During an interview last week on International Women’s Day, tennis legend Billie Jean King made the case for men to play best of three sets instead of five at grand slams. This debate is certainly not new in the tennis world and was prominent when women were fighting for equal prize money, however, the topic seems more relevant now than ever with the growing number of serious injuries that the likes of Murray, Djokovic and Nadal have faced in the last few months. But can a sport soaked in tradition afford to make such a drastic change?
One of the most cherished aspects of the game is the comeback factor - a player can be within points of losing and can still turn it around without the constraints of the clock. Some of the most epic matches are a testament to this including the Wimbledon men’s final of 2008 where Nadal got his first win on the grass against Federer in a 6-4, 6-4, 6-7 (5-7), 6-7 (6-8), 9-7 battle that lasted just under five hours. Arguably one of the greatest matches of all time, it is hard to say whether a shortened format will provide a similar level of entertainment for the fans.
There’s also the argument that the current format minimises upsets and favours the stronger, fitter and better players. In theory, it’s easier for a player to sneak a win against the top players in a best-of-three sprint rather than a best-of-five marathon (although try telling that to Federer in his current form!). The Davis Cup and the four slams are the only tournaments to feature best of five, and the better players thrive in that format because it is the most comprehensive test of physical and mental strength.
The intensity it takes to endure several five setters over a two-week period does undoubtedly cause wear and tear and the number of withdrawals from the Aussie open is evidence of that. Andy Murray hasn’t been 100% fit since Wimbledon last year and eventually opted for surgery to fix his prolonged hip injury. Earlier this week, he dropped to British number two in the rankings for the first time in 12 years and isn’t due to return before the grass season. If a reduced format increases the longevity of his career, it’d certainly be in the interests of British tennis.
In fact, tennis altogether could benefit from a shorter format in the men’s game. Aside from the die-hard fans who relish a five-set thriller, the sport can be guilty of losing some appeal to the average spectator. Attention spans have shrunk, and people don’t have the tolerance to endure hours upon hours of sport in one sitting. Tiebreak tens has been introduced to create a shorter, more exciting viewing experience, much like Twenty20 in cricket, which has proved to be almost, if not more popular than the traditional format. Best of three will inspire players to bring their A game from the first ball and makes every point more critical.
As someone that has always sat in the traditionalist camp, it’s only of late that the need for a shorter format in the men’s game has seemed more appealing. Not only would switching to the new format decrease the number of injuries and delay the early retirement of the top players, it will silence the protestors to the never-ending equality argument. Ultimately, I think it’s time for a change and the sport will be better off for it.
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