Tennis as a sport has been played competitively for a long time, over 150 years. Some of the first matches played were in Birmingham. The first match played between women was in 1891; over 126 years ago.
It was also played over five sets.
In 1901, the US National Lawn Tennis Federation decided that women playing five sets was too taxing for their bodies, and that they wouldn’t be able to maintain a high level of play playing five sets, thus deciding to reduce it to three sets. This was met with resistance. Bessie Moore, a rising 16 year old, protested, saying that female tennis players should have been consulted first. However, USTF decided that their decision was final.
Did women’s tennis ever adopt the longer format of the game after that?
Short answer: Yes. Long answe: Yes, but not for a long time. As you can see, all matches contested between women right now are best of three sets.
The most famous example being the Battle of the sexes tie up of Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs in 1973, which King won in straight sets (which is why it’s so popular). Apart from that, the world tour finals for women was contested in five sets from 1984 to 1998, with a 5 setter from Monica Seles. For 15 years, women played best of five sets matches in the end of the year championship. This only points to one thing.
Women are more than capable of playing five sets.
In fact, players have been repeatedly asking for the five set format for a long time, with almost all the top players being on board. Navratilova said women players have been asking for it for a long time. “But they keep saying ‘Oh no, no no no.’ and the matter is never pursued further”. Billie Jean King, the founder of the WTA, Serena and Venus Williams and Angelique Kerber are some big names who have been vocal about wanting the longer format. Among men, World Number 1 Andy Murray said in 2013 that women should play five sets, and that “It’s not like they cannot play five sets.”
Even the WTA has made efforts to make best of five sets matches a reality. However, this decision is not theirs to make. The responsibility of this lies with the International Tennis Federation (ITF).
Why is it being met with resistance?
Firstly, its just how things have been. With the majority of matches being played in three sets since 1901, the tennis world has come to accept it. There’s also the perception that women are physically not capable of playing 5 sets. While it can be debated as to whether or not all women will be able to endure 5 sets, if it ever happens, general consensus says that women are more than capable of playing 5 sets. History has proven that. In the 70s and the 80s, a generation where physical fitness wasn’t where it is now, women played gritty five setters.
I’m sure the players who would find it difficult would gradually find their footing (quite literally) with fitness and make strides (quite literally again) towards endurance. If women all over the world compete in marathons, races, and other sports like football and cricket that use the exact same rules as men, I don’t see why the same shouldn’t apply in tennis.
What would it mean for the sport?
The entertainment value would definitely be higher. I for one would thoroughly enjoy it. You could also expect many changes in results. Yes, you read that right. Players like Williams who rely on powerful groundstrokes will probably struggle to maintain a high level for 5 sets in a match (if it ever stretches to that point). It’s no secret that Williams is not a good mover, and players like Kvitova have gone on record to state that they’d really need to work on their stamina, if the day ever comes that women play five setters.
Interest in women’s tennis can be expected to go up too. Most casual fans of the sport only watch the grand slam events, and five setters would mean more gritty, raw tennis which tests every aspect of the player more rigorously.
Equal pay debates will be a thing of the past (in the grand slam level of course, as many tournaments worldwide still don’t offer the same pay). Fine and dandy right?
What are the obstacles if it were to get implemented?
Scheduling. Grand slam tournaments are known to be chock a block filled with matches. The timeline is constructed in such a way that it accommodates delays and discrepancies as well. It would mean that the schedule would be even more restrictive and tight than it already is. And if there are any delays in play ( Roland Garros 2016 anyone?), it’d wreck havoc. The International Tennis Federation and Grand Slam organisers will have to discuss and decide how to go about a change in schedule, if they ever decide to implement it.
You will also find resistance from women tennis players. Five setters are known to be gruelling and very physical, and the fact that women aren’t being paid the same amount of money as men in smaller tournaments will definitely be brought up, apart from the obvious fact that most wouldn’t like to “work” more for no increase in pay.
Can it happen?
Who knows? Maybe it will, maybe it won’t. Right now, I’d lean towards a no. There haven’t been any reports, either from the WTA or the ITF, or even the players that the longer format could be implemented. And while I would love to see players like Serena and Venus battle it out over five sets, the possibility of it happening (especially considering the fact that the duo are at their twilight of their careers) in the near future is bleak.
But, whether it gets implemented or not, we’re here to watch the sport for what it is.