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Friday September 2nd, 2011

U.S. Open night matches in Arthur Ashe stadium usually consist of tennis' biggest names. (Photo: Rob Tringali)

Really pleased to kick off "The Toss," a regular feature where we'll debate a hot tennis topic just for kicks. Because really, isn't this what sports fans do? We love taking sides (even if just for fun) and discussing them until the cows come home. While I'd rather do this over a pint than a cup of coffee, let's get this started.

Today's Toss: SI.com's tennis producer, C.W. Sesno, and I break down whether the evening schedule on Ashe should be loaded with big names, or the best matches.

Courtney Nguyen: I feel like I'm taking the anti-fan, unpopular opinion here (please hold your tomatoes!), but I have no problem with the biggest names getting the night session on Ashe, regardless of whether the match is good or not.

First, you never know if a match is going to be good or not. Rafael Nadal's opening match against Andrey Golubev could have (should have?) been a complete and utter dud. Golubev has won just one match in five months! Was it a high-quality match? No. But was it entertaining? Absolutely. Same goes for Andy Roddick's opener against Michael Russell.

Second, people pay the big bucks to see the big names. I can't stand the fact that the entire lower bowl of Ashe is reserved for corporate boxes and sponsor suites, but the fact is they're the ones who put in the money. If someone's trying to sell me a sponsor box at the U.S. Open months in advance, I want to know that I'm going to be able to tell my clients that they're going to see the top players in the world. That's the value I'm buying. Similarly, and it goes without saying, TV obviously plays a big role here. If tennis fans want to see Gael Monfils vs. Juan Carlos Ferrero on Ashe at night, you better start emailing ESPN and telling it that you speak for two million households when you say that you will never tune in again if Roger Federer is put on the bill.

Finally, I have a totally selfish fan-girly reason as to why I want the big names to stay on Ashe. As a tennis fan, I would like to reserve the best matches to myself on the smaller outer courts, thank you very much. How much fun did the Armstrong crowd have watching that Monfils-Ferrero match? Or Andrea Petkovic-Zheng Jie, which was a really high-quality match on the Grandstand? Let's reward the fans who can't afford an Ashe ticket (or are smart enough not to buy one) and want to eschew the big names in favor of the more evenly matched lesser names who are more likely to put forth a competitive match.

C.W. Sesno: Well, Courtney, there’s no better time to take a crack at this issue than the day after an absolute romping in both Ashe matches.

First, let me echo you a bit and get the simple reality of the issue out of the way: This will never change. In the end, it’s about the dollars. The revenue pulled in from the luxury suites and the network cash from prime-time coverage will demand the presence of the game’s biggest names. But, hey, it’s always easier to maintain the status quo than to flip the establishment on its head, right? Right. So let’s dive in.

In the first four days, here’s how Ashe’s night matches have played out. Day 1: V. Williams d. Dolonts 6-4, 6-3 in one hour, 18 minutes, then Federer d. Giraldo 6-4, 6-3, 6-2 in 1:46. Day 2: Nadal d. Golubev 6-3, 7-6 (1), 7-5 in 2:49, then S. Williams d. Jovanovski 6-1, 6-1 in 0:56. Day 3: Roddick d. Russel 6-2, 6-4, 4-6, 7-5 in 2:57, then Sharapova d. Yakimova 6-1, 6-1 in 1:10. Day 4: Wozniacki d. Rus 6-2, 6-0 in 1:03, then Djokovic d. Berlocq 6-0, 6-0, 6-2 in 1:30.

Still with me? That’s an average of just over three hours and 20 minutes of tennis for BOTH night matches, and only one match that didn't end in straight sets. Fans coming from Manhattan will spend almost as much time on the 7 train as they will watching tennis. Or how about a friend of mine, who took a date out to Flushing on Thursday night. He opened up his wallet for the tickets, food and a few non-alcoholic (maybe?) beverages, only to be sent packing after a mere two-and-a-half-hour show. So here he was left thinking, “What the heck do I do now, take her to a bar in Queens?”

Of course there’s no real way to predict the matches that will be blowouts against those that will leave fans on the edge of their seats. But pitting the top players in the world up against qualifiers or players ranked higher than a highway speed limit is a pretty safe road to a series of lopsided matches. The schedulers could throw the eccentric, always entertaining Monfils out there. Or let big-serving American John Isner go to work against Marcos Baghdatis in front of his home crowd. James Blake, the Radwanska sisters, there's endless potential for intriguing matchups, yet only the most recognized names get the nod.

Some sort of variety in the Ashe night sessions would keep the storylines fresh. And, hey, the longer you keep fans on the grounds, the more time there is for them to buy food, booze and merchandise, right?

Nguyen: Argh. Numbers. I hate numbers because they always prove me wrong. Yes, the matches on Ashe this week have been complete duds if you use the tried-and-true "976" model and believe that you pay for time. But just because a match is long doesn't mean it's good or entertaining. There is something to be said about watching a legend take the court and show his or her class at the expense of a scrub.

Besides, I'd rather pay to listen to Radiohead come out and play one song than a five-hour Nickelback jam session (sorry, Nickelback fans, if you exist!).

You're absolutely right in citing players like Monfils and Isner as those who should play on Ashe. Or how about 2009 champion Juan Martin del Potro, who said Friday that he's never played a night match on Ashe. The night session, with the TV deals and the crowds, would be a great opportunity to introduce some fresh faces and get people excited about players they may never have otherwise seen. That exposure only helps tennis in the long run, as the Rogers, Rafas, and Serenas won't be around forever. Tennis needs new faces (and more faces) to sell the sport.

It's nice to see Christina McHale get the nod for Friday night's session against Maria Kirilenko, over the likes of Maria Sharapova, who lost to Flavia Pennetta in the afternoon and would have been the obvious choice. Then again, if that match turns out to be a dud, maybe we're right back to the drawing board. You decide: Vote in our poll and sound off in the comments to let us know what you think![polldaddy poll=5473531]

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