The U.S. Open is considered by many the toughest Slam for any player to win simply because they have to maintain focus on their game 24/7 and not let the many distractions of the event get to them. From the airplanes overhead, rowdy fans on all sides, night matches under the lights, and now frequently it seems late summer downpours that never end.
But I expect many would agree the biggest distraction for any player is the fact that the U.S. Open is no longer just a tennis tournament or even a Grand Slam event, but an entertainment/media/fashion extravaganza that consumes the greatest city on earth for two weeks. For many tennis fans who make the trek to the city from elsewhere, the U.S. Open is the most exciting Slam to visit. For New Yorkers who simply tell their friends they’re heading to “the Open” it’s a place to be seen and rub shoulders with a who’s who of stars, fashion icons and business titans, even if they have to “slum” it on the 7 train to get over to that other “country” known as Queens that sits across from Manhattan.
Flushing Meadows continues to grow and expand not only in the number of seats Arthur Ashe Stadium contains but to the number of digits the winner gets on their paycheck. Throw in the fashion and the atmosphere only New York can offer, and it’s clear right away why some refer to the U.S. Open as the “bling-bling” Slam. And although all the money, glamour, brand launch parties and PR events are great and valuable, will any of it matter, especially to fans in the U.S., if there aren’t any actual Americans contending for the U.S. Open title?
When Serena Williams, three-time Champion and television ratings go-to gal, withdrew from this year’s event, the U.S. Open issued a press release that along with wishing Williams a speedy recovery said the following, “She will be missed, but the tournament is about the competition and the players on the court. This year’s US Open will be a memorable event, as it has been every year.” Now after reading this some rightly said, “Well, duh of course it will be. It’s the U.S. Open. It is bigger than Serena herself.” And although they are right, I have a feeling that press release was more intended for the American television networks as a sort of wishful request from the tournament saying “Please don’t lose interest just because the only American with a real chance to win this thing is gone. We’ve got other great players to check out. Some of them from other countries even.”The U.S. Open and the USTA don’t have to worry. The television networks won’t lose interest if only because they’ve already paid for the broadcast rights years ago during the reign of former Chief Executive of Professional Tennis at the USTA Arlen Kantarian, who, in exchange for getting the networks to pay the USTA sackloads of cash, made the event more television friendly including adding instant replay and moving the Women’s Final to primetime on Saturday night. These changes, along with having the biggest payouts for any Slam champion, make the event more lucrative not just in prize money but for the exposure it provides any player to the American market.
And although raising the profile of the U.S. Open into becoming an entertainment event has been a profitable boost for the USTA, some contend this growth of the U.S. Open came at the expense of developing new American players that can actually contend, and not just compete, for the U.S. Open title, something that has finally come to pass this year.
To its credit, the USTA has spent more time in the last few years promoting developmental tennis including its Quickstart program for young kids to learn the game at an easier level. But that still doesn’t deal with the growing problem the USTA and the networks face of promoting a Grand Slam with very few Americans in contention each year. Now some could say oh, it’s not that big a deal. Diehard fans from all over the world will visit the event and cheer on their favorite players while New Yorkers being, for the most part, a sophisticated international crowd will always root on the best players no matter what country they are from. And both of these are these true. But the American networks broadcast into the heartlands of the country already competing with baseball, basketball and the NFL and it’s going to get harder for the USTA to ask the same amount of money from the networks for the broadcast rights to the U.S. Open in future years if less and less people in America watch. And we certainly don’t want to happen in America what’s happened in Australia when Channel 9, after covering the Australian Open for 40 years, decided not to renew its coverage for 2011 to instead focus on more “popular sports”, partially due to a lack of Australians, you got it, actually contending for their continent’s title. And I’m sure the many sponsors of the event, that make it the most lucrative Grand Slam for all who play, including those entered into the Mixed Doubles, wouldn’t mind seeing the t.v. ratings grow a tiny bit each year, even so to assure themselves that their brand logos aren’t just being seen only by those patrons in the sky boxes of Arthur Ashe stadium.As everyone knows from recent events outside of tennis, someone’s got to pay the bills at the end of the day. And television networks in sports usually are the ones, even if indirectly, are the ones helping to sign everybody’s checks. So although I have no problem with everyone, discussing the colors of Roger Federer’s and Rafael Nadal’s shirts this year along with what sort of earrings Maria Sharapova will wear during her opening match, I simply ask, especially those New York fans out there lucky and gainfully employed enough to afford tickets, to perhaps cheer just a bit harder for the U.S. players competing this year. They may not be the best or the most glamorous on court, but a successful run by one of them this year, could help keep the “bling-bling” of the U.S. Open going for many, many years to come.