Sorry, Billie; it’s quantity as well as quality that counts for the fans

Whilst reminiscing over that glorious summer’s day almost a decade ago, it’s hard to imagine there will be many who witnessed arguably the greatest ever Men’s tennis final at Wimbledon and feel as though they were cheated out of a few extra hours of their lives.

Granted, it was a fine day. The epitome of the English summer, and how often each year can that be claimed? On such an exceptional day, our country’s parks never look more resplendent, river walks rarely so inviting. And yet, as the mid-afternoon sun matured into evening, as the hour that dog-walkers and daily joggers call their own dawned, there would not have been many tearing themselves away from the box as Rafael Nadal took the first two sets against Roger Federer after only 90 minutes of play. Despite the mountain that Federer would have to climb to haul himself back into the match (something he achieved despite eventually losing in the end), such was the occasion of a Wimbledon final, and the esteem in which then-five-time champion Federer was held, every spectator crossed their fingers for a classic.

Their prayers were answered, of course. After close to five hours of riveting tennis, it was Nadal who finished the day holding the winner’s trophy aloft, leaving everyone who had tuned in to proclaim it one of the finest and most enthralling spectacles ever witnessed on a tennis court. It was, at the time, the longest Grand Slam final to have been contested in the sport, at four hours, forty-eight minutes to be precise. A long time for a viewer to partake in a contest that could easily have lasted a third of what it had, but a devotion seen by most as in investment of their time in a quality rarely witnessed in other aspects of life.

It is unfortunate, then, that some feel the Men’s game should be condensed into three sets at Grand Slams, which would match the female side of the draw, as well as the format adopted by both men and women the rest of the calendar year. Unfortunate that just as Roger Federer would have been clicking into gear and thinking about offering up an all-time classic in 2008, he would have already been sent to the dressing room with a runners-up medal because the match was over after a mere two sets. And unfortunate for the countless other participants who have battled their way into history over the years by contesting in exciting and engrossing four- and five-set tennis matches to the delight of millions of onlookers.

One of the loudest voices coming from this band of revolutionaries is of course one no stranger to challenging the status quo. Tennis great and female icon Billie Jean King has never been one to shy away from challenging those who refuse to move along with the times, and has recently argued that the format of the men’s game should be the next to do so.

The debate surrounding the format of the game for both men and women has never been a straightforward one to breeze into. A delicate topic in all walks of life, that of pay, is never far from resurfacing despite equal prize money for men and women being on offer at all four grand slams since 2007. True, this seems late indeed considering that the first of these slams to offer equal pay, the US Open, has done so since 1973. One factor that almost certainly played a role in the arrival of equal prize money at these showpiece tournaments concerns just how long men and women are out on court in front of their paying fans. Through playing best-of-three set matches, female players are spending significantly less time on court than their male counterparts across the two week championship. In winning Wimbledon in 2015, Novak Djovokic spent a further 6 hours (almost 50%) on court compared to the winner of the women’s final that year, Serena Williams. Perhaps with this in mind, Djokovic later suggested that male stars deserved to earn more than his female counterparts at grand slam competitions, also citing that equal pay does not take into account the disparity in popularity of the men’s and women’s game when it comes to viewing figures. It is behaviour such as this which goes a long way in proving that the dispute around prize money is far from dead.

Another factor which has been debating at length in the modern age, particularly on the men’s side of the sport, is just how many matches male players are notching up. Across a typical calendar year, a player positioned within the top 30 in the world is mandated to play in 18 tournaments, albeit with injuries this usually drops down to around 13-15 for most top players, not including Davis Cup duties. This can add up to a serious number of matches for these individuals, and those at the top of the game can frequently find themselves competing in 70 or 80 a year. Naturally, despite being some of the fittest athletes across the sporting world, this is incredibly taxing on individuals who have to make do with an off-season of something amounting to a mere four or five weeks every 12 months. Perhaps surprisingly, however, the top tennis professionals of today are not necessarily stepping out onto court more often than their predecessors several decades ago. American Jim Courier played 88 times during the 1992 season, Ivan Lendl 87 times during 1989 and even in the early 80’s, John McEnroe clocked up 84 matches.

