to the board from the girls, including Xerra Robinson, to reinforce the importance of a tribute.

“I know she would be proud to see the progress that’s been made with so many women of color leading the pack in professional tennis,” Adams said of Gibson, who died in 2003 at 76. “Her bravery, perseverance and determination paved the way.”

On Monday, the USTA will unveil a statue in her honor at the U.S. Open. The girls and boys of One Love Tennis will attend the ceremony, along with Gibson’s 85-year-old doubles partner, Angela Buxton of Britain.

“It’s about bloody time,” said Buxton, who won the 1956 French and Wimbledon titles with her friend.

More things to know about Gibson, who made the covers of Time and Sports Illustrated and was voted AP Female Athlete of the Year in 1957-58:

EARLY YEARS

Gibson traveled the hard road from Harlem to Wimbledon, but she had a community of support. The oldest of five children, Gibson was born in Silver, South Carolina, before her sharecropper parents relocated to Harlem. At 18, Gibson moved to Wilmington, North Carolina, to live with Dr. Hubert and Celeste Eaton. She honed her tennis and social skills on Dr. Eaton’s court at his home, called “the black country club” because African Americans couldn’t play at public courts or white country clubs.

“Culturally, it was a tough adjustment,” said Simpson, who met his coach and mentor on that court at age 5 when Gibson gave him a racket and called him “champ.” “(In Harlem), she didn’t see the signs of white and colored water fountains and white and colored bathrooms. The prejudice and discrimination certainly was there, but nothing like the Jim Crow days of the South.”

She spent summers in Lynchburg, Virginia, training on the court of Dr. Robert Walter Johnson, who later nurtured Ashe, a winner of five Grand Slam titles. Both were forced to play in segregated tournaments early in their careers. Barred by the precursor of the USTA, Gibson won 10 straight American Tennis Association women’s titles starting in 1947.

After lobbying by the ATA and a withering editorial from four-time champion Alice Marble, Gibson became the first African American to compete in the 1950 U.S. Nationals at Forest Hills on her 23rd birthday. A graduate of Florida A&M, Gibson taught physical education and considered quitting tennis because she couldn’t make a living in the low-paying amateur days. But in 1955, she was tapped by the State Department for a goodwill tennis tour of Asia. That’s how she met Buxton in India.

ALTHEA YEARS

Both were looking for a doubles partner in 1956. Buxton was denied membership at the club in London where she practiced after she listed Jewish for religion on the application. She grew up in England and South Africa and understood Gibson’s struggle.

“No one spoke to her, let alone played with her,” Buxton said by phone from London. “(Her playing style) was like a young man. She wore little shorts, a vest and hit the ball hard, even her second serve. She came charging up to the net. She bamboozled people with her attitude.”

They won at Roland Garros and Wimbledon, but the “powers that be” were not thrilled and “you needed a spy glass to see the headline `Minorities Win,”‘ Buxton said. Both were denied membership at the All England Club despite being Wimbledon champions. (Buxton is still waiting).

Nonetheless, Gibson got the royal treatment with a ticker-tape parade in July in New York after receiving the 1957 Wimbledon trophy from Queen Elizabeth II. A month later, she won the U.S. Nationals at Forest Hills.

“That was an incredible joy for her,” Simpson said.

She duplicated those feats and retired from tennis at No. 1 in 1958 – a winner of more than 50 singles and doubles titles – because there was no significant prize money until the professional era began in 1968. The men’s and women’s 2019 U.S. Open winner will each receive a check for $3.8 million.

No other African American woman won the U.S. Open until Serena Williams in 1999 or Wimbledon until Venus Williams in 2000.

AFTER TENNIS

Gibson played exhibition tennis before Harlem Globetrotters games, signing a $100,000 contract, and joined the LPGA full-time in 1964.

In 1975, she became state commissioner of athletics in New Jersey. She served on the state athletics control board, and the governor’s council on physical fitness until 1992.

The twice-divorced Gibson’s health failed in her late 60s after a stroke and she struggled to make ends meet. Buxton said Gibson reached out to a handful of tennis friends without much success. Gibson was on the verge of suicide in 1995 when the tennis great called her, she said. Buxton provided financial support and visited her friend in East Orange, New Jersey.

“Angela Buxton saved her life, literally,” Simpson said.

Buxton also wrote a letter to Tennis Week magazine, and donations flooded in from all over the world. The WTA currently has a hardship fund to help former players.

Frances Gray, a longtime friend and co-founder of the Althea Gibson Foundation, has kept her legacy alive. A self-described “born athlete,” Gibson said she wanted to be remembered as “strong and tough and quick.”

