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Women's final goes prime time

CBS gives a Sunday night to the U.S. Open, the first time a singles final has been shown in prime viewing hours.

By SHARON GINN

© St. Petersburg Times,
published August 26, 2001


Arlen Kantarian, new chief executive for professional tennis for the U.S. Tennis Association, envisions the U.S. Open one day being mentioned in the same breath as "the Super Bowl, the World Series, the Oscars."

This year he'll find out if the tournament is ready for prime time.

For the first time, CBS will air a singles final at night. The Sept. 8 women's final will begin at 8 p.m. instead of after the men's final that afternoon.

CBS Sports president Sean McManus said the decision was easy. "There was no downside," he said. "It was a financial wash."

The reasons are simple. The women's tour is viewed as more intriguing than the men's, and the women are far more well known. When the women's semifinals ran into prime time two years ago, the ratings were strong enough to make a match in prime time worth considering.

And Saturday night usually is a network television wasteland, particularly during rerun season, so there is unlikely to be much competition.

"I do think (the decision) says a lot of about women's tennis," USA Network analyst Tracy Austin said. "I think the viewership is going to be extremely high since women's tennis has never been stronger than it is now. ... I can throw out five, six, seven names that have a chance to win this Open."

The setup for CBS isn't quite perfect. The way the draw fell, the most intriguing match -- 2000 champion Venus Williams vs. world No. 2 Jennifer Capriati -- would happen in the semifinals if each player advances that far. At the same time, having Williams and Capriati on the same side of the bracket could be an advantage because it's more likely one of them will make the final and deliver high ratings. It's also possible Venus could meet her sister, 10th-seeded Serena, in the final.

"It helps that the biggest women's "name' players are Americans," CBS analyst John McEnroe said. "The Williams sisters are the biggest names in women's tennis by far, and arguably the biggest in tennis. Capriati's story is unbelievable. (There's also) Lindsay Davenport and Monica Seles. That, to me, is an indication the men need to do more to market their players."

Until that happens, CBS is unlikely to give up a Sunday night to show the men's final. Even if a slew of engaging young American men were in the top 20, McManus has indicated he would be hard-pressed to make 60 Minutes the lead-in to the U.S. Open, rather than the other way around. But ratings success on Saturday night might justify giving the women another prime-time slot for Friday's semifinals.

Kantarian has added a few other twists to the tournament. After the women's final, McEnroe and Boris Becker will play an untelevised, winner-take-$200,000 match. The USTA has sold more than 20,000 tickets for the Saturday night package.

For the first time, the Open has seeded 32 men and women instead of 16 in hopes of giving better players more opportunities to advance. Players also will compete for the largest purse in sports ($15.8-million); $850,000 will go to the men's and women's champions.

-- Information from the New York Times was used in this report.

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