Why don’t grand slams introduce best of five sets matches for women too?

Serena Williams lost to Karolina Pliskova in a 2-setter in the US Open 2016 Semifinals - Andrew Ong/USTA

Serena Williams lost to Karolina Pliskova in a 2-setter in the US Open 2016 Semifinals – Andrew Ong/USTA

Any sport is popular if it has enough viewers and players.

  • Tennis is Expensive : Compared to other sports like football and cricket, tennis requires a racket, balls, access to a court.
  • African and some of the Asian countries (except probably Japan) find it virtually impossible to train in tennis. Now that’s half the world’s population lost in viewership!
  • Tennis is Often Painfully Long to Watch : Often a 5-setter can be longer than a cricket Twenty20 match. And that is ~4–5 hours. Compared to football, volleyball, basketball, baseball and even Kabaddi(=<90 minutes); this is just way too long.
  • Most tennis tournaments other than the Grand Slams have only best of 3-setters for men too.

The main reason is ‘tennis is already excruciatingly long!’.

On the contrary, there are enough studies suggesting that players like Serena Williams, Steffi Graf would been even more dominant had women played 5 sets [1].

They tried! The players and the WTA themselves have offered repeatedly. But the tournaments said no, partly for historical reasons rooted in sexism.

READ MORE : Federer-Djokovic rivalry similar to Edberg-Becker rivalry | Stacking the match ups

Firstly, the obvious point: female tennis players are more-than-fit enough to play best-of-5s given the typical day of rest that Grand Slams schedules offer.

Secondly, there’s some history of women playing best-of-5:

  • Women played best-of-5 in the championship match of the WTA Tour Finals (effectively the year’s 5th major) from 1984 to 1998, with 3 epic 5-setters, including a legendary 1990 final where Monica Seles came back from a 2–1 deficit to win in 5, meaning she would have lost the title under a best-of-3. Seles later wrote in her memoirs that it was the only chance of the year where she could “play like a man”.
  • The best-of-5 format was a hit with the women, with 1990 runner-up Anke Huber saying “everybody among the women can do it
  • In the predecessor to the US Open, the ladies’ championship match was best-of-5 from 1891 to 1901 (U.S. Open Women’s Finals Results)
  • And in the most famous example, Billie Jean King’s Battle of the Sexes vs Bobby Riggs in 1973, was also best-of-5.

Thirdly, top players and the tour itself have frequently asked to play best-of-5s in the Grand Slams (both the women’s and men’s tour play best-of-3 the entire rest of the tour calendar, with rare exceptions for some Finals matches):

  • Stacey Allaster, until recently the head of the WTA (women’s tour), says her women are ‘ready, willing and able’ to play five sets, and just notes the scheduling difficulties that have prevented adoption.
  • … as has Billie Jean King, founder of the WTA.
  • Andy Murray said in 2013 that ‘Women should play best-of-five sets’, and notes the history to add “it’s not like women cannot play 5 sets”.
  • Martina Navratilova, arguably the best player of all time, has often advocated for playing best-of-5: “We’ve been saying for years, years, that we want to play five sets, but they always said: ‘Oh, no, no, we want it to stay the way it is.’ “. Although, she has more recently been quoted as saying the men’s tour ought to revert to best-of-3 instead.
  • Serena Williams, also arguably the best player of all time, likewise notes that the Player’s Council (which she is on) has offered to play best-of-5 “many, many, many occasions, but it’s not what the tournaments, in general, desire”.
  • Venus Williams and Angelique Kerber have also expressed support for the idea, though Petra Kvitova says she’d need to work on her stamina more.

So there’s no lack of interest by the players.


[1] Carl Bialik shows evidence that there are way higher upsets of top ranked players in WTA compared to ATP


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