“If not for Althea Gibson, there would be no Arthur Ashe, no Serena and Venus, Madison Keys, Sloane Stephens and the list goes on,” Simpson said. “She opened it up for all of us.”

Serena vs. Sharapova set for prime time on Day 1 of U.S. Open

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NEW YORK — Serena Williams vs. Maria Sharapova is, not surprisingly, getting primetime billing at the U.S. Open.

The two tennis stars’ 22nd career meeting – and first at Flushing Meadows – will be the opening act in Arthur Ashe Stadium for the night session on Monday as the year’s last Grand Slam tournament gets started.

“Of course I’m going to watch it. I know you all are going to watch it. I think everyone in New York is going to watch it,” defending champion and No. 1 seed Naomi Osaka said Friday. “Yeah, I mean, for me, I’m not that surprised that that happened, because, like, at every Grand Slam, there is always some sort of drama. You know what I mean? Like a first round. Like, `Oh, my God!”‘

The U.S. Tennis Association announced the show-court schedules for both Day 1 and Day 2.

That includes 15-year-old Coco Gauff in action at Louis Armstrong Stadium on Tuesday.

The first match in the main stadium Monday will be French Open champion Ash Barty against Zarina Diyas, followed by defending men’s champion and No. 1 seed Novak Djokovic against Roberto Carballes Baena.

Then at night, Williams-Sharapova will be followed by 20-time Grand Slam champion Roger Federer against qualifier Sumit Nagal.

Williams owns 23 major singles trophies, while Sharapova has five. Both have been ranked No. 1. They’ve met at every other major tournament at least once, including in a final at each, but never before at the U.S. Open. Williams has won 18 matches in a row against Sharapova, and leads their overall series 19-2.

In Louis Armstrong Stadium on Monday, the day slate includes Williams’ older sister, two-time U.S. Open champion Venus, 2016 runner-up Karolina Pliskova and No. 5 seed Daniil Medvedev, while the night program features three-time major champ Stan Wawrinka and 2017 U.S. Open runner-up Madison Keys.

Tuesday’s participants in Ashe include Osaka and two-time French Open finalist Dominic Thiem during the afternoon, with 18-time major title winner Rafael Nadal and 2017 U.S. Open champion Sloane Stephens in action at night.

In addition to Gauff’s first-round match against Anastasia Potapova, Day 2 in Armstrong will include two-time major champion Simona Halep and Australian Open semifinalist Stefanos Tsitsipas in the afternoon, along with two-time Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka and the combustible Nick Kyrgios against American Steve Johnson at night.

RULES RECAP

In an effort to avoid the sort of confusion that reigned over last year’s U.S. Open final between Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka, the U.S. Tennis Association wants to make the sport’s rules – and chair umpires’ rulings – clearer to on-site spectators and TV viewers.

So when a player is warned by an official about a code violation – getting coaching during a match, say, or destroying a racket – that will be displayed on the scoreboard.

“It’s not a constant marker there,” U.S. Open chief umpire Jake Garner said Friday. “It’s just when the violation occurs, it will show up on the board at the moment it’s given.”

The USTA decided against allowing match officials speak to the media after a contest involving controversy or questions, but Garner or tournament referee Soeren Friemel – both are new appointees – might be made available.

Two other rules tweaks this year: The excessive heat rule will allow for 10-minute breaks for all men’s or women’s matches, whether or not they already were in progress when the weather reached a point of being dangerous to players; women can now only have one bathroom or change-of-clothing break per three-set match, not two.

TOKYO’S TEAM?

Host Japan might not get to field its dream mixed doubles team for tennis at the next year’s Summer Olympics.

That’s because Kei Nishikori thinks playing with Naomi Osaka might just be too much tennis in Tokyo.

The 2014 U.S. Open runner-up is planning to play singles and men’s doubles at the 2020 Games and for now isn’t thinking about adding mixed doubles to his plans.

“Very hot, very humid, playing singles and two doubles – I don’t know if I can,” Nishikori said at Flushing Meadows on Friday.

A Nishikori-Osaka duo not only would be expected to contend for a medal in Tokyo – it would be among the most popular pairings in Olympic tennis history.

Osaka, who moved from Japan to the United States when she was 3, is the No. 1 ranked women’s player and the reigning champion at both the U.S. Open and Australian Open.

Nishikori, who also left Japan to live in the United States, is No. 7 in the current ATP rankings. At last year’s U.S. Open, he and Osaka became the first Japanese male and female players to reach the semifinals of the same Grand Slam tournament.

They’re also friends who have played video games together.

But what about Olympic tennis together?

“I haven’t thought too much yet, honestly,” Nishikori said. “I don’t know. I will talk to Naomi later.”