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Tennis On TV: A (Pathetic) Tradition Unlike Any Other

We told you.

We told you in our Roland Garros viewer’s guide nearly two weeks ago: The Eastern time zone was the only time zone that could reasonably expect to see the second French Open men’s singles semifinal live on NBC. This was a possibility for the Central time zone, yes, but never a certainty.

As said in that very same viewer’s guide, this is not a recent problem. It is and has been a decades-long problem at the French Open, due to its longstanding relationship with NBC. Eastern time zone viewers rarely experience this pain, but the other three major time zones in the contiguous 48 states are used to it. We saw the same sad scenario play out on Friday morning.

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Tennis Channel didn’t always have French Open TV rights — that’s a more recent development in American tennis television — but the taping and black-holing of the second men’s singles semifinal in Paris remains the same for those outside the Eastern time zone.

Here’s the layout of the men’s semifinal schedule on the second Friday of the French Open. The basic contents were provided in the viewer’s guide at this link, but they demanded an explanation then, and they require an even more specific explanation now.

Tennis Channel has the rights to the first men’s semifinal, which starts at roughly 7:10 a.m. Eastern time. Tennis Channel carves out a four-hour block from 7 to 11. NBC’s expanded Today Show takes up a four-hour block until 11 a.m., hence the four-hour window for Tennis Channel. At 11 Eastern, NBC takes over television coverage from Tennis Channel and gets a three-hour window.

Friday’s first men’s semifinal, between Novak Djokovic and Ernests Gulbis, lasted two hours and 34 minutes, ending at roughly 9:45 a.m. Eastern time. Tennis Channel, by having a four-hour window, was able to show the beginning of the second semifinal — between Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray — until 11. Nadal and Murray started their match around 10:10 Eastern, so tennis viewers got to see about 50 minutes (a set and three games of the second) on Tennis Channel before NBC came on in the East.

I live in Seattle, and the local NBC affiliate was just beginning to ease into the Today Show. Members of Tennis Twitter elsewhere in the country reported the same. A Phoenix resident, used to life as an American tennis fan in the West, knew the score. The Mountain time zone was not going to see live tennis — this was known in advance as well.

The only drama surrounding this issue concerned the Central time zone. Viewers in this part of the United States got to see the second men’s semifinal live last year, as David Ferrer defeated Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Was history going to repeat itself this time?

The answer: no.

Multiple tweeps from Texas and one in Chicago told Attacking The Net what was on their TV at 11 a.m. Eastern and 10 a.m. Central, when NBC came on the air with tennis in the East. NBC was not live in any other U.S. time zone with the second men’s semifinal between Nadal and Murray. By the time the Central time zone arrived at 11 a.m., the match was just about over.

The question must be asked: Why did viewers in the Central time zone see the second semifinal live last year but not this year?

The answer becomes apparent rather quickly, and it’s a simple one:

Last year, the presence of a Frenchman (Tsonga) in the second semifinal) made the French Tennis Federation put Tsonga-Ferrer second. At any other major tournament, the blockbuster semifinal between Djokovic and Nadal would have been second if those had been the two semifinal matches.

Predictably, Nadal and Djokovic played a long match — four hours and 37 minutes — ending at roughly 11:50 a.m. Eastern time. What happened on that day, then, is that Tennis Channel carried the match to its conclusion before handing over coverage exclusively to NBC. As for NBC, the Peacock started coverage of Nadal-Djokovic at 11 Eastern and then continued right into Tsonga-Ferrer coverage.

Because Tsonga-Ferrer started after noon Eastern (11 a.m. in the Central time zone — that’s the key detail), Central residents were able to see the match. Mountain and Pacific time zone residents still did not get to see Ferrer-Tsonga live.

Let the simple truth be repeated: Only one time zone in the United States was able to see a major-tournament men’s singles semifinal match live on American television. This is a problem that — in the aftermath of ESPN’s takeover of Wimbledon coverage from tape-delay-happy NBC — now exists only at the French Open, on men’s semifinal Friday.

It happens every spring, as the saying goes.

Matt Zemek

About Matt Zemek

Matt Zemek is the managing editor of The Student Section, covering college football and basketball with associate editors Terry Johnson and Bart Doan. Mr. Zemek is also Bloguin's lead tennis writer, covering the major tournaments in 2014. He contributes to Crossover Chronicles and other Bloguin sites.

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