Men's Tennis - 'The Grand Slam Debate' : Best of 3 or Best of 5?

By Fraser Cox

In today’s extremely fast-paced and heavily-scrutinised world, we have become accustomed to ‘change’, ‘evolution’ and ‘adaptation’. The tennis domain is far from an anomaly: adjustments have been, and will continue to be made. As the season comes to a close, one has a chance to reflect upon potential developments that will undoubtedly generate discussion, and, quite often, divide opinion. The best-of-three versus best-of-five sets debate firmly falls into this category.

‘Tennis royalty’ have their say

The four grand slam logos. Courtesy of: Slazenger Heritage. Publication: Slazenger Limited

The Grand Slam tournaments (Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and US Open) are the most coveted events in the tennis calendar. Since their respective births, the four ‘majors’ have consisted of best-of-five matches for the men’s competitions – a formula that has made the slams unique and precious. Although conjecture regarding a change in the best-of-five sets format has existed for numerous years, the debate gained substantial momentum towards the conclusion of the 2020 season. Several of the world’s leading stars, including Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Dominic Thiem, made their stances immensely clear. The great Spaniard and the 2020 US Open Champion were very much singing from the same hymn sheet, believing that the current format should remain. They highlighted that playing best-of-five sets is “tradition”, “special” and demands a player to be “stronger mentally and physically”. Conversely, the world number one, Djokovic, believed that it was time for a change. He stated that he is: “more of a proponent of best-of-three-sets everywhere” and added that the tennis schedule is more arduous than any other sport.

A clear split amongst some of the sports’ juggernauts is very apparent.

‘The Holy Grail’

Ivan Lendl lifting the French Open trophy, alongside a very emotional John McEnroe. Courtesy of: Getty Images. Publication: Times Newspapers Limited

The sacred Slams occupy eight weeks of the year. The tournaments offer the greatest amount of prize money, ranking points, media and public interest; the highest quality and size of field; and, of course, the best-of-five sets clashes. The extraordinarily irreplaceable atmosphere that the competitions create is simply awe-inspiring: the drama, the upsets, the incredible stories, and the ‘small matter’ of, invariably, a handful of five-set thrillers.

Over the years, tennis fanatics have been treated to a plethora of ‘marathon’ matches, filled with lung-busting rallies, momentum changes and a mind-boggling level of tennis. McEnroe versus Lendl – French Open Final, 1984; Connors versus Krickstein – US Open 4th Round, 1991; Federer versus Nadal – Wimbledon Final, 2008, to name but a few. All of the aforementioned encounters ‘went the distance’ and are considered to be among the greatest matches ever. Respectively, they provided the world with an iconic and historic moment that will be etched in the memory of countless tennis aficionados. By stripping away one of the foremost minerals of Grand Slam tennis, one is, in effect, disregarding the history, tradition and the culture of the game – such trigger words are reminiscent of a more recent debate in the football world (European Super League). I am not hinting that, for a match to be regarded as a ‘great’, it must be under Grand Slam circumstances and proceed to a deciding fifth set – that is not the case – however, it does elevate the match to another level. The players instinctively adopt that ‘do-or-die’ attitude and quite often raise their game to new heights; the tension amid the crowd becomes almost palpable.

Sport is about testing an athlete’s determination, spirit and resilience, in both a physical and mental capacity: a gruelling 5-set battle in tennis is one of the toughest tests in sport.

Is a change necessary?

Unfortunately, in many sports there seems to be an underlying urge to alter specific elements of the game or landscape. Some changes are needed and, therefore, embraced; others are not. One could argue that it is only human nature to desire progression and improvement – finding a ‘middle ground’ is often the way forward.

Modern-day viewers crave continuous excitement and shorter bursts of action-packed sport. In their mind, a best-of-five sets match is probably too long, and, dare I say it, boring at times – an outlook that tennis purists, like me, despise.

As much as genuine enthusiasts adore the best-of-five sets format, it has perhaps been a primary cause for the number of injuries and retirements that have occurred at Grand Slams. Sadly, we have witnessed some tremendously exhausting ‘runs’ coming to a premature halt, at the expense of a likely title-win: Rafael Nadal’s ostensibly interminable campaign at the 2018 US Open is a perfect case in point. Would a best-of-3 sets formula see a reduction in withdrawals? Quite possibly, yes.

Stick or twist?

Discussions to make a structural change to the Grand Slam template will almost certainly come and go, until there is substantial backing of a new suitable proposal.

In the meantime, tennis will march on with its current tried and tested, and, moreover, fabulous system.

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