This decade at the four major tennis tournaments is over. The next major tournament will belong to the 2020s, now that the 2019 U.S. Open has ended.
If you were to rate and compare the four major tournaments in terms of optics, and more precisely, the number of times major semifinals and quarterfinals are sparsely attended — either for whole matches or at least portions of matches — the Australian Open and Wimbledon rate a lot better than the U.S. Open and Roland Garros.
We were reminded of that in 2019.
Yes, the weather was miserable in Paris this past spring. That obviously DOES play a role in filling up the stadium even for a Roger Federer-Rafael Nadal Roland Garros semifinal. Yet, THIS many seats for Roger and Rafa?
If you were wondering, “embarrassment” is a French word….attendance optics needs to be Item 1 on the tournament postmortem pic.twitter.com/eGqVgz1Wba
— Jon Wertheim (@jon_wertheim) June 7, 2019
Even if there had been a roof over Chatrier, there would have been a lot more filled seats, but probably not a full house. As I have liked to say over the years, “Lunch is the real No. 1 seed in Paris,” whether carraway or sesame or poppy. The first men’s semifinal regularly begins with the up-close corporate seats and boxes not being stuffed with fans. Those bigwigs are stuffing their faces with fine food.
It is one of the two worst sights in major-tournament tennis.
Then, on the other end of the spectrum, is the U.S. Open.
Whereas Roland Garros’s main problem is the start of the first semifinal near 1 p.m. on Friday during lunch hour, the U.S. Open’s main optics problem is the second women’s semifinal.
The move to Thursday night semifinals for the women at the U.S. Open (they used to be on Friday afternoon as part of the Super Saturday schedule configuration which lasted through 2010) means that the first semifinal is more desirable for American TV.
Under the old Friday setup, the second semifinal was more desirable for American TV, since it occurred closer to people in the East getting off work. The first semifinal would start around 1:45 Eastern, during daytime TV hours, which simply wouldn’t pull in bigger ratings.
The Thursday night setup values the first women’s semifinal because the ratings colossus, NFL football, begins around 8:15 to 8:30 Eastern on that Thursday. The season-opening NFL game starts around that time. When Serena Williams was able to quickly dispatch Elina Svitolina in the first semifinal this past Thursday, she got off the court in time for the NFL. This is why ESPN wants the Serena (or high-profile) women’s semifinal first on Thursday night.
The casualty, therefore, is not the first semi (unlike the Roland Garros men), but the second women’s semifinal.
This was the crowd inside Arthur Ashe Stadium at 10:50 p.m., keeping in mind that the Belinda Bencic-Bianca Andreescu match didn’t even go to a third set:
Not even half 🙁 pic.twitter.com/lQdbNUctWz
— Saša Ozmo (@ozmo_sasa) September 6, 2019
That looks like a stadium which is 25-percent full at best, MAYBE 30 percent… for a terrific match and, that point aside, a major semifinal deep into the second set.
This simply does not happen at Wimbledon or Melbourne Park.
Should Roland Garros (hashtag #LunchNo1Seed) and the USTA (#SerenaOnly) do something about this, or just meekly accept these realities?
- Roland Garros should either give away fewer corporate tickets or require pass-holders to be in their seat at the start of a semifinal if they want to retain ticket eligibility for the following year.
- The USTA should start the first women’s semi at 6:15, not 7:15.
- The USTA could consider playing the “sexy” TV-friendly semifinal (with Serena or the other big-name player involved) in Ashe, and put the other one in Armstrong Stadium for the tennis die-hards.
No, I don’t expect Roland Garros or the USTA to adopt these solutions. Yet, these optics are embarrassing for the sport and have existed for some time.
Tennis leadership? What a lovely notion… if only we had some of it.