Roger Federer’s frequent night play on Rod Laver Arena sparked some controversy at this year’s Australian Open.
I will start with 1991 because I recall the write-up of Jimmy Connors 1991 US Open run mentioning him asking for and receiving extra night matches.
Could Connors have run like this during the day and recovered as quickly?
1991 US Open – Jimmy Connors received extra night matches and main court matches despite needing a wild card to play the US Open. He also played main court matches at Wimbledon and Roland Garros earlier in 1991.
The Victims – Connors’ opponents who may have benefited from day matches. Connors did beat a top 10 seed as well as Aaron Krickstein in day matches.
The Rationale – Connors was the biggest story at the event after a first round 5 set night match win over Patrick McEnroe. Connors had also helped to build Open Tennis and the US Open for a long time. More eyeballs on TVs and more tickets sold benefited pro tennis in general.
The USTA got the match it wanted, but it turned out to be a dud
1996 US Open – Seedings were changed to reward Andre Agassi’s hard court results so he would not play Michael Chang or Pete Sampras before the semifinal round.
The Victim – Yevgeny Kafelnikov who was dropped out of the top 4 seeds despite winning Roland Garros and being a quarterfinalist at the Australian Open in 1996. Kafelnikov withdrew after his seeding was lowered.
The Rationale – The USTA wanted an all-American semifinal and an all-American final for tv ratings and ticket sales. They got that, but Chang wiped Agassi out in straight sets before Sampras wiped chang out in straight sets to win the title.
Pete Sampras had anemia and a day match may have sapped him
2001 US Open – Pete Sampras wanted a night match versus Andre Agassi. Andre Agassi was the higher seed and had the better ranking but wanted a day match. Pete Sampras and the USA Network got their way and the match was played at night.
The Victim – Andre Agassi? The two biggest US stars playing a day match was never going to happen with TV audiences at stake, but Agassi would have had a better chance at winning in hot conditions.
The Rationale – The USA Network wanted big ratings for their last big match of the 2001 tournament. Sampras and Agassi delivered an instant classic with Sampras winning 6-7, 7-6, 7-6, 7-6 in a match that featured 48 service holds and no service breaks.
Fighting father time Agassi got the earlier semi slot despite being the biggest draw
2005 US Open – Andre Agassi asked for a received the earlier Saturday semifinal to maximize rest for the Sunday final despite being the biggest story and television draw of the 2005 event.
The Victim – Roger Federer and Lleyton Hewitt were both younger than Agassi by quite a few years. Playing on back-to-back days with a few hours less rest was not a big issue for them. Maybe Robby Ginepri would have benefitted if Agassi had been more worried about his energy level for a possible Sunday final.
The Rationale – Agassi being fit for the final was likely a bigger draw for CBS and the USTA than maximizing semifinal buzz and ratings.
Would the gazelle have been eaten with more day matches?
2018 Australian Open – Roger Federer asked for and received extra night matches.
The Victim – I am not sure. The winner of the bottom half of the draw (Federer) got one fewer day of rest than the top half winner (Cilic). Djokovic did not ask for extra night matches.
The Rationale – Federer could sell top dollar night session tickets. Typically the highest seed playing on a given day gets the best court. Federer was the highest seed in the bottom half of the draw. He was also the defending champion.
Consider this …
The last match of the Indianapolis event. Indy we hardly knew ye*
Andy Roddick often played night matches to sell as many tickets as possible to fans who work on Mondays-Fridays when playing at hot and humid events in Washington, DC, Cincinnati, and Indianapolis. This undoubtedly saved Roddick’s energy as those events unfolded. That could help him win matches.
However, Roddick did not play Indianapolis in 2008 or 2009. The event went out of business due to a lack of revenue and sponsorship. Is it more unfair to lower ranked players to have a big name like Roddick get easier conditions or to have lower ranked players lose an opportunity for ranking points and prize money?
Does a rising tide lift all ships?
Does tennis flirt with scripting results by these assignments?
I think the 1996 US Open ignoring rankings for seeding purposes was quite wrong. However, I’d have no problem if Agassi was seeded 6th in 1996 and they put him on Louis Armstrong while Kafelnikov was seeded 4th and put on the grandstand if they were playing simultaneously.
Connors helped to build the US Open over the years. Did he deserve some consideration in 1991 or was that stacking the deck? If TV revenue and ticket sales pay the prize money, I think giving Connors time on the biggest court at the best TV times made good sense. It helped Connors sure, but his 1991 run also helped tennis in general.
Similarly, I think it would have been crazy to put Sampras-Agassi 2001 on during the day when most US citizens would be working and missing the broadcast. I think Agassi had earned the right to some consideration at the 2005 US Open in the same manner that Connors had earned it in 1991. Federer in 2018 also earned some consideration.
A tennis court in spite of the number of seats around it has the same dimensions as any other court. If more eyeballs and tickets sold helps the ITF or ATP or WTA’s players, then popularizing the sport is rarely the wrong call. Would US Open fans in 2002 have wanted to see Sjeng Schalken-Pete Sampras in the later semi? No, not when they could book #1 seed and defending champion Lleyton Hewitt vs Agassi. That didn’t help Andre Agassi in the final the next day, but it was business. Just like putting Sampras vs. Safin on the later semi in 2001 was business and hurt Sampras’ chances to win the final.
* I was sitting front row in a Dayton Flyers t-shirt taking notes on Ginepri-Querrey for Tennis-X in my pre-tennisabides.com days