Four More: From One Issue to Another

by: Steve Tignor | September 25, 2013

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We continue Anti-Big 4 Week at with a look at one issue that has faded for the moment, and another that may be poised to take its place.

For Steve's piece on Ernests Gulbis, someone else worth following this fall, click here.

Shrieking, drug testing, on-court coaching. Slow play, slow grass, slow hard courts. The death of serve and volley, the birth of equal pay, the creation of a roof (or not).

If you follow tennis for any length of time, the game and its issues can begin to seem like they’re on an endless loop. The cyclical nature of the sport, in which most people pay attention four times a year, contributes to the cyclical nature of our attention to its problems. Every year at the U.S. Open, we hear about the scourge of grunting. Then we forget about it...until the Australian Open.

But regular readers of this column will notice that another of tennis’s seemingly unresolvable issues didn’t make my list at the top: The schedule. More specifically, the overly long nature of the schedule. This is usually the time when we get back around to complaining about it—complaining about injured players, fan fatigue, tours "limping across the finish line." I haven’t heard any of that this year. The ATP, which used to conclude in early December, now ends in mid-November. The WTA wraps up even more efficiently, by the end of October. And both tours have had more success recently in staging and promoting their season-ending tournaments. 

The schedule may still be too long, and there are still injuries and withdrawals—see Andy Murray for the former and Serena Williams for the latter. But the post-U.S. Open stretch no longer feels like a death march. That’s a testament to the persistent tinkering of tour chiefs like the WTA’s Larry Scott and Stacey Allaster, and the ATP’s (unfairly maligned) Etienne de Villiers, Brad Drewett, and the guy who came in between them whose name currently escapes me (Adam Helfant, right; thank you, Google). We’ll see what happens. If a marquee player goes down with an injury in the next few weeks, the schedule question could rear its head once more. But for the moment we’ve managed to remove one issue from our loop. what are we going to argue about this fall?

Fortunately, one of those above-mentioned tour chiefs, Stacey Allaster of the WTA, helped fill the controversy gap this week. Asked whether women should play three-out-of-five sets at the Grand Slams, Allaster said her players were, “Ready, willing, and able—all you have to do is ask us.”

This isn’t a new issue, of course; the women actually did play three-out-of-five set finals at their year-end event from 1984 to 1998. And the Slams have rejected it in the past. But the idea has come up again because of ATP complaints about the women earning equal prize money at the majors without playing an equal amount of tennis. Last week Murray said he was in favor of a change as well. “Either the men go to three sets or the women go five sets,” he said, “I think that’s more what the guys tend to complain about than the equal prize money itself.”

It’s true that having the men and women play the same number of sets would eliminate one argument against equal pay. But I doubt that would be the last we would hear of the issue. The ATP players who oppose it now also claim that the men are a bigger draw, and thus should be paid a bigger share of the purse. That argument wouldn’t go away. It could also be a case of "be careful what you wish for": The men already don’t like having to wait to follow long women’s matches; do they really want to follow even longer women’s matches? 

Still, if the women went three-of-five, it would be easier for people like me, who support equal pay at the Slams but admit that the time disparity on court can’t be ignored. I think men and women should be paid the same because they’ve always been an equal part of what makes up the Slam experience for fans. But there’s also no doubt that if you’re going to choose between buying tickets for the women’s semis or final, and the men’s semis or final, you’re probably going to see more tennis for your money if you go with the men.

Let’s leave aside equal pay for the moment—that issue will undoubtedly come up again in due time. For now, I’ll ask: Is it better for fans and players if women play three-of-five? Or should the men go to two-of-three? Would the majors be improved by one of these changes?

It’s a difficult question. I like the Slams as they are; they’ve been by far the sport’s most successful product for the last 30 years, and there’s no reason to mess with that success. There are some, like SI’s Jon Wertheim, who think the men should go to two-of-three, in part because it might mean less injuries in the long run. There are many others who disagree. As the Portuguese journalist and commentator Miguel Seabra likes to say, “Grand Slams are supposed to be Grand, not mini.” On Twitter these days, it can seem like every match is chalked up by someone as indisputable “proof” that either two-of-three or three-of-five is the superior format. 

Neither one is inherently better than the other, and each has its flaws. With two-of-three, a three-setter is ideal; competitive, but not too long. But if a match ends in two sets, it can feel like not enough tennis, especially when those two sets constitute the final of a tournament. The three-set U.S. Open final between Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka didn’t need to be any longer. But the French Open final between Serena and Maria Sharapova and the Wimbledon final between Marion Bartoli and Sabine Lisicki could have used at least one more set.

As for three-out-of-five, it is a lot to ask a fan to sit through an entire match that goes the distance—though that’s part of the beauty of a Slam; spectators can come and go as a five-setter unfolds. It’s also a lot to ask the men to play that much tennis when the game has become so physically demanding. Still, I wonder how many injuries are directly attributable to the fact that, for eight weeks out of the year, the men play three-of-five sets, especially when those are the only eight weeks when they have a day to recover in between each match. (I know the men also play three-of-five in Davis Cup; I’m only addressing the Slams here.) I also don’t think that, as prize money increases and ticket prices follow, we should offer fans less tennis for their dollar.

Both formats can produce memorable matches; neither has a monopoly on quality or excitement. The five-setter between Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic in the French Open semis this year was a sprawling epic. The three-setter between Nadal and Djokovic in the Montreal semis was an explosive, tightly scripted drama. Both were classics in their own ways, and I’m glad we had one of each. In this, I’m with Seabra: I like Grand Slams to be grand, to have the extra weight and emotion that comes with three-of-five. They’re a special test.

So why not have the women pass that special test as well? As Allaster says, it probably does mean that Slams, or their individual sessions, would have to go longer to fit in the extra play by the women. Television networks, which prefer the more predictable lengths of two-of-three-set matches, might object as well. And we don't know how much the women would actually like it.

But there’s no logical or philosophical reason why they shouldn’t play three-of-five. It’s possible that you could have both tours play two-of-three until, say, the quarters, and three-of-five the rest of the way. Something similar was tried on the men’s side at the U.S. Open in the 1970s. But I’m pretty sure that as soon as a high men’s seed lost in two sets in the second round, I would want to go back to the old, grander, three-of-five. You could also start by having the women play three-of-five in the final, so you avoid the 60-minute blowout. But doing it for just one match wouldn’t make sense for long.

To me, there’s no perfect answer. I wouldn’t be opposed to the women playing more tennis, but I’ve gotten used to the majors in their current illogical but popular format, and I’m OK with keeping them that way. I’m sure there will be plenty of opportunities for us to go over it again in the future.

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