On the eve of the season’s first Grand Slam, it’s time to consider an increasingly uncomfortable debate in tennis: Has the best-of-five format at Grand Slams run its course?
The debate engenders many of the hot-button issues challenging the sport’s very identity—like the state of gender equality, player health and where the next legion of fans will arise from.
Here are some arguments for and against the survival of the best-of-five format at Grand Slams:
It’s given the sport some of the greatest matches in history
Not that there haven’t been riveting, three-set classics, but there’s no denying the epic nature of a five-set crucible that unfolds like an opera. Would we hold the Wimbledon ’08 final between Federer and Nadal in such high-regard if it had been three-sets? Would the long-awaited Federer vs. Nadal revival at last year’s Australian Open final been as memorable in three sets? Not likely.
Some of the tensest, drama-filled moments at the Grand Slams come when a top-ranked player falls behind two sets to none to a lesser-ranked opponent. A nervous murmur rumbles through the crowd. It’s that much harder for the top player to pull out the victory, and for the underdog, they must brace themselves against the pressure of holding a big lead.
It weeds out the pretenders from the contenders
Where a slow start can easily victimize the match favorite in a three-set match, five-set matches tip the scale in favor of endurance and the ability to make tactical adjustments—characteristics considered to be the stuff of championship mettle. In fact, the dominance of the Big Four at majors might not have been if not for the best-of-five format (though their records at Masters 1000 events, which are best-of-three, is equally staggering).
It wreaks havoc on the body
Few people would disagree that playing five-setters, especially for the players who tend to go deep at the majors, does the joints, ligaments and muscles no favors. Add slower courts and the corresponding shift to longer, more physical rallies and the strain on the male players’ bodies starts to become evident in the rash of high-profile injuries currently plaguing the tour.
It reinforces gender stereotypes
Whenever the subject of equal pay arises in the sport, critics often point to the fact that the men play best-of-five during the majors as one reason they should walk away with more prize money. This argument in turn spurs questions about whether women should play best-of-five matches at the Slams, just like the men. Which in turn spurs questions about whether women can play best-of-five matches, and the differences between men’s and women’s bodies—problematic territory few want to openly discuss.
It’s bad for ratings
Not all five-setter are classics. They can be frictionless slogs that no casual tennis fan wants to sit through. And during a major like the French Open, where the weather is volatile, best-of-five matches can wreak havoc on the schedule.
As the sport wrestles with appealing to younger sports fans, quicker formats at both exhibitions and tournaments are on the rise. There's actually a modified solution that has gained renewed calls for attention: reserving best-of-five matches for the late stages of the Grand Slams.
Andrea Petkovic recently suggested as much ahead of the Australian Open.
"If you really need it, do it for the finals, the semifinals, but this is unnecessary for the guys," she said. "Men get injured and that’s the reason half the top 10 is injured. I think they have to think about this.”
Given the current number of injuries on the men’s tour, maybe she has a point. If the Slam organizers are reluctant to do a way with the five-setter altogether, perhaps a compromise along the lines of Petkovic’s suggestion is overdue.
What do you think?