By Ada Carlston
New York City, New York
Over the years, I’ve indulged in the mind-blowing talent of top-ranked tennis players in the Grand Slams of the Australian, French, and U.S. Open, along with Wimbledon. As I’ve watched women dominate the courts, I’ve always wondered why they play shorter matches than men. Women are challenged to best of three, while men are challenged to best of five. I had never assumed the reason behind this custom was the belief that women are less capable than men, or vise versa. Though I was well aware of this difference, I had never thought of why this rule existed. However, upon reflection, I have concluded that there is no reason for women to partake in shorter matches and for men to be forced to endure such long and tiring ones.
Three sets is the standard for men and women in all tournaments except the Grand Slams. The International Tennis Association, which runs the Grand Slam Tournaments, made this decision, in which women have no say. From the perspective of the Wimbledon bracket, chairman of the British Philosophy of Sport Association Dr. Paul Davis and senior sports lecturer at Cardiff Metropolitan University Lisa Edwards, call this rule “unfair, outdated” and “indefensible.” Many people in the tennis world agree that there is no logical reason behind this rule, which seems to be set in stone. The opinion on this matter plays a significant role in the equal pay discussion. Some people argue that men work harder and have a higher risk of injury, therefore deserving higher pay than women. In 2016, Novak Djokovic pushed this narrative when he questioned the equal prize money of the Grand Slam tournaments. Djokovic said, “We have much more spectators at the men’s tennis matches. I think that’s one of the reasons why maybe we should get awarded more. Women should fight for what they think they deserve, and we should fight for what we think we deserve.” Though Djokovic was not wrong about the amount of revenue gained from spectators of men’s compared to women’s tennis, he was merely arguing that men deserved more pay because of that spectator difference. Djokovic was not focusing on the skill, technique, or talent of men when he made this argument; rather, he argued that male players should benefit from the media and fan base that gives men’s tennis so much more coverage. Nonetheless, Novak Djokovic spoke up about lack of equal pay in the sport through his open support for equal pay on International Women’s Day on March 8th, 2020, tweeting the hashtag “#EachforEqual.”
In 1988, highly accomplished and legendary player Steffi Graf won the shortest match in French Open history, defeating opponent Natasha Zvereva in just 34 minutes. The 22 Grand Slam title-holder beat Zvereva 6-0 and 6-0 in the championship’s final, showing her skill and high technique. Reports from this game indicate that Graf had crushed Zvereva. However, I wonder how Zvereva would have played had this match been best of five. Would Zvereva have come back and seized a set, therefore extending the match?
William Renshaw’s defeat over John Hartley in 1881 is recorded as the shortest match in Grand Slam history, lasting 36 minutes. Renshaw defeated Hartley with a score of 6-0, 6-1 and 6-1. This match lasted only two minutes longer than the female’s shortest match, even with an extra set. 1881 was 139 years ago; thus, the rules and customs have likely changed quite a bit. Despite this possibility, the match proved to show minimal strength on Hartley’s part, allowing Renshaw’s quick defeat, while a two-set match of the women’s game lasting almost this length may prove their ability to play longer. Looking at more recent matches provides more insight into how men and women differ in tennis today.
The most recently recorded and third shortest match of men’s singles Grand slam tournaments was Jo-Wilfred Tsonga’s defeat of Bernard Tomic in 58 minutes. The men’s shortest games last longer than women’s because of the obvious set difference.
Experts have found that women put in as much training as men do to prepare for these high-stakes and mentally challenging games. They have also found that 5-set matches have severe effects on the physical condition of male players. Compared to women’s tennis, men’s tennis matches show more mid-match withdrawals due to injury. With this, some tennis pros have even suggested that both male and female Grand Slam matches be best of three.
In 2013, professional player Andy Murray said matches would be more interesting and fair if men and women played the same number of sets. After Murray expressed interest in this idea, Women’s Tennis Associate (WTA) chief Stacey Allister said female players expressed their willingness to play best of five at the Slams.
Though I would love nothing more than to see women participate in five-set matches at the Slams, it is ultimately up to the tennis associations to dictate the rules and regulations of these games. Trying to change old customs and rules is a challenging feat, which is why there has been minimal coverage on the topic. Some may argue that the Grand Slams are just a few tournaments and that the several other tournaments that do regulate three-set matches across males and females outweigh the importance of these Slams. I, however, disagree. Having just one Grand Slam title takes years and years of work and proves to be a massive accomplishment for many tennis players on the rise. Every Grand Slam tournament has more viewers than, say, the BNP Paribas Open. Thus, the Grand Slam events are too important to dismiss as just a few games. The trajectory of professional tennis will drastically change should the International Tennis Association decide to allow women five sets or restrict men to three sets. I do not foresee this happening soon. However, I would love to see young and rising female tennis players make this a priority in the fight for equality, no matter how minuscule it may be in the inspiring world of tennis.