Making the court schedule at tennis tournaments is harder than you think


Arthur Ashe Stadium as it looked during last year’s women’s final between Victoria Azarenka of Belarus and American Serena Williams. (Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

John Isner was a virtual unknown when he was given a wild-card berth in Washington’s summer tennis tournament in 2007 and unexpectedly made the final. Now the highest-ranked American on the ATP Tour at No. 15, Isner has special regard for Washington’s tournament, the Citi Open, because it’s one of the places he got his start.

But when Isner walked off a grandstand court after an upset loss at the Citi Open earlier this month, his warm feelings were gone. He expressed displeasure with the court schedule, implying that the top American and a tournament regular should have been on center court rather than one of the more intimate ones on the periphery.

“I didn’t like playing out there. I thought it was [expletive],” Isner said. “I just didn’t think I deserved to play there, simple as that.”

Tournament court scheduling involves balancing the players’ preferences, international and domestic television requests and the interests of ticket holders. It’s hard to please everyone. In a Grand Slam like the U.S. Open, which begins Monday in New York, draws are bigger and courts are occupied all day. And that makes decisions on who plays where and at what time even more complicated.

“It’s like a Rubik’s Cube,” U.S. Open Tournament Director David Brewer said.

Isner’s outburst wasn’t the first time a player took issue with the court schedule at the District’s tournament. In 2010, Tomas Berdych, the top seed that year, had to play the first match of the day after getting off the court the previous night at 11:15 p.m.

Berdych said at the time he should’ve gotten preferential treatment and threatened not to return in 2011. He didn’t; this summer was his first appearance in the District since. He said there were no hard feelings but understood Isner’s frustration.

“This is always something in which the tournament director and the ATP staff probably needs to think about it more or deal with it more carefully to make the schedule happen,” Berdych said. “It’s probably not really easy to make all of the players satisfied, but I’ve been in this situation before.”

While William H.G. FitzGerald Tennis Center in Rock Creek Park has only one court with television capabilities, the U.S. Open can be telecast from seven courts. That gives the tournament more flexibility. For instance, a compelling match for ticket holders can be put on one of the larger stadiums, while a match more appealing for an international television audience can be broadcast from a court with a smaller seating capacity. Brewer said the tournament has the ability to set aside some courts for a specific international audience, say Japan or Australia, where the time zone difference also is a consideration.

Everything ultimately is dependent on the draw. Brewer said the tournament tries to start two matches at the same time if the winners will play each other in the next round.

When singles players also play doubles, it’s an unwritten rule that the singles match must come before the doubles match if a player has to play both in the same day; that forces some matches to be scheduled earlier than they would be otherwise.

The tournament referee and ATP and WTA tour managers work with the tournament’s court scheduling committee to help ensure fairness. Some tournaments can appear to have conflicts of interest. Citi Open Tournament Director Jeff Newman is the Senior Vice President of Events at Lagardere Unlimited; Isner is represented by a Lagardere Unlimited agent.

“Our overriding wish is that we put the most compelling matches onto the largest stadiums whenever we possibly can,” Brewer said. “We’re looking to put good competitive tennis out there. We do know, based on consumer surveys, which players the majority of our ticket holders would like to see. . . . At that same time, we’re aware of the fact that from a fairness point of view, we need to rotate some of the lesser stars into Arthur Ashe Stadium and, where it’s feasible, rotate some of the bigger stars through Louis Armstrong Stadium and our grandstand courts.”

Players are not shy about expressing their preferences. Some prefer playing early because heat can make the hard courts play faster; others would rather play after the sun has gone down. Some are superstitious about playing on a specific court where they’ve lost in the past. If a player has had success playing on one court, they might request to keep playing on it.

Brewer said the U.S. Open has worked hard to make sure the court speeds are consistent across the 17 courts at USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, working with chemists at DecoTurf to ensure all the surfaces have the same characteristics. Five of the courts will have instant replay capability, which can significantly impact matches.

Arthur Ashe Stadium is the grandest court at the U.S. Open, seating more than 23,000 fans. The space from the playing surface to seating is wider than the other 16 courts, which some players said alters their tactics going into a match.

Sixth-ranked Milos Raonic said playing on a featured court is usually reserved for top players, but not everyone prefers it to a more intimate court. Raonic likes playing on a grandstand court, where there’s less space from the court to the stands, because it makes the Canadian’s booming serve seem faster. No. 14 Richard Gasquet said he changes his tactics slightly on an outer court, playing more aggressively.

“It feels like you’re serving on a ping-pong table or something,” No. 45 Vasek Pospisil said.

At the more spacious courts, players describe the atmosphere as special enough to be so coveted.

“It’s quite different,” Berdych said. “The court is the same, but the sensation and the feeling and the atmosphere and the aspects around are really different. This is the same as if you would take two football teams and you would put them on a field somewhere and they didn’t have any spectators.

“They would make a football match, but they wouldn’t feel the way that you get when you get on the big stadium.”

Isabelle Khurshudyan covers local college sports for The Washington Post. You can email her at Isabelle.Khurshudyan@washpost.com and follow her on Twitter @ikhurshudyan.
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