Michael Emmett: “It’s Time for a Change in Women’s Tennis”

Written by: Michael Emmett

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***Michael Emmett is the Director of Tennis Operations at all Mayfair clubs.  He is a certified Tennis Canada Coach 3 with a Journalism degree from the University of Texas. Michael spent several years working in sports television at TSN and Sportsnet.  Michael is a former National champion who finished his last year of junior tennis ranked #1 in Canada.  Michael has coached several National champions when he worked for the All-Canadian Academy at the National Tennis Centre at York University in the early 90s.  Michael spent 2 years traveling the world playing the ATP tour satellite circuit as a member of the Molson National Team in 1985 and ’86.***

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The time has come for Women’s tennis to adopt the best-of-five set format for all Grand Slam events and abolish the shorter, currently used, best-of-three set version.

Haven’t you heard the argument equal play for equal pay? The purse is the same but the men have to slug it out for many more hours on average in each and every Grand Slam. Many pundits feel this is extremely unfair – including several of the top-tier men.

This is one of the many reasons I am in favour of lengthening Women’s matches but it’s not the major one. For me, it’s about history. Women deserve epic matches too. Their place in the annals of the game is fleeting; and it’s a real shame in my estimation.

The most memorable matches of all-time are always Men’s Singles Grand Slam encounters. Remember Nadal vs. Federer in the 2008 Wimbledon Final – certainly one of the best duals in tennis history? Do you think this match would have that moniker if it was best of three? What about Nadal vs. Djokovic at this year’s French Championships – another barn-burner that came down to the wire mostly because it was best of five?
What’s the first Women’s match that comes to mind when thinking of the best ever?

Unfortunately, there aren’t any. The matches are far too short to get into the ‘best ever’ category. Some matches like Isner vs. Mahut in 2010 (that go for 11 hours, stretch into 3 days and end 70-68 in the 5th set) are too long but they’re lodged into everybody’s memory forever, mostly due to the unusual circumstances and the overwhelming television coverage and constant reminders. John Isner will always be associated with Nicholas Mahut for this Guinness Book of World Records match – not for the quality of the match but for the length of the match.

Do you really think Serena Williams would have lost to Sabine Lasicki in the 4th round at this year’s Wimbledon championships in a best of five? The better players are tougher to beat in extended matches. Taking 3 sets from Serena has to be more daunting than just winning just two. Back in his day, Federer was almost unbeatable in the slams – the reason – winning three sets from a guy who had no weaknesses was almost impossible. His magnificent record in Grand Slams – 36 consecutive Grand Slam quarter-final appearances – proves this fact.

Look back to regular tour events – the ones that are best of three – and see how often Federer loses early. It’s a mind-boggling difference to say the least. And the same can be said for many of the games Hall-of-Famers. Yes, the argument can be made that these players don’t have the same intensity for the lesser events but the over-riding factor is the difficulty in winning that extra set against the legends of the game.

I guarantee you one thing – if the women played best of five just like the men did – Serena Williams would have at least 5 more majors to her name and be in the 20s. Her game is that much better than everybody else and adding that extra set would be massive in her overall Grand Slam total. Some of you are thinking she doesn’t have the overall fitness to go 5 sets. Playing in 5 set matches would instantly cure this problem – she’s a competitor who would make her body adapt to the longer matches. She’s too strong, too dominant and too good for this to hold her back.

Why not give women the chance to create their own epic matches. Female athletes are obviously fit enough, as they compete in triathlon and the marathon at the Olympics. Why is tennis the only sport – at the Grand Slams in Melbourne, Paris, London and New York City – that requires the females to do less than the men? From my perspective this has to change. Enough is enough – somebody has to step up and makes this happen.
So then, why is it done this way?

Simple – there is no clamoring for women to play best of five. Fans aren’t asking for it, the news media isn’t pushing for it, television sponsors definitely don’t want it and the players certainly would be against it. Given an already packed calendar, the injuries that result from it and myriad difficulties in scheduling matches at Grand Slams, extending to best-of-five seems more like a punishment to women than a push toward sporting equality. But is has to be done.

Why do women play best of three? To wonder about it is like asking why batters don’t get four strikes or why a touchdown isn’t worth 11 points. This is the way it’s always been. Or more appropriately, it’s the way it’s almost always been.

Playing best of five sets isn’t unprecedented in women’s tennis. For 15 years, from 1984 to 1998, the finals of the year-end championships were extended to the more taxing length, a nice bit of irony given that the tournament was sponsored by Virginia Slims (a cigarette company). It was the first time in 82 years that the women played best of five. The theory behind it was adding an extra set would allow the patrons to stay a little longer than the customary 45 minutes that was about the average for Martina Navratilova’s matches.

For me there is only one downside to my proposed rule change. Adding an extra set could possibly mean having to listen to Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova grunt for 5 hours on the red clay courts at Roland Garros. Some would find this unbearable and to that I would say – it will speed up the action plan to extricate this annoying part of the game.
Tennis is theatre. It is soap opera masquerading as sport, in the best way possible, with on-court fashion and personality – athletic prowess, deft skill, raw power, endless endurance and physical grace all bottled in one professional or another. It’s full of passion, emotion and excitement. The Grand Slams should showcase these women exactly as they do the men and that means adopting the aforementioned plan so we can watch these marvelous athletes playing side-by-side in the same city with the same rules.

A deeper dive into second serve statistics

The two most widely reported second serve statistics in professional tennis are the number of double faults a player hit, and their second serve winning percentage. If we’re trying to understand the effectiveness of a particular player’s second serve, relying only on those statistics has significant drawbacks. Article by Michal Kokta.

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