There is no doubt that Andy Roddick and 2004 silver medalist Mardy Fish are feeling justified in skipping the Olympics. They are among four of the eight quarterfinalists who did not travel to Beijing. Neither Juan Martin del Potro nor Gilles Muller qualified at the entry deadline. Another, Andy Murray, was dismissed in the first round of the Olympics – so he had additional days to recover for “the world’s toughest tournament.”
The Big Three of Nadal, Federer, and Djokovic, who continue to show they are a cut above the field, are the only players who went the distance in Beijing and are still standing in Flushing. Consider their collective Olympic experiences to be the handicap that will bring them back to the field. Each has looked vulnerable at times throughout the tournament, and has admitted to running on fumes at this point.
This trend is less telling on the women’s side. The best two-of-three set format for women is more welcoming for such a hectic, demanding, grueling schedule.
I have always advocated that the men play best-of-three at the majors (like they used to do at the US Open from 1975-78) until the quarterfinals. During the latter rounds, the full “championship distance” is appropriate. In the preliminary rounds, the longer matches are too taxing on the players. It has a wearing affect, and thus the level of play is compromised at the end of the event. The fans are rarely engaged throughout long five-setters. Oh, well. By the way, the player who is ahead after three sets (either 3-0, obviously, or 2-1 in sets), wins well over 90% of the time.
It has been great to see the net-rushing, serve and volley tactics at this US Open. Federer, Fish, and Muller have been racing forward frequently. The other five players have also demonstrated a willingness – and comfort level – in doing so. Why is this? For one, players are increasingly forced to block back the huge serves. These blocked or chipped returns are easy balls to volley with authority. On second serves, players are often receiving from well behind the baseline (sometimes much further back in dealing with kicking second serves than on the harder, flatter first serves), and compromising this territory makes it more inviting for players to serve and volley. Finally, the surface (as hard as it may be on joints) is easy to plant and change directions on. It has been enjoyable to observe these tactical changes, as contrasts make for better viewing.
If the US Tennis Association wishes to support doubles, and doubles at the professional level, then it ought to start the tournament on Sunday (and not Monday). The extra – or 15th – day would allow more of the world’s top players to consider playing the team event.
Supposing it was a 15-day event, the top singles seeds would be scheduled in approximately the following manner: Sunday, Wednesday, Saturday, Labor Day Monday, Wednesday or Thursday, Super Saturday, and Final Sunday. The increased off days might entice at least some of the top players to participate in doubles. Thank heavens for the Bryan brothers, because the other teams in the quarterfinals at this year’s US Open are virtually unrecognizable among even hard core tennis aficionados. The prize money for doubles is already stratospheric at the Open- greater than at any other event in the world. It would be better for the sport if the world’s truly best players were competing.
Furthermore, the first Sunday (day and evening) session(s) would showcase some of the world’s most famous players, and allow our sport to reach a weekend audience on the best day for televised sports. Wimbledon’s stubborn refusal to play on the middle Sunday is laughably archaic. This would be yet another opportunity for the US Open to lead the way forward.
If Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic or Andy Roddick or Roger Federer were assured of extra days of rest between singles matches, it is conceivable that they would opt to enter doubles, as they do occasionally during ATP Tour events. Andy Murray did this year. John McEnroe famously used his doubles efforts as, essentially, practice for his singles matches. Roger Federer has attributed his rediscovered comfort in attacking the net to his having won Olympic gold in doubles.
Obviously, an additional Sunday session(s) would mean increased revenues for the USTA. More importantly, it would assure that the US Open becomes a three-weekend, two-week event-and thus increased exposure for our sport. The success of the pre-tournament Arthur Ashe Kids’ Day underscores how effective this plan could be. There is no doubt that the US Open management team would create a bonanza of an experience. Fingers crossed.
By the way, the grounds at the USTA/Billie Jean King National Tennis Center have never looked better. I have heard the word “magic” to describe how the nation’s largest public tennis facility shines during the tournament. It is a wonderful place to be – even when not watching matches – for anyone who enjoys tennis, sports, people-watching, eating, going on dates or family outings, or simply getting some sun. Well done.
The crowds at the US Open are demanding, but they are also more sophisticated about tennis than virtually anywhere else. At the All England Club, punters are respectfully church-like quiet, even on the field courts for preliminary round mixed doubles matches. At the Open, people are boisterous, opinionated and talkative. When a match reaches a crucial juncture, a surprising hush come across the massive stadium, and this heightens the drama. At Roland Garros, the French are known to whistle and jeer even their own players. On changeovers, they frequently engage in the wave (hard to imagine, but the wave makes Paris feel like being in Pittsburgh’s old Three Rivers Stadium in the early 1980′s!). At the US Open, people are busy watching themselves on the big screens during changeovers and, like weekenders in the Hamptons, apparently happy to be there. It remains the greatest place in the world to watch tennis.
What is the Federer Effect? Players have gotten betterer. Igor Andreev was another example. If Roger Federer wants to regain his place atop the rankings, he needs to get faster, stronger, and even more versatile. He raised the bar for everybody, now he needs to keep up with the same pace of improvement. He also needs someone to remind him that he is Roger Federer. Paul Annacone did this so successfully with Pete Sampras near the twilight of Sampras’ career. When you are an all-time great champion, it is fair to have a certain swagger.
Lastly, by writing this paragraph I am hoping to reverse-jinx it so that it does not occur… My biggest concern is that one of the finalists will not be fit to finish the Championship match due to an injury brought on by the brutal summer schedule. There. By writing about it, it cannot happen. Enjoy the high drama!