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Tennis Tumult: Super Saturday

Matt Zemek

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Danielle Parhizkaran - USA TODAY SPORTS

It is true that when rain delays hit the U.S. Open from 1985 through 2014 on American television, the filler material often included “Super Saturday.”

People who follow tennis, especially in the United States, are generally aware of when “Super Saturday” became a fixed part of the tennis lexicon. Yet, the legend surrounding the event overshadows the fact — and it is a fact — that the raw structure of Super Saturday had already existed for a few years.

Yes, it is true that Super Saturday did not exist in 1979. The women’s final preceded the men’s final on Sunday in a doubleheader. You might wonder why the U.S. Open didn’t do this more often. Why not play a Sunday women’s final and then a Sunday men’s final?

Some people know that this Sunday doubleheader format was briefly resurrected in 1996 due to CBS — the longtime American TV broadcaster of the tournament (since the first U.S. Open in 1968) — not having NFL football for a few years and wanting to make more use of available airtime on the final weekend of the tournament. CBS was reluctant to have a Sunday women’s final because it wanted to air an NFL football game at 1 p.m. New York time and then air the men’s final after 4 p.m.

Interestingly enough, the 1979 Sunday doubleheader involved a start time for the women’s final in the late-afternoon slot after CBS did air an NFL game in the early afternoon. CBS experimented with a long Sunday schedule which had an NFL game, then the women’s final in the late afternoon slot, then a nighttime men’s final.

Had CBS executives felt that schedule was worth keeping, they would have done so. However, not having Sunday night entertainment programming — especially in September, the month when the new TV season of shows begins — was deemed too costly for CBS to maintain that schedule.

(The echoes of this need to protect CBS sitcoms and dramas could be heard years later in 2009, when Dick Enberg’s rushed interview of Juan Martin del Potro was due to CBS executives wanting to get to their Monday night block of programming.)

So, 1979 was the year CBS tried a Sunday doubleheader and felt it didn’t work. Hence, the next year, the structure of Super Saturday emerged.

In 1980, Super Saturday — while not yet owning that name — was in place in terms of the tournament schedule. Bjorn Borg won his early Saturday semifinal. Chris Evert beat Hana Mandlikova in the women’s final, which was match number two, sandwiched between the men’s semis. In the second men’s semifinal, John McEnroe defeated Jimmy Connors.

It wasn’t until September 8, 1984 — the day which made Super Saturday a sensation and, for a time, a central part of CBS’s marketing of the show — that a label was attached to this day on the tennis calendar. Yet, the actual structure had existed a few years earlier.

When did this ride come to an end? The 2010 U.S. Open featured the last Super Saturday as it was commonly known and recognized. Never again, after this year, were two men’s semifinals and the women’s final played on the same order of play.

Let it be known, though, that for 30 years — minus a very brief interruption in the mid-1990s and some weather-based schedule alterations in the late 2000s — Super Saturday existed and was played as scheduled. The women and men had to play major-tournament finals with zero days of rest after their semifinals.

One should give the champions in this 30-year period even more credit for powering through the short turnarounds… and one should feel sad that so many players were placed in difficult situations because CBS wanted to protect Sunday night sitcoms, dramas, or movies.

Tennis, man. Tennis.

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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