I touched on this yesterday, now I’ll expand. For the record I love the best-of-5 Grand Slam format. In fact, I’d like to see best-of-7 or heck, best-of-11. Why not? The added length puts a premium on fitness and only heightens the drama and tension making it truly the ultimate test in tennis. It does, as the saying goes, separate the men from the boys.
Unfortunately, the days of the best-of-5 are numbered. Watching the US Open the last few weeks made that clear to me at least. Four-hour plus matches like Hewitt-Del Potro, Wawrinka-Djokovic, Gasquet-Raonic and even the four-set men’s finale were just tough to sit through at times, and I’m one of those diehard tennis fans. Now imagine the casual viewer who checks into tennis a handful of times a year. Are they really going to glued to the TV for that long?
A few days after Hewitt’s incredible comeback against Del Potro, a reporter on one of those ubiquitous ESPN talkshows (I forget the name and the title of the show) actually made a reasonable point. Because the Hewitt match ran so long the real star of the night, Serena Williams, didn’t take the court until just before midnight. To paraphrase, the reporter asked, “How can a struggling sport like tennis wheel out its very biggest star at midnight? You can’t do that! Fans want to see Serena just not at 12am.” And he’s 100% correct.
How many children or even adults could actually stay up that late to watch their hero Serena play?
Let’s not forget, the US Open is the marquee tennis event in America. It’s when the sport reaches its biggest audience and yet here was a opportunity to make new Serena/tennis fans but a midnight start time torpedoed that.
And if it were reversed with let’s say Serena on first followed by the Hewitt-Del Potro match, how many casual fans would stay to the end of thrilling Hewitt win? A handful at best.
In this ultra-competitive age, tennis just can’t afford to make it this hard for fans to follow the game, follow the stars.
If the sport of tennis is to grow it has to get a stronger toehold among the younger generation. Trotting out Serena at midnight simply isn’t going to get it done. That’s pure stupidity.
So change is needed to put the best tennis has to offer in front of the most people at any given time. To me, that means showcasing the biggest stars in our sport in a primetime 4-hour TV window (in NYC and in Melbourne where we have night sessions, French to follow later) and to get there the men will have to play best-of-3 and not best-of-5 sets.
And it’s my guess is it’s going to happen by the end of the decade starting with the US Open.
Of course such measures are not without protest, so let’s examine at the arguments against.
But Sean, the biggest events should demand the best from the players. This diminishes their achievements.
Again, I love best-of-5 but please tell me, what other major sport changes its format, its rules for their very biggest showcase events?
Does golf add an extra round or extra holes to their majors like the Masters? No.
Is the length of quarters longer in the Super Bowl than those during the NFL regular season? No.
Does baseball add extra innings to World Series games just because it’s their penultimate prize? No.
Is the 100-yard dash longer in the Olympics than at your standard track meet? No.
So why does tennis allow this to happen at its Slams? Just because that’s how it’s been done?
True, such a change would hit the tennis historians hard. And many in the older generation would gripe, rightfully so I think, at any reduction in sets would put an asterisk on future Slams. “Well in my day, we played…”
But haven’t the tours reduced doubles matches already switching to no-ad/super breaker system without much, if any, rebuke. While the Slams haven’t fully embraced that level of reform, they have moved toward the best-of-3 direction for doubles.
And the result?
During the Bryans recent run at the record books I didn’t hear a single peep of how the twins are dominating in a doubles era that requires less than when say McEnroe/Fleming were on top of the game, did you? In fact, because they were just best-of-3 they played on Ashe a few more times, otherwise had they still been best-of-5 as they were in the 80s it’s very doubtful they would have made center until the finals.
To add, when I grew up I recall Miami being a full best-of-5 tournament in the late 80s, and that was start to finish, first round through the finals. What happened? Is Miami now less of a tournament, less of a crown since the switch? No it isn’t. The same goes for all those best-of-5 clay finals that were played 10 years ago – Kitzbuhel, Stuttgart, Rome, etc. Are fans at those events really missing the days of longer finals? Are the players decidedly still upset about that? Sure doesn’t seem like it.
