By Sam Squiers
Women’s tennis has always led the way in the hard fought journey to parity in sport. The players have become big stars, with the likes of Serena Williams, Victoria Azarenka, Maria Sharapova, Caroline Wozniaki and many more now household names and their matches make back page news. But the major achievement came last year with the introduction of equal prize money as the men for the four major tournaments.
But simmering under the polite applause is a growing disgruntlement that if the women have equal pay, they should also have equal play and contest 5 sets like the men.
The answer is yes.
Women should play 5 sets but not because of the parity in prize-money, rather because it’s the best thing for women’s tennis.
Little tennis lesson here for those who don’t follow the sport. Women play a best of three sets of tennis, while the men play the best of five. This means often the matches are longer, up to 11 hours and five minutes if you’re John Isner and Nicolas Mahut who battle the longest ever at Wimbledon in 2010. The thing is that women used to play 5 sets, so it’s not all that foreign, from 1980 to 1998 the WTA tournaments were contested over 5 sets.
It’s ironic that such a progressive sport can be selling women’s tennis short with the format of its product.
History’s greatest tennis matches were played beyond the third set, think Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer in the Wimbledon final in 2008, Jimmy Connors and Aaron Krickstein in the 1991 US Open, Ivan Lendl and John McEnroe at the French Open Final in 1984.
It’s after the third set where you see the comeback, the fight, the courage and that never say die attitude that inspires and has fans glued to every bounce of the yellow ball. Yet, for women, the match finishes after the third set, often after the second, before they’ve really only started.
It’s not a matter of women not being fit or strong enough to play five sets. As mentioned they’ve done it before and during some of the glory years of women’s tennis when Martina Natratilova and Chris Evert used to go head to head in battles that captured the world’s attention.
Women triathletes contest the same ironman distances and that’s one of the most gruelling events on the planet. Playing five sets is as much as a mental challenge as it is physical. It’s about outmuscling your opponent psychologically through every pain and hurt that’s throbbing your entire body you know you have to hang in there knowing that person on the other side of the net is aching just as much as you are. Tennis’ archaic format is holding women back from showcasing the best aspects of their game.
Women’s tennis is also being stifled by criticism that it’s not entertaining. While the battle of the big four (Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Andy Murray) in men’s tennis is captivating for fans, women’s is bashed for not being competitive enough with too many one-sided matches. In the past 5 years, 14 of the 20 Grand Slam Finals have been decided in the second set – that’s 70%. Extending the games to five sets could provide the platform for a more competitive match and therefore more entertaining. Shorter formats increase the likelihood of upsets occurring, and while we all love a good underdog story, there’s less room for error or to regain your focus like there is in the men’s.
The thing too is, the women want to play five sets. WTA CEO Stacey Allaster weighed into the debate recently saying “We are ready, willing and able to play 5 set matches in the major tournaments. All the others have to do is ask us“. Scheduling is a hurdle with organisers already struggling to fit in the longer matches but it’s not beyond the realms of possibility and certainly not a big enough excuse, especially when balanced on a scale of the benefits.
The reality is that three sets is a sexist format that’s obstructing women from reaching their full potential. Far from being a matter of equal pay equal play, it’s a matter of increase the sets to show women’s tennis at its best.