NEW YORK -- It was a quarter-past 11 on Tuesday night and the crowd streaming from the exits at Arthur Ashe Stadium buzzed happily. Patrons of the U.S. Open, some of whom paid as much as $365 a ticket, witnessed terrific play from Rafael Nadal and fellow Spaniard David Ferrer.
The problem? They saw only a single set of tennis. The fourth-round match wouldn't end for more than two and one-half hours, at 1:50 a.m. ET. It was the third-latest ending ever at the National Tennis Center.
New York prides itself as the City That Never Sleeps, as the home of "Late Night with David Letterman," where you can get a beer at the bars on Second Avenue until 4 a.m. The signature of the U.S. Open, the thing that makes it unique, is the crackling excitement of tennis under the lights.
But sometimes, like children with candy, there can be too much of a good thing. There were fewer than 8,000 spectators left when Ferrer dispatched Nadal into the moonlit night; empty seats outnumbered those that were occupied by a two-to-one margin.
Todd Martin helped the USTA forge that electric late-night identity with two sensational matches in 1999 and 2000, against Greg Rusedski and Carlos Moya. He reached the quarterfinals by winning manic five-set matches that ended after 1 a.m.
Are those ultra-late matches good for tennis? Martin grimaced and considered for a good five seconds.
"I think so, yes," he said on Wednesday. "I would like to see the ball get rolling a little earlier in the evening. It's a problem when the women's match doesn't even start until 9:30, and the men don't get going until 10 p.m. If the men are on past 9, you've got a lot of sleepy people at work the next day."
At the U.S. Open, some of the finest moments are seen by the smallest audiences.
Steve Flink, the senior correspondent for Tennis Week magazine who has covered the sport for more than 25 years, doesn't think uber-late matches are good for tennis.
"It just doesn't work," Flink said. "It's unfair to the players, and you're giving the fan a raw deal. I'm not against night matches, sometimes the place really comes alive. The problem is they feel they have to throw two matches out there and, unless the women's match goes quickly, you compound the problem."
If you are looking for answers in sports, it is wise to follow the money. According to the Sports Business Journal, the U.S. Open will net approximately $110 million in profits from $220 million in revenue. That makes it one of the most lucrative sporting events in the world.
We're talking about a sport here that doesn't have a clock. It's not ideal. But it's part of the mystique of the Open. With the celebrity factor, the noise, the late hours, with the crowd -- that is what separates this event from many others, so there's a silver lining to it.
One of the reasons the tournament expects to set a new attendance record -- close to 700,000 -- is the continuing presence of night sessions that draw more than 23,000 fans. On Aug. 27, 1975, the U.S. Open became the first Grand Slam to present a match under the lights; Onny Parun of New Zealand defeated Stan Smith 6-4, 6-2 before a robust crowd of 4,949 at the West Side Tennis Club.
Officials from the other three Grand Slams cringed. In 1988, the Australian Open made the move to night tennis but today, the French Open and Wimbledon continue to offer a single day session and tennis always ends with daylight, usually by 9 p.m.
"We're talking about a sport here that doesn't have a clock," said Arlen Kantarian, chief executive of professional tennis, sitting in his well-appointed office on Thursday. "It's not ideal. But it's part of the mystique of the Open. With the celebrity factor, the noise, the late hours, with the crowd -- that is what separates this event from many others, so there's a silver lining to it."
Four times this fortnight, men's matches have ended after midnight. On the opening Thursday, the James Blake-Fabrice Santoro contest spilled into Friday morning after 3 hours and 35 minutes of entertaining stuff. Two days later, Blake was at it again. After Nicole Vaidisova and Shahar Peer went three sets, the Blake-Stefan Koubek match went past 1 a.m. The night after the Nadal-Ferrer match, Roger Federer and Andy Roddick played until 12:13 a.m. because the preceding match between Venus Williams and Jelena Jankovic required 2 hours and 27 minutes.
This has made it difficult for even the tennis purists, enamored of the quality of play, to follow matches to their conclusion.
Todd Martin may have been the king of late night, but times have changed. He's playing on the senior tour now, and on Wednesday he could be found sitting in the nursery under Arthur Ashe Stadium. His 3-year-old son, Jack, played nearby and his 6-foot-6 frame was folded into a white rocking chair. Cash, 19 months old, snored on his shoulder.
"My wife [Amy] and I were with three couples up from Florida on Saturday night," Martin whispered. "The Blake-Koubek match was good, competitive tennis, but when it's late like that. … We stuck it out for three sets, and it got really good at the end of the third set but, you know, there are other things to do."
When the day matches on Ashe run long, pushing the night session's start time past 7 p.m., the seeds are sown for a late evening. When the women's match goes three sets, it is almost inevitable. According to Kantarian, the average women's night match has been 90 minutes, while the average for men has been 2 hours and 20 minutes.
"It's an upside/downside thing for them, a calculated roll of the dice," said Peter Bodo, of Tennis Magazine. "They're hoping Sharapova or a Williams sister will crush some girl, one and love. And then the big guys come out and play a great four-set match, and everybody goes home at 11:30.
"That just doesn't happen every time."
Although there are a few players who live for those night matches (Andre Agassi comes to mind), most of them would prefer not to be playing tennis past midnight. After his match with Nadal, Ferrer didn't get back to Manhattan until 4:30 a.m., and he found dinner at the only restaurant he could find open -- McDonald's.
Less than 36 hours after leaving the Ashe court, Ferrer returned to play Juan Ignacio Chela in the quarterfinals. Chela's Tuesday match, the first scheduled on Louis Armstrong, took nearly four hours but he still had nearly 11 hours more rest than Ferrer.
It didn't seem to matter. Ferrer dusted Chela 6-2, 6-3, 7-5 to roll into Saturday's semifinals.
After the match, Ferrer said that he hadn't been concerned with Chela's extra rest.
"No," Ferrer said. "Because it's the tournament, no? I play with Rafa in the night and [didn't] worry."
The night session used to begin at 7:30, but Kantarian pushed it back to 7 p.m. The key, according to Martin, is a strict 7 p.m. start.
"I think that extra half-hour is significant," he said.
Martin suggested two options to alleviate the late-night situation.
"You could go with an 8 p.m. start, with either two women's singles matches or a men's match followed by a doubles match," Martin said.
Flink said the solution would be playing one singles match, men's or women's, followed by a doubles match.
Kantarian said the USTA has looked at all of those options.
"We haven't gone there yet," he said. "I wouldn't rule anything out. We're going to continue to look at it."
Kantarian referenced Thursday night's schedule as an example. The Novak Djokovic-Carlos Moya encounter was the only official match on the schedule.
"We could have put the mixed doubles final on first," Kantarian said. "But we anticipate a long, competitive match, so we're just going with one. We'll play a legends match [Martina Navratilova vs. Jana Novotna] if we need it."
The gold standard of late matches is the 1993 marathon between Mikael Pernfors and Mats Wilander, which ended at 2:26 a.m. local time.
"In a perverse way," Bodo said, "those matches add to the mythology of the USTA. You'd have the New York Daily News going crazy if Roddick beat Federer 7-6 in the fifth at 3:47 in the morning. That's the USTA's dream."
Kantarian doesn't disagree.
"Ideally, we don't want to be out there at 1:15 a.m., but that's the nature of the sport and we do believe that the flip side is that last night, for instance, Roddick taking Federer to two tiebreakers, that was one of those classic nighttime U.S. Open matches.
"We'll take 12:15 -- we don't like 1:15, though."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.