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2016 at the majors, WTA edition: Kerber and tennis scheduling

Cynthia Lum/Icon Sportswire

Angelique Kerber could have buckled early Saturday evening in the final of the 2016 U.S. Open. She certainly was on the verge of doing so.

Moreover, anyone could have understood why.

The 28-year-old German had forged a summer which was impressive and historic, and yet somehow had not featured a single championship.

She played a high-level Wimbledon final in early July, but Serena Williams was even better.

She reached the semifinals in Montreal, but Simona Halep stopped her.

She reached the Olympic championship match, but Monica Puig played out of her mind. That happens.

She reached the final in Cincinnati, but a player named Karolina Pliskova — quietly off the radar, intent on polishing her game and her mental approach — emerged as a reborn professional, snatching the title and the World No. 1 ranking from Kerber’s grasp.

Even as Kerber rebounded by reaching the U.S. Open final — thereby securing the World No. 1 ranking — she had not won a title during her special summer. Filled with nerves and feeling she had something to lose (which she did), Kerber fell behind Pliskova, 3-1, in the final set of a supremely compelling title fight.

She could have buckled.

She could have lamented her fate, could have lamented coming close to a title but not quite getting it, could have been frustrated at the prospect of going 1-2 in major finals in 2016, 1-3 if the Olympics were counted.

Kerber, who could have doubted herself and invited a familiar negativity into her mind — the negativity which held her back from becoming the Hall of Fame tennis player she now will be — gathered herself one more time.

She won five of the next six games to swipe the U.S. Open from Pliskova’s grasp.

The magnitude of her accomplishment — not just within the narrow context of one tournament, and not just in terms of becoming World No. 1 — is that when so many other players run out of fuel, Kerber found more in the tank.

The U.S. Open has often been called “the toughest tournament in tennis.” As the years go by, the statement becomes MORE, not less, true.

Novak Djokovic has won this event only twice. Serena Williams has failed to reach the final in each of the past two years. Roger Federer, though tied for the most Open Era men’s titles with five, went five full years without making the final. Rafael Nadal has won it only twice. Maria Sharapova won it only once. Victoria Azarenka has not yet won it. Andy Murray has won it only once, and has made only one final since 2008, no semifinals since 2012.

Why is this tournament so hard to conquer? Players are never more tired entering a major than they are when they come to New York.

This is partly a product of a lot of hardcourt tennis in the month preceding the U.S. Open. Large quantities of hardcourt tennis are more punishing on the body and its joints than the large quantities of claycourt tennis which precede the French Open. However, the fact that the U.S. Open occurs later in the year — in a sport whose only true “offseason” is from late November through December — is the more central reason why it’s so difficult to push through the USTA National Tennis Center.

The difficulty of winning the U.S. Open in any year is profound — that much can readily be appreciated.

AP Photo/Darron Cummings

AP Photo/Darron Cummings

What makes Kerber’s championship in New York that much more amazing? First, she did so in an Olympic year, which compressed the WTA Tour’s post-Wimbledon break and left little (Canada) to no (Cincinnati) time between tournaments and the Olympics themselves. Second — and much more centrally — Kerber PLAYED ALL FOUR OF THOSE TOURNAMENTS, and played well when in them.

Semis in Canada. Final in Rio. Final in Cincinnati. Kerber did a lot of heavy lifting before coming to the Big Apple.

Simona Halep made the semis in Canada and Ohio, but didn’t play in the Olympics. Garbine Muguruza made the semis in Cincinnati, but was knocked out early in Rio and pulled out of Canada with an illness.

Madison Keys made the final in Canada and the semis in Rio, but didn’t play in Cincy. Petra Kvitova and Monica Puig medaled in Rio — thereby playing a full amount of matches in Brazil — but didn’t make the semis in either Montreal or Cincinnati.

No one pushed herself more — or played more successfully — over the full extent of the hardcourt summer than Kerber. Pliskova lost early in Canada and did not play in the Olympics, so despite a full run to the title in Ohio, she was physically fresher in that U.S. Open final.

Kerber — who so easily could have buckled — became the mentally tougher player in the final 25 minutes of that gripping match last Saturday. It is hard to capture the fullness of her achievement.

“Everest-sized” might be hyperbolic — that term might be best reserved for a calendar-year (aka, “classic”) Grand Slam.

Maybe Kilimanjaro, then?

Kerber’s triumph over the tennis schedule is a foremost example of a player thriving in spite of circumstances which set her up to fail. Kerber’s physical conditioning itself — more than the attainment of a two-major year in 2016 — might merit the “Everest” treatment.

As we pivot from Kerber to a broader tennis issue — for the WTA and the ATP alike — let it be very clear: The tennis schedule needs considerable reform, not just in Olympic years, but in general.

