09.08.11

The U.S. Open’s Watergate

Why the players were right in the case of the flooded tennis courts.

“I’m really starting to getting pissed off,” said Andy Roddick to a U.S. Open tournament referee, Brian Earley, well aware that his mild diatribe was being picked up by an ESPN camera crew only a few feet away.

On Thursday afternoon, Earley and Roddick were examining the surface of the Grandstand court, where water was bubbling up through a small crack. Roddick had been called back to the court, assured that the situation had been resolved.

The water on the court said otherwise.

The beleaguered Earley simply shrugged.

This was Round 2 of Roddick’s U.S. Open Watergate. Twenty-four hours earlier, Roddick, defending champion Rafael Nadal, and fourth-seeded Andy Murray marched into Earley’s office to complain about the playing conditions on the humidity-dampened courts at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center before a full-fledged downpour forced the suspension of play.

Outside the tennis world, the backlash was predictable. “The Yankees play through a freakin’ monsoon, and here these guys in their shorts and headbands are complaining about a little ‘mist,’” bellowed the sports radio guys. The meta message was clear: “Just go out and play like a man, you wuss.”
That’s wrong on a whole variety of counts. Tennis players might just be the world’s best athletes. And on Wednesday and Thursday, the USTA had put them in a no-win situation.

Here are the simple facts about why the players were in the right. A hard court, like the ones at the U.S. Open, consists of a thin film of acrylic over an asphalt base. That means that even a few drops of rain turn it into a skating rink.

Tennis is all about movement—just listen to the squeaking of sneakers on the court during a Nadal match—and a court that’s even mildly damp becomes not only unplayable but d0wnright dangerous. Imagine playing an NBA game on a court slathered with extra virgin olive oil and you’ll get the idea of the absurdity of the situation. The USTA is just lucky that Roddick didn’t break an ankle on national TV. And less than a day after this debacle, Earley is again seen trying to cajole a top player into action on a sketchy court.

Now, in fairness, the schedule of the U.S. Open is less like the Super Bowl or the World Series than a three-ring circus. There are dozens of matches that need to be played at any given time, and players have different—and usually conflicting—opinions as to when and where a match should be played. On Wednesday, Early tried to sneak in a few matches during a tiny break in the weather.

He gambled. He lost.

The USTA’s party line was this: “All parties, including the players and tournament, want to get the US Open back on schedule.”

The, um, real reason? Money. If the players complete one match or play 90 minutes of tennis, then it becomes an official session, and ticket holders aren’t entitled to a raincheck. So when those four sessions were cancelled on Tuesday and Wednesday, it seemed like that the USTA would be forced to cram those matches into the remaining days of tournament. And while those ticket holders wouldn’t get cash refunds, they would have been able to exchange their rainchecks for tickets to next year’s matches. (On Thursday, after this controversy had been swirling a while, the USTA extended the schedule to play the women’s final on Sunday and the men’s final on Monday. The change will ease the burden on the players, but also fatten the USTA’s coffers by using most of the tickets from the rained-out sessions during this year’s tournament.) Given that ticket revenue for the 2009 US Open was $80 million, it’s not hyperbole to suggest that millions of dollars were riding on a decision like this. And that that’s not even considering the pressure from network ESPN, CBS Sports, Tennis Channel, and foreign rights holders who pay the USTA hundreds of millions for the rights to broadcast matches featuring Roddick and friends, instead of golden oldies like the 1991 Jimmy Connors-Paul Haarhuis chestnut.

Getting back to the nuts and bolts of Watergate, know this: In general, players are anxious to get on the court and stay there, so if they think that court conditions are a problem, they probably are. But when a player is called to the court by tournament officials, he or she has pretty much got two choices. Play. Or be defaulted. So Roddick, Murray, and Nadal (as well as their lower-ranked opponents) had little choice but to play under duress.

Toward that end, some blame can be laid at the feet of another acronymic organization, the ATP or Association of Tennis Professionals. Murray reports that an ATP Tour Manager advised them against taking the court, but seemingly could do no more than that. The ATP was once a seriously badass union, with a brand of solidarity that would make Marvin Miller proud. In 1973, they organized a full-blown boycott of Wimbledon, with most of the top players sitting out the world’s most prestigious tournament over the suspension of Yugoslav pro Nikki Pilic. But this week, they clearly didn’t place enough pressure on the USTA.

And while the court condition controversy will be forgotten at least until the next rain shower, don’t expect a full-blown policy change until a player like Roddick leaves the court on a stretcher. Just ask Shuzo Matsuoka. In the 1995 U.S. Open, the Japanese journeyman was writhing on the court in agony with cramps, with trainers unable to help him until he officially defaulted his match. Only after this cringeworthy moment was the rule about medical time outs tweaked. Remember too that for years, the preferred method for drying the courts at the Open was to have ball boys and ball girls—many of them African-American—on their hands and knees drying the court with towels. Nice photo op, there.

Remember also that the U.S. Open is unique among tennis’s four major championships in having to play chicken with the weather. The French Open is played on an absorbent red clay court, where a little rain actually improves the footing and matches can be played in a virtual downpour. At the Australian Open, which is also played on a hard court, and Wimbledon, where the matches are played on grass, the tournament organizers sucked it up and built retractable roofs on the stadium courts.

But the USTA hit a long lucky streak with the New York weather; between 1978, when the National Tennis Center opened, and 2007, only once, in 1987, did rain force the final into the Monday of the next week. Now the USTA paying the price; for the last three years the men’s final has had to be postponed. And the window of opportunity for raising the capital to put a roof on Arthur Ashe Stadium—Wimbledon’s roof was part of a renovation with an estimated cost of 80 million pounds—seems to have closed with the Great Recession. So for the foreseeable future, the rain will fall in Flushing, and officials and players will continue their delicate pas de deux over who’ll play where and when. Who’ll lead this dance? Andy Murray summed it up in a single word in his post-match press conference on Thursday.

Q.: Do you think commercial interests trump player well‑being?
Murray: Yeah.