US Open 2011: Nadal, Murray and Roddick stand firm in rain

Defending champion leads calls for tournament organisers to better handle their scheduling of matches

rafael nadal
Nadal was unhappy at being asked to play on wet courts on Wednesday Photo: Marianne Bevis

rafael nadal

The fears, as the first day of the US Open loomed a fortnight ago, all focused on Hurricane Irene. As she tracked her way up the east coast, she seemed destined to delay the start of the year’s final Grand Slam.

And sure enough, New York ground to a halt on the last weekend of August.

The Saturday jamboree that marks the transition from qualifying week to the main draw””the Arthur Ashe Kids Day””was cancelled, and the only action before the Billie Jean King National Tennis Centre was closed down at 5pm were some hastily rescheduled press conferences.

In the event, Irene proved to be less destructive than predicted. The only discernable impact on opening Monday was a two-hour delay on the main show court. Across the rest of Flushing Meadows, the clouds cleared, the crowds poured in and balls began flying at 11am sharp.

For a tournament blighted by rain in the previous three years””with finals day played out on a third Monday””it seemed at last as though the sun was shining on the US Open.

Come second week, however, and Hurricane Irene seems a drop in the ocean. The rains have come with a vengeance and a packed Tuesday schedule that included all four of the women’s quarter-finals, two men’s quarter-finals and, most significantly, the remaining four men’s fourth-round ties, was quickly abandoned.

But the problems have continued. Rain delayed the start of play on a rescheduled Wednesday by 90 minutes, but no sooner had Andy Murray, Andy Roddick and Rafael Nadal begun their matches than they were stopped as a steady drizzle kept the courts, and in particular the white lines, dangerously slippery.

But if the organisers thought the schedule was their biggest headache, they were soon disabused as those three men, with just 16 minutes of play on the clock, joined forces to criticise the handling of their matches.

In a series of unusually outspoken conversations with ESPN’s commentator, the former No3 player Pam Shriver, they each elaborated on the concerns they had expressed to tournament referee, Brian Earley.

From Murray: “It’s dangerous, the lines get really slippy. Players want to play more than anyone, but not when it’s dangerous.”

Roddick was equally firm: “Walking out there it was still misting. The back of the court was still wet. We wanted to make it known we didn’t want to be put in that position. I certainly understand they need to put tennis on TV, I understand the business side of it as well, but players need to feel comfortable and safe.

“We were talking about it [in the locker room] and Andy [Murray] said: “˜Do you want to pop in with us?’ I said: “˜That’s fine. It’s better when there are three of us there instead of one.'”

Clearly the most upset of the three was Nadal who, usually slow to criticise and always respectful of the sport’s organisers, was remarkably outspoken on being made to play at all in what he considered to be unsafe conditions.

“Grand Slams are about a lot of money. We’re part of the show. They’re just working for that, not for us. They know it’s still raining and call us onto the court. That’s not possible.

“I understand the fans want to see tennis but the health of the players is the most important and we do not feel protected. We want to feel good when we are playing a tournament and we cannot accept these things.

“We have to fight to change things, to have enough power that we don’t have to go on court when it’s raining. If I have to go on court, I’ll go on court, but I don’t think it’s fair.”

This raises a persistent structural problem with the tennis tour. While a Players’ Council takes representation to the ATP about the broad tennis calendar and its regulations, there is no equivalent “˜voice’ for the four Grand Slams and the Davis Cup, which are organised by the International Tennis Federation.

This is a problem, according to Boris Becker, that has been simmering beneath the surface for decades yet remains unresolved. So what on the surface began as a straightforward””albeit difficult””problem about scheduling the rest of the 2011 US Open has opened a deeper wound that may unite the players to force change.

The complaints, on this occasion, appeared to have an impact. Roddick affirmed “To Brian Earley’s credit, he listened to what we had to say. He was very nice in the conversation.”

And the formal statement issued soon after by the USTA suggested that the players would certainly have a say over whether the playing conditions were safe.

It read: “All parties, including the players and tournament, want to get the US Open back on schedule”¦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.”

Two hours after this statement, the day session was cancelled. The players in the women’s quarter-finals took to court at 7pm but did not even complete their warm-ups before rain fell again and the evening session was also abandoned.

Whatever the long-term repercussions of the handling of this year’s rain delays, there continue to be more immediate problems for the competitors.

With their schedule concertinaed into an ever-tighter week, the men still waiting to play their fourth-round matches are facing the prospect of four matches in four days if they are to reach the final. Even with an extension to Monday, four best-of-five-setters in five days will be a very tough ask.

The women quarter-finalists, for their part, may find themselves playing three matches in three days.

There is another layer of difficulty. It is draining both mentally and physically to be “˜on call’ but when the uncertainty extends through two days””and there is more rain predicted for Thursday and Friday, too””it becomes a real test of patience and practicality.

The players’ lounge is packed not only with the star names and their entourages but with large numbers of juniors and doubles players scheduled throughout the Tennis Centre. Never has the Apple brand been so valued, as young and old turn to iPods, iPads and iPhones to help stay relaxed, calm and focused.

When it comes to the practicalities, as Becker explained, things are even tougher. With the schedule changing by the hour, what time should players start their day? When should they sleep? When and how much should they eat and practise?

Novak Djokovic, in the top half of the draw, was originally scheduled to play his quarter-final match on Tuesday alongside the remaining fourth-round matches.

“As much as it is physical, it’s mental as well. You’ve got to focus, try to stay calm, and try to save as much energy as you can for what’s coming up. This is frustrating, there’s no question about it: staying here in the locker rooms, spending hours and hours waiting for the next call to go to the court, waiting to be cancelled.”

How long this hiatus will continue and what the impact will be on those waiting out the long, unpredictable hours at Flushing Meadows will be is hard to judge.

The tournament will surely be extended to Monday but might it extend even further. And for the players committed to more back-to-back, best-of-five matches in a week’s time in the Davis Cup, how will their physical reserves stand up?

For now, though, all they can do is look to the heavens and hope the sun breaks through.

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