Today, a particularly provocative comment piece appeared in the Telegraph, imploring Grand Slams to change. The reason? To ‘save’ Roger Federer and Andy Murray.
The article suggested making the first week of Grand Slams best-of-three, with week two ramped up to the best-of-five format we have now.
The first thing to say is that this is not an expression of disdain for Simon Briggs or the article he has written, it is mere disagreement. Call it a counter-comment piece, if you will.
The issue of whether or not men’s Grand Slam matches should be five sets has been a persistent one in tennis for the last few years. Novak Djokovic says he is ‘a proponent’ of making them best-of-three, and it’s a valid argument with valid points.
So whilst we are not dismissive in the least of the best-of-three argument, quite simply the reasons offered by the Telegraph are simply bad reasons – and for a number of reasons.
All players get their time
Perhaps the most compelling argument is that, simply, the ‘ageing cohort of charismatic men’ have had, or are at least coming to the end of, their time in tennis.
And let’s be clear: they have had far more of it than the greats of previous generations. Bjorn Borg was just 25 when he retired, Pete Sampras was 31. No one demanded tennis was made easier for them so they could continue to win.
We love them, we appreciate them and all they have done, and we have enjoyed following them along their paths, but we surely love tennis more?
We cannot cheapen their legacies
The big three, or big four if you want to include Murray as Briggs has done, deserve much better than to be the catalyst for making tennis easier.
They have driven the standard higher than ever before, and raised the bar for success to truly great levels. Regardless of who wins most Grand Slams, or sets any other record you want to mention, that’s what they deserve to be remembered for.
Would it not be an insult to them to change it on their behalf; to say to them ‘you are not good enough anymore for the standards you set, so we will make it easier for you and reduce them’? That’s the short-term view.
There is a long-term one too, though. Let’s say, for example, the rules are changed and Jannik Sinner goes on to win 25 Grand Slams. Would history not then record Sinner as more successful than the big three, despite him only having to play half as many five-set matches as Federer, Djokovic, and Nadal? Almost certainly, and wholly inaccurately.
The fact that Roger Federer is still playing top-level tennis at 39-years-old is incredible. The fact Andy Murray is playing with a metal hip is bordering on superhuman. It's amazing, but it soon won't be if it's made easier for them.
Unfair on the younger players
The Telegraph asserts that reducing the amount of five-set matches would allow the younger players to ‘flourish,’ but it’s difficult for us to see how.
Yes, they would have a greater chance of beating top players in earlier rounds in a best-of-three but, again, we are left with the question of why do we want to make Grand Slams easier?
Younger, less established players produce shock results against top players pretty regularly in ATP 250s, 500s, and Masters events. It’s an achievement, for sure, but an unremarkable one. The second it happened in a Grand Slam in a best-of-three match, it would be just as unremarkable.
Their achievement would be immediately dismissed. ‘Wouldn’t have beaten them over five sets,’ ‘ wasn’t a real test.’ They might get a welcome pay day, and the newspapers might get a good headline, but the players themselves would lose something from their own stories.
Not just younger players either. There would be no more Aslan Karatsevs, for example. No more incredible Cinderella story runs to the semi-finals, or finals, of the biggest tournaments in our sport. No, there would just be a plucky, or lucky, underdog who won a few matches but lost when the tournament got into the best-of-five stage.
Why take that from them? Why take those stories from us? The big three already have amazing stories. Hopefully they will have a few more to come, but surely they don’t need to have all the great stories tennis can offer?
Unfair on future generations
It is surely the right of all future generations to have the opportunity to try and better their heroes, join the greats, and create their own legacies? For that, surely they need to face the same tests.
Let us go back to the Sinner example we used earlier. If Grand Slams changed to best-of-three, partially or otherwise, no matter what he did he would never be able to establish himself among tennis’ greats.
Wins 25 Grand Slams? ‘Didn’t do them properly, it was so much harder for everyone else.’ Wins more ATP titles than everyone else or breaks Novak Djokovic’s historic world number one record? ‘Let’s see him do it while having to play best-of-five Grand Slams, bet he couldn’t.’
Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, and Roger Federer may have set an unmatchable standard in tennis. Right now, it feels like they have. But it felt like Sampras had too. The big three had the chance to pursue greatness, and so should everyone else.
Unfair on the fans
We all have our favourite players, but think back to the Australian Open last month. Think about the matches that you watched as a neutral.
For us, the best and most thrilling matches were Jannik Sinner v Denis Shapovalov, Stan Wawrinka v Marton Fucsovics, Thanasi Kokkinakis v Stefanos Tsitsipas, Nick Kyrgios v Ugo Humbert, and Dominic Thiem v Nick Kyrgios.
What did they all have in common? All in the first week of the tournament, all went to five sets.
Under Briggs’ suggestion, we would have been denied all of them, and how is that a good thing for fans?
We love the players but it’s the fans who are the true future of tennis, and so diminishing the product to squeeze a couple more years out of a few players seems like an awfully ill-conceived trade-off.
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