Here We Go Again

People are pontificating on tennis’ formats again. May god help us all.

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The latest edition of the ‘best of 3 or 5’ debate was prompted by Telegraph writer Simon Briggs, coming in hot with this fascinating headline:

Men’s grand slams must be three sets - it is the only way to save Roger Federer and Andy Murray

The underlying suggestion of the piece is perfectly reasonable: have men and women both play best of 3 in the first week of a slam, and both play best of 5 in the second week. This is not a novel idea, but it is one of the only good, if still imperfect, solutions to the outdated inequity in men’s and women’s tennis formats (currently men play best of 5 throughout Slams, women play best of 3 throughout). But the reasoning given mostly missed that mark. Much of the article is arguing in favour of the change in order to save the ageing male stars of the game:

By asking these grand old men to play best-of-five sets in every round, we will only usher them into retirement all the sooner.

This statement doesn’t hold much merit. Slams, with days off between each match, are arguably easier on Federer and Murray’s bodies than normal best of 3 events which, for most of the tournament, are played on back to back days. And even if it were the case that best of 5 at slams are too hard for ‘grand old men’ Murray and Federer, changing formats to suit soon-to-be-retired star power is not a good argument, nor does it live up to the basic spirit of competition (not to mention that Federer himself is not a fan of men playing best of 3).

Aside from more speculative, and up to this point not well argued, notions of broadcasting optimisation and attention spans, the only good argument for changing the format of Slams, by far tennis’ most successful events (collectively generating well over a billion dollars in annual revenue), is to give men and women the same opportunities. An idea that is given a brief airing in the last section of the article.

Do they want it?

Historically many women have expressed desire or willingness to play best of 5:

Monica Seles has said that playing five sets was the only chance each year “to play like a man”. Anke Huber stated that “everybody can do it from the women, also. And it would help the women's tennis.” Stacey Allaster said women’s players were “ready, willing and able… All you have to do is ask us.” Martina Navratilova has supported the idea of both playing best of 3 in the first week and best of 5 in the second. Serena Williams said that the WTA player council has offered to play best of 5 on “many, many, many occasions, but it’s not what the tournaments, in general, desire”, “best of five, best of seven, whatever” and “we women are strong, ready, willing and able… All the women players have agreed to it, but it’s not what they want.” Marina Erakovic said “Absolutely women could play five sets” and “I can't speak for everyone, but the women I've spoken to on the tour, we're all very open to playing five sets.”

There have also been periods in tennis history where the women have played the longer format very successfully. For e.g. the WTA Tour Championships final was best-of-5 from 1984 to 1998, producing great 5 setters in the shape of Monica Seles defeating Gabriela Sabatini 6–4, 5–7, 3–6, 6–4, 6–2 in 1990, and Steffi Graf defeating Anke Huber 6–1, 2–6, 6–1, 4–6, 6–3, in 1995.

Any notion that women aren’t physically capable of playing the longer format should be kicked to a crypt of chauvinism. I hear Ilie Năstase has a holiday home in there.

So… case closed?

Not really, no.

One of the key problems that I think gets tensely hidden in the subtext of this debate is a sort of Catch-22 of equality — If you’re advocating that best of 5 is the superior format and that women should be able to play it, then you’re also admitting that women not being allowed to do so for most of recent history has been a gross act of unfairness. But on the flip side, there have been a countless number of fantastically entertaining best of 3 women’s matches, so to go down the rabbit hole of marginalising those great contests, by proclaiming that the longer format is ‘better’, doesn’t feel productive or even necessarily true. Wondering whether there has been an opportunity cost of the women not being able to play best of 5 for the past 30 years doesn’t do anyone any good.

This is one of the better, but mostly unspoken, arguments for men and women playing some combination of best of 3 in week one, and best of 5 in week two. It means the two tours are meeting somewhere closer to the middle rather than one side simply submitting wholly to the other’s format. It’s as close as we’re going to get to acknowledging that both formats contain greatness and legitimacy. It’s not perfect (in an ideal world the hardcore & unrepresentative fan in me would love to see both play best of 5 sets throughout the fortnight), but it’s hard to imagine a solution that would be — Scheduling issues render the idea of both men and women playing best of 5 throughout the tournament basically impossible. Abolishing best of 5 entirely would be to deprive audiences of some of the epic, longer matches that regularly have great chances of transcending tennis’ occasionally insular sphere. And sticking with the status quo of unequal formats is certainly not going to age well.

Who’s making the call?

It’s also not especially clear who should be driving this decision or how this change would be undertaken, especially as tournaments don’t have a history of paying too much attention to what players want when it comes to format. When introducing a recent change to the 5th set structure at the Australian Open, a top ranked player noted “we weren't (consulted) at all. I don't think any players were (asked), to be honest.” There is a wider discussion about who should have what scale of input for decisions like this — players who may be understandably self-interested during their short window of careers, and the ‘suits’ who in theory are employed to be thinking of the bigger picture. But it’s not clear that this change would happen even if enough men and women supported it, especially when you consider that format and rule changes like this are specific to each individual event. To pull this off you’d have to have tennis’ four biggest tournaments agreeing to and acting on something, which is a bit like trying to herd a bunch of gigantic cattle on ketamine — lethargic beasts who don’t necessarily like moving in unison. Each Slam currently having different deciding-set rules is a perfect example of this potential for format disharmony.

So where does this leave us?

The underlying reality is that men and women playing different length formats is silly and would look troglodytic if it were happening in most other major sports (especially given women excel at endurance events, concerns about which were behind some of the now-debunked biological justifications for the different formats in the first place). Imagine women playing 9 holes instead of 18 in golf at the Majors, or playing 60 minute rugby or football matches instead of 80 and 90. Even other racquet sports like squash have both men and women play best of 3 until the final, where it then becomes best of 5, in their World Tour Finals. Tennis being a trailblazer in terms of equal pay makes this format disparity look even more out of place. The big questions are who wants what and how do you go about implementing it. The ATP, WTA and Slams have been making unusually united noises recently and are even meeting bi-weekly to discuss the state of the game. This would be an excellent opportunity for them to sit down and have a discussion alongside the respective Player Councils. It’s not going to be easy as noted above, but despite the humungous list of priorities currently sitting on tennis organisation’s desks due to the pandemic, this is an important issue that deserves attention. Just not because of what it means to Roger Federer and Andy Murray.

— MW

— Twitter @MattRacquet

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