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Sunday, September 11, 2011
Second fiddle, but never second-best

By Viv Bernstein

NEW YORK -- It's hard to believe, in a place called the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, that women still play second fiddle. But there they were on Saturday night, Australia's Samantha Stosur and Angelique Kerber of Germany, playing a semifinal match at the U.S. Open on the small Grandstand court instead of Arthur Ashe Stadium where they belonged.

A few steps away, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray were battling it out before a capacity crowd of 22,000-plus in their semifinal on Ashe. Just as Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic had done earlier in the day.

Stosur and Kerber had surely earned that moment, too. Instead, relegated to the Grandstand Court (seating capacity: 6,000), the more experienced Stosur pulled out a 6-3, 2-6, 6-2 victory, breaking Kerber three times in the third set and holding off a late comeback to put the match away. Sunday, when she faces Saturday night's other semifinal winner, Serena Williams, it will be her second career Grand Slam final. Stosur reached the French Open final in 2010, falling to Francesca Schiavone.

"It would be an absolute dream come true,'' Stosur said of possibly winning the title. "It's great that now I've got a second chance to try and win one of these titles, and I'll definitely go out there and give it my best shot."

Stosur labored longer than anyone to reach tonight's semi, having set a U.S. Open record for longest match in her 3-hour, 16-minute victory against Nadia Petrova in the third round, to a record for the longest tiebreaker (she lost, 17-15, but went on to win the match) against No. 25 seed Maria Kirilenko in the fourth round. And Kerber, ranked 92nd, had made herself the surprise of the tournament by advancing to her first Grand Slam semifinal.

Still, Stosur and Kerber were banished to the Grandstand when schedules were juggled because of rain that washed out two days of tournament play.

"Given the circumstances, I wasn't too impressed with the scheduling the way everything had turned out," said Stosur, who lobbied tournament referee Brian Earley to no avail. "I understand it's a tricky situation, but I think things could have been done a little differently. Communication could have been better to express why things were going to happen the way they happened.

"The Grandstand's a fantastic court. It was a great atmosphere out there and I loved every second of it. That wasn't the point," she said. "It was just trying to stick up for what I thought was the right thing. And unfortunately it didn't happen."

Indeed, it seemed each time a schedule was adjusted, the women were the ones making the accommodation. The women's semifinals originally were scheduled for Friday afternoon and could have been played then, as there was no rain. But because the tournament needed to get the men's quarterfinals in, they bumped the women to Saturday night semifinals.

And that led to concern that stacking four matches in a row on Ashe -- two men's semifinals followed by two women's semifinals -- would take too long, so tournament organizers decided to move one match off Ashe to the Grandstand, which is the third-largest U.S. Open venue. (Louis Armstrong Stadium, the second-largest with a capacity of 10,200, was not available because of flooding issues from the storms.)

"What we opted to do was keep the men home for the semifinals in the window that they were scheduled at," said Chris Widmaier, spokesman for the USTA. "It works for the ticket holder and it works for television."

It didn't work for the women, though. The Stosur match was moved to an off court, and Williams and Wozniacki were forced to play late into the night. Both Stosur and Williams had less than 24 hours rest before their Sunday final. The men made sure they had nearly 48 hours between the semifinals and finals.

Stacey Allaster, CEO of the WTA, made the organization's feelings on the issue known in her statement: "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. "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."

Interestingly, the USTA argued that fans bought tickets to see the men's semifinals on Saturday, which is why they kept those matches in place at that time. And yet by that argument, the USTA never should have moved the women's semifinals from Friday afternoon to Saturday night, if fans had bought those Friday tickets to see the women play at that time.

For Kerber, it was a letdown to reach her first semifinal and not be rewarded with a match on Ashe.

"Actually, I think it was not fair for us, that the semifinal of the Grand Slam is on the Grandstand," she said. "But, I mean, we can do nothing.''

For Stosur, it wasn't the first time she was bumped from the main stage. She was scheduled to play Kirilenko in a fourth-round match on Ashe last Monday. But that match was bumped to assure that the night session wasn't delayed. By moving the match, Stosur and Kirilenko had to wait hours longer for a court to be available.

Stosur called that episode "pretty disappointing." But this snub was worse.

At long last, Stosur will get her spotlight moment on Ashe when she plays for the championship Sunday afternoon.

We think.