How successful is the US Open Series?

Star power is missing from the USOS simply because by July marquee players are often exhausted or injured from the gruelling hard, clay and grass court campaigns during the first half of the year, writes Paul Fein.

When Andy Roddick and James Blake arrived for the ESPY Awards on July 11, they didn’t pull up in a stretch limo or a black sedan like Carmen Electra, Samuel L. Jackson, Peyton Manning and the other celebrities. The American tennis stars alighted from a luxury cruiser — emblazoned with “The Greatest Road Trip in Sports” — onto the red carpet in front of the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood.

Their attention-grabbing entrance kicked off the US Open Series (USOS) with a pizzaz and coolness that the United States Tennis Association believes will ignite enthusiasm for its 10-tournament summer circuit culminating with the U.S. Open.

The USOS was created in 2004 to give tennis the same type of platform that other big-time sports in the U.S. have: a regular season leading to a championship event.

“By bringing all these tournaments under one umbrella, the US Open Series links them to the U.S. Open,” says Chris Widmaier, Senior Public Relations Director for the USTA. “Now you have a logical structure that American sports fans can relate to, just as a regular season leads to the Super Bowl, the NBA Finals and the World Series.”

To flourish, the individual sport of tennis has always relied on charismatic personalities, such as Billie Jean King, Chris Evert, Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe and Andre Agassi. The USTA’s clever $3.5 million marketing campaign, called “The Greatest Road Trip in Sports,” features 20 leading players in casual clothing on the tour bus rather than in tennis attire on the courts.

In light-hearted TV commercials, Rafael Nadal and Roddick sit in the driver’s seat of the bus. The mercurial Spaniard drives the bus on a curb and says, “On the court I’m all over the place, same with parking,” while rocket-serving Roddick quips, “My favourite part is speeding.” Serena Williams, famous for her bling and her ego, sits beside assorted sets of earrings, picks one up and brags “I can beat you silly and still look hot doing it.” And defending champion Maria Sharapova says, “It (riding on the bus) gives me lots of time to practise my ‘I won the U.S. Open smile.’ ”

Television is the extraordinary vehicle that can expose these marvellous and attractive athletes to more fans in one match (the Wimbledon final is watched by a billion people) than attend all their career matches in person. USOS viewership has soared from 20 million in 2003, the last pre-USOS year, to 42 million in 2006, and it’s up another 27 percent after the first four weeks this summer.

During the same period, the number of live TV hours of USOS coverage on national TV increased 40 percent from 83 to 116 hours. Tennis junkies and general sports fans can enjoy saturation coverage — more than 80 percent of the USOS days are televised — by lead broadcaster ESPN2, NBC and CBS, (both do select finals), and The Tennis Channel (early-round coverage). When a USA Today poll asked “Is the US Open Series making an impact?”, 85 percent of the 2,544 respondents voted “Yes.”

The impact of the USOS initiatives can also be measured by new sponsors coming to tennis, such as categories that had never sponsored the sport before, and in some cases, sponsors that are new to sports sponsorships. Last year, soapmaker Lever2000 came on board as the lead sponsor (worth $3 million) of the U.S. Open, and this year Valspar Paints.

Several innovations, spearheaded by reform-minded Arlen Kantarian, the USTA’s Chief Executive, Professional Tennis, have been generally well-received by sports fans. Back-to-back men’s and women’s finals are televised each USOS week, giving it an NCAA feel at times during the broadcast. Instant replay technology and Hawk-Eye electronic line-calling enhance the viewing experience, while Player Challenges add excitement and controversy by confirming or overturning line calls. The hard courts have been transformed from green to a more attractive blue.

Yet another innovation is the US Open Series Lever2000 bonus challenge. The top three men’s and women’s finishers in the USOS can pocket up to an additional $2.6 million in bonus money at the U.S. Open, which already offers a record $19.6 million in prize money this year. Despite the impressive incentives and appealing innovations, the players have shown considerably less enthusiasm for the USOS than sponsors, television executives, tournament directors, and sports fans.

That’s partly because pro tennis’ flawed schedule conflicts with and thus undermines the USOS. In July and early August, European clay court tournaments are staged in Stuttgart, Amersfoort, Kitzbuhel, Umag, and Sopot on the ATP Tour, and Palermo and Kitzbuhel on the WTA Tour, along with World TeamTennis in the U.S. How can the USOS fulfill its vast potential when a fair number of elite and world-class players are competing elsewhere, either in European tournaments or in TeamTennis, mere exhibitions in the U.S. that don’t count in the rankings?

The clay-court season, which started April 9 in Valencia and Houston on the ATP Tour and April 2 in Amelia Island, Florida, on the WTA Tour, should have logically culminated at the May 27-June 9 French Open. It doesn’t because the balance of power in international tennis dramatically shifted away from the U.S. Only two (Roddick and Blake) of the top 50-ranked players come from America with 46 from Europe and South America. Nearly all of them prefer clay to hard courts and Europe to North America in the summer. Similarly, only two of the top 20 women are American, while 17 are European.

Unsurprisingly, given the choice of competing at Indianapolis on hard courts for $525,000 prize money or Umag, Croatia, for $487,000, the better men opted for the latter. The top five seeds at Umag averaged No. 9 in the rankings, while the top five seeds at Indy averaged only No. 24.

Star power is also missing from the USOS simply because by July marquee players are often exhausted or injured from the gruelling hard, clay and grass court campaigns during the first half of the year. For example, superstars Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal didn’t play any USOS tournaments until the required Masters Series event in Montreal starting Aug. 5. Nadal snubbed the USOS tournament at Los Angeles and instead easily won Stuttgart on clay. Novak Djokovic, the 20-year-old Serbian sensation who ambushed Federer, Nadal and Roddick to win Montreal, opted to play Umag in July.

Player participation isn’t much better among some of the leading women. As of August 12, No. 1 Justine Henin, No. 7 Amelie Mauresmo, and Australian Open and Sony Ericsson champion Serena Williams hadn’t entered any USOS tourneys, while Wimbledon winner Venus Williams played only one, after doing TeamTennis.

You can’t win if you don’t play. That slogan about players applies to tournaments and circuits, too. The prestige and popularity — and perhaps even the fate — of the well-conceived US Open Series ultimately depends more than anything else on the players.

But do they care enough?