Alice Lovatt

Falling short: why women should play five-set tennis

Wimbledon is the oldest-reaching slam. Its first tournament ran during 1877: a tournament open strictly to men, as one considered women too weak to grind five-sets out. So when the women’s competition was opened seven years later, it seemed logical to establish it with a different, three-set design.

Today, as Djokovic, Murray and Federer continually write themselves into the history books through record-breaking accomplishments, men’s tennis seems to be in a state of zenith. Unfortunately, the âge d’or of men’s tennis is unlikely to be extended to the women’s game while there are still alternative rules in place. With a two-sets-to-victory format, by the time excitement has begun to sizzle amongst a crowd, the match is complete. There is little to no rivalry for spectators of women’s tennis, and it is condemned for appearing one-dimensional or dull.

Let’s have a look at the benefits of bringing about best-of-five matches in the women’s calendar. Female athleticism could reach new, stratospheric heights. Since 2000, tennis fans have witnessed male players reach balls that are nearly in the crowd, contort themselves into physical shapes that cannot be comfortable, and play out baselines rallies beyond fifty shots. Five sets of tennis can be unremitting; to cope with this, fitness is a priority. Nadal and Djokovic both share an adeptness for unthinkable on-court acrobatics. The tendency in the 1970s to please spectators through calculating court craft has been replaced by whatever sublime feats supreme body conditioning will allow.

There is a reason why Steffi Graf is the most successful female tennis player in the Open Era. Despite playing in the 1980s and 90s, she epitomised peak physical fitness. Adhering to the serve-and-volley strategy, Graf was a polar opposite of the women we see loitering a metre and a half behind the baseline. Players now approach the net less and less, creating a decline in female athleticism. Meanwhile, the fitter women have little opportunity in a best-of-three to make their physical superiority count. Whereas best-of-fives allow the more consistent player on the day to win, matches that can be won in simply two sets allow weaker players to provoke an upset. Two lucky mishits in a row can resolve the end result. A short drop in concentration levels allows a player to direct a match. More analytical players are also tipped to win five set matches, as they are able to modify game plans to suit and lobby against problems thrown up by troubling rivals. Best-of-fives are often labelled as ‘epics’: they are more exciting to watch as well as more difficult to win. Notably, from 2009 to 2012, eight different men won Masters 1000 tournaments, where best-of-threes are played, but only four finished with a victory at major slams. Although the element of chance is usually the reason behind a racing pulse as one watches sport, it exacerbates one of the current problems in the women’s game: the absence of a marketable star or, better still, a rivalry.

The short set-up is intrinsically debasing for women. Not only are equal pay protestors (such as Frenchman Gilles Simon) stimulated to declare that women work for fewer hours to win the same prize as harder-working men, but they also suggest that less interest is created from shorter matches. The discrimination is absurd. Going back to the twentieth century, the Olympics prohibited women’s long-distance athletics events for a similar sense of archaic prejudice. Amends, however, were made in the eighties to allow women to complete events as laborious as the marathon. A Victorian mind set emerges in tennis, putting the sport on the back foot in progressive and accepting societies.

Women are becoming increasingly vocal on the topic, but reform requires demand. Are the leading players willing to endanger their support by disrupting the conservative and constrained tennis world? An issue that should provoke a deep-rooted sense of gendered injustice instead remains glossed by many of the top twenty WTA players. When funding and sponsorship is rare to obtain (and heavily based on looks and personal appearance – see the world’s ‘most marketable athlete 2015’, aesthetic-envy-provoking Eugenie Bouchard), can WTA players really risk raising the issue of gender equality in the game? For female players, the personal reputation, funding and on-court success they have laboured so diligently for are seen to be compromised by the moral call for feminism and equality in grand slams.

Former household name Marion Bartoli leads the perhaps pessimistic view that women are ill-equipped to deal with five sets of tennis. She deems the change ‘not humanly possible’. Likewise, Petra Kvitova timidly explained she would have to ‘work on her fitness’. Both Williams sisters, Angelique Kerber and the head of the WTA are claiming that women are ready (Serena, a little sardonically, commenting ‘Best-of-five, best-of-seven, whatever. Let’s get it going and cracking, right?’) but it is the tournament organisers who are preventing the revolution from taking place. Arguably, it is easy to pass on the blame, and having enjoyed the establishment of equal pay as things stand, a punishing physical change is not at the top of the WTA players’ wish lists. Tournament organisations are nonetheless unlikely to back a revamp. Scheduling of the first week of a slam is challenging, resting on military precision in timings. If women’s matches were to be extended, most likely would the duration of a tournament be also. Consequently, longer tournaments would result in fewer tournaments available throughout the year; longer waiting times for the next competition for those who exit in the first rounds, and complete exhaustion for those who battle on for longer than two weeks to win.

Additionally, the change would go against the grain. Recent developments have caused more tournament organisers to gradually remove best-of-fives so as to preserve the health and safety of male players. This is, of course, an issue for women only: male organisations should be wary that it is not their responsibility to interrupt such conversations. But unless women’s tennis gets some fresh drive, its decline may well continue.

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