Rafael Nadal bailed the United States Tennis Association out of just such a crisis by beating Novak Djokovic in four sets to win the U.S. Open men's singles title Monday night.
Most importantly, Nadal wrapped things up at 10:03 p.m. EDT -- 12 minutes before the match would have aired on its third different channel of the night. Had the match gone past 10:15 p.m., the conclusion would have aired on ESPN Classic, after starting on CBS and moving to ESPN2 after a rain delay.
The culprit was the weather in the New York area that not only caused a rain delay at Flushing Meadows in Queens, but also delayed the kickoff of the Jets-Ravens game at the Meadowlands in New Jersey.
The men's tennis final, which had been postponed from its customary Sunday afternoon perch, began as scheduled at 4 p.m. on Monday. Nadal and Djokovic battled for about two hours and into the second set on CBS before play was suspended because of rain.
Then, things got interesting. About 20 minutes into the delay, CBS officials elected to pass the conclusion of the match off to ESPN, and for good reason. Despite the fact that tennis appeals to an upscale demographic, the numbers of viewers wouldn't be large enough for network executives to ask their affiliates to give up local news and syndicated programming that make so much cash for stations as opposed to a niche sport.
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"We just didn't have the flexibility with our affiliates," said LeslieAnne Wade, a CBS sports spokeswoman.
ESPN, which carried the U.S. Open through the first two weeks, accepted the match, but aired it on ESPN2, reserving ESPN for Monday Night Football. However, the Ravens-Jets kickoff time was delayed 20 minutes from its roughly 7 p.m. ET start time because of inclement weather. As the football game progressed, it became clear that it would not end in time for the San Diego-Kansas City game to start on time at 10:15 p.m.
So, ESPN announced that it would move the tennis match to ESPN Classic and air the Chargers-Chiefs game on ESPN2, if tennis didn't wrap up by 10:15. Luckily, for all parties concerned, Nadal blitzed Djokovic in the fourth and deciding set with a few minutes to spare.
The Sunday rainout of the men's final marked the third straight year that the U.S. Open championship match had to be delayed. It seems the USTA is needlessly playing with fire with its scheduling. They could, of course, construct a retractable roof over Arthur Ashe Stadium at the Tennis Center, which would ensure that the matches would go off without a hitch and on CBS, whose television reach is larger than that of ESPN or any of its channels.
Here's another idea: Move the tournament up a week. With the NFL now deciding not to start its season on Labor Day, the holiday weekend is now wide open for a major television event. The tournament is already played that weekend, with CBS devoting huge chunks of its Saturday, Sunday and Monday daytime schedules to tennis. The USTA could space the later rounds out a bit, and stage a Mammoth Monday with the men's and women's finals as a doubleheader. Or leave the Sunday afternoon to the men and move the women's final to Monday afternoon or vice versa.
That's preferable to playing a final that no one can find.