Under the Spotlight: Should female tennis players contest five sets?

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“The women only play three sets and the men play five.”

We’ve all heard it before. The tired retort that gets bandied about from time to time during a Grand Slam tournament, or worse – when a female tennis player dares to ask for her fair share of prize money. The audacity.

To be fair, it is not an untrue statement. The men do, at least at major competitions, play in a best of five set format, whilst the women play a mere best of three. How could they possibly think they deserve equal prize money?

This kind of debate has hindered women’s tennis for decades and undermined the achievements of some of the best players to have graced the court. All too often Serena Williams is celebrated for her accomplishments in women’s tennis. Not tennis. “Women’s tennis”.

With two formats in the Grand Slams, it is easy to see how women’s and men’s tennis seem like entirely different entities within the same sport.

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As the Madrid Open enters its latter stages, and the French Open looms closer, GiveMeSport Women looks at the history of five sets in women’s tennis, whether the sport needs reform and whether it should be left to the women athletes to make the biggest changes.

Perhaps tradition is to blame for enforcing the best-of-three rule, but look back through history and you will find that it hasn’t always been that way.

From 1891 to 1901, women played best-of-five matches in the finals of the US National Championships, the predecessor for what is now known as the US Open. A lot of those finals went to five sets but the council of the United States National Lawn Tennis Association reduced the format to best-of-three sets, thinking five sets would be too strenuous a task for women.

There are no points for guessing that the council had only male members. Elisabeth Moore, who had played two five-setters in the 1901 Championships, criticised the officials for not consulting female players. She advocated for them to stick to the original format, saying: “Lawn tennis is a game not alone of skill but of endurance as well.”

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So that was that – women continued to play a best-of-three format. That was until Billie Jean King showed up.

In 1973, after constantly slamming women’s tennis for being inferior to the men’s, Bobby Riggs came out of retirement to face King. They played in front of 30,472 spectators at the Houston Astrodome, in the legendary match which has since become better known as the ‘Battle of the Sexes.’

It was decided it would be a best-of-five contest but King made a mockery of her male opponent, not even needing the fourth or fifth set. She defeated Riggs 6-4, 6-3, 6-3.

Following King’s historic victory, female players voted in 1976 to play best-of-five matches. Tournament organisers were against the idea, however, and so the best-of-three remained. But from 1984 to 1998, five-setters in women’s tennis became a possibility once again. The WTA Tour Finals adopted a best-of-five format for the end-of-season competition.

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Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert, then WTA President, voiced their support for the new format. “The best-of-five final adds another exciting dimension to the tournament, as it gives us more of a chance to showcase our talent,” Navratilova said at the time.

This era coincided with the dominance of Navratilova and the upcoming talent of Monica Seles and Steffi Graf, and the matches, more often than not, went the extra length. Of the 16 finals during that period, six of them extended to four sets and three lasted the full five sets.

Graf featured in two of the three five-setters, including the last one in 1996 before the format was disbanded in 1998 due to poor television ratings and problems surrounding scheduling. 

Since then, no tournaments on the WTA tour have featured best-of-five matches, but there has been plenty of debate around the topic. So what arguments are out there and why have we not seen any best-of-five set matches in women’s tennis for over two decades?

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Those vouching for more equality in tennis, generally want one of two things. They want the women to play best-of-five, just like the men. Or, they want the men to play best-of-three, just like the women.

For the most part, the latter is the norm. Across the different series within the ATP Tour, there are over 60 tournaments each year and all implement the best-of-three format.

The Grand Slams, which host best-of-five matches in men’s tennis but three in the women’s game, are usually at the forefront of tennis, reiterating the notion that men always play more sets than women.

But for the majority of the tennis season, men and women are playing the same format. Everyone plays best-of-three matches. So that argument of equal prize money should be dead in the water for those who think women should earn less because they play fewer sets.

Yet, female athletes do get equal prize money at Grand Slams where they don’t play as many sets, but receive less when they play at events equivalent to those on the ATP tour where best-of-three is the standard format.

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Why? Well, the disparity between men’s and women’s tennis is a direct result of two different entities, the ATP and WTA, operating in the same sport. The ATP has traditionally been more successful when it comes to ticket sales and TV ratings, which allows them to generate a greater income than the WTA with more advertising and sponsorship deals.

Even without money coming into the question, discrepancies over the number of sets played reinforces the concept that women are not as capable as their male counterparts. The Grand Slams essentially support gender inequality because tradition dictates they uphold the same formats.

And where are the epic five-set matches for women that go down in history? Sure, there are few who could match Serena in a best-of-three match, but what a spectacle it would have been to watch an opponent push her all the way to five sets.

Andy Murray offered an insightful comparison between men’s and women’s tennis in 2013, stating he viewed them as two different sports. “I’m not saying the men work harder than the women, but if you have to train to play five sets, it’s a longer distance. It’s like someone training to be a 400-metre runner and someone training to be a 600-metre runner,” he told the New York Times.

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Women’s tennis will always fall short of the men’s when there isn’t even the opportunity to produce the same kind of compelling performance witnessed in the 2008 Nadal vs Federer Wimbledon final.
And, let’s be honest, epic five-set thrillers are not necessarily in store for women’s tennis’ future, as they could soon be a thing of the past in the men’s game too.

Best-of-five will remain for now in the men’s Grand Slams on the basis of precedent. Taking it away would cause a stir amongst the tennis hierarchy who tend to cling to tradition. But tennis is at a point where there is an increasing demand for reform as its marketability becomes a problem. The ATP and WTA want to find ways of attracting younger audiences. Lengthy matches are not the way to go for either men or women as upcoming generations increasingly want shorter forms of content.

Scheduling too would become a problem if there were more matches that had the possibility of going to five sets. The unpredictability would make it harder to organise TV slots, leaving room for less lucrative rights deals. Additional planning for the court schedules would add to the general tournament costs.

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And finally, do female players even want to play best-of-five matches? The answer is more than likely no. As much as many would jump at the opportunity to be on the same footing as male players, the tennis circuit is already a tough grind. Do they really want to add more chances of injury to that, and less chance of recovery between games?

There can be no denying that the differences in formats in men’s and women’s tennis tends to raise questions over the sport’s approach to gender equality. Grand Slams may be the only tournaments where these differences are reinforced, but those are the tournaments that are universally recognised.

Indeed, it isn’t just a question of women’s tennis changing. The sport has to consider changes to the men’s side of things too. Perhaps a best-of-three format for both men and women is the way forward if we are to challenge inequality on the courts, whilst also attracting attention from the next generation.

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