Nighttime pecking order to change

9/2/2009 - Tennis

NEW YORK -- Andy Roddick had a tough Monday night, and a decent piece of Tuesday morning, too.

By the time the USTA's opening-night celebration featuring Andre Agassi had concluded, and after Venus Williams needed an unconscionable 2 hours, 43 minutes to beat Vera Dushevina in the first match, Roddick and his first-round opponent, Bjorn Phau, didn't start trading serious rallies on the court at Arthur Ashe Stadium until 10 minutes after 11 p.m. ET.

The match concluded at 12:45 a.m., and Roddick didn't appear for his postmatch interview until about a quarter past 1. He had to be a bit cranky, but he didn't rip the USTA for its classic late-night, early-morning finishes.

No, he just asked for a little gender equity.

"The only change that I would make, if all things are equal, we would play first sometimes," Roddick said. "I think that's reasonable."


It is extremely likely Wednesday night's dream dance card of U.S. Open favorites Roger Federer and Serena Williams will offer a unique twist. Eschewing the USTA's standard ladies-first protocol, Federer would be scheduled to play his second-round opponent, Simon Greul, first, and Williams would follow against Melinda Czink.

Ladies last. Now that's progress. It has been more than 20 years since a women's match followed a men's match at night here at the U.S. Open.

According to the USTA, the last time a women's match followed a men's match at night was Aug. 27, 1986. Jimmy Connors played Henrik Sundstrom, followed by a match between Gabriela Sabatini and Nathalie Tauziat.

Five hours before Wednesday's schedule was made official, U.S. Open tournament director Jim Curley declined to verify that the men would play first, but he told ESPN.com, "We just might."

When Roddick and several other players endured late-night matches at the Australian Open earlier this year, they complained. Why is it always us, they asked? Curley heard those objections, and in one-on-one conversations with players, that sentiment has been reinforced.

Said Curley: "The guys are saying, 'Hold on. Equal opportunity? Gender equity? It works both ways, right?'

"It's a very valid question. After the Australian Open, we made a decision to make efforts to find appropriate sessions where the men go first."

It is likely to happen again this fortnight. Now that's something of a breakthrough. Now, women will be treated just as horribly as the men.

There is a recent history of women playing the second night match, but that always followed another women's match. Venus and Serena Williams played both ends of a doubleheader on opening night in 2007, capping a celebration of the 50th anniversary of Althea Gibson's first U.S. Championships title. Twice, Jennifer Capriati played the second night match, in 2002 and 2003, following Martina Hingis and Kim Clijsters. In 2004 and 2005, Venus played second, following Lindsay Davenport and Maria Sharapova.

Why have the men always been second in the p.m. pecking order?

In a word (or two), money and convention.

Prior to 2006, the USTA's inclement-weather policy required that for a session to be considered complete, one match had to be completed. It doesn't take a nuclear physicist to do this math: In the face of balky weather, the odds of completing a match are far greater if it is played in a best-of-three-sets format, rather than a best-of-five.

Even after the policy changed, the habit had been formed. It wasn't until the men's complaints this year that the USTA was moved to action.

The other question skirts the issue of gender equity. There is a body of opinion that women's matches -- particularly in the early rounds, when top-seeded players typically breeze in straight sets -- are not as entertaining as men's matches. If the first men's match went five sets and the women didn't hit the court until 11 or 12, would the fans at Arthur Ashe stick around for the match?

Every year, after a late match or two, the critics start sniping. They worry about the effects of the late hour on the players, and the fans, for that matter. It happened two years ago when David Ferrer and Rafael Nadal went deep -- all the way to 1:50 a.m. There were fewer than 8,000 spectators left when Ferrer dispatched Nadal into the moonlit night; empty seats outnumbered those that were occupied by a 2-to-1 margin.

"We know it comes up," said Chris Widmaier, the USTA's managing director of communications. "We understand [the complaint]. But you have to remember that tennis is a very different animal.

"One of the mystiques of the U.S. Open is the late-night matches on a big court. We don't want to lose that excitement."

Over the years, the women's defense of going first was that the men's match could go five sets.

"In this day of equal prize money and gender equity," Curley said, "that argument, to me, rings as hollow."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.