“The women only play three sets and the men five.”
We have all heard it before. The tired line that comes up every now and then at a Grand Slam tournament, or worse – when a tennis player dares to ask for her fair share of the prize money. Audacity.
To be fair, that’s not a misrepresentation. Men, at least in major competitions, play best of five sets, while women only play best of three. How could they think they deserve an equal price?
This kind of debate has dogged women’s tennis for decades and undermined the accomplishments of some of the best players to grace the court. Too often, Serena Williams is celebrated for her accomplishments in women’s tennis. No tennis. “Women’s tennis”.
With two formats in Grand Slam tournaments, it’s easy to see how women’s and men’s tennis seem like totally different entities within the same sport.
As the Madrid Open enters its final stages and the French Open draws closer, GiveMeSport Woman examines the history of five sets in women’s tennis, whether the sport needs reform, and whether to leave it to female athletes to make the biggest changes.
Perhaps tradition is to blame for enforcing the best-of-three rule, but look back in history and you’ll find that it wasn’t always like this.
From 1891 to 1901, women played best of five games in the final of the US National Championships, the predecessor to what is now known as the US Open. Many of these finals went to five sets, but the United States National Lawn Tennis Association board reduced the format to best-of-three sets, believing that five sets would be too daunting a task for the women.
There is no point in guessing that the council had only male members. Elisabeth Moore, who had played two players in five sets at the 1901 championships, criticized the officials for not consulting the players. She pleaded for them to stick to the original format, saying, “Lawn tennis is not just a game of skill but also of endurance.”
So that was it – the women continued to play best of three. That was until Billie Jean King showed up.
In 1973, after constantly criticizing women’s tennis for being inferior to men’s, Bobby Riggs came out of retirement to face King. They played in front of 30,472 spectators at the Astrodome in Houston, in the legendary match that has since become better known as the “Battle of the Sexes”.
It was decided that it would be a best-of-five contest, but King mocked his male opponent, not even needing the fourth or fifth set. She beat Riggs 6-4, 6-3, 6-3.
After King’s historic win, the players voted in 1976 to play best of five. The tournament organizers were against the idea, however, and so the best of the three remained. But from 1984 to 1998, women’s five-a-side tennis once again became a possibility. The WTA Tour Finals adopted a best-of-five format for the season-ending competition.
Martina Navratilova and then-WTA President Chris Evert expressed 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 show off 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, lasted longer. Of the 16 finals during this period, six of them went to four sets and three went the full five sets.
Graf featured in two of three five sets, the last of which was in 1996 before the format disbanded in 1998 due to poor television ratings and programming issues.
Since then, no tournament on the WTA Tour has featured best-of-five matches, but there has been much debate on the subject. So what arguments exist and why haven’t we seen best-of-five matches in women’s tennis for over two decades?
Those who vouch 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 various ATP Tour series, there are more than 60 tournaments each year and all implement the best-of-three format.
Grand Slams, which host the best of five matches in men’s tennis but three in women’s play, are generally at the forefront of tennis, reiterating the idea that men always play more sets than women.
But for the majority of the tennis season, men and women play the same format. Everyone plays best-of-three matches. So this equal prize money argument should be dead in the water for those who think women should win less because they play fewer sets.
Yet female athletes receive equal prize money at Grand Slam tournaments where they do not play as many sets, but receive less when playing at events equivalent to those on the ATP Tour where best of three is the standard format.
Why? Well, the disparity between men’s and women’s tennis is a direct result of two different entities, ATP and WTA, operating in the same sport. The ATP has traditionally been more successful in ticket sales and TV ratings, allowing it to generate a larger revenue than the WTA with more advertising and sponsorship deals.
Even without money coming into play, discrepancies in the number of sets played reinforce the idea that women are not as capable as their male counterparts. Grand Slams essentially support gender inequality because tradition dictates that they follow the same formats.
And where are the epic five-set matches for women that go down in history? Sure, few could match Serena in a best-of-three match, but what a sight 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, saying he considered them two different sports. “I’m not saying men work harder than women, but if you have to train to play five sets, that’s a longer distance. It’s like someone is training to be a 400 meter runner and someone is training to be a 600 meter runner,” he told The New York Times.
Women’s tennis will always fall short of men’s tennis when there isn’t even the chance to produce the same kind of convincing performance as in the Nadal vs Federer Wimbledon final in 2008.
And, let’s be honest, epic five-set thrillers aren’t necessarily in store for the future of women’s tennis, as they may soon be a thing of the past in the men’s game as well.
The best of five will remain in the men’s Grand Slam tournaments for now based on precedent. Removing it would cause a stir in the tennis hierarchy which tends to cling to tradition. But tennis is at a point where there is a growing demand for reform as its commercialization becomes an issue. The ATP and WTA want to find ways to appeal to younger audiences. Long-form matches are not the way to go for men or women, as future generations increasingly want shorter forms of content.
Scheduling would also become an issue if there were more matches of up to five sets. The unpredictability would make it harder to organize TV slots, giving way to less lucrative rights deals. Additional planning for court times would add to overall tournament costs.
And finally, do players even want to play best-of-five matches? The answer is more than likely no. Although many would jump at the chance to be on the same footing as male players, the tennis circuit is already a difficult task. Do they really want to add more chance of injury to this and less chance of recovery between games?
There is no denying that the differences in formats between men’s and women’s tennis tend to raise questions about the sport’s approach to gender equality. Grand Slam tournaments may be the only tournaments where these differences are reinforced, but these are the tournaments that are universally recognised.
Indeed, it is not only a question of developing women’s tennis. The sport must also consider changes on the men’s side. Perhaps a best-of-three format for both men and women is the way to go if we want to tackle inequality on the courts, while catching the attention of the next generation.