How about breaking the last taboo in tennis? No more five-set matches

John Isner y Nicolas Mahut tras un partido histórico en Wimbledon 2010.
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PARIS – What if we put an end to best-of-five-set matches in tennis and men played, like women, best-of-three sets?

‘Everyone would be happy: the players because they would avoid those marathon matches, women because they could gain much more presence in the evening sessions, the spectators because they would not watch tennis until the early hours of the morning, and television because it would have a much clearer and more predictable product’.

The phrase comes from the lips of one of the most experienced men on the tour: he knows in depth what it is to organise tournaments, he knows in depth what the players want, he knows in depth how the ATP and the Grand Slam tournaments work. He knows so much that he asks for his identity to be preserved in order to continue talking.

‘What no one dares to say is that the problem in the night scheduling of the Grand Slams is the fact that the men play five sets. If they played three sets, you could schedule a women’s match and a men’s match at the centre court,’ he adds to CLAY.

The reflection is extremely timely given what is happening at Roland Garros: the day’s star match, the 20:15 match at Philippe Chatrier, is always a men’s match. Spaniard Paula Badosa noted that critically, but the ‘deep throat’ of tennis has an answer.

‘What would happen if you schedule a women’s match and it ends 6-1 and 6-1 in 45 minutes? Spectators would rightly demand their ticket money back. Andy Murray said the other day’s match between Iga Swiatek and Naomi Osaka was a match worthy of prime time. Yes, once you saw it, once it was played. But you can’t know that. The men, on the other hand, guarantee you at least three sets and an hour and a half of play.’

That’s the key then: the trap, the Gordian knot of tennis, is the best-of-five-set matches, says the man who has seen and lived through so much. The progressive introduction of the tie break in the final set, and increasingly of a super tie break, aimed to curb follies like the 70-68 in the fifth set with which the American John Isner defeated the Frenchman Nicolas Mahut in the first round of Wimbledon 2010: 11 hours and five minutes for the longest match of all time.

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Huge contrast to Swiatek’s 6-0, 6-0 win over Russia’s Anastasia Potapova on Sunday: just 40 minutes for the fastest victory in the world number one’s career.

Swiatek entered Philippe Chatrier at 11am on Sunday, less than eight hours after Saturday’s night session ended: Novak Djokovic defeated Italy’s Lorenzo Musetti, owner of one of the most beautiful backhands on tour, 7-5, 6-7 (6-8), 2-6, 6-3, 6-0 in a match that ended at 3:08am.

The US Open twitter account jumped into the debate on Sunday after the Polish player’s match: ‘A little contrast between the top two seeds. The post, which compared Djokovic’s 4:49 hours to Swiatek’s 40 minutes, received both support (‘Are we back to discussing equal pay?’) and harsh criticism (‘Shame on you!’).

Saturday night’s main match, the one that the Roland Garros organisers agree in conjunction with Amazon Prime, the owner of the TV rights, was supposed to start at 20:15, but it did so at 22:30. Because at the end of a week of persistent rain and cold in Paris, the organisers thought they could take advantage of a two-hour gap in the central stadium and added a match from another rain-affected court, the one that had started on Friday between Bulgaria’s Grigor Dimitrov and Belgium’s Zizou Bergs.

It happened what sometimes happens: everything that could go wrong, went wrong. The previous match, between Germany’s Alexander Zverev and Tallon Griekspoor of the Netherlands, went on for four hours and 14 minutes. Tucking Dimitrov – Bergs in before Djokovic – Musetti was no longer a good idea, but it was too late to change (again).

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When Djokovic raised his arms in the ten-degree heat of a Paris at the theoretical gates of summer, there was no acrimony in him, only relief: he said the kids should go to bed and added that, with so much adrenaline, what he wanted now was to be invited to a party.

Novak Djokovic and Lorenzo Musetti embrace after finishing their match at Roland Garros 2024. The five sets finished at 3.08am. 

Later, with the press, he made it clear that he was not satisfied with what had happened that night.

‘I knew they were going to ask me that,’ he told reporters. ‘See, I don’t want to get into that. I have my opinions, but I think there are great things to talk about instead. Both Lorenzo’s performance and my performance stood out, I don’t want to be talking about scheduling I think some things could have been handled differently.’

‘But there’s also beauty, I suppose, in winning a game at 3:30 in the morning? If it’s the last one of the tournament. But it’s not, so I’m going to have to activate all my young genes and try to recover as quickly as possible,’ he added with humour.

None of this would have happened if the men played best of three sets. The tennis would retain its intensity, but it would all be much more compact and manageable. Even though, there are two small details that suggest that the ‘taboo’ will remain and the five sets will survive.

The first is that these best-of-five-set matches are what most distinguish the Grand Slams, although there were times when the preliminary rounds in some of them were played best-of-three.

The second is that if it were best-of-three sets, Djokovic would be flying to Belgrade on Sunday and Musetti would be preparing for his round of 16 match against Argentina’s Francisco Cerúndolo after a stunning 5-7, 7-6 (8-6), 6-2 victory over the world number one on one of tennis’s greatest stages.

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One Reply to “How about breaking the last taboo in tennis? No more five-set matches”

  • Scout

    What a great idea. Get rid of 5 sets. The idea reminds me of getting rid of Math because it creates inequality. Getting rid of excellence to create an imaginary equality is everyone’s wise idea these days.

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