No equality in tennis until women start playing best-of-five matches

The way tennis looks at its male and female athletes is something that I have always found fascinating.

On one hand, it is one of those rare sports that treats both its male and female athletes with the same amount of reverence and respect – they both get to compete on the same platform, with the same facilities, in front of the same audience and are entitled to the same prize money. Yet, on the other hand, by making men play best of five sets and women best of three, it reeks of sexism. Almost as if to suggest "you are just a woman, how will you last five gruelling sets? Your body can't handle it."


While tennis world harps about equality in reality they don’t treat men and women players alike. AFP

Men run a 42 km marathon. Women run a 42 km marathon.

Men play football for 90 minutes. Women play football for 90 minutes.

Men swim for 50m. Women swim for 50m.

Men participate in an ultra marathon or a triathlon. Women participate in an ultra marathon or a triathlon — the same distance. And that is my biggest problem with major tennis tournaments. While they harp about equality in reality they don’t treat men and women players alike.

The men play best of five sets. The women best of three sets.

However, it has not always been like this. In fact, between 1984-1998 the final of the WTA championships did feature women playing best of five sets. One can only speculate why from 1999 onwards the WTA brought in the best of three set rule but the more important point is that professional women tennis players — in a not so distant past — did play more than three sets:

1986: Martina Navratilova beat Hana Mandlíková 6–2, 6–0, 3–6, 6–1

1987: Steffi Graf beat Gabriela Sabatini 4–6, 6–4, 6–0, 6–4

1989: Steffi Graf beat Martina Navratilova 6–4, 7–5, 2–6, 6–2

1990: Monica Seles beat Gabriela Sabatini 6–4, 5–7, 3–6, 6–4, 6–2

1991: Monica Seles beat Martina Navratilova 6–4, 3–6, 7–5, 6–0

1993: Steffi Graf beat Arantxa Sánchez Vicario 6–1, 6–4, 3–6, 6–1

1995: Steffi Graf beat Anke Huber 6–1, 2–6, 6–1, 4–6, 6–3

1996: Steffi Graf beat Martina Hingis 6–3, 4–6, 6–0, 4–6, 6–0

1998: Martina Hingis beat Lindsay Davenport 7–5, 6–4, 4–6, 6–2

The reason why I want a best of five sets for women is not so that the women can justify the equal pay. I do not think that payment for any sport should be linked with the hours spent playing. Nor do I want a best of five sets so that women can prove their physical and mental capabilities.
I simply want it because it would produce the best tennis.

Anyone who plays the game would know that most tennis players actually function like ovens and not microwaves. They take time to 'heat up' and get in the groove. Very rarely does a tennis player start firing from the word go. And sometimes when you do go all guns blazing you can actually end up losing your way in the middle. The serve may abandon you, the backhand may start getting rusty or the volleys just stop connecting. It is at that moment that you need time to regroup.

It is hard for any player to press the breaks, introspect and come back in a best-of-three situation. But in a best of five, you get time to regroup. It ensures that the better, and not the luckier player, wins.

Most women players are open to playing five sets. What is stopping them? The lack of enthusiasm from the tournament organisers. A practical stumbling block for the organisers is the time constraint. Scheduling two 128-strong singles draws, together with doubles, mixed doubles and boys & girls matches into a two-week period will be a major issue.

The way around that? Both men and women play best of three sets till the pre quarterfinals and from the quarterfinal stage both should switch to the best of five format.

The joy of watching and playing a sport is when you know drama of great depth can unfold. The comebacks, the close finish, the fight to death. Legends on the sports field are made when they push themselves physically and mentally. A best of thre format denies women athletes a chance to do that. Coming back from a set down is pretty ordinary, but winning from two sets down is what creates legends. A champion needs to do something more than just the routine.

It is only fair that women tennis players are provided this opportunity to push themselves and elevate their game to the next level.

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Updated Date: Jul 11, 2015 19:20:12 IST

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