Neither Pete Sampras nor Serena Williams is in the tournament. But Steve Mayer isn't sweating their absence as USA Network embarks on its 20th consecutive year of covering the U.S. Open Tennis Championships.
"I'm not, believe it or not," said Mayer, USA's primetime producer, when asked if the Grand Slam event would lose some of its lure without the reigning men's and women's victors. "Andre [Agassi] is playing high-level, entertaining tennis, and there are young Americans ready to break out."
Indeed, Mayer and the rest of the USA crew who'll present a minimum of 95 hours from Flushing Meadow, N.Y. from Aug. 25 through Sept. 7, will focus on helping viewers get to know a crop American hopefuls, notably Andy Roddick, James Blake and Marty Fish.
"In 1990, few knew Sampras, Agassi, Jim Courier and Michael Chang," said Mayer. "Unquestionably, it's a new generation, and it's our job to help people get to know them and other players from around the globe better.
To that end, USA began taping interviews at recent tour stops for vignettes that will be interspersed throughout its coverage.
"If people get to know some of these athletes' backgrounds and their personalities, they'll take a greater interest in the matches," said Mayer.
Last year, USA — despite losing a number of live matches to rain — averaged a 1.5 household rating over 110 hours, matching its performance from 2001.
This year, USA hopes to attract viewers with new ball-tracking technology aimed at elucidating the game's strategies and power.
Lobbing a baseball term, Mayer said USA would present the equivalent of pitch sequences by illustrating serve placements and returns. "We'll also be able to demonstrate how Venus Williams returns the ball faster than her opponents serves it, how the trajectory of kick serves forces players behind the baseline, and the speed of backhands and forehands," said Mayer.
The tournament's second week will also mark USA's first serve with HDTV, as the network simulcasts matches from Sept. 1-4 in 1080i. USA is sharing equipment with broadcast rightsholder CBS.
Telecasts will also feature new graphics, a revamped indoor set design and "more popular music that will make for more entertaining shows," said Mayer.
On the advertising side of the net, Universal TV president of ad sales Jeff Lucas said USA has "booked more ad dollars for the tourney than ever before." Lucas placed the net's sell-through level at 98%, with the remainder held for potential make-goods. He noted that advertisers "paid a premium over entertainment" programming.
Expedia.com, Pacific Life and General Motors are USA's top advertisers for the tourney.