Players ace USTA over schedule shift

NEW YORK -- The official USTA news release Thursday that announced the U.S. Open was preemptively changing its cherished weekend tournament schedule after two days of carping from top players and the latest rain-induced problems to strike the tournament didn't include the words, "We caved."

But that's exactly what the United States Tennis Association, the private entity that runs the tournament, did by giving the men a day off on Sunday between the semis and finals rather than ask half of the draw to play four matches in four days.

The USTA said, "Uncle. No mas. Had enough."

This was a stunning victory for the players. And perhaps the most stunning thing about it, besides the fact it happened at all, was the leverage the players had to use to accomplish it fell far, far short of Andy Roddick's more pessimistic prediction, which he uttered just a couple hours before the USTA's surprise change of plans, that, "We're going to have to give up something to get something."

Roddick meant something like a mass player walkout. A mutiny. A refusal to go on stage -- which Andy Murray hinted he, Roddick and Rafael Nadal almost did on Wednesday.

Instead, they got what they wanted. And barely strained their vocal cords getting this change done.

Gone, at least for this year, is one of the Open's pride and joys -- its Saturday night prime-time women's final. Say so long to the Open's other unique feature among the Grand Slams -- it's stacked Super Saturday schedule that also included both men's semifinals and is usually followed by the men's final on Sunday. It's a gauntlet American legend Jimmy Connors admiringly referred to as "tough city tennis."

What also seems pretty clear now is that some sort of brand new stadium or roofed venue at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center may be fast-tracked too, despite the prohibitive costs and other obstacles. And here's why: The hits the tournament has taken this year, and the criticism that it's not keeping up with the Joneses -- two of tennis' other three majors, Wimbledon and the Australian Open, already have roofed venues and the French Open has plans to add one -- has never been louder.

The last straw might've been the embarrassing sight of water bubbling up through the surface of Louis Armstrong Stadium (which, in its previous incarnation as the Singer Bowl, was used as far back as the 1964 World's Fair) on Thursday when Roddick and David Ferrer tried to play an 11 a.m. match that eventually had to be moved to a tiny side court, No. 13, which initially wasn't even equipped with network TV cameras.

"It's been a strange two days," Roddick sighed.

None of the schedule changes could have been possible to predict even after Roddick joined Nadal and Murray in taking a personal stand against tournament officials on Wednesday. Back then, it wasn't clear if it would be just a one-day mini-rebellion. They were mad about being sent out to play in slippery conditions that were canceled within 20 minutes anyway. Then they marched into tournament referee Brian Earley's office, shut the door, and said they didn't want to take it anymore.

But when all three of them spoke up again Thursday when play finally resumed, it was clear they didn't want their calls for players to have more power to end there.

Murray -- also speaking Thursday a few hours before the USTA changed course -- predicted the combination of natural disasters and simple human error that have bedeviled this U.S. Open as it stumbles toward its final weekend could actually be the perfect storm that leads to changes in the men's game, starting with the men's players finally organizing themselves enough to form an effective union.

Like Nadal, Murray said he expected the men's players to meet sometime after their Davis Cup commitments end later this month to discuss how they can win a greater role in how the tour and Grand Slam tournaments are run.

Though the USTA gave no indication that this weekend's amended schedule is anything more than a temporary thing, the plan is probably exactly what Nadal and Roddick and Murray would've come up with had they been asked to jot it down themselves.

Roddick had said it's fine for Nadal and other players to say they need a stronger voice in how the sport is run, "But until we unite it doesn't matter. And people call our bluff."

Clearly, even the three of them never dared believe they could affect this kind of change so quickly and relatively bloodlessly.

Retired tennis great Boris Becker, who stood in the back of the conference room listening as Roddick spoke, nodded and said he liked what he heard.

As Becker well knew, this isn't the first time the U.S. Open was the site where the tinderbox was set ablaze. Back in 1988, Becker and many of the other top players in the game -- names such as Yannick Noah, Mats Wilander, Tim Mayotte, John McEnroe and a surprise late arrival, young Andre Agassi -- responded to a call for a player's summit at the U.S. Open that led to what later became colloquially known as The Parking Lot Press Conference.

"And what is happening here now is very similar -- very similar," Becker said.

The 1988 meeting was called by Hamilton Jordan, President Jimmy Carter's former chief of staff, whom the male players had hired back then to represent their interests.

Jordan called the New York players summit after a dissatisfying get-together at Wimbledon with Grand Slam tournament officials two months earlier to air some of the same lack-of-control grievances that today's players have now.

When Philippe Chartrier, then president of the French Federation that runs the French Open, spoke up and asked if the meeting wasn't really just a ploy to squeeze more money out of the four Slams, Jordan got up and walked out of the room, soon followed by two of his lieutenants. By the time everyone arrived in New York for the Open, Jordan and his staff again recommended to the players that they finally move on the long-standing (but still revolutionary) advice to start their own tour and have wannabe event operators apply to them for the right to stage a tournament.

The stumbling block then was the same one Roddick mentioned Thursday: No one was sure the players would be united enough to see it through. But they were.

"It was a very big thing to do then," Becker said Thursday, "and I like what the players are doing now. I like the sight of how these mature, strong players are taking control of their own destiny, and how they have started to speak on their own behalf instead of the agents or someone else speaking in their interest."

Roddick, Nadal and Murray weren't forced to hold their news conferences in the parking lot like Jordan and a few of the players did. But maybe the USTA acted as they did Thursday because some of them remember the rest of the '88 story too.

When the USTA denied Jordan a room to announce the players' plans to start their own tour, Jordan's next move was "pure genius," one of Jordan's deputies, J. Wayne Richmond, later told the Los Angeles Times.

"If we'd held it [the announcement of the new tour] in one of the press rooms in the middle of the tournament, there would have been six reporters showing up," Richmond said. "But putting it in a parking lot outside the main gate of the U.S. Open, with the former chief of staff of the United States standing there, and the top players in the world standing behind him, meant everybody had to be there to see it."

The players won then. The concessions they got Thursday count as a win too.

And don't be surprised if there are more to come.