Wednesday, September 3, 2003

NEW YORK — Kim Clijsters held out her hands, palms open, shrugging at the misty sky. She dragged her feet along the slickening sideline of Arthur Ashe Stadium court, smiling sheepishly at U.S. Open tournament referee Brian Earley.

Looking less like a tennis official than an ashen undertaker, Early hunched over, muttering into his walkie-talkie. Moments later, Clijsters and Amelie Mauresmo were heading off the court, their quarterfinal match interrupted after a mere 10 minutes.

Such was the soggy state of affairs at the National Tennis Center yesterday, where gloomy skies and persistent wetness disrupted play for the third consecutive day, postponing dozens of matches. In the only match to get under way during the day session, top seed Clijsters led No.5 Mauresmo 3-0 before rain suspended play.

Two late men’s quarterfinal matches — No.4 Andy Roddick against Xavier Malisse and No.12 Sjeng Schalken vs. No.8 Rainer Schuettler were started and suspended last night, with Roddick leading 6-3, 2-2 and Schalken leading 5-1.

Wet weather could wreak even more havoc on the tournament’s schedule. As of last night, today’s forecast for the New York City area called for thunderstorms, followed by clearing skies tomorrow and through the weekend.

“It’s certainly challenging,” said USTA chief executive Arlen Kantarian. “You’ll see a lot of blearly eyes up here, giving the all-nighters that this will necessitate from tournament operators and officials.”

Weather permitting, tournament organizers said they plan to complete the nine remaining men’s and women’s fourth-round matches today, followed by the women’s quarterfinals tonight.

That would force the winners of two still incomplete women’s fourth-round matches to play twice in one day. Ai Sugyama leads Francesca Schiavone 7-6 (5), 5-4 and Anastasia Myskina leads Mary Pierce 7-6 (2), 2-0.

“I’m not aware of a maximum cap on how many matches someone would play in one day,” tournament director Jim Curley said.

Following that, the men’s quarterfinals would be played tomorrow, with the women’s semifinals taking place in an ad hoc evening session. The tournament then would return to its normal schedule of a “Super Saturday” men’s semifinals-women’s final doubleheader, followed by the men’s final Sunday.

The women’s semifinals would be played at 8p.m. Friday and televised on the USA Network.

“This is a rolling calendar at this point, changing by the hour,” said Kantarian said. “Weather permitting, we hope to have a tennis bonanza here over the next four or five days.”

If the tournament is rained out today, Kantarian said the above schedule would be pushed back by a day, resulting in a Monday men’s final.

The last time the Open went into a third week was in 1987, when the Ivan Lendl-Mats Wilander final was played Monday afternoon. In 1938, a hurricane postponed the men’s final until Wednesday.

The tentative, truncated schedule also could transform the men’s draw into an endurance test, with the Open winner potentially playing four matches in four days.

In a standard one-week ATP tournament like the District’s Legg Mason Tennis Classic, a winner plays five matches in seven days.

Still, the new schedule figures to favor the younger players in the draw, such as 21-year-old Roddick, as opposed to thirtysomethings like Andre Agassi and Younes El Aynaoui.

“I can’t imagine playing three five-set matches in a row,” said women’s No.3 Lindsay Davenport.

For a second straight night, rain postponed a planned stadium court ceremony honoring Michael Chang, the popular former French Open champ and 16-year Tour veteran who retired following his first round loss to Fernando Gonzalez.

With Chang’s sendoff on the shelf, yesterday offered a steady drip of water-colored images. Tennis legend John McEnroe smacked balls into the waterlogged stands. Armed with towels, a 40-person crew swabbed the DecoTurf II court in the manner of Daniel-San, waxing on and off to no avail.

Davenport, set to play a quarterfinal match against Paola Suarez, was still warming up when word came to go back inside. Davenport and No.24 Suarez originally were supposed to play Tuesday night; instead, Davenport spent the evening in the city, hitting on an indoor court before having dinner.

“It’s a tough situation for everybody,” Agassi said Tuesday night, following his fourth-round victory over Taylor Dent. “It’s tough for the players, tough for the fans, tough for the tournament to sort of make all the calls and audibles at the line … I wish it was only my match they were worried about. But it’s unfortunately the whole tournament.”

Kantarian said USTA officials are studying the feasibility of adding a roof to one of the Tennis Center’s show courts, possibly Armstrong Stadium.

At the Australian Open, two stadiums have retractable roofs. The French Open also is considering the construction of an arena with a retractable roof near Roland Garros.

Kantarian ran into Paul McNamee, the Australian Open’s tournament director, on Tuesday afternoon.

“I said, ‘Did you bring your retractable roof with you?’” Kantarian said afterward. “We’re very jealous of that situation.”

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