Too damn often — in tennis and in sports at large — scheduling shapes outcomes. It doesn’t decide them, but it DOES shape them.

We don’t have to allow life — or sports — to be this way. We don’t.

Cynthia Lum/Icon Sportswire

Cynthia Lum/Icon Sportswire

I gave full credit to Karolina Pliskova for knocking off Serena Williams in the semifinals of this U.S. Open.

Similarly, Garbine Muguruza deserved full and unreserved credit for finding a way to beat Serena in a well-played French Open final earlier this year.

The two women did all they were asked to do, and then some. They played with beautiful composure and even more beautiful shotmaking in those matches. They ought to receive generous portions of praise for what they accomplished.

Yet, analysis of any subject requires the ability to hold competing and counterintuitive truths together.

One can give full credit to Pliskova and Muguruza and still note that Serena Williams was done no favors by schedules, whether planned or improvised. This is not meant to diminish the winners, only to show that scheduling in tennis remains profoundly deficient when it does not have to be.

We do not have to continue to live in a world where we accept outcomes, yet have the nagging suspicion in the back of our minds that an outcome could have been different with better, more sensible scheduling.

*

Many people have cited the point that Serena Williams chose to play on the first Tuesday of the U.S. Open, which meant she’d play her quarterfinal on Wednesday of the second week, not Tuesday. Others reported that Serena chose to play the first semifinal on Thursday instead of the second one, giving her a shorter turnaround time from her taxing quarterfinal against Simona Halep.

Those points refute notions that Serena played the first Thursday semifinal so that ESPN could avoid the NFL opener, but they do not change the larger reality that U.S. Open scheduling remains poor.

Why is it — why should it be the case — that the women have to play quarterfinals and semifinals on consecutive days, while the men get a day off on Thursday before their Friday semifinals? Before you think this is uniquely a U.S. Open problem, think again: This scheduling imbalance also exists at the French Open and the Australian Open. Two women’s semifinalists must play their semifinal the day after their quarterfinals. The men all get one day off (at least) between their quarterfinal and semifinal.

Wimbledon is the one exception to this pattern at the majors. Wimbledon does require the women to play on consecutive days, but it does so earlier in the tournament, when more matches need to be played. When Wimbledon gets to the quarterfinals — a select and small group of players — all eight women know they’ll have a day off if they advance to the semifinals. The big-stage matches occur on more even terms, as it should be.

Wimbledon’s schedule is enlightened, but it is also — and unmistakably — the product of the tournament’s “Middle Sunday,” which facilitates such a resetting of the event. If Wimbledon always played on Middle Sunday, one wonders if it would retain its current structure.

At any rate, no matter what Serena did choose for her U.S. Open schedule, there is a relatively realistic fix for the tournament — as well as the French and Australian Opens — in terms of scheduling.

The French Open’s schedule is especially flawed (more than the U.S. Open’s) for one reason: The tournament already begins on a Sunday. The French, more than the Australian or the U.S. Open, should be able to organize its tournament thusly:

WOMEN: first round on the first Sunday and Monday; second round on Tuesday and Wednesday; day off on Thursday; third round on Friday; fourth round on second Sunday; quarterfinals on second Tuesday; semifinals on second Thursday; title match on second Saturday.

The women would not have to play any matches on consecutive days.

MEN: first round on the first Monday and Tuesday; second round on the first Wednesday and Thursday; day off on Friday; third round on Saturday; fourth round on second Monday; quarterfinals on second Wednesday; semifinals on second Friday; title match on third Sunday.

The men would not have to play any matches on consecutive days.

Moreover, what would the two tournaments gain from this tweak? They’d get an additional Sunday gate, providing extra revenue which could either boost first-round prize money or (a better solution) provide a mixture of revenue used by the nation’s tennis association for its own programs and (as a separate set-aside chunk) to boost prize money at ITF challenger events.

It’s such an obvious fix; maybe one day, tennis can implement it at its three non-Wimbledon majors.

In the meantime, before tennis (specifically the USTA, Tennis Australia, and the French Tennis Federation, in partnership with the ITF) adopts such a plan, let’s at least acknowledge this much: If the U.S. Open is to persist in having women’s quarterfinals and women’s semifinals on back-to-back days, the women’s quarterfinals on Wednesday (before the Thursday semis) MUST be held in the same session, ideally the day session.

This gives rise to another issue which plagues tennis scheduling at levels beyond the majors.

AP Photo/Francisco Seco

In Madrid and many other places on one or both tours, semifinals are carved into split-session events. Simona Halep played a night semifinal, whereas her opponent, Dominika Cibulkova, played a day semifinal. Halep won the title anyway, but for every time a late semifinalist overcomes scheduling, many more situations exist in which scheduling redraws the competitive balance of a championship match, This has to stop in tennis — it’s an unforced, preventable error. — AP Photo/Francisco Seco

The idea of having a split session — generally but not always with men and women on the same ticket, to presumably offer a carrot to both WTA and ATP fans — might sound reasonable in theory, but it is awful in practice.

