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Other news events stealing spotlight from U.S. Open

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Posted: Friday September 11, 1998 07:23 PM

  Tournament director Jay Snyder: "We are very sorry that coverage was interrupted. Unfortunately, we have no control over national news events." AP

NEW YORK (AP) -- Home runs, tornadoes and now details of the White House sex scandal. They've all taken turns stealing the spotlight from the U.S. Open.

Just when Martina Hingis and Jana Novotna began play on the main court in the women's semifinals Friday, CBS interrupted its live coverage of the Open. Instead of tennis, there was Dan Rather talking about the release of independent counsel Kenneth Starr's report on the Clinton scandal.

"We'll have the stellar match from the U.S. Open later in the afternoon," Rather said as Novotna hit a flying forehand volley to make it 2-2, 40-15 first set.

CBS came back to tennis 45 minutes later, with Rather citing "contractual obligations to the U.S. Open." The Novotna-Hingis match was tied a set apiece when action picked up live.

Then CBS broke away again during the second set of the Venus Williams-Lindsay Davenport semifinal for the White House rebuttal to the Starr report. This time it returned to tennis after just a few minutes.

It was just one more bump for this snakebit Grand Slam tournament.

For the first time since 1989, four of the top five women's seeds made it through the two-week minefield to the semifinals. But with the Starr report released and the future of the Clinton presidency in question, tennis again became less compelling.

For the Open, the timing could not have been worse. CBS' contract gives it exclusive live broadcast rights to all matches beginning with the second Friday. Until then, USA cable network showed the matches from 11 a.m.-11 p.m. EDT each weekday.

The release of the Starr report one day earlier would have meant that more than just the 19,000 people in Arthur Ashe Stadium could see some of the most glamorous matches of the tournament, the American showcase for a sport trying to regain public attention.

"CBS has a responsibility to provide national news coverage," said LeslieAnne Wade, vice president of communications for CBS Sports. "We understand the disappointment of tennis viewers. We returned to tournament coverage as soon as possible."

Eleven years ago, the situation was reversed when the network chose to stay with a match between Martina Navratilova and Steffi Graf, delaying the start of the "CBS Evening News." Rather stormed off the news-show set in protest, leaving the network with dead air for 6 minutes.

U.S. Tennis Association officials shrugged off the lack of TV time.

"We are very sorry that coverage was interrupted," tournament director Jay Snyder said. "Unfortunately, we have no control over national news events."

This has been going on since Day 1 of the Open, a tournament blessed by some high-quality tennis but jinxed by factors out of its control.

Remember Mark McGwire?

Baseball's single-season home run king had 55 home runs, still six away from Roger Maris' record, when the Open began on August 31. He left the tournament alone on its first day but began a frontal assault immediately after that.

McGwire hit two homers in Florida on September 1 and two more the next day against the Marlins, pushing him to 59, on the threshold of one of baseball's magic numbers -- 60 home runs.

All around the Open, players were buzzing about the slugger. In the locker rooms, TVs were tuned to baseball, not tennis. The same thing was happening in the press room as the chase intensified.

When McGwire hit No. 60 on September 5, Andre Agassi was asked if he had been following the home run derby.

"Oh absolutely," he said. "I don't think there's anybody on this planet who isn't following it. It's the greatest record in sports. I mean it's the hardest thing in sports to do, hit a home run."

Lindsay Davenport said she was touched, watching McGwire hoist his son at home plate after homers No. 61 and 62.

"I'm such a baby, I cried and cried," she confessed.

Even Hingis, not entirely tuned into baseball, was following the home run chase.

"I just heard it," she reported at one of her post-match news conferences. "McGwire scored 62nd."

She revealed the locker room compulsion with the record. "Everybody was watching that game when he and [Sammy] Sosa were playing. He scored his 61st. Everybody [said] `Don't change the channel.' Nobody wanted to watch tennis."

Not even the players.

Then there was the weather.

September in New York can be a beautiful time of year. It also can be changeable from a meteorological standpoint.

This Open experienced just about every season of the year in two weeks, forcing fans to wear shorts and T-shirts one day, sweaters and jackets the next. It was hot on some days, cold on others and windy most of the time, wreaking havoc with players' serves.

Most dramatic was a violent wind and rain storm on Labor Day that was accompanied by tornadoes at a couple of Long Island communities not far from the National Tennis Center.

Fans persevered early. The Open set a single-session attendance record of 25,196 on September 4. By the end of the second week, however, a gate slump had set in.

Thursday's two sessions drew a combined 5,000 fewer fans than comparable sessions a year ago, leaving the Open with a total attendance of 473,291, about 20,000 behind last year.


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