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Open late

So if you watched the end of the Alexander Zverev vs. Jannik Sinner round of 16 tennis match at the US Open Monday night, you’re either on the West Coast or likely still very tired. That’s because the epic five-set match, which lasted over 4 ½ hours, didn’t end until nearly two in the morning. And I’m assuming you were watching from home on your couch. If you were at Armstrong Stadium in Flushing Meadows, you had to add on however long it took to drive to wherever you live. At least there’s not much traffic.

I found myself in a similar situation Saturday night, when my 13-year-old son Elliot and I decided not to stay for the final match of the night, a women’s singles match that started at 11:40 p.m. We made that decision at 11:20, right after Zverev won a four set match that went four hours. Granted, we had been at the Open since 10 a.m., so we had more than enough tennis. But if you were there to see the reigning women’s Wimbledon champion Marketa Vondrousova, you were in for a long night.

This isn’t a new issue, although it has become far more pronounced in recent years – and has been the bane of players and fans alike. Recently, matches at the Australian Open ended after 4 a.m. At that point, as the Spin Doctors once said, it’s not late, it’s early. There are several reasons why it’s happening and several possible culprits. One is scheduling, where tournament organizers put two matches – one men’s and one women’s -- on evening show courts starting at 7 p.m. Even under the best of circumstances, that will take you past 11 for relative blowouts. But that’s the best way to sell tickets and maintain gender equity, both key constructs for an event like the US Open that generates over $500 million in its fortnight. Another problem is inflicted by the players themselves, especially those that walk over to use a courtside towel after literally every play. And even though the sport created a 25 second serve clock to speed up play and avoid situations exactly like these, it seems that ruling may have had an adverse effect, encouraging players to use every last second before entering the serving motion – which could also last several seconds.

There are possible solutions, even if a lot of people who run the sport – and some that play it – might not like them. They could decrease the shot clock, schedule fewer night matches and make less money, not let matches go past midnight and finish the next day – which would please absolutely nobody, or eliminate towel or even medical breaks. Each of these solutions will have vocal opponents, and some of them have a considerable list of unintended consequences. Almost every sport has had deal with the issue of time, starting with baseball, whose pitch clock has trimmed several minutes off games. The NFL had a similar problem, and college football had to figure out how to end four hour pass happy games in the SEC. In every sport, there’s an ongoing tug of war between its fiscal health and its authentic self. In other words, you can make any game as long or short as you want it – even those with undetermined and wildly divergent lengths like tennis. But it might not look the same.

And that’s really the question, more than how tired you’re going to be after a 2 a.m. tennis match. It’s how much should we alter the sport to accommodate it’s natural evolution and the evolving tastes of its consumer audience. Tennis of today is way different than that of its predecessor. As are its fans. Just watch some matches from the 70’s, much less before. You can say the same thing about football or baseball. Athletes are stronger and faster, stakes are higher, equipment is different, money is exponentially greater, and on and on. Which means the sport of yesterday may not fit the athletes or the needs of the current moment. That’s why you’ve even heard whispers of shortening men’s matches at majors to best of three sets instead of best of five – something I consider blasphemous. But then again, I didn’t stick around until 2 a.m. in Queens.

Will tennis solve its late-night problems? Probably, but probably not right away, not until it’s a financial imperative. Until then, I’d recommend getting some sleep.

Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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