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Roland Garros 2019: tough scheduling truths

Matt Zemek

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Susan Mullane - USA TODAY Sports

Tennis scheduling is a runaway problem the sport refuses to take seriously. I can say this with honesty, since I have written about tennis scheduling problems for years. I am not a Johnny-come-lately on this set of issues.

Sure, tennis scheduling is making small amounts of progress.

Super Saturday was finally abolished at the U.S. Open. That needed to happen. Roofed tennis has kept more trains running on time at the majors. The French Open will soon have a roof, meaning that this week’s embarrassments won’t surface quite as often in the future. More stadiums with roofs will reduce problems to a certain degree.

Yet, let’s realize that while scheduling problems will be reduced in the 2020s, they just as clearly won’t go away.

When the semifinals of tournaments arrive, few problems will exist in tennis scheduling in the future at the four majors. Bad weather means two semifinals can be played under a roof. Problem solved. End of discussion.

However, there are five rounds at major tournaments, four at Masters 1000s/Premier Mandatories/5s, before the semifinals. When bad weather hits during those earlier rounds, tournaments can and will still get disrupted if the schedules don’t correct the imbalances.

Yes, a roof is coming to Court Philippe Chatrier, but that doesn’t mean all problems will go away.

We received a glimpse of this at Roland Garros this week.

You will note that WTA CEO Steve Simon offered a statement which seemed to focus on a one-day in-the-moment decision by Roland Garros to play both women’s semifinals simultaneously and not on Chatrier, putting one on Court Suzanne Lenglen and one on Court Simonne Mathieu. At the very least, Simon’s statement did not offer a more expansive and structural critique of Roland Garros scheduling. The statement focused on the semifinals alone.

The key point to realize here is not that the semis should have been played back-to-back on Lenglen, though they should have been, or that one women’s semi could have been played very early (10:15 a.m.) on Chatrier, though it could have been.

No, the key point to absorb is that the semifinal mess flowed from the French Open’s flawed structure, a structure which — ironically — ought to create a supremely fair schedule.

The French Open is the only major of the four which plays on the first Sunday, meaning three Sundays of play. Doing this OUGHT to create a fair and balanced schedule. With that extra day, the tournament should get one day in which to “balance” the two tournaments.

Here is what that looks like:

With play on three Sundays, not just two, Roland Garros could do this:

It could play the women’s first round over two days. This is nothing new. The other majors play the women’s first round over two days. Nothing is stopping Roland Garros from doing the same.

If you play the women’s first round over two days, and you start the men’s tournament on Monday, and play the men’s first round over two days, you can complete the women’s second round by the end of Wednesday in the first week. You can complete the men’s second round by the end of Thursday.

With the field down to 32, the women could then play their whole third round on Friday. This would be the one day of the tournament in which (some of) the women would play on back-to-back days. The men would get that Friday off so that after five-set tennis, they could recuperate and play their round of 32 on Saturday. The days of play would alternate, Wimbledon-style, through the rest of the tournament. From the round of 32 onward, WTA players would get equal rest between matches. The men would follow.

That is what three Sundays of play are meant to achieve. Instead, Roland Garros plays a 3-day women’s first round and puts two men’s quarterfinals on Tuesday, giving those men a full two-day break before their semifinal while giving two of the women’s quarterfinal winners a zero-day break before their semifinals. Two women’s quarterfinals are scheduled for Wednesday, followed by scheduled semifinals on Thursday. This week, the women had to play Thursday quarterfinals and Friday semifinals, still with a zero-day break.

What Steve Simon either doesn’t realize or doesn’t want to pursue (I’m not sure) is the fact — and it IS a fact — that if Roland Garros did not schedule two men’s quarters on Tuesday, and instead put all four women’s quarters on Tuesday, we wouldn’t have this problem. We wouldn’t be here. The two semifinals would have been played on Thursday because all four semifinalists would have been set on Tuesday.

I don’t know if relevant decision-makers or power brokers in the room are aware of this. If they are doing their jobs, they should be aware of this problem.

The women weren’t treated unfairly on Friday in the semifinals because of an ad-hoc decision made in the heat of the moment. They were treated unfairly this tournament because the structure of the Roland Garros schedule was and is inherently flawed.

This is what should be talked about in leadership and governance circles — not daily scheduling decisions, but set-forth planned tournament schedules and structures.

Think about it: In no other global sport is scheduling so important.

The NBA Finals doesn’t have scheduling controversies — not generally. It did have a scheduling controversy in 1985, when the travel and hosting format of the NBA Finals changed, but for the most part, no one complains about the finer details of an NBA postseason basketball schedule. It is much the same in the NHL and NFL. In most sports, schedules — while certainly of interest to fans’ own life rhythms and their need to tend to their families — are not seen as the reasons certain players win or lose.

In tennis, though, it is a lot harder to dismiss that question when some players have to play matches on back-to-back days and others don’t.

The key here is not to focus on what Roland Garros or any other tournament did on one day. The key is to focus on the full architecture of the schedule. Clearly, 2019 Roland Garros disadvantaged the women and — by not putting all four men’s quarterfinals on Wednesday — Novak Djokovic and Dominic Thiem.

The tournament then disadvantaged Nadal and Federer by making them play in nasty conditions, while sparing Djokovic and Thiem Friday evening even though 80 rain-free minutes drifted away following the postponement of play for the evening.

Tennis — and leaders or executives such as Steve Simon — can’t complain about in-the-moment decisions. The majors are terrible at making those decisions, but that is a separate point. The main point is that better scheduling requires a better structure. Structural reform, not appeals or pleas made in one situation at one point in time, is the pathway toward fairer scheduling in tennis.

The sport needs to get serious about this problem: tackling structural flaws and getting enough leadership from both the WTA and ATP to fix it in concert with the ITF and other relevant governing bodies.

One last point: If the WTA thinks it isn’t getting enough cooperation from the ITF on scheduling at the majors, it needs to raise hell, considering the possibility of a boycott in order to win concessions from the ITF or Roland Garros, if not both.

It’s time to get serious about scheduling in tennis, especially at the tennis majors. It’s not enough to be angry. The WTA and other wronged parties need to be serious, substantive, and mindful of the big picture in understanding and explaining why these scheduling disasters keep happening.

They will be reduced in the 2020s, but they won’t be eliminated. Counting on a roof to fix all scheduling problems in this sport is the antithesis of enlightened leadership. We will see if tennis’s governing bodies and power players are ready to give this issue the studied, intelligent consideration it deserves.

Matt Zemek is the co-editor of Tennis With An Accent with Saqib Ali. Matt is the lead writer for the site and helps Saqib with the TWAA podcast, produced by Radio Influence at radioinfluence.com. Matt has written professionally about men's and women's tennis since 2014 for multiple outlets: Comeback Media, FanRagSports, and independently at Patreon, where he maintains a tennis site. You can reach Matt by e-mail: mzemek@hotmail.com. You can find him on Twitter at @mzemek.

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