So yes, the record books will be shaken a little but heck, life will go on and tennis tournaments will be won and lost, regardless of the format.
But Sean, I’m a purist, we’ve been playing best-of-5 for a hundred years!
Great! Then you must also read the newspaper, watch movies off VCR and listen to The Who on the 8-track! Get with the times, adapt or die. People, kids especially, don’t have the time anymore to fully invest in a 5 hour entertainment event, especially not tennis!
I love the band U2, but I honestly don’t think I could take a 5 hour show, could you?
But Sean, we’ll lose those great early round 5-set matches!
That’s true, but I think we’ll enjoy better overall matches, especially those involving the elite players.
One thing I hate about the Slams is the seeding of 32 players, a change that went into place just after the turn of this century or thereabouts. And it’s really put the kibosh on the excitement during the first week at the majors.
Ask yourself, how many good first week matches have you seen involving Top 4 men this year in the Grand Slams? Maybe a couple at Wimbledon? Anything at the Australian or the US Open come to mind immediately? Nope, me neither.
You can mostly thank the 32 seeding for that and sadly that’s not going anyway anytime soon. But there’s more to the story of those first week whippings.
When a hack ranked No. 102 is drawn to face Nadal there is little to no chance going in for the upset at say a standard ATP event. Yet at a Slam the problem is compounded because that same longshot hack now has to win not two but THREE sets. Good freakin’ luck!
And once he loses the first set, knowing he still has to win THREE, he’s just fighting for some kind of respectability out there. The result, of course, isn’t pretty, in fact it’s almost painful to watch as these players struggle just to win games on these massive showcourts with thousands of fans wondering if this is what tennis is really all about: 1-sided demolitions.
However, reducing the match to best-of-3 gives these lower ranked player a better shot to win or at least make it competitive. It gives them hope and that hope should translate into better tennis and in turn a better show for that casual fan checking in via TV or in the stands.
If I’m a lower ranked guy or a qualifier, I know I just have to get hot for a few hours, give it my all, and maybe I can get lucky and force the action.
Plus, did we really need to see another set of Djokovic-Berankis, Djokovic-Sousa, Murray-Mayer or Nadal-Dutra Silva? Was there a overwhelming clamor for more from the audiences of those matches? Had they been stopped following the second people would have likely cheered. I know I would have. Instead I just changed the channel.
But Sean, the players will revolt?
Oh really? Sure, some players, especially those with a finer historical appreciation of the sport, will initially voice their disapproval, but privately i think just about everyone will partying like rockstars upon hearing the news.
Get paid the same for doing less? Who wouldn’t want that deal? It’s a dream.
Plus, I would have to think we’d see a decrease in injuries with shorter matches, maybe a reduction in illegal drug use and the women might even applaud the move because no longer would they be stuck in limbo scheduled behind a 5-set men’s marathon.
So it’s a win-win for everyone!
But Sean, 5-set matches are so entertaining, so full of drama!
That’s 100% true and I love the format for that very reason. What’s better than watching two guys this close to death slug it out at the 5-hour mark on a hot, humid day! That’s awesome TV!
But let’s be honest, are there no good 3 set matches? Of course there are. The Djokovic-Nadal, the Federer-Nadal 3 sets matches this summer were thrilling. For those of you watched those matches live, did you feel cheated afterward or were you unsatisfied? Did you really want a fourth, maybe a fifth? I know my tennis third was quenched for the night.
But Sean, the men need to differentiate themselves from the women!
Why? Is the Olympic women’s marathon shorter than the men’s? Is the women’s Olympic swimming pool a different size than the men’s?
If you want to make this sport truly equal just have everybody play by the same rules, same format. What’s the big deal? Because guess what, the women are never, ever, every playing best-of-5 and if the men drop to 3 then that tired argument finally dies. And while I agree that men’s tennis players should earn more than the women, well, it’s just never going to happen in the Slams so let’s just make it all even and be done with it.
