U.S. Open schedule changes help but leave unresolved issues
The U.S. Open will be a 15-day tournament in 2013, moving the women's final from Saturday evening to Sunday, Sept. 8, at 4 p.m. and the men's final to Monday at 5. A few quick thoughts on the announcement, which I'll do without mentioning the dreaded "R" word.
Good riddance Super Saturday: Let's start with the good news. The USTA's decision to push back the finals next year -- and again, this change has only been announced for 2013 -- means the chaos and inherent unfairness of Super Saturday, which had both men's semifinals played during the day and the women's final in prime time, is over for at least a year.
After five straight years of Monday finishes due to inclement weather, the USTA's announcement doesn't practically change anything other than give the players notice that they'll -- theoretically -- have a day off. The previous schedule forced them to play back-to-back best-of-five matches for the title, something that isn't required from them at any other major. Ideally, the scheduling change means a day of rest for both the women's finalists and the men's finalists, something the men have repeatedly clamored for over the years. Then again, if weather pushes the men's semifinals to Sunday, would organizers stick to the Monday final? Or would they move it to Tuesday to give the guys rest? These are the sticky questions when you don't have a roof*.
Schedule flexibility should be front-loaded: Now for the bad news. The players, particularly the men, aren't exactly throwing a ticker-tape parade in response to the news. They've never wanted a Monday final. From their perspective the goal should be to finish the tournament in the allotted 14 days, with the men's final played Sunday. With the unpredictable New York weather repeatedly wreaking havoc, the most obvious schedule change would be to reduce the men's first round, which takes place over three days, to two days.
Before this scheduling change, the U.S. Open was the only one of the four majors to play its first round over three days in an event that took place over 14 days (the French Open does so but has a Sunday start). But instead of condensing the first round to add more wiggle room to reschedule matches in the event of rain, the USTA locked in a schedule that fails to mitigate the risk of rainouts in the early rounds, meaning the schedule can get congested as the tournament wears on. I can't wait to see the scenes at Flushing Meadows if we get a Tuesday final next year, with the Davis Cup semifinals starting Friday that same week. Anarchy isn't just confined to the UK.
Who will watch: A predetermined Monday finish gives ample time to secure the necessary broadcast window, preventing a situation where the final gets bounced from channel to channel with no warning. Hopefully that also means local CBS affiliates actually carry the event, a problem that comes up every time the final was belatedly pushed to Mondays. The U.S. Open final has struggled getting viewers over recent years, as it usually falls on the NFL's first week, meaning the men's final, if held Sunday, went up against a full slate of NFL games, or if pushed to Monday, was forced to compete with Monday Night Football. The NFL is thinking about moving its opening weekend up a week in 2013, which could help the U.S. Open's final weekend. But if it sticks to its regular schedule, both the women's final and the men's final will go up against the full brunt of pro football.
The 5 p.m. start time on Monday remains a problem. You're asking for people on the East Coast to ditch work early to attend the final, alienating any fans who don't have the luxury of flying in to watch a Monday final, and fans in the Midwest and West Coast who are stuck at work during the final. The time isn't particularly Europe-friendly, either, as it would start sometime around 10 to midnight on a work night. Ratings will take a hit.
The ATP still ruffled on prize-money issues: In addition to the scheduling changes, the USTA announced a $4 million increase in prize money, pushing the total purse to a record $29.5 million. From the sounds of it, that increase isn't close to matching what the men have been asking for behind closed doors.
The always vocal Sergiy Stakhovsky took to Twitter to vent his frustration, saying the USTA "did what they needed and didn't deliver what we asked." The increase matches what the Australian Open announced a few months ago, but the U.S. Open is a far more profitable tournament. We'll have to wait and see how this plays out next year.* Oops. I really did try.