Sunday, October 21, 2012

WTA and Best-of-Five Sets in Slams

By Mert Ertunga

We are nearing the end of another tennis calendar year. We have once again witnessed a scenario that lately seems to repeat itself in Slam finals for many years. The women's finals are continuously overshadowed by the men's finals. Before I get into the details, let me make my intention clear from the beginning: it is time for WTA to seriously consider implementing some formula that includes a five-set format in the Slams.

First, let's analyze the trend closer.

In Australia, Victoria Azarenka walked out to the court, and at the end of a match that seemed to be more like a promenade for her, she ousted Maria Sharapova 6-3, 6-0 in one hour and 22 minutes. One day later, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal walked out and played one of the most epic (if not the most) finals in the history of the game, ending in a five-set victory of Djokovic after nearly six hours of drama and superior-quality tennis.

During the week that followed, in the world of tennis, you can guess which final match was the central point of discussion. However, one topic that was never discussed was this: which spectator who forked out a large sum of money to see a Slam final got the better value for his/her ticket? The one who attended the women's final or the men's? I will let you guess.

Summer arrived and came Roland Garros. In the women's final, as everyone expected, Maria Sharapova erased Sara Errani off the court in two sets after one hour and 29 minutes. I know personally three people who tried to sell their tickets to the final match the day before on the designed ticket exchange website. One of them sold it for 115 euros and the seat was on the lower level (although in one of the higher rows) about the service line; in other words, a good seat. I don't know if the other two ever sold theirs.

The day before the men's final, I got curious and went on the same website and looked at similarly placed tickets. The cheapest was at 245 euros and it sold quickly. Once again, Nadal and Djokovic faced each other in the final, and despite terrible weather conditions (the match was postponed to the next day in the beginning of the fourth set), they played a match that lasted close to four hours total that ended with Nadal taking home the trophy for the seventh time.

Once again, the press spent the few days following the weekend talking about the ins and outs of the men's final, and hardly a column was to be seen about Sharapova's victory, one of the most popular figures in women's tennis. Once again, what was ignored was whether the ticket holder for the men's final left Court Philippe Chatrier satisfied, or the one holding a ticket for the women's final.

Wimbledon came two weeks later, and finally on the women's side, we had a match that went to three sets. Between the two sets, Serena Williams won comfortably 6/1 and 6/2, Agnieszka Radwanska was able to squeeze in an upset set of 7-5. Technically, it was a three-setter (hey, it even lasted two minutes over two hours!), but it was far from being an exciting, or a "close" match.

Even though it went three sets, it was evident that the women's final would be overshadowed once again by the men's final between Roger Federer and Andy Murray one day later, and it did just that. After a four-set match that lasted three hours and 24 minutes of great tennis, Federer and Murray managed to give the spectators at Wimbledon and at home plenty of thrilling moments. In the days that followed, the tennis world was discussing the 17th Slam of Federer and if Murray would ever win in his first; they were certainly not spending much time on Serena's victory. Another topic that was not discussed is why the ticket for the women's final was priced at 15 pounds less than the men's final.

Finally, U.S. Open arrived. This time around, the women's final match was spectacular and lasted for two hours and 18 minutes. Serena Williams defeated Victoria Azarenka 7-5 in the third set that included a remarkable comeback by Serena. Surely, this time the women's final would get equal time as the men's final in the following days. Once again, it was not to be. After a five-set match equaling the longest final in U.S. Open history, Murray lifted his first Slam trophy ever, defeating Djokovic. Murray's face was seen on TV around the world and his interviews were plastered all over the tennis media in large numbers, whereas Serena's victory-related press coverage was scarce at best. Even with a great women's final match, the ticket holder for a men's final got a better value for his money than the ticket holder for the women's final.

Was 2012 an exceptional year in this context? Hardly.

In Australia, since 2000, women played six finals that went to three sets. Men played only four finals in the same time period that ended in three straight sets. The rest went to four or five sets. The reason is simple: there is a better chance in three-out-of-five set match that a player can turn things around and make a match out of a rout and thus make the match exciting. And let's point out that Australia provides the most favorable outlook for the women's finals in terms of this topic compared to the other Slams. The more we look at other Slams, the worse the picture gets.

