Two examples will serve to illustrate a dreadful flaw in the U.S. Open, the only one of the world's major tennis tournaments where fairness to competitors is secondary to commercialism.
Consider Lennart Bergelin, Bjorn Borg's coach and confidant, leaving the National Tennis Center late Wednesday night. He had watched silently, sadly as his man's dream of a first U.S. Open title and a possible Grand Slam had been blown to smithereens under the floodlights of Louis Armstrong Stadium, ignited by the sparks flying from Roscoe Tanner's metal racket. Bergelin was outwardly composed, inwardly simmering.
Had he asked that Borg not have to play at night, in conditions that figured to increase the effectiveness of Tanner's serve and explosive game by as much as 10 or 15 percent?
"Ten thousand times," said Bergelin, anger, resignation, frustration and acute disappointment vying for equal time behind his emotionless Scandinavian expression. He sighed and bit his lip. "Ten thousand times."
Earlier that day, Pat DuPre had slumped on a massage table in the dressing room -- exhausted, and similarly angry and exasperated. DuPre had been stiff as a stick in his quarterfinal match against defending champion Jimmy Connors, sore and lifeless after a gruelling five-set victory over Harold Solomon less than 24 hours before.
DuPre had cramps in both legs at the end of the Solomon match Tuesday. He had won on guts. He did not expect to play on Wednesday. There was no reason for him to, since, by the quarterfinals, most players get a rest day between matches, and Vitas Gerulaitis and Johan Kriek had already had one day off. In fact, DuPre didn't know he was being fed alive to Connors until his wife read the schedule in the morning paper and woke him to tell him.
After losing pathetically to Connors, 6-2, 6-1, 6-1 -- a victim of the ludicrous scheduling and the "post-Solomon syndrome" that made him move woodenly -- DuPre was asked how he thought he had been treated by tournament officials.
"In a word," he said bitterly, "I got WORD OMITTED FROM SOURCE ed."
The unsighly fact of mercenary impulses overshadowing fairness will be evident again this weekend when television will dictate who plays when, if the seather does not. One women's semifinal is supposed to be played on Friday, the other on Saturday for TV. This means one finalist will have a day's rest, the other will not.
Both the men's and women's finals are scheduled for Sunday, starting at 4 p.m., so that CBS-TV can televise them live, one after the other, beginning after a football game and running into prime time. This means that the second match will begin in late afternoon sun, continue through twilight, and end under a dark sky and floodlights -- the worst possible succession of playing conditions.
Asked which match, men's or women's, would be played second and subjected to this unfortunate, unnecessary variable, referee Mike Blanchard said candidly: "Ask CBS."
That might be okay for the Peoria Classic, fellas, but this is supposed to be the U.S. Open.
Bill Talbert, the classy former doubles champion who returned for his second tour of duty as tournament chairman when the U.S. Open moved last year from nearby Forest Hills to the splendid new home built by the U.S. Tennis Association in Flushing Meadow Park, knows that the current day-night scheduling is unsatisfactory. He can do nothing about it. The almighty dollar -- from customers at the gate, from CBS for the TV rights -- prevails over competitive fairness and artistry.
"Nobody will ever convince me that the best day at Forest Hills wasn't always the Thursday of the second week, when all four men's quarterfinals were played in daylight," Talbert said. "It was the best day of tennis, the best crowd. It was fair to everybody. I just don't like the way we do it now, but the USTA wanted an extra night session this year. They want night matches that will draw crowds. It's their decision."
As Gerulaitis remarked, "This is basically a day tournament. They only play at night to make a couple extra dollars."
Wednesday night's crowd of 17,862 (15,432 paid) brought the cumulative attendance for this year's night sessions to 85,071. At an average ticket price of $7, that accounts for nearly $600,000 at the gate. CBS' current contract for television rights pays the USTA $2.6 million per year, a figure that will be substantially increased next year.
Obviously it took big bucks for the USTA to build the $12 million National Tennis Center, an attractive 25-court facility open to the public yearround. Despite its plastic geraniums, eyesore courtside advertising and noise from nearby LaGuardia Airport, it is a vast improvement over the cramped, stuffy, private West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills.
