American tennis received a shot in the arms a few days ago when the USTA announced that it will raise the prize money doled out at the U.S. Open to $50 million by 2017 -- a figure that nearly doubles the 2012 payout of $28.5 million.
That's great news -- and not just for the players who will reap the windfall (the distribution is yet to be worked out, but you can count on players ranked below the elite level to be the major beneficiaries). It may also reverse an alarming (for U.S. interests) growth of anti-U.S. Open feeling in the increasingly diverse global pool of players.
For some years now, the outcry against the Super Saturday format (which calls upon the ATP players to play their semifinals on Saturday and the final on Sunday) has grown only more strident. So have complaints about the havoc wrought on scheduling by the U.S. Open's habit of playing the first round over three days, which screws up the accepted, simple Grand Slam format of playing on alternate days. Then there's the all-too-familiar, and depressing, fact that for five years in a row now, the men's final has been moved to Monday for reasons related to the weather.
In some ways, those postponements were a godsend. They defused some of the outrage over the Super Saturday format that increasingly has looked not just ill-advised but potentially dangerous, given the degree to which the game has become so much more of a grueling, physical contest. Does anyone think that having to play (although "endure" might be a better word) five-hour matches on back-to-back days on a hard court is a good idea?
These issues, combined with growing disgruntlement about the level of prize money, have festered for a while now, fueling criticism that the USTA is run by out-of-touch volunteers who treat the players like chattel while trying to milk every revenue stream until it runs dry. That perception, whatever its validity, or lack thereof, has poisoned relations between the U.S. Open and the players.
We hit a low point late last year, when the USTA (which owns and administers the U.S. Open) declared that it would add an extra day of play and go with a Monday men's final for 2013 and 2014, while the Australian Open upped its prize money to a level that surpassed that of the projected payout by the USTA for 2013. The players cried, "What????"
But it appears that the USTA, which had been in talks with the ATP Player Council for the better part of a year now, finally came to the conclusion that given the degree of discontent, it needed to do something big to regain the confidence of the top players. Hence, the robust raise.
On Thursday, I spoke with Gordon Smith, the USTA's chief operating officer. Of this new prize-money initiative, he said: "We are the U.S. Open. We need to recognize the value of the players to us, and to our effort to grow the game. We should pay them what they deserve. We talked with the player's council of the ATP for over a year before coming to this point. We learned a lot about each other, and I think it's changed the tone of the relationship."
This boost in prize money may have hit the reset button on the relationship between the USTA and the ATP. The scope of the commitment has mitigated some of the opposition to the upcoming Monday finals. Smith said the top players are now more understanding of the need for a transition that will result in a return (as of 2015) to the alternate-day formula used by the other three majors.
So Super Saturday is a goner; starting in 2015, the men's semis will take place on Friday, and the championship match on Sunday -- just like at the other majors. In addition, the first round will be played over two days, the way it is at the other three majors.
The response to this show of good faith was immediate. In Key Biscayne, Novak Djokovic told reporters: "It's a very positive step for players. You know, it proves that players, I think, are more united than ever. I believe that these are some significant changes in the negotiations with Grand Slams."
The organization is planning a $500 million renovation/expansion of the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in the immediate future, and it will have a better chance to raise the money if it can demonstrate that lenders don't have to worry about the USTA's labor relations.
We're on the verge of a new era for the U.S. Open. Now if only we can find some icons to replace the recently retired Andy Roddick and the aging Williams sisters, the future will look rosy in every way.