© Ella Ling

Rafa Nadal - Paris

What if the men played best of 3 sets at the slams?


There has been much talk, lately, about whether playing best-of-five sets at the grand slams is good for the men players, notably for their health. Of course those five-set epics tend to make for great viewing but everyone wants to see the top players staying in the sport as long as possible.

Some feel the way forward might be to play best-of-three sets, at least in the first week of a slam, before reverting to best-of-five for the latter stages. It’s a subject that divides tennis fans and administrators but at Wimbledon, Patrick McEnroe, the general manager of player development at the United States Tennis Association and the former US Davis Cup captain, suggested a study be done into how often the “big four” won from two sets to one down. Well, McEnroe’s wish is our command.

Before we get to the results, a bit of background. McEnroe’s suggestion was centred around the premise that the best players would still win, by and large, if matches were best of three instead of best of five. Looking at how often they were two sets to one down, and still won, would show how often the match result would have been different if played over three sets. There is a strong argument that players should be rewarded for their conditioning, something that’s taken years to build up. But it’s a worthy premise, so here goes.

For the purposes of this study, let’s stick to grand slam meetings, since that’s what the debate concerns. Between them and in no particular order – Roger Federer, Rafa Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray – the big four have played 88 matches that have gone the full five sets. Federer has 30, Djokovic 23, Murray 19 and Nadal 16.

All four of them have positive win/loss records when trailing by two sets to one, which is pretty impressive. For Federer it’s 10-4; Nadal is 6-3; Djokovic is 10-2 and Murray is 9-1. So all four of them have shown their ability to dig deep and overturn what would have been defeats if the match had been played over three sets.

For what it’s worth, Federer, Nadal and Djokovic are all in the black when they have won two of the first three sets but strangely, Murray has won four and lost six. However, three of those came when he was well outside the top 10 and not yet fully hardened or anywhere near the athlete he is today.

As so often, it’s hard to read too much into these stats because you can’t factor in a player’s mindset into a match that’s already happened. Mentally, when players know they are playing best of five, they won’t panic when trailing by two sets to one (or two sets to love) and will play accordingly. In some of the matches they lost, had they known it was only best of three, they may have played it differently.

Questioned at Wimbledon (by me, for The Guardian) McEnroe continued: “I really enjoyed the Olympics last year. I thought the dynamic of the [best-of-three-sets] matches was good and the intensity level was higher, earlier. The better players pretty much won anyway.

“Great as the four-to-six-hour matches we’ve seen are, I think that people would still watch them if they were two and a half to three hours. Probably more people might watch them.”

Defenders of five-set matches will tell you that the best players usually win. It’s a debate that will undoubtedly raise its head any time the top players struggle with injuries but for the top four, at least, it seems going the distance suits them nicely.

  • Rob Cross

    Speaking as a fan. 2 out of 3 sets is plenty. 5 sets is to much, it gets boring and takes to long.