Saturday September 10th, 2011

Sam Stosur (left) and Angelique Kerber will play their semifinal away from the spotlight. (EPA)

Another day, another scheduling issue.

Tennis fans were already scratching their heads on Thursday when the USTA released a revamped schedule that moved the women's semifinals from Friday to Saturday night and the women's final from Saturday night to Sunday afternoon. The change meant that while the men would receive a day off between their semifinals and final, the women would play their final less than 24 hours after their semifinals. It was a curious move but, in the grand scheme of things, not unprecedented. After all, the women play matches on three consecutive days all year during WTA Tour events. They're used to it. The men never play back-to-back best-of-five matches except at the U.S. Open.

But many observers threw up their hands in frustration when the USTA on Friday scheduled the semifinal between three-time champion Serena Williams and No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki for 8 p.m. ET on Arthur Ashe Stadium and the semifinal between ninth-seeded Samantha Stosur and unseeded Angelique Kerber for 6 p.m. on the Grandstand Court. Not only is the "lesser" semifinal being relegated to the No. 3 show court (the second-largest venue, Louis Armstrong Stadium, is out of commission because of saturation issues), but the match also will not be televised live in the United States (fans can stream the match from the U.S. Open website). The move reeks of disrespect for the WTA Tour and Stosur and Kerber, one of whom will go into Sunday's final without having played a single match on Ashe during this fortnight.

Stosur was miffed at the decision. "I think my Semi Final is at 6pm on Grandstand, if anyone wants to watch the ONLY SEMI FINAL not on Arthur Ashe Stadium, come out tomorrow," she wrote on her official Facebook page. And she had the support of players and commentators as well.

In a statement, the USTA said: "Numerous factors needed to be considered for the rescheduling of the remaining four days of the 2011 U.S. Open. These factors included programming for U.S. Open ticket holders, competitive fairness for players and the existing television windows for the tournament. With two men’s semifinals during the day tomorrow and the possibility of the day session running into the evening, we did not want to schedule the two women’s semifinals back-to-back in Arthur Ashe Stadium on Saturday night, since the winner of the second match will need to play in the women’s singles final at 4:30 p.m. the following day.

"Though not ideal, by beginning the Kerber-Stosur match at 6 p.m., we can provide an opportunity for some of our fans to watch that match. The match is scheduled on the Grandstand Court because Louis Armstrong Stadium is still unfit for competitive play."

No, it is not ideal. More important, it never should have come to this.

The USTA didn't have to move the women's semifinals from Friday in the first place. It didn't have to move the women's final from Saturday, either. For all the hoopla this week about how the weather affected the men's schedule, the women's schedule remained intact and was on track to finish Saturday. It didn't need to be rescheduled at all.

But with pressure mounting from the top men about the possibility of having to play best-of-five matches four days in a row, the USTA shifted the men's final from Sunday to Monday. It was a fair move to the players, but it left a gap in play on Sunday, with no premier matches and a huge TV window to fill. Thus, I assume, the need to move the women's final from Saturday to Sunday, regardless of whether it was necessary for the players.

CBS has coverage windows on Saturday from noon-6 p.m. and 8-10 p.m. A two-hour evening window could seldom accommodate a men's match, let alone two, nor could it cover two women's matches. Could the windows be renegotiated? Unlikely. What leverage does the USTA have at this point to get CBS to air all four matches? Fans want CBS to "do what's right," but since when has that ever been part of the bottom line?

WTA CEO Stacy Allaster indicated that she would have preferred a day schedule for the semifinals.

“The weather has made this year’s U.S. Open a very challenging one for the fans, players and USTA, and in particular in the area of match scheduling.," Allaster said in a statement. "As I made clear to the USTA, we believe that both women’s semifinal matches merited being scheduled on Arthur Ashe Stadium at times that would allow our athletes to be best prepared for a great women’s final on Sunday."

The scheduling change meant that one of the women's semifinals wouldn't be aired. That's just a fact. CBS had planned to televise three matches on Saturday (two men's semifinals and the women's final), the reshuffling left it stuck trying to shoehorn in one more women's match. Once the decision was made for the women's semis to be played Saturday, here were the options for the USTA and CBS:

Start the men's semifinals earlier to give Stosur-Kerber a chance on Ashe. The men's semifinals are set to start at noon on Saturday. Why not push it up an hour to potentially allow for Stosur-Kerber to be played on Ashe around 5 p.m.? Sure, that would be outside of CBS' windows and the match wouldn't be aired live, but at least you give the players what they deserve: an opportunity to play on Ashe. That said, even if you start the men's semifinals at 11 a.m., there's no guarantee that they wouldn't go long, thus pushing Stosur/Kerber into the 8 p.m slot and taking away from the Williams-Wozniacki match. But from a public relations standpoint, wouldn't it have been better to schedule Stosur-Kerber as the third match on Ashe and, if the men's matches went long, kick their semi to the Grandstand? At least then the reason would be understandable. As it is, regardless of intent, the USTA and CBS come out the losers here, seemingly volunteering to put a women's semifinal on the Grandstand and virtually dismissing its value.

Split the sessions. Another solution would be to split the matches, putting one men's and one women's match on Ashe during the day, and one women's and one men's match on at night. This doesn't solve the television issue, but it does guarantee that all eight semifinalists get their chance on Ashe. Besides, up until the end of the tournament, organizers have always scheduled one men's match and one women's match for the night session on Ashe. It's not out of the norm, and with the men getting Sunday off, a late match wouldn't be a huge competitive disadvantage.

Play the women during the day, the men at night: This is probably the least feasible solution, though it makes sense practically. The women's semifinals could have started at 11 a.m., followed by the men's semis. This would give the women more rest before their final, and with Sunday off the men would have less of an issue should the matches go late into the night. But again, given the TV windows, this wasn't an option. Does anyone really think Rafael Nadal-Andy Murray or Roger Federer-Novak Djokovic could finish in less than two hours?

The USTA has been vocal about its commitment to the principles of fairness and gender equality. The U.S. Open was the first Slam to offer equal prize money for men and women in 1973, and the National Tennis Center bears the name of one of the greatest proponents of equality, Billie Jean King. But fairness and equality extend beyond prize money. Those factors apply to television coverage, exposure, court assignments and respect. As it is, two women will contest a U.S. Open semifinal on the Grandstand, with no live broadcast. It's America's Slam and all four semifinals won't be shown live in ... America. It's kind of hard to get people excited about a sport when they can't watch it.

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