Since 2000 in Paris, despite the utter dominance of Nadal for a large portion of the period, there were only three men's final matches that ended in three straight sets. Guess when was the last time the women's final went to a final set? It was in 2001, when Jennifer Capriati defeated Kim Clijsters 12-10 in the third set. Since that year, not only the women's finals ended mostly in two set routs, but only one set went to 7-5, and two sets went to a tiebreaker. In short, spectators averaged somewhere between 60 minutes to 90 minutes matches in women's finals. Is it any wonder that there were some empty seats in the women's final match in Paris?

At Wimbledon, the last three-set final on the women's side, prior to this year, was played in 2006. In that same time period, only one final on the men's side ended in three straight sets! Let's not repeat the reason (see the Australian Open paragraph above). Let's instead move finally to the U.S. Open where the discrepancy could not be any clearer.

Thank god for the thrilling final this year on the women's side because the last time a women's final match went three sets prior to it, hold on to your seat, was in 1995 when Steffi Graf defeated Monica Seles! That is 17 years ago, folks.

It is time for WTA to seriously consider moving to a five-set format in the Slams. This has nothing to do with the "equal prize money" issue and that discussion belongs to another topic. This is about the spectator, about the one person that seems to consistently get the short end of the stick: the tennis fan. How about considering the one person that we claim "sports are made for?"

Yet, WTA seems so stuck in the equal prize money discussion that it is overlooking the tennis fan. In all fairness, the WTA CEO Stacey Allaster did say during the year-ending WTA Championships in Istanbul last year that the WTA would not be against playing five-set in Slams, but that Slam organizers were not looking favorably to the idea. But that is not an issue that cannot be overcome.

For example, women could move to playing three-out-five sets beginning in the quarterfinals, and men could do the same, and the scheduling issue would be manageable for Slams. Would that not consequently take care of that other incessant debate about the equal prize money distribution? Both sides would then shut up and play tennis, since everything would be on equal grounds and anyone who still defends unequal prize money distribution would look like a true outcast. But again, that is not the point of this article. The main point is that the value of the tennis spectator would be put ahead of all else if women moved to a five-set format in the Slams thanks to some variation of a formula similar to the one above.

I read that Billie Jean King, when asked about playing best-of-five sets for women, questioned why women should play five sets and that she finds five-set matches on the men's side "boring." Please, Ms. King! Can you seriously claim that you found this year's Australian Open and U.S. Open men's finals boring? Somebody needs to tell Ms. King that it's time to visualize things without the confined boundaries equal prize money debate for once and think of the tennis fan, the marketability of women's tennis, and how to bring to equal footing "the sports ticket value" of women's tennis with the men's.

Yes, Ms. King, you have been a valuable pioneer in bringing women's tennis to where it is now, but it's time for WTA to step out of your shadow and tackle the issues in 2012. Every leader needs to know when to realize that their time has passed and that they would serve what they love best by simply stepping aside, or at least putting their influence on the shelf for good. That time has come for you, Ms. King.

Finally, for those who may not know: it would not be the first time women have played five sets. From 1984 to 1998, the finals of the year-ending WTA Championships were played best-of-five sets. Can anyone deny that this had something to do with the fact that the final match in 1996, when Steffi Graf defeated Martina Hingis in a five-set thriller, is now down in history as one of the most exciting matches in women's tennis? Or did Ms. King find that fantastic encounter boring, too? I think not.

Allaster and WTA need to take the right steps. Most of all, they need some courage. They need to put aside the potential complaints of a few players who may object to it because they are afraid of getting injured or not being in good enough condition to play a five-setter (although, they would never verbalize it such), and they need to step out of the shadow of Ms. King. The WTA has great power and Slam organizers would not stand a chance to refuse if only WTA obliged. But they need to act for the sake of none other than the tennis fan.

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