Tradition of Super Saturday trumps fairness

Friday September 10th, 2010

John McEnroe

“It had to be the best day for fans at the Open — ever,” said John McEnroe of the first Super Saturday back in 1984, when he beat Jimmy Connors. (AP)

I always wondered how CBS and the U.S. Open would have responded if the first “Super Saturday,” back in 1984, had been a bust. Imagine if Helena Sukova and Hana Mandlikova (each a quarterfinalist) had reached the final instead of Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova. Picture Gene Mayer and John Lloyd knocking off John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors, respectively, in the quarterfinals and moving on to a Saturday showdown. The television ratings would have been locked in a death struggle with Plain Talk About Lettuce and Fishin’ With Ed.

Would the idea have been junked? Would its inherent flaws have become overriding factors? We’re not talking about minor inconveniences here. We’re talking about a television-rigged structure that has defied the basic tenets of fairness since the beginning.

As it turned out, that first Big Bash was an astounding success. It began at 11:07 a.m. with a seniors match between Stan Smith and John Newcombe, each in sterling form during a three-set adventure in nostalgia. It continued with Ivan Lendl, one of the all-time greats in this event, fighting off a match point in the fifth set to beat Pat Cash, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 7-6 (4), and people still talk about the shot Lendl hit -- a running topspin lob winner -- with that match point against him (on Cash’s serve, no less, at 6-5 in the fifth).

Back then, the women’s finalists didn’t have the luxury of a predetermined start time. They were squeezed in between the two men’s matches. The wait seemed interminable for Chrissie and Martina, but they staged one of their most memorable confrontations, a 4-6, 6-4, 6-4 thriller that gave Navratilova her sixth major title in two years. Evert had been overwhelmed in the most recent episodes of this great rivalry, and after she rallied to win three straight games and secure the first set, “the fans in Louis Armstrong Stadium erupted,” wrote esteemed historian Steve Flink. “It was one of the most heartfelt ovations Evert had ever received.”

Somehow, it got even better. McEnroe and Connors took the court for the big finish, McEnroe gunning for his fourth U.S. Open title, Connors his sixth. They didn’t much care for each other in general, and the mood turned to hatred on court. Back and forth they went, well into the night, New York fans defining themselves with escalating appreciation, until McEnroe closed out his 6-4, 4-6, 7-5, 4-6, 6-3 win.

What a day and night that was. Just crazy, insane, relentlessly good, finally shutting down at 11:16 p.m. “It had to be the best day for fans at the Open -- ever,” McEnroe said at the time (and quite often since).

Sometimes in life, though, the encores never quite match the premier. If that Super Saturday was a sublime first kiss, many of its successors were lousy blind dates. Remarkable as it may seem, with all the great players passing through Armstrong and Arthur Ashe stadiums over the years, no other Super Saturday has quite measured up -- in star power or in performance. The inventors crafted an instant masterpiece, never to be duplicated.

And to this day, the format remains as controversial as ever.

It wasn’t until 2001 that the women got their own prime-time slot (as we’ll see Saturday night, at 8 p.m. Eastern time), and the 17-year wait was nothing short of inexcusable. That’s like saying, “Stay loose, everybody. We plan to start the Super Bowl sometime between noon and dusk.” The top players are accustomed to delays of all kinds; it’s nothing new. But if you’ve survived two weeks and six matches of Grand Slam tennis, you damn well deserve to know when the final starts.

Worse yet, in the realm of fairness, was the notion of a men’s semifinalist wrapping up his victory around midnight, then coming back to play a final the next day. If the first men’s semi was a straight-set rout, and yours lasted five hours, you’re at a distinct disadvantage going into Sunday.

The great ones have a way of getting it done. The 1984 McEnroe-Connors match ended some six hours after Lendl’s semifinal, and McEnroe still thrashed Lendl the following day. Pete Sampras played the second semifinal in 1990, a tough four-setter against McEnroe, and despite the fact that Andre Agassi had a breezier path through Boris Becker much earlier in the day, Sampras scored his epic victory (at the age of 19) in the final. People may forget that when Andy Roddick won his first and only major in 2003, he was coming off a severe, five-set challenge from David Nalbandian, who held a match point at 6-5 in the third-set tiebreak.

