Is it Time for Best-of-Five Set Women’s Tennis?

Scheduling issues have thrust the structure of women’s tennis into the spotlight. 

By Laura Fay

Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus receives a standing ovation after defeating Elena Rybakina of Kazakhstan to win the 2023 Australian Open. (AP Photo/Asanka Brendon Ratnayake)

Everyone remembers the epics. Federer vs. Nadal at 2008 Wimbledon. Nadal vs. Djokovic at the 2012 Australian Open. Djokovic vs. Federer at 2019 Wimbledon. These are matches tennis fans turn to time and time again, showcases of, presumably, the best the sport has to offer. And they’re all men’s matches. Because, at the Grand Slam level, only men’s tennis matches are allowed the space to ascend to another level of the sport: the best-of-five match. 

But it doesn’t have to be this way and historically, it hasn’t. Women played best-of-five matches from 1891 to 1901 at the US National Championships, a tournament that eventually evolved into the US Open. In the 1980s, players voted to adopt a best-of-five format in the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) Tour Finals. But ever since that tournament folded due to low ratings, women have been locked into a best-of-three format.

It is a format that does a disservice to the women’s game, and not just in the ways you would think. First and foremost, women are denied the possibility of “epics”. This is, of course, not to say there aren’t any incredible women’s matches. There are countless, including last week’s Australian Open final. But the shorter match time doesn’t allow for narratives to play out the way the men’s game does. 

Some of the most remarkable men’s Grand Slam finals are the ones where the victor comes back from two sets down, as Rafael Nadal did in last year’s Australian Open final. It instantly sets up a comeback story, a beaten-down underdog coming back from the brink. The women’s side isn’t afforded this luxury. Going a set and a break down can happen incredibly quickly, and by the time a player has found her feet it’s too late. Even when a player does come back from a set down, the simple fact of it only being one set instead of two means those comebacks rarely have the same grandiose effect as one like Nadal’s. 

The shorter match time also has an adverse effect on scheduling. Every tournament wants the best, most suspenseful, matches possible, and in Grand Slams, those are matches decided with a fifth set. As women’s matches obviously won’t go to five sets, they rarely get primetime billing. In last month’s Australian Open, Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina played World No.1 Iga Swiatek at 11 am. During the same round, Victoria Azarenka and Zhu Lin took to the court after midnight, having been forced to wait out a men’s five-setter. In both cases, the matches got neither the media coverage nor fan attendance that they deserved. 

This systematic devaluing of women’s tennis is true for every slam, but has been exemplified by the French Open. In 2019, after rain forced massive rescheduling, both women’s semifinals were pushed to smaller outside courts, while the men’s semifinals were played on Court Philippe Chatrier as planned. Despite blowback, the tournament continues to give women the short end of the stick. This past year, the tournament scheduled almost exclusively men’s matches as the primetime night session.

Asked about the discrepancy, tournament director Amelie Mauresmo, herself a former WTA player, doubled down. “I don’t feel bad or unfair saying that right now you have more attraction, more attractivity—can you say that? Appeal? That’s the general, for the men’s matches,” she said during a press conference. 

While it’s true that women’s tennis has been trying to define itself in a post-Serena Williams era, the sport will never develop new champions and rivalries without any investment in them. The WTA has immense swaths of talent. Swiatek’s year as World No. 1 has been a dominant one, and with compatriots Rybakina and Aryna Sabalenka both breaking through to win their first Grand Slam titles, it is only a matter of time until tantalizing rivalries develop. But without primetime billing during which people can get invested in those rivalries, the game won’t grow. 

The poor scheduling has a trickle-down effect on prize money as well. While all the Grand Slams have equalized their prize money, winnings at tour level events are highly determined by gender. According to the New York Times, the annual prize money for the top 100 earners in the WTA is roughly 80 cents to every dollar earned by the top 100 men in the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP). This is despite the fact that both men and women play best-of-three sets in tour events. 

According to former World No.1 Victoria Azarenka, this pay disparity can be traced to exposure during Grand Slams. “You give 10 years of the same exposure and the same time slots as men’s get, and then we will look at those numbers (prize money) and you tell me the difference, okay?,” Azarenka said to reporters at Wimbledon in 2019. 

It isn’t that the general public is uninterested in women’s tennis either. The women’s Australian Open final has now outperformed the men’s two years in a row. But so few women’s matches receive the top billing that finals lend themselves to. If the only way to get that primetime scheduling on a consistent basis is with best-of-five matches, it might be time for the WTA to re-evaluate its model. 

So, what would best-of-five tournaments for women even look like? Well, given the tight two-week schedule of Grand Slams, it would be incredibly difficult to have both men and women’s five-setters all tournament long. Possibly five-set matches could be phased into the women’s draw, starting in the quarterfinals and later. Another solution, and one that could alleviate the congestion of early rounds of Slams, is to start all best-of-five matches in the quarterfinals. Either solution would elevate the most important women’s matches to the same level as the mens, forcing tournament schedulers to treat them with the same amount of respect. 

Of course, opinions within the WTA are split on best-of-five. While longer matches would ideally result in more airtime and coverage, more intensive matches obviously require more endurance training and run a higher risk of injury. Still, the players chose to play best-of-five in the ‘80s. They deserve the opportunity to make that choice again.

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