AFTER two marathon men’s semi-finals forced the delay of the women’s final at Wimbledon, it didn’t take long for debate to turn to the future of five-setters.
After playing out a six hour and 36 minute epic which Kevin Anderson won 7-6 (8-6) 6-7 (5-7) 6-7 (9-11) 6-4 26-24, he and John Isner both called for the introduction of fifth set tiebreaks to save players from the physical trauma of similar contests going forward.
Anderson couldn’t recover from the brutal slugfest and he went down to Novak Djokovic in straight sets in the final on Sunday night, requiring treatment from the trainer during and after the opening set.
The longevity of the South African’s penultimate clash at the All England Club this year meant the semi between Rafael Nadal and Djokovic was split over two days. They got through three sets before Wimbledon curfew came into play at 11pm, and the two stars came back the next day to finish the match.
As a result, the women’s final — which saw Angelique Kerber overcome Serena Williams 6-3 6-3 — was pushed back a couple of hours, sparking cries of “sexism” that the showpiece event for women would be tampered with to accommodate the men.
There were plenty in the tennis world who were furious the men’s semi was played before the women’s final instead of after, which would have had no impact on the timing of Williams’ clash with Kerber.
It was pointed out had the men played a fifth set tiebreak, or indeed if they played best-of-three sets like their female counterparts, then both semi-finals would likely have been finished on the same day and Williams and Kerber’s match would have remained untouched.
It's coming home.— ?????????? ???????? (@DKTNNS) July 13, 2018
It being "every day sexism."
Much of the debate on the value of five-set clashes centres around the belief they tend to favour the fitter athlete, not necessarily the superior tennis player. Tennis legend Billie Jean King wrote a column for The Times saying men should play three sets instead of five so they don’t wear out as fast.
It’s a perfectly valid point to look out for player welfare, which is paramount, but such a drastic reduction comes at too great a cost.
If Wimbledon taught us anything this year, it’s that we should be appreciating these epic battles because they prove to be the most memorable.
A reminder: these #Wimbledon scheduling kerfuffles were foremost brought to you by best-of-five.— Ben Rothenberg (@BenRothenberg) July 13, 2018
If the Isner-Anderson match had been 6-7, 6-4 26-24, it would have been over two hours earlier.
(Clock strikes 2 pm)— Ben Rothenberg (@BenRothenberg) July 14, 2018
If you've tuned in for the women's final, our apologies: we've given over Centre Court for an extended occupancy by The Men, who are still playing because of an antiquated format they cling to to prove how manly they are or something we're really not sure.
The men’s final was one-sided as Djokovic ran over the top of Anderson in three sets. The World No. 5 was cleaned up in the first two sets, then found some fight in the third and at least pushed the Serbian to a tiebreak before running out of steam.
But the tournament will be remembered for both men’s semis, which provided extraordinary entertainment. That’s what five-setters do. They allow for more momentum changes, more drama and ultimately, more meaningful memories.
A fifth set tiebreak is definitely an option tennis administrators should explore — especially if backed by players like Anderson and Isner — but culling men’s contests to three sets would rob the sport of what makes it special.
Aussie tennis coach Roger Rasheed used Nadal’s take as an example to explain the appeal of the five-set format.
“When you ask someone like Rafa about long matches, he says in history when you look at what people remember and the great matches they’ve always been long ones … where it’s been that really brutal battle,” Rasheed told Sky Sports radio’s Big Sports Breakfast.
“He says no one really remembers, you know, can you tell me the quick two-hour match you can remember and say, ‘Wow, that was an amazing tennis match’?”
The 2008 Wimbledon final which Nadal won in five sets over Roger Federer and the 2009 Australian Open decider in which the Spaniard overcame Federer, again in five sets, are still talked about a decade later, such was the interest they generated.
The more matches like that the sport can create, the better, especially if they’re grand slam finals.
Of the 43 men’s major finals dating back to the start of 2008, 17 (38.5 per cent) have been over in three sets, 17 over in four sets and nine have gone to five sets (21 per cent). Longer matches don’t automatically equal better tennis, but history suggests they provide more gripping contests that make for captivating viewing.
In the 43 women’s finals in that time, 30 have been won in straight sets and just 13 have gone to three sets. When 70 per cent of matches are over in the shortest possible fashion, are fans really getting a chance to see the best of what the sport has to offer?
Caroline Wozniacki’s three-set win over Simona Halep in the Australian Open final was tennis at its best because of the nearly three-hour drama that unfolded on Rod Laver Arena.
It would be fantastic to see more matches like that but the numbers suggest that’s the exception rather than the norm in the women’s game when it comes to major deciders.
A lot of that may be down to Williams — who is firmly in the conversation as the greatest player we’ve ever seen, male or female — steamrolling opponents over the past decade. She’s won 15 grand slams since the start of 2008 — 10 of them in straight sets.
Simply, she’s been so awesome for so long some of her opponents simply haven’t stood a chance. You can’t blame her for that. It’s been a privilege to witness.
The argument about whether women should play five sets is not a new one and won’t be tackled here. But for all the outrage that accompanied the decision to put Nadal and Djokovic on Centre Court before Williams and Kerber — sparked by two men’s matches going for what seemed like an eternity — the answer isn’t to cut the guys down to three-set matches.
It’s true that longer doesn’t always equal better but the shorter the match, the quicker the memory fades. Give me a five or even four-set tussle over a two-set smash-and-grab job any day of the week because I always want to remember why I fell in love with tennis.
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