FLUSHING MEADOWS, N.Y. — With rain wreaking havoc on the U.S. Open schedule, emotions began to wear thin on Wednesday before Rafa Nadal and Gilles Muller even took the court for their fourth round matchup. Nadal took some heat when he appeared to make his opponent wait nearly 10 minutes to walk out on the court. But the Spaniard later insisted that, amidst a rain delay, the ATP Tour should have given him more notice, and that it takes time for him to tape his feet and complete his pre-match preparations. He apologized to Muller. Then, once play did get underway and with Nadal down a break at 3-0, the rain returned and the players were ushered off the court.
According to ESPN analyst Pam Shriver, on his way to the locker room, Nadal could be heard uttering, “It’s always about the money,” which seemed to suggest that the USTA had rushed the players onto the court in the first place in order to appease broadcasters, on-site concessionaires and frustrated ticket holders, who had already seen the entire day-night schedule washed out on Tuesday. Nadal (a member of the ATP Player Council), along with Andy Murray and Andy Roddick, who also had their matches preempted due to the rain, was later seen emerging from tournament referee Brian Earley‘s office.
“It wasn’t a party,” Murray later told Shriver of the meeting with Earley.
“It’s dangerous. The lines get really, really slippery. It doesn’t make sense if you’re going to get out there for seven or eight minutes. All the players are pretty much on the same page,” said the Scotsman, adding that the court and balls were still wet when they began play around 12:30 p.m.
“We have to fight to change that,” said a clearly frustrated Nadal, the VP of the ATP Player Council. “It’s not fair.”
“We want to make sure that we don’t go through that again. First and foremost, I think the players have to feel comfortable and safe,” concurred Roddick, who was leading Spaniard David Ferrer 3-1 in his fourth-round contest when rain stopped play. “To Brian Earley’s credit, when we went in there, he listened to us.”
The USTA later issued another statement, saying, “All parties, including the players and tournament, want to get the U.S. Open back on schedule. As of 12 noon today, the best information available to us indicated the chance of a two-hour window without rain. Unfortunately, not all light rain and mist shows up on radar. We have experienced referees, and they decide if courts are fit for play. Conditions may be not ideal, but still can be safe. However, if a player or players feel that conditions are unsafe, we listen to them, as we have always done, and the referee uses that information as part of his/her assessment on whether to continue or halt play.”
The USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center’s lack of a roofed court has prompted much debate in recent years, as the Grand Slam has been pushed into a third week due to inclement weather. Critics wondered aloud why the mammoth, 24,000-seat facility – completed in 1997 and the biggest in tennis — didn’t include a roof in the first place. On Wednesday, the USTA released a brief statement that read: “Constructing a roof over Arthur Ashe Stadium remains technically complex and financially challenging. Though the USTA will continue to explore potential roof options, no plans exist for the construction of a roof at this time.”
The brothers McEnroe had previously discussed the roof situation, as well as the backlogged matches that come as the result of rescheduling.
“I saw the original [Ashe Stadium] plans, and at that time only the Australian Open had the roof over their center court. So it seemed obvious, and I was quite surprised that this hadn’t been part of the plan,” said John McEnroe. “One of the things you know we like in America is that we like everything to be bigger…I understand to a degree that we wanted the biggest stadium in the world, but it seemed unbelievable to me because the suggestion that I made at the time was that not only could we have the biggest court — let’s say it was 15-17,000 [capacity] with the roof, but we could use this facility year round.”
“Let’s deal with the reality of the situation now,” countered Patrick McEnroe, the USTA Player Development czar. “There is no roof. It’s going to be very difficult not just financially — the numbers are there — but the USTA is also losing a lot of money the last couple of days, so when do we reach that tipping point where it becomes monetarily [necessary], they have to do it — maybe that’s tearing down Arthur Ashe Stadium and building a whole new stadium there, because you can’t put a roof over the Grandstand and Armstrong, even though that’s more feasible, and not put a roof over Arthur Ashe because what do you do with a day like today?”
“It’s insane, absolutely insane, to even think that these players could play close to their capabilities if they have to play four matches in a row,” John McEnroe shot back. “They should sit back and they should say ‘We’re not going to do it. We’re going to have a Monday final.’ There shouldn’t even be a Saturday-Sunday semi and final, we’ve been saying that for 30-plus years. The money is an issue. It’s always been an issue. We’ve got to rise to the occasion — the players. These guys should sit down and say, ‘You know something? This is not right. We’ve got to change this.’ And they should change this now.”
For now, the squeegee squadrons will appear and reappear on the courts as the intermittent showers blow across the Tri-State Area. With the players (and fans) at the mercy of Mother Nature, the roof debate will linger on.