But while the USTA merits applause for moving the Open into the 20th century, it deserves to be knocked for garish commercialism. The tasteless emphasis on sponsorship and demand for an extra night session at the quarterfinal stage constitute greed, with a capital G.
It is inherently unfair to make players go into big matches with different amounts of rest. The problem was exacerbated this week by simply incompetent scheduling.
There can be no rational defense of Wednesday's schedule, which put on Connors-DuPre in the afternoon after each had played tough matches (DuPre's much more debilitating, physically), while Kriek-Gerulaitis was set for Thursday night, after each had two days off. Moreover, Chris Evert vs. Evonne Goolagong was embarrassingly relegated to the grandstand court, where 7,000 seats could not nearly accommodate the 12,000 people who wanted to see it.
"We had to play Borg-Tanner and Gerulaitis-Kriek at night because Borg and Kriek were the only men who hadn't played a night match," assistant referee Bob Howe explained lamely. Even taking this into account, it would have been much fairer to have played Kriek-Gerulaitis Wednesday night, Evert-Goolagong in the stadium late Wednesday afternoon, Connors-DuPre Thursday afternoon and Borg-Tanner Thursday night.
This was put to Talbert. "I approved the schedule; the decision was mine, and looking back I made a mistake," he said, covering for referee Blanchard and Howe. "I was wrong."
This is little consolation to DuPre, who was properly miffed that Connors was asked if he would prefer to play Wednesday or Thursday while he was not consulted. Or to Borg, who hates to play under lights because he has more trouble seeing the ball.
Though he typically refused to cop any pleas after he lost, Borg had made it clear earlier that he thinks major tournaments should not be played at night. That is for Peoria. The 23-year-old four-time French Open and Wimbledon champion once considered skipping the U.S. Open -- which he has played eight times without success -- because of the night play. But he decided to come in search of the one big title missing from his record and a possible French-Wimbledon-U.S.-Australian Grand Slam.
Bergelin stressed that he didn't want Borg scheduled at night unless absolutely necessary. Rumor has it that officials promised to accommodate him but then got pressure from resentful players who insisted the Swede take his chances under floodlights like everybody else.
But of the 127 potential opponents in the draw, Tanner is undoubtedly the one Borg least wanted to face at night. He is a slugger with blazing serves and volleys. A tennis ball travels faster through cool night air. An asphalt-based court plays quicker when cool. And Tanner's serve -- delivered from a low toss with a quick, compact motion that makes it a diabolically deceptive blur -- is tougher to "read" under artificial light.
"I think Bjorn probably went in there with a negative attitude about the match because he had to play under lights," semifinalist John McEnroe said today. "He thought he'd have more trouble picking up Tanner's serve, and that is three-quarters of Tanner's game.
"I think Borg thought he could get through the tournament without having to play at night. The mistake he made was making a fuss about it at the beginning, so they deliberately kep him away from night matches early to satisfy him. Then a Borg-Tanner quarterfinal, a rematch of the Wimbledon final, was an obvious candidate for a night session. If not, everyone else would have complained that Borg didn't have to play any matches at night . . .
"Bjorn thought playing at night would hurt him, and so it did hurt him. It's in the mind."
This is not to take anything away from Tanner -- "Like I said at Wimbledon, I think Roscoe is one of the guys who has a chance against Borg because he goes for broke," said McEnroe. Tanner played better than he did in extending Borg to 6-4 in the final set at Wimbledon. Borg didn't play as well.
It was a glorious and dramatic match, with some spectacular points and bizarre twists and a marvelous comeback by Borg after Tanner led 5-2 in the fourth set and had two match points at 5-4. When it came to the decisive tie breaker, Tanner played superbly to win it, 7-2, and the match, 6-2, 4-6, 6-2, 7-6.
He served magnificently in stretches, including three consecutive aces at one stage as Borg stood 12 feet behind the baseline to receive, unable to do anything but watch the sparks fly. Still, one cannot help but think that in the daytime the results might have been different, and that is sad.