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Has the time come for the death of the five-setter?

Andy Murray takes a drink on a changeover during the Men's final.
by Stuart Fraser
Friday 5 July 2013

Martina Navratilova, the nine-time Wimbledon singles champion, recently suggested that men’s Grand Slam matches should be shortened to the best of three sets. With the increased physicality of the sport, has the time now come for the death of the five-setter or should tradition be maintained? Wimbledon.com spoke to figures from both the press and locker rooms to find out their views and heard some novel suggestions.

Leon Smith (Great Britain Davis Cup captain) – There is no debate. Best of five. There is too much at stake for matches to just be played over the best of three sets. Plus at Grand Slams you have a day off between matches. Fans pay big ticket prices to see longer matches as well.

Mike Dickson (Daily Mail) – I am still very much of the opinion that what distinguishes the Grand Slams are the best of five sets. The thing is with best of five you can have really huge sporting achievements in a way that you can’t with best of three. It’s possibly like comparing test match cricket to one day cricket.

I do think what has to be looked at is possibly shortening the sets a little and I would personally like to see tie-breaks at 5-5, or even more radically 4-4. I would have no problem with that at all, that would shorten the match a bit.

Ross Hutchins (British doubles player) – Grand slams have to be best of five. It’s the pinnacle of our sport. There are so many factors, it’s a question of whether you can last seven matches of five sets fitness wise and also whether you can last against the different opponents because the draw is much bigger. It has to be almost the maximum of everything: bigger draw, longer sets, longer matches, tougher conditions.

Neil Harman (The Times) – I think that the men’s game has to stay best of five because of tradition and why change something that has worked so well over the years? The making of a true champion is those who are able to win in any conditions over the longest period of time and I think that you would remove a huge element of the sense of accomplishment if you took away best of five.

If you look back at the great matches, they are generally the ones that went five sets. Rafael Nadal vs Roger Federer, even going back to 1983 I remember Chris Lewis against Kevin Curren in the semi-final, John Isner v Nicolas Mahut, Andy Roddick v Federer, Andy Murray v Richard Gasquet. They are all best of five matches and those are the ones we remember, no one really remembers best of three. It’s part and parcel of what makes Grand Slams so special.

Ben Rothenberg (New York Times) – I’m pro-best of three, I have been for a while. I just think the game has got too physical and the best of five match, not so much on grass as they have been pretty short here, but at the other three slams they have been so unbelievably long and draining on the guys’ bodies.

It’s a different sport than it was when the format was invented, when best of five started over 100 years ago. It just goes on too long, I don’t think players need it, I don’t think fans need to sit down and watch the same match last for five hours. It’s too much of one thing for sure.

Christopher Clarey (International Herald Tribune) – I think the sport should get together and have a debate about it. I think the time is right for that because I think there are a lot of issues. One I think there is a concern about things like doping in the future and physical demands being too high and you are taking some risks by making the game into an endurance contest.

But the big problem is that what distinguishes the Slams from the other tournaments is that it is best of five versus best of three really. We do have days of rest between matches. Personally, if I had to vote myself right now, I would be dragging my feet but I would keep the best of five. I think it gives a dimension to the sport and to the matches, especially in the second week, that it deserves.

Hugh MacDonald (The Herald) – Best of five because it places an emphasis on the physical aspect of the game, which has become increasingly important over the years and it repays people who put the work in on fitness and strength.

David Felgate (Coached Donna Vekic and Tim Henman) – Best of five because it has always been that way and that’s how you get the best players coming through. If you want a lot more upsets, you go best of three.

Also, if it went best of three you wouldn’t be able to have a two-week tournament because there would not be enough matches. The matches would be much quicker so I am not sure how you would fill a day with best of three matches. There just doesn’t seem to be any reason, the players aren’t calling for it, that’s the way the Slams have always been.

Simon Briggs (Telegraph) – I would like to see best of three until the fourth round and then start playing best of five because the early rounds are probably very one-sided and the guys are showing so much wear and tear. You look at Andy’s back or Roger’s back or Rafa’s knees, Novak [Djokovic] is a bit of an exception in that he is so supple, he manages to deal with the intensity and physicality of it, but most of them are struggling so take a little bit of the workload off.

The outsiders would have a slightly improved chance of causing an upset and people are happy with two sets of Djokovic beating a qualifier rather than having to watch three. I think the fourth round is where the competition gets going.

Barry Flatman (Sunday Times) – Best of five because it distinguishes a Grand Slam from other routine week-by-week tournaments and invariably the classic matches are fought out over best of five sets, which makes them more memorable and historic.

Kevin Mitchell (The Guardian) – Best of five. But women’s should definitely be best of five as well. Because when it gets to that stage, the final of a Slam, it’s important enough a match, you should have the very best players at the end of it and it’s a proper test, not a lottery. You could even say the semi-final perhaps but certainly the final and I’m sure the women would be up for it.

Courtney Nguyen (Sports Illustrated) – I would probably go towards a hybrid model so not unlike what we see at the Olympics where you play best of three and then the final is best of five. That would probably be something that people would get on board with because if you had best of five, then in the final it would be the better player, it would be less of a shoot-out so the result makes sense. It is hard to ask for television viewers to sit through best of five in six rounds. It’s tough.

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