- Tennis has undergone its share of innovations. The next one: moving away from best-of-five sets at Grand Slams.
The current Grand Slam format for men’s singles—best-of-five sets—is too long and should be changed. There, I said it.
Please, compose yourself. I know this is quite upsetting to some of you. I promise I’m not looking to dismantle the rich heritage of this storied sport. Quite the contrary. I love watching tennis. Lots of it. But over the years of doing so, I’ve come to the conclusion that best-of-five is not best-for-tennis. I believe the rule of quality over quantity applies here. So, I beseech thee: Do me the favor of considering this sacrilegious tennis heresy.
The average Major League Baseball game lasts about three hours. NFL clashes also clock in at just under three hours. And the average NBA affair is approximately two hours and 15 minutes—which just happens to be the average best-of-three ATP match time. Remember this tidbit. We’ll come back to it momentarily.
I’d risk looking quite foolish if I didn’t at least feign a somewhat two-sided approach toward this debate. So, what’s the upside of five sets? For starters, it’s dramatic. Like two gladiators going mano-a-mano to the death, we get fluorescent Nike-wearing Hercules and Achilles sparring for a spot in the history books. The carnage of one intrepid warrior beating down another ‘til the decisive swing of the sword sends a seemingly invincible superhuman to his gutting demise. Too much? Okay. But there’s simply no denying the deep-rooted drama of a five-setter. The plot twists and narrative zig-zags; the ups and downs; the close calls; the comebacks; the individual trials and tribulations all laid bare on a 27-foot-wide battlefield. Like any great story, it takes you on a rollercoaster of emotions. ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?
And how about the sheer physicality of a five-hour duel? Come on. Like a 15-round heavyweight bout, we witness two men pushing themselves further than the ordinary civilian can imagine. Prizefighters propped against the ropes, swinging away, point after grueling point, scramble after lung-stinging scramble. Repeated laser-like focus and lightning bolt reactions for over 300 frantic exchanges. It’s incredible, really, to see two athletes compete at such a high level in such a technical and strategic sport long after—hours after—mere mortals would expire.
So, five sets don’t sound so too bad, eh? Alright then, why don’t we take this formula for athletic pageantry and extrapolate it to other sports? Anyone for six quarters of NBA basketball? How about 15 innings of baseball? Let’s bump it up to 26 holes of golf, shall we? No, wait—better yet, why don’t we just extend the Grand Slams to best-of-seven? That’d mean even more drama and more physicality. Right? Any takers? I’ll go out on a limb: beyond a diminishing viewership, the quality of performance would also see a dip.
Even the king of five-setters thinks five sets is too much. Novak Djokovic. The master of going the distance. Winner of 14 grand slam championships, he recently stated publicly that keeping the grand slams to best-of-three sets would lead to more fans and better tennis.
This debate has even transcended the sports world into pop-culture, with the 2015 HBO-produced satire 7 Days in Hell poking fun at ridiculously long Wimbledon matches.
And what about the ladies? Why don’t they play best-of-five? Women’s marathons are the same distance as men’s. Most Olympic events are the same length. In fact, nearly every single sport on earth is the same length for both genders. Except tennis. What gives? One theory is that there isn’t a demand for it. Another theory whispered behind closed doors in dimly lit rooms is that there isn’t a demand for it in the men’s game, either. We love the sport, but do we love it so much that we can’t bear to tell it the truth?
Tennis, unlike most professional sports, abides by a year-round calendar that kicks off in the beginning of January and lasts until November. Players navigate a schedule lasting 11 unforgiving months across six continents. And when the year’s four biggest tournaments are best-of-five sets, it’s no surprise that today’s top players are constantly injured. Can you imagine the top five players in any other professional sport all injured and out of the game during a one-year time period? No. Because it’s virtually unheard of.
Not only have we seen more major injuries, but we’re also seeing far more players retire mid-match at majors. Picture scoring pricey tix to the U.S. Open semifinals, only to witness a single set of tennis. It's kind of like sitting courtside for the NBA Finals and having it cut short after one quarter of basketball. It’s not fair to the fans.
The players are saying it, the fans are feeling it, pop-culture is mocking it, even the rule makers can’t deny it. Just this season, they’ve applied scotch-tape remedies to protect the glory of five sets. Look at the U.S. Open—they announced the serve clock, basically telling players “hurry up, we’re getting bored.”
Tennis has gone through many renovations over the past 50 years. From wood rackets to metal to the current-day NASA-grade carbon fiber. Over the past decade, added power in rackets has led tournament officials to make balls less bouncy and courts more gripping—all to offset the heightened speed for longer, more entertaining rallies. Or in other words, to produce a higher quality viewing experience.
Ah yes, quality. That thing that separates the top players in the world from the ones down at the local club. It’s why we watch. To see someone do something we can’t. To marvel as they wave their wand and walk on water. To lean in, eyes wide, and smile in astonishment. Though from my vantage point, it’s not about seeing our heroes haggard, but rather, to see their absolute best. I don’t care who the fittest tennis player alive is. I want to see the verve and panache of a genius.
So, I humbly toss this out into the tennis-sphere—less is more. By going from best-of-five to best-of-three in the Grand Slams, we’ll get to see our favorites play better tennis, more often, over longer careers. Advantage, everyone.
The ball’s in your court, tennis.