Friday, December 19
Contingency plans ready

NEW YORK -- According to tournament referee Brian Earley's weather forecasters, it's not really raining here at the U.S. Open. So why does he look so frazzled?

US Open Rain Delay
Rather than putting a tarp out to keep the rain off, after each delay a crew drys off the court with towels and blowers.

"As you see, we're stuck in this trough here," Earley explained Tuesday. "The conditions are such that it doesn't look like rain -- and we're not playing.

"What we're seeing out there is not on the radar. It's not on anybody's radar screen."

Still, that persistent mist kept players off the courts at the National Tennis Center until it was past 6 p.m. Two days of steady moisture is threatening to throw the event into chaos.

Rain again delayed the start of play Wednesday before No. 1 seed Clijsters and fifth-seeded Amelie Mauresmo took the court on a day when tournament officials scheduled a record 108 matches.

Only a single U.S. Open in the last 11 years lost so much as a session, but now there have been two such cancellations in two days.

When there was finally a break in the precipitation late Tuesday afternoon, the towel people were dispatched and there was a frenzied mop-up in an attempt to get the four men's round-of-16 matches that were cancelled Monday under way.

The imposing question looming over this tournament: With more rain forecast for Wednesday and Thursday, can they possibly squeeze all the matches in on schedule?

"We do fully intend at this point to complete the tournament Sunday," said Arlen Kantarian, chief executive of the USTA.

In other words, they have no idea.

While USTA officials didn't offer much in the way of specifics -- "never say never" was a popular refrain -- they did try to quell the growing sense of helplessness in a well-attended press conference. With four full rounds of matches still to play on men's single draw and two on the women's side going into Tuesday night, the tournament's margin for error is approaching zero.

Even if Tuesday and Wednesday were complete washouts, Earley said, it wouldn't be inconceivable for players to play four matches in four days. While players probably wouldn't be expected to play two full matches in a single day -- that could add up to 10 sets in a single day for the men -- if circumstances dictate, however, they could be asked to complete an unfinished match, then play a second in the same day.

The last time the U.S. Open ran over was 1987, when Ivan Lendl prevailed over Mats Wilander in four sets on a Monday.

Jamming that much action into so small a space might not lend itself to quality tennis, but these athletes are used to playing often. In a typical one-week tournament, a winner will play five matches in seven days. In the recent Tennis Masters Series events that ran back-to-back in Montreal and Cincinnati, Andy Roddick won 12 matches in 13 days. Of course, Roddick just turned 21; some of the older players in the draw -- Andre Agassi (33), Todd Martin (33), Jonas Bjorkman (31) and Younes El Aynaoui (31) -- might not recover as quickly.

The ace in the hole, as it were, is the sprawling facility here. If push came to shove -- say Wednesday or Thursday -- the USTA could put all eight men's round-of-16 matches on simultaneously -- day or night. Even if French Open champion Juan Carlos Ferrero found himself playing in the relative anonymity of, say, Court 11, he wouldn't complain if it meant he might get more rest in between matches.

No, Earley said, matches will not start earlier than 11 a.m. Best-of-five matches for men will not be shortened to best-of-three. Junior and senior events, he added, are not threatened because those players are capable of playing two and three matches in a single day.

The weather has prompted questions about the viability of a retractable roof (like the Australian Open) or a tarp system (like Wimbledon), but judging by Kantarians tone, neither is in the offing for the U.S. Open. While the USTA has hired a company to assess the structural and financial feasibility of putting up a roof -- it would probably be fitted to Louis Armstrong Stadium or the grandstand -- Kantarian cited cost as a major factor. And according to Kantarian, studies show that a tarp would save only three or four minutes in the drying-out process.

One tangential but interesting note that came out of the question-and-answer session concerned the U.S. Open's practice of staging both men's semifinals and the women's final on what has come to be known as Super Saturday. The men have complained for years that the women finalists are given a day off in between the semifinals and finals, while they must play them back-to-back. CBS has insisted on the schedule because more people watch on weekends.

"We are for it from a player perspective," Kantarian said. "I think in the next year we will continue to discuss that issue with our television partners."

In the end, the USTA -- like mankind from the very beginning of time -- is at the mercy of nature's capricious ways. The forecast calls for clearing on Friday, but there is another dark cloud on the horizon.

The longest a U.S. Open was extended was in 1938, when Don Budge beat C. Gene Mako in four sets -- on a Wednsday. The culprit? A hurricane.

In the spirit of public safety and awareness, we bring you the latest breaking information on Hurricane Fabian. This is a Category 4 weather event with 140 mile-an-hour winds, and it is swirling past the Leeward Islands and headed toward the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.

It would be just the USTA's luck if Fabian made a right-hand turn and headed straight for Flushing Meadows.

Greg Garber is a senior writer at