Tennis Channel had its big moment at The U.S. Open Saturday night, showcasing much of the Grand Slam tournament’s best match to date, John Isner’s upset of Andy Roddick, during its exclusive window.
CBS, which as it has done for many, many moons, began serving up its 21 hours of Labor Day weekend coverage at 11 a.m. on Sept. 5. But with five-time defending champion Roger Federer’s forehand going off kilter — he led 4-2, 40 love against Lleyton Hewitt before he began spraying one of the game’s all-time shots all over Arthur Ashe Stadium and dropped the first set –the stage was set. While Fed finally righted himself enough to take out the rejuvenated Aussie in four sets, 4-6, 6-3, 7-5 and 6-4, the match lasted well over two hours and a long day’s journey into the night session was in play at Flushing Meadows.
Melanie Oudin and former Open champion and world No. 1 Maria Sharapova certainly did their part, with a 2:58 marathon of substandard serving and missed opportunities. Although it wasn’t the highest caliber match, it was a feel-good outcome for Oudin and American tennis, as the gritty Georgian became the first 17-year-old U.S. woman to win a third-round Open match since someone named Serena did en route to the first Williams’ sister Grand Slam win, way back in 1999.
It wasn’t until the Oudin match concluded around 5 p.m. that my wife Mary and I began our drive from Mamaroneck over the Whitestone Bridge to the USTA National Tennis Center in Queens for the night session. At that point, Andy Roddick had barely stepped onto Ashe against fellow American John Isner. Upon arrival at around 6 p.m., we picked up an on-site radio from American Express, which featured Tennis Channel commentary.
At that stage, CBS (our benefactors for the evening), went off the air, and Tennis started its primetime exclusive window an hour earlier than scheduled, picking up the Roddick-Isner action.
As for the Reynolds’ doubles team, we headed to the grandstand, where 2004 Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova was rallying past Israeli Sharar Peer in a well-contested 7-5 first set. There, we heard that the boys were early in the second, after Isner took the opener in a tiebreak. The lanky one next pushed Roddick into a two-set hole with a service break.
After Kuznetsova jumped ahead 3-0 in the second, we made our way to Louis Armstrong, where Serena and Venus played a tight first set, before disposing easily of their doubles adversaries, Yong Jan Chen and Katarina Srebotnik.
From there, we descended to the plaza, and found numerous new-found, night-session buddies, awaiting the Isner-Roddick conclusion. Thousands, some with “Honey Melon” drinks fueled with Grey Goose and jalapeno-covered nachos in hand, stood and focused upward on the big screen affixed to Armstrong, adjoining Tennis’ studio perch, atop what used to be the facility’s top court, (the smarter ones were seated on Court 11, watching an even larger screen). Plaza watchers saw Roddick save a match point with an ace, before coming up with a break to a force a fifth set.
On the air (radio), Tennis Channel analysts Jimmy Connors and Martina Navratilova talked about how it looked as if Isner was cramping. They also said the match might be decided by one of the players veering from their power arsenals that saw John (yes, he’s 6′9″ not 6′7″, and just to further illuminate for the expert who was loudly standing to our right, it takes at least seven points - not six - with an edge of two to win a tiebreak) spank 38 aces and 18 forehand winners to 20 and 11 for Andy.
That player was Roddick, who was passed near the net despite a backhand lunge, on the minibreak point that pushed the decisive tiebreak toward Isner’s racquet. At the end, Roddick pushed a second Isner volley into the net and the biggest upset on the men’s side was complete.
And finally, at around 9:15 p.m., the night-session multitudes were said to be just 45 minutes away from witnessing live tennis on Ashe.
Then, Amex-Tennis radio informed that the opener between No. 1 Dinara Safina and Petra Kvitova was going to be pushed to Amstrong, while James Blake-Tommy Lobredo, preceded by a brief ceremony celebrating Pancho Gonzalez, would proceed simultaneously on the main show court. The USTA loudspeakers then droned on incessantly about the lateness of the day session and how this was “a courtesy” to the fans on the ground.
That probably wasn’t so hospitable for Tennis, which now had to go back and forth with its live coverage of the matches (the network is covering the tourney round-the-clock anyway during the fortnight). As we watched Jimmy-Martina in the broadcast booth across the way, the Amex-Tennis radio channel also had them weighing in, on occasion, about Safina and her continuing struggles with confidence on Armstrong. That mental anguish eventually contributed to her dismissal by the 72nd-ranked player in a third-set breaker.
Blake, who served for the first set and then collapsed in the subsequent tiebreak, didn’t put up much of a fight against the Spaniard, losing in straights.
As such, the night, ironically, ended a bit earlier than the network might have expected, given its almost 10:30 p.m. starting time for its pair of exclusive matches.
But Tennis, which will feature serve-and-volley specialist Taylor Dent against No. 2 Andy Murray Sunday night, already had its big viewer moment with Isner-Roddick.
Except, of course, for Cablevision customers — two of which just happened to be at the Open Saturday night — who remain off the distribution court with the network.