A game set too long

A game set too long

A game set too long

After deciding to write about why men play best-of-five-set matches while women play best of three at Grand Slam events, I ran to see the end of the match between Ivan Dodig of Croatia and Feliciano López of Spain at the US Open the other day.

The two were just starting their fifth set.

 I arrived in time to see Dodig lying on the court. After more than 2-1/2 hours in the merciless, 90-plus-degree heat, he needed a break because he was cramping. A few minutes later, he pulled out of the match.

He was one example of why Grand Slam events should consider shortening the men’s possible five-setters to a maximum of three, which is the format for most men’s tournaments other than the Grand Slam events, the Davis Cup and the Olympic final.

A new best-of-three rule would spare the men from trying to push themselves beyond what is most of the time necessary. (Only a tiny percentage of five-set matches are won by the player who failed to win two of the first three sets.) It would also allow the Grand Slam tournaments to emerge from the 1950s and allow men and women to play an equal number of sets. Shortening the men’s matches might also prolong their careers in a sport that basically has an 11-month season.

Without those extra-intense sets stressing limbs, backs and joints, maybe some top players wouldn’t have called it quits before their time. Andre Agassi possibly wouldn’t have faded away at 36, when he was already considered ancient on the circuit, with unbearable back pain a constant reminder to him that 36 might as well be 63 in men’s tennis.

Roger Federer, 33, said five-set matches could take a toll.  

“Clearly, every hour or every step you take that you’re on the court longer, you’ll feel that down the road,” Federer said. “Not necessarily right at the tournament, the next day, next month, next year, it starts piling up.”

 Martina Navratilova told me that having the men play best of five was inherently unfair, given that there will always be lucky players who have easier draws while players in another part of the bracket might get stuck in five-set matches.

“If five sets are such a great idea, why not be willing to play five throughout the whole year?” she said. “It’s like making players run two marathons. After surviving that, players just can’t recover and win the next one.” Fairness among the men is one thing. Fairness throughout professional tennis is another. Which comes back to my original question: Why do the men play three of five sets when women are limited to two of three? Now that women have equal pay, why can’t they also have equal play?

Navratilova laughed when I asked her. 

“It’s like women playing nine innings of baseball while the men play 12,” she said. “We’ve been saying for years, years, that we want to play five sets, but they always said: 'Oh, no, no, we want it to stay the way it is.'”

 Kind of the way some men years ago thought that women were too delicate to run marathons or play full-court basketball, right? 

Serena Williams, a longtime member of the WTA Tour’s players council, said the council had offered to play five sets “many, many, many occasions, but it’s not what the tournaments, in general, desire.”

“We women are strong, ready, willing and able,” she said. “All the women players have agreed to it, but it’s not what they want at this time.”

 While no one on the senior staff of the WTA was available for comment, David Brewer, the Open’s tournament director, told me that he had never been asked to allow the women to play five sets. “News to me,” he said of the women’s interest to play as many sets as the men. 

Brewer said the disparity in sets between men and women at the Grand Slam events was simply a tennis tradition, going back to the sport’s roots, way before Open-era tennis.
 (When women wore floor-length skirts to play?)  “Everybody talks about all kinds of format changes all the time,” he said. “But one of the things that makes a Grand Slam special is that the men play three out of five sets. We think that’s one of the more intriguing things about a Grand Slam event, that it’s a great, long, strong, five-set match, where two players are going at it, head to head, for X-plus hours. That’s just an incredible sporting spectacle.”

Chris Widmaier, a US Tennis Association spokesman, said, “There’s not much more drama in sports than the fifth set in tennis.”

If that’s true, why not give the women a chance to produce those spectacles and that drama? Brewer said fans hadn’t called for the women to play five sets. Besides, he said, baby steps need to come before any changes. 

It was only four years ago, for goodness’ sake, that the Open changed its scheduling to allow the women to play after the men on some nights so they could capture more prime-time viewers. Now, Brewer said, if women want to play five sets, they should ask, “Should we do it on our own tour first?” “That would seem to be the first logical step,” he added. 

Logically, though, that wouldn’t make much sense. The men don’t even play best-of-five matches on their tour after phasing it out over recent years. The real issue is most likely that best-of-five-set matches for both men and women would cause chaos with TV broadcast times and possibly force the Grand Slam events to grow to three weeks instead of two.

But everyone playing three sets? No problem.  Kevin Anderson of South Africa probably has mixed feelings about that. Last Wednesday, he made a valiant comeback, to win his 4-hour-2-minute match against Pablo Cuevas of Uruguay, 6-3, 6-7 (3), 6-4, 6-2, 7-6 (1), looking punch drunk at the end.

In the next round, he will face Jerzy Janowicz of Poland, whose first-round match was an hour and three minutes shorter. I would have asked Anderson how he felt about that. 

But more than four hours after walking gingerly off the court, Anderson still hadn’t emerged from the locker room to talk to reporters, too exhausted to even move his lips.

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