In Madrid, Canada, and many other Masters/Premier stops on tour, split-session semifinals for both women and men create five-, six-, eight-hour gaps in rest for the finalists who play the next day. At this U.S. Open, it might be true that Serena wanted to play a Wednesday quarterfinal and the first semifinal on Thursday, but the larger and more obvious point is that the architecture of the U.S. Open schedule should never put Serena or anyone else in that position. Ideally, the tournament should adopt the every-other-day schedule provided above (with a first-Sunday start date), but in the absence of that, the USTA can at least put both women’s quarterfinals on court early Wednesday afternoon, to level the playing field for the Thursday night semis.

Is tennis afraid that having all-women days and all-men days at tournaments will expose any “equal prize money” debates? It shouldn’t. The women’s semifinals at the U.S. Open this year were better, more compelling matches than the men’s semis. If it’s a compelling product, nothing else should matter. All players deserve relatively equal rest.

This leads to a final point which needs to be included in this analysis.

AP Photo/Darron Cummings

AP Photo/Darron Cummings

Serena Williams, like the mature pro she has become (10 years ago, it wasn’t always the case), took the high road after her loss to Pliskova. She said that playing every day is part of life on the tour. Narrowly, she is correct.

She did, however (intentionally or not), ignore a key detail:

No, it isn’t wrong or flawed to say that playing every day is part of a tennis player’s life. The problem, though, is that athletes depend on rhythm, routine and regularity above all else.

At a Premier or Masters event, players play every day, except for the high seeds getting a day off early in the tournament. From the round of 16 onward, EVERY player knows s/he will play every day if s/he keeps winning.

The obvious difference with the majors is that six of the seven matches are played after a day off, only one the day after another one. Wimbledon, at least, does not have a split session for its round-of-16 women’s matches on Manic Monday. There are no eight-hour rest differentials for competitors, as Pliskova had over Serena entering the U.S. Open semis. The problem for Serena wasn’t that she played on consecutive days so much as that she played on consecutive days outside the normal playing rhythm of the tournament, which was every other day. Pliskova getting eight more hours of rest time was an additional concern, but the disruptive nature of the Wednesday-Thursday sequence — after having days off for the previous week and a half — stands out the most.

Not convinced on this specific point that athletes crave rhythm? Let me cite two huge scheduling examples this year from other sports:

In the 2015 NBA Finals, most games were played every other day, with exceptions being made for Thursday-Sunday sequences (of which there were two). The Golden State Warriors grew stronger as the series went on, while LeBron James grew weaker. Golden State won the series in six games. Earlier in the 2015 NBA Playoffs, Golden State lost on two other occasions when it had MORE than one day of rest between playoff games.

In the 2016 NBA Playoffs, Golden State lost four more playoff games in which it had more than one day off before the next game. The Warriors, conversely, lost only one game in which they had only one day of rest between games.

In the 2016 NBA Finals, the schedule was changed from 2015. This time, most of the games were played with TWO days of rest between games, not one. In this series, the Warriors grew weaker as the series moved along, while LeBron James grew stronger, given the ability to recharge more from Games 5 to 6 and 6 to 7. The Cavaliers won the series.

That’s one non-tennis example of the importance of rhythm and rest for athletes.

Here’s the other one:

The EURO 2016 soccer tournament involved four quarterfinals which were played on four consecutive days, instead of two matches being played on one day and two on another. France had to play its final three matches (quarters-semis-final) within one week, and it had just two days off between its semifinal and final. Portugal had 11 days to play its final three matches, and had three days off — not two — between its semifinal and final.

Just as Pliskova earned her win over Serena and Muguruza earned her French Open win over Serena, LeBron and the Cavs fully earned their NBA title against the Warriors. Portugal fully earned its EURO 2016 title in France.

Yet — while giving full and due credit to the winners — it cannot be escaped that scheduling, if different, could have created a different outcome. Scheduling didn’t decide any of those competitions, but it certainly affected them, and when those kinds of questions arise, a cloud of uncertainty emerges for fans. Competitions ought to exist independent of those kinds of frustrations, imbalances and errors.

Much like other global sports, tennis can — and should, and must — do better in 2017 and beyond,  especially at the majors and even more especially in Olympic years.

Just because Angelique Kerber completed a ridiculously durable and iron-willed summer to win the U.S. Open despite all the heavy lifting she did in Canada, Rio and Ohio, the tennis community shouldn’t ignore the need to schedule a million times better than it currently does.

2016 at the majors, WTA edition: Kerber and tennis scheduling
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