Whilst the number of matches top professionals play each year has not drastically changed, the way in which they play the game certainly has. Players are pushing themselves physically in ways which players of generations gone by would not, with even greater focus on the intensity of training, nutrition and recovery. Players are generally hitting the ball much harder than in decades gone by, with ground strokes typically 20-30 mph faster than we were used to seeing just 20 years ago, not to mention how fast many players can serve also. Due to the improvement in players’ general fitness levels, rallies are typically lasting longer, with many players preferring to play from the back of the court as opposed to the old-fashioned tactic of serve and volley. All of these factors place tremendous strain on the players’ bodies over time, and it’s little wonder than niggles, sprains and tears are commonplace.

The chief gripe voiced by many players is down to the way in which tournaments are phased throughout the year. With so many tournaments and so little down-time for rest and relaxation, many of the top men and women are still playing into November and beyond. Given that the first tournaments of the calendar year begin in January, the modern tennis season is in actual fact more of an 11-month slog. It is for precisely this reason that professionals and medical experts alike believe is the reason why we see so many injuries. Being injured, of course, is something almost all sports men and women must endure at some point throughout their careers, but many believe the volume which we now see within tennis can be reduced if steps are taken to preserve players’ health in the long term.

Over the past 24 months, all of the ten top male tennis players have been forced to miss multiple tournaments for a variety of reasons. Concern around the overall health of tennis players once again came to a head during the first week of Wimbledon 2017, 10% of men’s first round matches could not be completed due to player withdrawals due to injury. By the second round, eight matches had to be stopped abruptly, disappointing many thousands of fans. This is not an incident in isolation; since 2007, this was the 11th grand slam in which eight or more players had been forced to retire during a match in either the first or second round of the tournament.

Many agree that reform of some kind is required. One who knows all too well the effects that the grueling schedule can have on players is Dr Richard Berger, who has operated on several crocked stars over the years and agrees that things cannot keep going on as they are:

“There are too many events… there’s very little down time. ​

“There’s not enough healing time because of the intensity of the matches, and in most tournaments outside the slams there’s not even a day’s rest.”

So why does all this matter? Well, despite playing three sets compared to men playing five at grand slams, female players are of course prone to spending time on the sidelines through injury just as much as their male counterparts, if not more so. A study published by the British Journal of Sports medicine concluded that, across ten Wimbledon championships between 2003-2012, higher rates were higher for females than males. More recently, a study found that across six Australian Open tournaments, between 2011-2016, females once again experienced higher injury rates than those in the men’s side of the draw.

With this in mind, what benefit can the ATP hope to have by hastening to shorten men’s matches in grand slams? It goes without saying that no player (or fan for that matter) wishes to endure an 11-hour marathon as Mahut and Isner had the unfortunate pleasure of playing out at Wimbledon in 2010. Neither, however, would the decision to curtail a potential classic after two or three sets prove a particularly popular one among the fans or the majority of tennis players.

What can the ATP do to better project their players from injury and burnout? How about introducing fifth-set tie-breakers during grand slams to prevent the match from racking up needless extra hours of play? What about adapting the schedule so that so much emphasis is not placed on the first few months of the year on the grueling hard courts of Australia and Europe? Even removing the obligation of the top players to attend quite so many tournaments throughout the year could prove an effective decision, if not an easy one.

One thing that appears crystal clear is that the quality of the men’s game would almost certainly not improve by shortening their matches in line with the women’s. Statistics tell us that this would do very little to improve injury rates, and without other changes to the tennis schedule, players would still be obligated to appear in too many tournaments across the globe.

On top of that, one must never forget the history that has been created in the men’s sport that would not have been possible without the drama of a five set match. Michael Chang would have ended his career without a grand slam had he not had the opportunity, aged 17, to come back from two sets to love down against Ivan Lendl at the French Open in 1989. Those of a certain generation will always have a glint in their eye when they recall the epic encounter between a feisty young John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg when the latter claimed his fifth-straight Wimbledon on the bounce in five sets, or the redemption when McEnroe stole revenge the following year, four sets needed on that occasion.

Let us not rob the next generation of a chance to entertain their fans over five sets. Instead, Billie Jean King, and those others with prominent voices in the sport should push for changes that better suit the players and fans alike.

 

Sources:

New York Times

The Telegraph

The Guardian

British Medical Journal

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