Novak Djokovic called it the greatest match of his life. Rafael Nadal called it his toughest defeat, as well as the best match he’d ever played. And a parade of past tennis champions — Andre Agassi, Boris Becker and Pete Sampras among them — called it the best they’d ever seen after Djokovic collapsed on his back, overcome by exhaustion and euphoria, upon vanquishing Nadal in the marathon 2012 Australian Open final.
What set the match apart was its sustained excellence as the world’s No. 1 and 2 players answered each other’s offensive fireworks with defensive heroics over a 5-hour, 53-minute, five-set final that kept fans in the stands of Melbourne’s Rod Laver Arena until 1:35 a.m.
But five-set matches aren’t always riveting, particularly in the early stages of Grand Slam events. Many are settled by attrition: Whose legs last longer? Who can avoid being seized by cramps, as American Jared Donaldson was in his five-set loss to Grigor Dimitrov on Wednesday, forced to serve underhanded before succumbing in the second round of the French Open.
Debate over the wisdom of the format pops up from time to time, typically rekindled by angst over injuries to star players or a reexamination of gender equity: Why should men play best-of-five-set matches in the Slams when women play best-of-three?
But as tennis seeks to keep pace in today’s fast-moving, time-starved world, there’s new reason for a fresh look at five-set matches: Audience attention spans.
Venture capitalist Mark Ein, who views the issue from the varied perspectives of longtime tennis player, founder of the Washington Kastles, chairman of World TeamTennis and a vice president of the U.S. Tennis Association’s governing board, frames it primarily as a societal issue: “Is there a place in the current sports marketplace for four-and-a-half-hour events?”
Arlen Kantarian, who ushered in a host of innovations during his 2000-2008 tenure as chief executive of the USTA, calls it “a tough one.”
“There have been years of debate,” Kantarian notes. “A lot of sports are looking to speed up play given the shorter attention spans. But for tennis, you don’t want to lose one of the defining challenges of winning a Slam.”
That said, two former top-five players now charged with helping sell the sport — James Blake, tournament director of the Miami Open, and Todd Martin, CEO of the International Tennis Hall of Fame — believe it’s time to revisit the traditional best-of-five set format.
“The biggest factor is the fan,” Blake said in a telephone interview. “A fan sitting through a five-hour match — it just doesn’t happen anymore. Look at the Australian Open or U.S. Open, where it can be really hot. That’s a lot to ask for fans. Even watching from the sofa, that’s a lot to sit through. And it’s difficult for broadcasters to sell sponsorships.”
Martin favors keeping best-of-five-set matches but questions the necessity of six-game sets. Why not five-game sets? Or four-game sets, which is a component of a new format called “Fast4” that was introduced in Australia at the 2017 Hopman Cup.
The purpose of Fast4 is to make matches quicker and more exciting via four significant tweaks: abandoning “lets” (any serve that tags the net yet dribbles over in the service box is in play), abandoning “ad” points, awarding games to the first player to score four points, and awarding sets to first to win four games.
Martin, a two-time Grand Slam finalist (1994 Australian Open, 1999 U.S. Open) who retired in 2006, wouldn’t embrace Fast4 wholesale. But he believes shorter sets would be better for players in the current era of power tennis and, in turn, could inject more drama into each set.
“The ballistic nature of the game has skyrocketed,” Martin said. “Twenty years ago, nobody threw themselves into every shot. Players today are more universally taxing themselves and straining their bodies more than ever. So I don’t think the five-set match between Nadal and Djokovic is the same — even if it lasts as long — as the [1998 Wimbledon] five-set match between Sampras and [Goran] Ivanisevic. The length of the matches might be the same, but the stress per point is different.”
There’s no evidence that any one of the four Grand Slams — Wimbledon and the Australian, French and U.S. opens — is considering abandoning the best-of-five set requirement for men.
All four need not move in lockstep to make such a radical change; each is independent and could choose its own course or timetable, although a certain amount of consistency is preferred, according to Craig Tiley, CEO of Tennis Australia, the country’s governing body for the sport, as well as tournament director for the Australian Open.
Tiley believes there is plenty of room on the tennis calendar for experimentation with shorter scoring formats and team events, citing the innovations pioneered by World TeamTennis and Fast4 as “fantastic” examples.
But when it comes to Grand Slams, Tiley said he is unaware of any desire to shorten the format for men. In an email exchange, he shared data compiled by Tennis Australia that don’t indicate a problem with overly long matches. Notably: the average time of men’s matches at the 2013 Australian Open was 2 hours 31 minutes. In 2018, it was 2 hours 35 minutes. In roughly that same span, attendance at the Australian Open has increased each year, from 643,280 in 2014 to 743,667 this past January, with Roger Federer defeating Marin Cilic in a five-set final that lasted 3 hours 3 minutes.
Tennis prizes tradition. And the sport has been slow to embrace change, in many respects, as a result.
Nonetheless, its four Grand Slams have distinct personalities that are reflected, at least in part, by their willingness to adapt.
On a scale of experimentation, the U.S. Open has been the most adventuresome, pioneering the fifth-set tiebreaker, equal pay for women, night play, the Hawkeye instant-replay system and, this year, a “shot clock” to police the oft-abused allotted time between serves.
Wimbledon, contested since 1877, is most staid. While most tournaments switched to optic yellow tennis balls in 1972 because they showed up better on television, white tennis balls continued to be used at Wimbledon until 1986. Its insistence on predominantly white outfits endures. And the simple fact that Wimbledon is the lone major still contested on grass speaks for itself.
But as all forms of entertainment adapt to today’s world, at what point does reverence for tradition in tennis go from asset to liability?
On the merit of five-set matches, Ein sees two sides.
On one hand, he’s convinced that the quicker format of World TeamTennis — which includes shorter sets and no-ad scoring — as the most thrilling for spectators.
But when it comes to Grand Slams, he’d be reluctant to tinker.
“You want the most important tournaments to be the most arduous tests,” Ein said, voicing his opinion rather than an official USTA stance. “And you want them to reward the best of not just your ability to hit the ball, but your ability to be extraordinarily physically fit and mentally tough. If you’re going to win the U.S. Open, it needs to be a little bit harder.