In every sport, the field is split into men’s and women’s fields in order to create balance between for each gender. In tennis, we have the ATP World Tour for men, and WTA tennis for women. Both organizations are quite similar in many ways including their rankings systems, tournaments, and prize money, but the most noticeable difference between the two is the number of sets played at Grand Slams. For men, Grand Slam matches are all best of five. For women, these matches are all best of three. In all of the other tournaments (other than the finals of the Olympics), every match is best of three sets for both genders. Why is there this inconsistency?
What is the purpose or benefits of best-of-five set matches?
Best of five means more tennis. Not just for the players, but also for the viewers. The minimum number of sets is 3 as opposed to 2. Is that it though? No; this is only one reason in a list of many.
These longer matches give an opportunity to remove statistical anomalies. What this means is that on average, the better player is more likely to prevail in a longer match. A player who either has not found his or her groove in the first half of the match, can either find a rhythm or adjust strategy accordingly to beat an opponent. In best of three set matches, a much lesser player can steal a set, and the better player will not have enough time to adjust. If the number of sets is increased, the more skilled player on that day will prevail more often.
Another intangible that greatly favors best-of-five matches is the amazing edge-of-seat comebacks or near comebacks they allow. Say a higher caliber player falls down two sets to one or none, there is still that glimmer of hope- that the first two or three sets were really just the warmup, and the next two-to-three sets will be hotly contested. Perhaps everyone’s favorite star will wake up and finally start playing at his true level?
Stamina is also a huge factor in these extended matches. Not just physical stamina, but mental stamina. Who can keep running longer is one thing, but who can make the effort to return that ball even though it feels terrible doing so? Can this player maintain his concentration? How much do these players really want it? Who is the more determined player? See, best-of-five matches allow for finals like the Wimbledon 2008 one in which Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer battled it out until sunset. If it was best of three sets that day, that match would have ended after the second set. No third and fourth set tiebreaks, no extra games, no sunset tennis. Sounds pretty anti-climatic does it not? Nadal wins 6-3 6-3?
It would seem that there are no reasons as to why women should not also play best of five set matches, but there are a few things stopping that from happening unfortunately.
Changing the status quo for WTA tennis could be difficult
Currently, all of the Grand Slams are two-week events. These events have around 15-20 courts which sounds like a lot, but when the draws start with 128 singles players from both men and women, as well as 64 from men’s and women’s doubles, and another 48 from mixed doubles, there are a lot of matches to be played! This does not even include juniors and wheelchair tennis which are also played later on in those two weeks.
If female tennis players and the Slams approved of best-of-five matches, this would mean more time on the court for women, and a back-loading of matches later on in the week. Currently, the tournaments start at around 11:00 every morning and have matches all day at the beginning. Longer matches would mean more days like this, where players are crammed into time slots on the courts. As a result, the events would last longer, cost more, and perhaps could make more money, but there would be quite a lot of organization required here that might be too difficult to overcome for the time being. A change like this would have to be planned- not happen overnight.
A second potential problem here is whether women would even approve of this change or not. While I do not think the physical toll will be too demanding as it is relative after all, some may not like it. They train for best-of-three matches, so changing that could put enormous strain on their workouts, diets, and potentially lead to more injuries. Maybe they just like things the way they are?
Overall I think it is a worthwhile change
Who does not like more tennis? After all, now that women and men earn the same prize money, would it not be fair that they play the same number of sets to provide equal entertainment? The relative difficulty is there for women winning Slams, but the absolute is not. When is the last time you heard about Serena Williams or Martina Navratilova coming back from 2-0 or 2-1 down? Never; because they did not play best of five sets. I feel like women’s tennis could stand to gain from a change like this. A change like such would only benefit the sport and its viewers.