Pete Sampras

Pete Sampras (above) outlasted Jim Courier in a memorable 1995 semifinal, which was prelude to another Andre Agassi-Boris Becker classic. (AP)

On several occasions, however, players who fought through a five-set semifinal simply had nothing left on Sunday, including McEnroe in 1985, Miloslav Mecir in ’86, Greg Rusedski in ’97 and Agassi in 2005.

Too often for the sport’s own good, the men’s final has been a letdown after that marathon Saturday. No less than 14 have ended in straight sets, many have been quite forgettable, and some would argue that if you're taking marquee value and television ratings into effect, Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi contested the only penthouse finals over the last 20 years: 1995 (Sampras 7-5 in the fourth) and 2002, when a triumphant Sampras said his farewell to tennis with a four-set win.

Let’s face it, you don’t always get Marlon Brando or Robert De Niro in this film. Over the years, as network executives quite rightly feared the worst, Super Saturday unveiled the likes of Cedric Pioline (twice), Wally Masur, Alexander Volkov, Karel Novacek, Jonas Bjorkman, Sjeng Schalken and Joachim Johannson. Part of the game, naturally, but terribly bad theater.

To be sure, there have been some gems. On his way to that 1990 title, when he became the youngest men’s champion in the Open era, Sampras beat McEnroe in a compelling four-set semifinal. That same year, Agassi prevailed over Becker in an elegant four-setter. Two years later, Stefan Edberg outlasted Michael Chang in a 5-hour, 26-minute match that represented the longest in tournament history. Patrick Rafter’s 1998 win over Sampras (6-3 in the fifth) was exquisite.

Only the 1995 Super Saturday, though, reminded anyone of the first. In the opening men’s semi, Sampras won a heavyweight slugfest from Jim Courier, 7-5 in the fourth. Later on, Agassi and Becker staged their latest masterpiece, a 7-6 (4), 7-6 (2), 4-6, 6-4 win for Agassi.

Between those matches, Steffi Graf and Monica Seles contested a women’s final that was highly relevant at the time and only grew in stature over the years. Seles was playing only her second tournament since the brutal stabbing incident more than two years before. Seles and Graf had never been friendly, and it was eerie to recall that the man who attacked Seles, in Hamburg, was a crazed pro-Graf fan distraught over the fact that Seles had won seven of the previous eight Grand Slam events she had entered.

“The atmosphere was electric,” wrote Inside Tennis. “The first set may have been the highest level of play ever by two women.” After being blown off the court in the second set, Graf realized she had to change strategy -- for her, the rarest of concessions -- to fend off the Seles onslaught. Cleverly mixing changes of pace with her storied forehand, Graf scored what she later called her greatest victory, 7-6 (6), 0-6, 6-3.

Recalling some other memorable women’s finals, there was shotmaking of the highest order in 1985, when Hana Mandlikova edged Navratilova, 7-6 in the third. When Graf won the 1988 title, it made her only the third woman to complete the calendar-year Grand Slam and the first since Margaret Court in 1970. Gabriela Sabatini won her only major there (1990, over Graf). The 1997 final matched 16-year-old Martina Hingis (a straight-set winner) against 17-year-old Venus Williams in the first year of cavernous Ashe Stadium. Few can forget the look of soulful ecstasy on Serena Williams’ face when she won her first Open, in 1999. And there was plenty of history in 2001, the women’s first shot at prime time, when Venus beat Serena for the title. Some 23 million viewers tuned in that night, more than watched the Notre Dame-Nebraska football game.

How’s this, though, for a grim development: Over the last 14 years, every women’s final has been decided in two sets. Not a novel in the bunch, just a compelling sentence or two. So if you try to claim that Super Saturday has been some kind of boon for women’s tennis, you’d be spectacularly wrong -- at least in recent memory.

I find the concept dated beyond repair. Even in the prime years, only the most dedicated aficionados stayed glued to the TV set through the duration of Super Saturday. For most fans, it amounts to pleasant background noise for a weekend gathering, folks paying close attention only on the really big points. And as much as fans clamor for a glimpse of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and the top three or four women, modern-day tennis is historically lacking in the depth of star power.

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