US Open 2011: Federer joins Nadal’s call for change
The five-times US Open champion joins Rafael Nadal in voicing his concern over the Grand Slam's scheduling
Roger Federer, president of the ATP Players Council, has added his weighty voice to the simmering debate about how much say players should have in the Grand Slams.
Speaking after his quarter-final win over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, he joined his fellow players in expressing concerns over the organisation of the US Open, and of the Grand Slams in general: “We just hope that [the ITF] understands the issues. I think it’s very important that we do get to a table and speak, which never actually happens.”
Things came to a head this week when the schedule was thrown out by two days of rain. The organisers may have thought their biggest headache was to get the lower half of the men’s draw in line with the upper half, but in their keenness to get matches played, they started the remaining fourth-round ties in still-damp conditions.
Sixteen minutes in, play was halted and the normally temperate Rafael Nadal opened a wound that has, according to many, been festering for a long time.
“Grand Slams are about a lot of money,” said the Spaniard. “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 have to fight to change things, to have enough power that we don’t have to go on court when it’s raining.”
Nadal, along with Andy Murray and Andy Roddick, approached the tournament referee, Brian Earley, to express their concerns. Murray said: “Players want to play more than anyone, but not when it’s dangerous.”
Roddick added: “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.”
The matches were eventually completed three days behind schedule but that in turn raised other concerns about the impact on the players of a broader schedule that is geared towards the need to maximise TV audience and revenue.
The US Open is unique in spreading the first round across three days. Federer played his first match on Monday, Nadal and Novak Djokovic played on Tuesday and Murray did not play until Wednesday. Thereafter, the top and bottom halves played on alternate days.
By the second Monday, therefore, Federer and Djokovic were through to the quarter-finals but, with Tuesday and Wednesday lost to rain, Nadal and Murray could not play until Thursday.
This pushed their quarter-finals to Friday, their semis to Saturday with, in theory, the final on Sunday. In contrast, for example, Wimbledon takes a break on middle Sunday so that all the men play the fourth round on Monday.
The biggest bone of contention is the US Open’s tradition of Super Saturday, a deliberate shoe-horning of the showcase matches into the final weekend. The men’s semi-finals are played in Saturday’s day session with the women’s final in the evening. The men’s final follows the next day.
With two days lost to rain, however, an already-gruelling programme has been exacerbated, with the fourth-round winners from the lower half of the draw facing, until the addition of a third Monday, four days of back-to-back matches.
Again, Nadal was forthright about the schedule.
“I had a lot of interesting meetings with the TV, with everybody, that for sure is better to have the final on Sunday for them. But not for the players, because our part of the draw will be in a very difficult situation for the player who will be in the final
“The matches, quarter-finals, semi-finals, four rounds of Grand Slam normally are tough matches. If you don’t have rest, you have a big chance not be enough fit to play well the next match.
“We need to have the right representation in these tournaments. I don’t know how, but things like this cannot happen. Having the semi-finals on Saturday is something crazy for the players. [But] the problem, in my opinion, is not the organisation of the US Open. The problem is we don’t have enough power in these kinds of tournaments. That’s what has to change very soon.”
This raises a persistent structural dichotomy in the tennis tour. While the Players’ Council makes representation to the ATP on the broad tennis calendar, there is no equivalent “˜voice’ for the four Grand Slams and the Davis Cup, which are organised by the International Tennis Federation.
And so to Federer’s role in this debacle. He has been President of the ATP Players’ Council since 2008, re-elected unanimously by his colleagues for the current two-year term. And it is no coincidence that Nadal was re-elected as Vice-President for the same term. Their decision to take on this responsibility, Federer confirmed, was deliberate.
“I was happy to see that the players said something together and showed that they were not happy”¦unfortunately it has to happen at times that we do come together and speak as a big voice.
“That’s why actually me and Rafa, and also Novak in the beginning, took an active role in the Players’ Council. We should play an active role”¦That’s why Rafa and myself we are where we are and at least working through the issues with the ATP.
“We have not much say in Grand Slam play and that’s without even talking about the revenues and all that stuff. So there are a whole lot of other issues we need to work through with the Grand Slams and the ITF.”
Of course, no-one can predict inclement weather but the organisers could alleviate the potential for inequality that it causes. Not surprisingly, Federer’s focus turned to that point.
He continued: “This is the fourth year in a row I think we’re playing a Monday final. Might as well just make it a Monday final, right? Or you have to change a few things. I think the three early first rounds are not working, and then the Super-Saturday I just think is not feasible. In all the other Grand Slams, you do not really have that competitive advantage over another player.
“You never have it that we have to play back-to-back best-of-five-set matches, only here before the final at the US Open. It just somehow doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me.”
And although moving the men’s final to Monday has made the schedule more feasible for the last men standing, the decision has another knock-on effect. Several players are committed to Davis Cup duties within days of the final: Federer, for example, faces a long trip to Australia.
“It’s not good for anybody who has to play the following week to play Monday. It’s just something that the tournament and everybody is trying to come up with to at least make it somewhat fair.”
Does he, as many are now suggesting, think that the events of the last few days in New York could bring some long-sought-after changes?
“It’s all up to the Grand Slams, how they are willing to make changes”¦ Because the way it is right now, it’s not a perfect scenario. We can’t tell them, “˜gotta put a roof on otherwise we’re going to be unhappy.’ I think the natural change would be to the first three rounds and forget about Super-Saturday”¦
And I don’t think TV should dictate just to have the finals on Sunday and the semis on Saturday and not have the true champion hold the trophy up. I just don’t think that’s the goal here.”
So it seems that Federer and Nadal are flexing their muscles at the “˜virtual’ table with the ITF and, as the players’ representatives in the ATP, they can do so in the knowledge that their colleagues are behind them, as Nadal confirmed:
“I think everybody’s agreed that these things have to change”¦We have to talk together at meetings and everything. But we have to fight stronger to be better represented.”
So fast-forward 12 months to find out whether player-power has, finally, brought change to the US Open. If anyone can, then surely Roger-and-Rafa can.