Each year the USTA ups the ante at its flagship Grand Slam, presenting an entertainment extravaganza that acts as an end-of-summer blowout for its millions of loud and loyal fans. During the Open Era, which began in 1968, the tennis governing body has ventured to sate appetites for pomp, firsts, and bigger-is-better agendas.
It built the largest tennis-specific stadium — named for Arthur Ashe — in 1997, which seats 22.5 million per session and accommodates a portion of the 700,000-plus people that enter the gates.
It offers the biggest pot of prize money, too. More than any other major tournament. It was first to pay women the same as men. It was first to introduce the tiebreak format in the final set. And a couple days ago it made media history with the introduction of mid-match player interviews.
It was fittingly inaugurated by American CoCo Vandeweghe. She’d won the first set over compatriot, Sloane Stephens. Out popped ESPN correspondent Pam Shriver. She sat right down next to Coco for a changeover chat.
“What were you most happy with in the first set?” Pam asked Vandeweghe, whose leg jiggled up and down faster than a kid on a trampoline. And, “What do you need to do in the second set to close out the win?”
According to ESPN, the mid-match ‘interview’ could become a trend. Don’t fans want to be closer to their players? That’s the thinking behind the move.
Vandeweghe had been approached by the USTA and ESPN about the interaction before the match. She was game, and thought it might be a good idea and bring fans closer to players.
But what about the distraction? Don’t players ponder bigger and better things during those 90 sacred seconds?
“Well, that was my original thought when I was approached about the idea,” Vandeweghe said. “But, you know, there’s lots of distractions that go on during a tennis match. If you aren’t able to put those distractions aside, then you need to kind of definitely work on that aspect of your game.
“When I was just in the moment. It felt right, so I did it. Maybe another time I’ll be not feeling it as much and I’ll tell Pam to go sit back down, which might be equally as fun.”
Bless those California girls. Flexible and relaxed.
But what happens when a top-tier player says no to the interview, which seemingly will be their prerogative? Will TV step in and reschedule them? Bottom line: TV will win. They pay the bills sit in the command chairs.
Novak Djokovic admitted that he wouldn’t be using it this Open.
Ditto for Serena Williams.
She said in her post-match press conference, “Being a vintage player from Lord know what decade — and I’m old school, so I don’t know it that’s something I would do, per se — but I found it quite interesting. [But] I’m really focused the whole time. I’m really trying to think about what I want to do. I don’t necessarily want to answer questions about anything.”
Gimmicks like this might be another way to inch closer to viewers, in-between their tweets, Instagrams and text messages. But just watch the people in the front row seats of any stadium at Flushing Meadows. How many have their heads buried in a smart phone? Those within feet of Vandeweghe probably missed the historic moment, but others might have caught it on a jumbo-tron around the grounds.
And what about the player who isn’t approached and sits quietly during the 90-second break. Will it disturb them?
“Tennis is so mental,” Mike Saia, Director of Communication for Family Circle Cup from 2006-2012, said in an interview yesterday. “It’s crucial to have this important and long relied upon time window to come up with an effective tactic or plan a major tactical change.”
Saia suggested that the move might provide added entertainment value, but that it probably points more to ESPN’s goal of better ratings. “It’s the tournament’s and tours’ responsibilities to put their world-class athletes’ needs first,” he added.
Baseball, basketball and football have similar mid-game interviews, but journalists don’t talk with players; they talk with coaches. Has the US Open surged ahead of these dominant team sports in a race to be friends with professionals athletes?
Other pressing questions remain about this, what many would call, intrusion. Who gets picked? What about players who struggle with English? They will want to satisfy the organizations that write their paychecks, but do they fit the profile?
“If this becomes the norm, less media-savvy underdogs will face a public speaking situation in front of live global audiences while fighting for their livelihood,” Saia said. “I just think its a lack of respect for the game and a willingness to do whatever ESPN wants to do in its flagship year. This definitely originates with ESPN.”
If the trend continues — if you can even call it that — be prepared for players to repeat canned comments like the ones we hear right as players take to the courts. Comments that reveal nothing and seem empty. However, it will get that ESPN logo out there for all to see.
And just how much money will players bank?
Following in the big-is-better theme, this year total prize money has been increased by 10.5% or $42.3 million USD, making the Open the most lucrative Grand Slam.
By comparison, total prize money at the Australian Open this year was $36.3 million. The French Open handed out $29.5 million. Wimbledon distributed $42.2 million to players, just below the Open’s total money package. (All currency is USD.)
Thus the men’s and women’s singles champions will earn $3.3 million each. On top of that, the winner of the Emirates Airlines US Open Series, a promotional event created by the USTA and ESPN that incorporates eight summer tournaments, will earn an additional million if they win the title.
Karolina Pliskova won the U.S. Open Series, but only will earn $39,500 this year. She lost in her first round match and was seeded No. 8. But Andy Murray could capture that bonus if he hoists the winner’s trophy on September 13. That would be a total payout of $4.3 million!
Can you imagine the smile on Kim Sears’ face, his April bride? One would hope they’d spend a portion of their income in New York City, of course.
All kidding aside, The Open was the first slam to offer women equal pay. Billie Jean King is the one person who worked tirelessly for gender equality in tennis. She was duly honored for her contributions when the USTA name the site, the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in 2006.
And the tiebreaks the Open introduced in 1970?
Well, the USTA put their heads together and decided players shouldn’t have to spend hour upon hour on court if a tiebreak was introduced. Players could get to the locker rooms and press quicker, and not wait until someone wins a match by two games.
You do remember the 11-hour affair at Wimbledon where John Isner and Nicolas Mahut dragged out a match for over 3 days, Isner finally laying the puppy to bed 70-68 in the fifth? It might have been the match that put Isner on the map, but it’s not going to repeat itself in this town.
People have things to do. Places to go. People to text.
The tie-break-through continues to fit in well with television’s demands and the USTA’s drive to grab viewership. How else would it pay all the bills?
To answer that question, the USTA paved new ground when it signed an 11-year contract earlier this year with ESPN and all its buddy broadcasters: ESPN2, ESPNNews, and ESPN3. The World Wide Leader in Sports will pay the governing body $825 million over the length of the contract and broadcast 130 hours of live tennis its first year.
This deal severed relationships with CBS, which had held the rights for 46 years. You could almost hear people yelling, ‘good riddance.’ No more taped matches, which drove them crazy and definitely lost its punch in the instantaneous world of communications.
Finally, with this Open’s focus on Serena Williams and her quest to make history for self, country and the U.S.T.A., it’s important to note that tickets for the women’s final have sold out whereas the tickets for the men’s final have not sold out.
It’s a first! Take a bow New York.