The idea behind Super Saturday at the US Open was an intriguing one: Like a heavyweight prize fight with a padded undercard, it puts three matches that each could highlight a single day of tennis all into a single afternoon/evening, placing the women’s final alongside the two men’s semis.
When this concept has worked, it has worked spectacularly: In 1984, Ivan Lendl went five sets against Pat Cash, Martina Navratilova overcame Chris Evert in three, and then John McEnroe went to the limit against Jimmy Connors in the night session.
Not only did this give fans 13 sets of the most highly competitive tennis imaginable, the winners of the two men’s matches would face each other the next day under equal terms.
McEnroe, by far the ATP’s most dominant player that year, easily topped Lendl the following day, and all was right in the tennis world.
The next year the gift of Super Saturday wasn’t quite so extravagant: McEnroe was pushed to five sets by Mats Wilander (Evert also beat Navratilova in three), but Lendl easily dispatched Connors without losing a set.
The price of Super Saturday, however, was much more evident: The next day McEnroe fell in straight sets to the Terminator, whose reign as the most dominant player of the ‘80s was now underway.
On the eve of this year’s US Open, McEnroe told Tennis.com that he felt he should have won the Open that year, and probably would have with another day of rest.
“If I had that day off, I think I would’ve won the match, because I had beaten Lendl in the two finals leading up to the U.S. Open,” he said.
Call it sour grapes if you like, but Mac isn’t alone: Wilander recently agreed with the assessment, using his epic match with the American in 1985 as evidence for a needed change in US Open scheduling.
“McEnroe was a shadow of his normal self against Ivan Lendl (the next day), and slipped to a straight-sets defeat in the final,” Wilander wrote.
Between 1985 and this year, the complaints of male players regarding the Super Saturday concept have been restrained.
An issue wasn’t made of it, but the concept was at least partially to blame for Pete Sampras’ struggles in the early part of this decade, as a 29-year-old Pistol was beaten handily in the 2000 final by Marat Safin the day after playing three tense sets with Lleyton Hewitt.
The next year, the situation reversed itself, as Sampras overcame Safin in the semis only to be dissected by Hewitt the next day.
In both finals, Sampras started strong and kept pace with his younger rivals only to see his form fall after the first set. No doubt Safin and Hewitt were playing outstanding in those finals and The Pistol would have faced tough opposition even at his best; in both cases, though, The Pistol’s lag in energy after set one was visible, his serve lost a bit of its bite, and his net closure was sluggish.
Sampras didn’t make an issue of the tournament’s format, probably because he didn’t want to take credit away from the younger men, and also probably didn’t want to admit that he could no longer compete with younger pros under such conditions. It seems appropriate to remember, though, that when the 31-year-old Sampras did finally capture his last Open in 2002, it was against Andre Agassi, who was 32.
That Wilander and McEnroe chose to mention that final weekend in 1985 this year seems fitting now, in that Rafael Nadal may be poised to make it an issue.
Saturday won’t be quite so super this year, as the rain has delayed the quarterfinal match Nadal was playing against Chile’s Fernando Gonzalez, as well as the two women’s semifinals scheduled for Friday.
However, if the rain relents long enough for Nadal to prevail, he would then be forced to face the very tough No. 6 seed Juan Martin del Potro on Sunday, and should he survive that, face either top-ranked Roger Federer or No. 4 Novak Djokovic on Monday.
The rains have done a lot to force this dilemma, and USO organizers would do well to follow the lead of Wimbledon and the Australian Open by installing a roof.
Still, the Super Saturday concept is largely to blame here: Had they been scheduled to be played Friday (as Roland Garros and Wimbledon both do), both men’s semifinal encounters would probably have been set a day earlier.
We’d still be seeing back-to-back days of tennis due to the rains, but Nadal would probably not be facing the prospect of back-to-back-to-back days, culminating with a final against an opponent playing only two days in a row.
But Nadal is probably the best player to prove the ultimate folly or irrelevance of Super Saturday: If the Spaniard, recently returned from a two-month layoff caused by bad knees, can overcome the two bruisers that stand in the way of the final, and still win the title (despite his current abdominal injury) then his already monolithic status as a competitor will grow, and the current schedule will be maintained.
If he fights to the final and gets hammered worse than Sampras did against Hewitt in ’01, the folly of the Super Saturday concept will be clear to all.
Remember, the current schedule assumed that the finalist on Nadal’s side would have time to catch up; he played his first round match on the same day Federer played his second, and his schedule in this second week offered him no slack in case of a rain delay.
In an increasingly physical, demanding game, how many more generations of players must suffer due to bad scheduling?
Even if we do get a dream final of Federer vs. Nadal, and both men are healthy enough, the TV networks who surely have plenty of influence will have something to consider: The people who work on Mondays have a lot less time to watch tennis matches.