Commentary

Perilous conditions stir controversy

Updated: September 7, 2011, 4:27 PM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- Rafael Nadal was eight minutes late for his fourth-round match against Gilles Muller on Wednesday. Word was he was getting taped in the locker room. The likelier scenario was that he was staging a minor protest.

"It's always about the money," Rafa grumbled as he headed out toward the damp court at Arthur Ashe Stadium.

The collision of commerce and athletics can be awkward. History says that athletes are almost always trumped by dollars.

After a washout on Tuesday, the USTA worked feverishly to get its fourth-round men's matches in on Wednesday -- to stay on track for an event-concluding men's final on Sunday. At about 12:20 p.m., three fourth-round men's matches began on the USTA's three largest courts.

"If it's up for discussion whether the court is playable, that means it's not playable," Andy Roddick said. "It was misting when we walked out."

The players said they felt they weren't completely safe. After play was suspended some 20 minutes later with only 10 total games completed, Nadal, Roddick and Andy Murray confronted tournament referee Brian Earley in a closed-door meeting in his office.

The players complained that the back of the courts on Louis Armstrong and the Grandstand were still a bit wet. Interestingly, in the early going, the two Spanish players who make a living with their legs (Nadal and David Ferrer) were trailing; the two big servers (Roddick and Muller) were winning.

"It was raining when we went on -- it's dangerous," Murray told ESPN2's Pam Shriver. "The players want to play more than anyone, but not when it's dangerous. Everyone's kind of in the same boat."

[+] EnlargeRafael Nadal
TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty ImagesRafael Nadal is among the players who were not happy with the USTA's decision to make them take the court.

Later, Nadal, who is the vice president of the ATP's player council, reiterated Murray's concern while talking with Shriver.

"The health of the players is important, and we don't feel protected," Rafa said. "We are here working hard, and we want to feel good when we are playing the tournament.

"If I have to play [when it's] raining, I cannot accept that. We have to fight to change that, to have the power to change it.

At 3:30 p.m. ET, the USTA released this statement: "All parties, including the players and tournament, want to get the U.S. Open back on schedule. As of 12 noon today, the best information available to us indicated the chance of a two-hour window without rain. Unfortunately, not all light rain and mist shows up on radar. We have experienced referees, and they decide if courts are fit for play.

"Conditions may be not ideal, but still can be safe.

"However, if a player or players feel that conditions are unsafe, we listen to them, as we have always done, and the referee uses that information as part of his/her assessment on whether to continue or halt play."

A few minutes after the statement was released, both men's quarterfinals matches -- No. 1 Novak Djokovic versus No. 20 Janko Tipsarevic and No. 3 Roger Federer versus No. 11 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga -- were postponed until Thursday.

Roddick said Murray had approached him about talking to Earley.

"We just wanted to make it known we didn't want to be put in that position again," Roddick explained. "It probably hits home when there are three of us standing there instead of one. I certainly understand they need to put tennis on TV, but first and foremost, the players need to feel comfortable and safe."

Would the players refuse to take the courts if the tournament ordered them to return?

"We said if conditions are the same, it might be uncomfortable," Roddick said, suggesting they would play if forced. "To Brian Earley's credit, he listened to us. We certainly understand his position, but he was great."

Rain at the U.S. Open usually spawns a slew of stories about the need for a roof to protect against these kinds of situations. The USTA released this statement Wednesday: "Constructing a roof over Arthur Ashe Stadium remains technically complex and financially challenging. Though the USTA will continue to explore potential roof options, no plans exist for the construction of a roof at this time."

The most recent estimate for the cost of putting a roof on Arthur Ashe Stadium was $150-200 million. Plans are in the works to knock down the second- and third-largest courts here and replace them with separate stadiums -- one of which would be fitted with a roof. That plan reportedly would cost $300 million.

Wednesday, the second day of rain, had everyone on edge. As of 2:30 p.m., it was still raining, and the players were hunkered down with their teams in the locker room. Technically, the tournament has the power to dictate play as it sees fit, something Nadal acknowledged grudgingly.

"If I have to go on the court, I have to go on the court," Nadal said, "but it's not fair."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.