Forget the tennis, the show must go on

US Open: Television's tinkerings reduce what should be a showpiece final to an interruption to the main event
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The Independent Online

Some of the things about tennis that make it great are the very ones which occasionally bring it low. The fact that the four Grand Slams take place on three different continents, for example. Sometimes, you feel, they give the impression of being staged on different planets.

By this reckoning, Wimbledon is to the US Open what Earth is to Krypton. Can this really be the same game? Flushing Meadows is the place where television and its bucks say who will play when – or not, as happened in the case of the mixed doubles final here. This event celebrates another cornerstone of the sport: that men and women both play it at the top level. It has been a treasured part of the US championships since 1887, six years after the tournament first saw the light of day.

Without doubt, mixed doubles is the least important of the five events that make up a Grand Slam but this is not good enough a reason for what has happened to it here. The US Open boosts its attendance and revenue, as does the Australian, with night sessions and the mixed doubles final (Todd Woodbridge and Rennae Stubbs versus Leander Paes and Lisa Raymond) was the warm-up act for the men's singles quarter-final between their new golden boy, Andy Roddick, and Lleyton Hewitt. With television beaming live to the nation, the mixed doubles stubbornly refused to end and allow Roddick to make his entrance. The first two sets were split so, rather than play the deciding set, the foursome were required to play a "super tiebreak", with the first pair to reach 10 points being declared US Open champions.

To be strictly fair, this cynical amputation of mixed doubles had its start last January at the Australian Open, where the tournament director, Paul McNamee, a former touring professional and a man whose ambitions are clearly lauded by the US Open, sought to speed up tennis for the benefit of television. Eight times in the mixed doubles here a match was decided by "super tiebreak", the sort of excuse to end a match quickly that is indulged in by the former greats of the men's Senior Tour when they are out of puff.

But to terminate a Grand Slam final in this fashion puzzled the spectators and nettled the participants. Woodbridge pleaded for the final, at least, to be spared this hurry-up finish but, as he pointed out: "It doesn't seem the players have much of a say."

Woodbridge and Stubbs, good Aussies both, derided the gambit as a "chook raffle", which is something that happens in Australian pubs when you are invited into a raffle with a chicken as the prize. As Stubbs said scornfully: "They are telling us, 'OK we've run out of time, let's finish it with a tiebreak'."

Woodbridge, a highly successful doubles specialist, revealed that there was even a move to introduce the guillotine to men's doubles at next year's Australian, "but it was rejected strongly by all the players". The Zimbabweans who won the men's title here on Friday, Wayne Black and Kevin Ullyett, were rightly scornful. Black called the proposal "terrible", while Ullyett had a bit more to say about it than that: "Doubles is a historical part of the game. Trying to cut it short is sacrilegious. They are saying to us, 'Come on, we'll give you two sets, then we want you out of there. We don't want you to take too much TV time'." Paes, the losing mixed-doubles finalist, was more philosophical. "I think the rule has come about to make it more exciting for the fans. Being an athlete, I try to deal with it and make it work to my advantage."

Turning the mixed doubles into a whizz-bang confection is not the only stunt the lovely folk at the US Open have thought up this year. They are the first to turn the women's singles final into a night match, and to spice up yesterday evening's session for the customers and television they had also planned a dinosaur special, an exhibition between John McEnroe and Boris Becker, an occasion aborted by Becker's inability to avoid injury even though retired.

The fact that one of the sport's top four tournaments is not exactly the place to be indulging in cap-and-bells tennis seems to have escaped the US Open officials. But it did not escape Rennae Stubbs. "It's silly," she snapped. "It degrades the women's final. They are saying to us, 'The women are done, let's bring out the great champions of the past'. Who needs to have an old boys' club go out there and act?"

What Americans do need is to have Americans involved in events like the US Open. As George Vecsey, sports columnist of the New York Times, put it: "We need reaffirmation of being the centre of the universe, and don't you forget it. We particularly love classic [tennis] matches if both players carry an American passport."

Another reason for the US Open's vigorous promotion of its product is that there is a lot of competition from the myriad American scene. Wimbledon has its slot in the calendar, coming up against a Test Match occasionally, but this weekend sees the start of the American Football season and a peak period in baseball.

The folks out there clutching a six-pack and a jumbo packet of crisps may have heard (just) of Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi – or McEnroe and Becker for that matter – but as for expecting interest in an event like the Davis Cup when Sampras and Agassi have opted out of the US team, well, forget it. Perhaps because his country's top two won't be in the team against India later this month, the Davis Cup captain, Patrick McEnroe, has joined the chorus of those supporting a Davis Cup every two or four years, rather than annually. "It should be played in a format like the Final Four, a huge 10-day event," McEnroe suggested. For British consumption, Final Four is the high point of the American college basketball season.

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