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Wednesday, September 2, 2009
U.S. Open needs nighttime makeover


Night tennis at the U.S. Open is electric. It's what the Open and New York City are all about -- energy, entertainment and, to borrow a word from Andy Roddick, a time when all the "crazies" come out to be part of the action.

At least that's what we've all been saying for years. But is it true anymore?

One of the most celebrated nighttime matches at the Open is Jimmy Connors versus Patrick McEnroe from 1991. We all remember the match -- how can we forget it when the highlights are shown virtually every year. Most of us will claim to have watched the entire match on TV. (I did, of course.) There are others who, using their best poker face, will tell you that not only were they in Louis Armstrong that night, but that they stayed until Connors was saluting the few, faithful remaining fans with fist pumps.

There are plenty of other matches that are part of the Open's nighttime lore. But how many of us were up to watch, say, slaphappy Todd Martin run around one night giving high-fives to the fans? (I was, of course.)

Not much has changed. The Open is still putting on two nighttime matches for each session, and a lot of tennis is being played when not many fans -- in the stands, or at home -- are watching. Monday night was the perfect, if extreme, example, when the opening ceremony pushed the schedule back to the point that Roddick didn't take the court until after 11 p.m.

While some tennis-crazed fans will stick out a marathon like this, most people -- you know, the ones with jobs and kids -- are going to call it a night. (I can only imagine what the players go through in the locker room waiting to come on for the second match. Three dinners and video games?)

The USTA is making a slight, welcomed change to the nighttime schedule. Some sessions, starting Wednesday night, will see the men go on first. Fair enough: In an era of equal prize money, it's about time the women see the other side of midnight. Will it be a 50-50 time-share? Probably not, but we'll see.

But changing the order of things misses a bigger point: The Open is still trying to cram two marquee matches into one session. Obviously, the USTA can hope to pick what it thinks will be the best match and put that on first. But chances are we'll still get barnburners that won't end before Conan O'Brien signs off.

Other sports suffer from this insomnia-driven approach to scheduling (see Monday Night Football, and some playoff games in the MLB and NBA). But only at the Open do we celebrate nighttime tennis like it's a badge of honor.

And it is, to a point. But we're also losing the opportunity to showcase our sport to the largest audience possible. So perhaps it's time to schedule just one men's match at night. Or a women's contest and a doubles match. Maybe the night session could start a bit earlier if the organizers insist on having two matches to satisfy the ticket-holders, who, let's face it, have been paying an awful lot of money for tennis they have little hope of seeing through.

Or we can all just keep pretending that we stayed up to watch the very last point of last night's match. (I did, of course.)