THE DECIDING fifth set of this summer's Wimbledon quarterfinal between Rafael Nadal and Juan Martín del Potro was described by Andy Murray, who was doing commentary for the BBC, as "one of the best sets of tennis I've ever seen." But he later said of the four-hour, 48-minute match, "It was really, really long to sit there as a spectator."
The three-time major winner—one of the tour's fittest players—had a point: Who can afford to spend five hours watching tennis? (The match spilled into Murray's dinner plans.) A better question might be whether players can afford to spend five hours playing tennis. During the first two rounds of the U.S. Open, with temperatures peaking in the high 90s, a staggering 12 men retired from matches, citing injury or heat exhaustion. Would men's tennis benefit by switching to a best-of-three format at majors?
The mere suggestion of doing away with best-of-five is enough to send a tennis traditionalist into a McEnroe-esque tantrum, but men's majors are the exception, not the rule. Most other competitions are best-of-three. Shorter matches still provide drama—see Roger Federer's three-set win over Nick Kyrgios at the 2017 Miami Open, the most entertaining match of last season—without the risk to players or the excessive time commitment for fans.
Far too often, best-of-fives become wars of attrition, hinging on raw endurance instead of skill. And as tennis grows increasingly physical, less mileage would preserve the tour's best players. Sure, it's true that some of history's most famous matches have gone five sets: McEnroe-Borg at Wimbledon in 1980, Federer-Nadal in 2008. But playing best-of-three would create more classics by heightening the importance of individual sets.
There's also the element of sexism: That men play best-of-five while women only play best-of-three insults female players, especially when critics use that antiquated discrepancy as ammunition against equal pay. It's unlikely that such a conservative sport will alter the format of Grand Slams anytime soon. (Cancel those dinner reservations!) But Federer (37), Nadal (32) and Novak Djokovic (above, 31) won't be around to draw in casual viewers much longer. For tennis to attract new fans, less could be more.
"FAR TOO OFTEN, BEST-OF-FIVES BECOME WARS OF ATTRITION, HINGING ON RAW ENDURANCE INSTEAD OF SKILL. LESS MILEAGE WOULD PRESERVE THE TOUR'S BEST PLAYERS."
SIGN OF THE APOCALYPSE
A KNICKS FAN AUCTIONED OFF HIS FANHOOD ON EBAY—AND A LAKERS FAN PAID $3,450 FOR IT.
THEY SAID IT
"BY THE STRATEGIC POINT OF VIEW WE DIDN'T LOSE. BY THE TACTICAL POINT OF VIEW WE DIDN'T LOSE. BUT WE LOST THE GAME."
MANCHESTER UNITED MANAGER JOSE MOURINHO ∂ after a 3--0 home defeat to Tottenham Hotspur on Aug. 27