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Wednesday, September 14, 2011
Updated: September 15, 9:12 AM ET
U.S. Open schedule needs tweaking

By Kamakshi Tandon
Special to ESPN.com

Let's call it the Unhappy Slam.

The lingering memories will be of Novak Djokovic's classic encounters against Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in the semifinals and finals, but this year's U.S. Open was played to a soundtrack of wind, rain, chaos and fury that will still be ringing in the USTA's ears when planning for next year gets underway.

First came an earthquake, then a hurricane. And then things went downhill from there.

The first few days of the tournament were marked by illness and injury -- all in all, the tournament experienced a record-high 17 retirements and withdrawals, and that's not counting those who couldn't even make the start, like defending champion Kim Clijsters, or players who got hurt but managed to finish, like Andy Roddick.

Andy Roddick
An irate Andy Roddick complained to officials about wet spots on the playing surface.

But it was in the second week that the heavy weather really began -- quite literally, as rain lashed the tournament Tuesday and Wednesday, allowing only about 15 minutes of play. And even those 15 minutes were controversial, with Nadal, Roddick and Andy Murray sent out to damp courts that quickly became unplayable. "All you think about is money" Nadal snapped, and the three stormed off the court and into the referee's office to insist that the situation not be repeated.

The weather improved, but the mood didn't.

"What is that?" Roddick demanded the next day after discovering water seeping up near the baseline at Louis Armstrong Stadium. "Why are we out here if that's there?...I'm baffled right now. Absolutely baffled."

His anticipated contest with David Ferrer eventually took place untelevised on the 584-seat Court 13. But that was just the beginning of the scheduling improvisations. With the U.S. Open splitting the mens' round of 16 matches over Monday and Tuesday, the rain had left the players in the bottom half of the draw a round behind and needing to play four straight days if the tournament were to be finished in time.

"We don't feel protected, the players," Nadal said in a television interview with ESPN shortly after his visit to the referee's office. "We don't feel protected [by] the tournament. Grand Slams is lot of money, and we are part of the show -- they are just working for that, not for us. They call us on court, cannot be possible. They dry the court for 45 minutes, but the rain never stops. The court was dry for 10 minutes but they know after 10 minutes we have to go out [of] the court another time and they still put us out on court, for the fans. I understand the fans are there, but, you know, health and the players are important. We are part of the show too, and we don't feel protected."

Wasn't it all a bit of an overreaction to a simple weather-reading blunder by officials? Unable to see the mist and drizzle on the radar and believing they had just about two hours of clear weather to get the matches in, they apparently neglected to look out of the window before rushing the players out. The tournament's rain refund policy may have been a peripheral motivation, as Nadal's dig about money suggested -- refunds are given only if less than 90 minutes are played and no matches are completed -- but keeping the schedule on track was almost certainly the main priority in the referee's office.

But in reality, Wednesday's mishap was just the final straw. It lifted the lid off all the resentments being harbored by the players, everything from how much the Grand Slams make to the U.S. Open's television--dictated scheduling of the men's semifinals and finals on back-to-back days.

While the other issues will continue to bubble like leaky Armstrong stadium, the scheduling dispute seems to have been brought to a head. With both the men's semifinals and women's final played on Super Saturday, the winner of the second semifinal often has to come back for the final less than 24 hours later, and a tough match can mean being at a significant disadvantage. (Things were even worse when the semifinals were sandwiched between the women's final, a practice that was discarded in 2002.)

Other challenges include playing the first round over three days instead of two, and staggering the round of 16 and quarterfinal matches over two days each. Couple that with the fact that the U.S. Open is now the only non-clay major without a roof, and any disruption caused by rain throws the already disjointed schedule even more out of whack.

Over the last decade, it's happened as often as not. This year's backlog was reminiscent of 2003, when the top half was left having to play four days in a row. And though the final was pushed back this time to ensure a day's rest for the players, it's the fourth straight year the tournament has finished on Monday.

With the players having finally taken a public and vocal stand, will the tournament stick to its traditional scheduling? Can it?

"It will be disappointing if that's the case," said Roger Federer. "Without putting any pressure on them, I think it's obvious that there needs to be a change, especially at the back end of the tournament. I believe also at the front end you can't play first rounds over three days in a place where you do get rain and you don't have a roof so you don't have that protection. I mean, it's not the first year we're finishing on Monday.

Roger Federer
Roger Federer is among the many who believe the USTA needs to revamp the U.S. Open schedule.

"I just think the competitive advantage that maybe one player has over another in any Grand Slam final, at the U.S. Open it's just unfair for the player. I just hope that [the] tournament, they understand it, they see that. It shouldn't even be like a debate and trying to put them in a corner. I just think it's common sense. We'll hope for that, otherwise we will have to make ourselves heard again, which is not something we like doing."

That leaves the USTA with the choice of whether to build a roof or go to a more balanced format. The size of Arthur Ashe stadium and the swampland beneath means a roof is a major and expensive project, $200 million by some estimates. "Even though on a rainy week it seems so obvious, when you look at a not-for-profit and all the USTA tries to do, it's a really tough call," ESPN analyst Pam Shriver told the New York Times. "It's based on a much bigger picture, one which is concerned with the grassroots level and elite-player development and senior tennis. I'm not saying they shouldn't have a roof, but it's a complicated issue."

While some form of cover is likely in the long-term, that solution is years away and still would not solve the Super Saturday quick turnaround problem. But changing the schedule isn't easy either. Many fans like Super Saturday, as does television. The best solution might be to keep the men's semifinals on Saturday, play the womens' final on Sunday and go to a primetime Monday night mens' final -- similar to the very schedule the rain imposed this year. But USTA's deal with CBS calls for a Sunday men's final and was renewed this year to run for the next three years.

And if the tournament does extend itself by another day, the players will want something too, having already grumbled about the French Open's move to 15 days. "If they want to put an extra day in, then they better increase the prize money substantially because it's an extra day's work for us," said Murray. "It's happened before at tournaments where they think, Oh, we'll put an extra day in, and then, you know, the tournament is getting a big increase because obviously it's a weekend so they'll get more people through the door, but that money doesn't go back into the prize money at all."

Filling this weekend's television windows required some juggling as it was. The women's final was pushed to Sunday to fill the men's final slot, and the semifinals moved to Saturday evening in the space originally reserved for the final.

The semifinal between Serena Williams and top seed Caroline Wozniacki was an obvious candidate for the Saturday night primetime spot, but with the men's semifinals also to be played earlier in the day, there was no space for the second women's semifinal to be played on Ashe stadium.

With Armstrong still unplayable, where to send Samantha Stosur and Angelique Kerber? After some confusion, they were relegated to the Grandstand court for 6:00 p.m.

Stosur was not pleased, though Williams couldn't have been happy either when the men's semis ran long and she didn't finish her match till well past 11:00 p.m. The next day's final featured not just a stunning upset by Stosur, but Williams ranting at the umpire over losing a point because she called 'Come on!' before the rally was quite over. "Aren't you the one who screwed me last time here?" Williams asked, invoking her stormy exit over a foot fault call two years ago.

She shook her racquet, called the umpire a "loser," "hater" and "unattractive inside," earning a $2,000 fine but not being dealt any major penalties under the probation she was placed for the foot fault incident.

All in all, it would be no surprise if tournament referee Brian Earley's well-coiffed hair is a bit grayer than it was at the beginning of the fortnight.

So what happens from here? Finding a solution to the scheduling will be tricky, but it might seem easy compared to handling this year's tournament. And at this rate, it might take care of itself. If the rain keeps up, the whole place could have sunk into the ground by the time next year comes around.

Kamakshi Tandon is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.