But Sean, the US Open average match time is the same as other sports!
So it’s okay that nearly HALF of the men’s matches last longer than an average NFL game? That’s a good thing? Um, no it isn’t. Because that’s football and this is tennis. And remember with the NFL, NBA and even the NHL, they have built in breaks (halftimes and period changes) during those games allowing fans and viewers a breather.
Unless John Isner is playing and needs to do that 30-minute clothing change, there are no extended breaks during a men’s 5-set match. Nothing!
NFL games are limited to 3 hours or so for a reason. because that’s limit fans can consume the sport and that’s what TV wants.
Now so more benefits…
Added TV Flexibility and Interest
As you know or as you should know, TV runs sports in particular the big sports. Because they pay the big bucks their concerns carry significant weight. And I would guess if TV execs were told the men would be reduced to best-of-3 they wouldn’t mind it too much. And not just the American outlets.
Most top tier sporting events run for 2.5-3 hours here in the U.S., that’s pretty much the limit. Baseball tends to go over that mark as does college football. Tennis’s big problem is when you televise a best-of-5 match, it could go 90 minutes, it could go five hours. And that’s not good for big networks like CBS who like to have an idea when their sporting events end, not a range, so they can program accordingly.
Shorter matches would ease those concerns making tennis that much more of an attractive product. And it would allow for greater scheduling flexibility plus there would be a much less chance of the matches running long and postponing other programs.
I know internet streaming is all the rage, but network/cable TV is still the No. 1 way to reach the masses out there. And tennis has make it easier to get on in front of them. Best-of-5 doesn’t help the message.
No More 5 set Carryover Fatigue
Is there anything worse than waiting for that big match in later rounds at a Slam only to have it ruined because one of the guys just played a 5-setter? We’ve all seen it and said, Oh well, my guy has no chance, he just went five sets in the last match. With the exception of maybe Djokovic, that’s often mantra. Players who win 5 set matches are often too depleted for their next match. I don’t know why that is now, maybe it’s just an excuse, but I read it on these boards and I hear it on TV.
“So and so just won a brutal match in the last round, he’ll have little chance today.”
If these guys are competing for the ultimate prize, one long match shouldn’t eliminate you from the event. But as tennis becomes more physical and more punishing, that’s how it seems to be the now reality.
Count me among the many who think those first week day session schedules on Arthur Ashe and Rod Laver are underwhelming. Usually they consist of one men’s match sandwiched between two women’s matches. With men;s tennis now at the forefront, it’s not a good deal for those ticket holders and the matches largely stink, especially those in New York.
Tournaments like the US and Australian Open are too afraid to put a second men’s match during the day out of fear that their precious night schedule would get destroyed. Best-of-3 solves that and allows tournaments to put better matches where they belong: on the main courts!
And at night no more worrying about matches extending well into the morning preventing kids from enjoying the best our sport has to offer. A 7pm start with two best-of-3 matches should be over by 11pm. The US Open opened with a Williams sister double a few years ago, now imagine what a blockbuster it would be if they could do a Federer-Nadal night session? Unfortunately under best-of-5 they can’t!
So those are some of benefits of moving to shorter men’s matches at majors. If you are still not convinced, then just ask yourself, what’s the downside?
Will you stop buying tickets?
Will you stop watching on TV?
Will you stop following you favorite players?
And will players really be that upset?
Ask yourself, how does tennis lose if this were to pass?
Sure, the greatest matches in our sport have mostly been of the 5-set variety. But guess what, they’ll eventually be replaced by 3-setters. Don’t worry.
Again, I don’t want to this change to happen, I’m just saying that it’s going to happen, so get ready, be prepared and don’t be surprised when it does. My best guess is the US Open will be the first to adopt this and they’ll do it by the end of the decade, maybe sooner. And you know what? Tennis will be better for it.
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