A Deeper Look
June 25, 2010 -- That monster of a match between John Isner and Nicolas Mahut really kicked the statistics right out the gates of The All England Club. These guys spent 11 hours on court over three days. That's not normal.
Put that match aside and we can take a more dignified look at how much time other players, who haven't scripted a couple hundred pages in the tennis history books, have spent on the grass courts at Wimbledon.
Hint... the men outpace the women.
That's not a big revelation since the men, and we're talking about singles, play a best-of-five format where the women play best-of-three sets, both with no tiebreaker in the final (fifth or third) set. The discrepancies in their total times on court will obviously differ. But, that's how this tournament is operated, as are two other majors.
The U. S. Open is the only major tournament that uses a tiebreak in the final set to determine the winner of a match -- both on the women's and the men's side. We learned the ultra-magnitude of that yesterday when the Isner/Mahut monster match extended to 118 games in the fifth set. But, one man had to win by 2 games. That's the stipulation at Wimbledon, The Australian Open, and Roland Garros. You can never really know the volume of blood, sweat and tears, players will leave on court with no tiebreak in the final set.
Enough assumptions and givens. This is not an economic analysis. It is, though, a look at how dominant a few women can be and how few threats they face at majors. It is a look at how little time these dominate women spend winning, whereas the men at the top are constantly bombarded by guys sometimes ranked 80 and beyond, and must battle for hours to win.
At any time on the men's side, a player ranked in the top 75 could beat a top-ten player. The top-ten women are not threatened to that extent; however, it can happen.
Roger Federer (#1 seed) played a 5-set match in his first round against Alejandro Falla -- three and a third hours. He had never played a five setter in the first round of a major. Rafael Nadal (#2 seed) was taken to five sets against Robin Haase in the second round -- two and a half hours. That was a first for Nadal, too.
Serena Williams (#1 seed) hasn't been tested in her first two rounds, which means she hasn't spent much time wearing down the treads of her Nike tennis shoes and hasn't played three sets. In fact, she has only spent 112 minutes on court in two rounds. That's less than two hours. Her second round match was 50 minutes. Serena knows how to get the job done mighty quick.
Big sister Venus (#2 seed) has outdone little sis Serena by grunting out 129 minutes on court over two rounds. That's a touch over two hours. Venus is a five-time Wimbledon Champion. She loves this place and plays her best here and at a rapid pace.
Roger Federer, a six-time champion, has been smacking balls for six hours this week, over two rounds, where Serena Williams' time is a third of that number. Rafael Nadal has buggy-whipped his forehand, et al, four and a half hours through two rounds, while Venus's clock reads less than half that.
Expanding away from the top two seeds on each side of the gender net, a bigger comparison comes in view. The longest five-set matches on the men's side involved three top-ten players: Novak Djokovic, Nikolay Davydenko, and Jo-Wilfred Tsonga. The longest three-set matches on the women's side spotlighted one top-ten player -- Francesca Schiavone, The French Open Champion -- and she lost that match in the first round. It was a three-hour ordeal and remains the longest match by any woman that was extended to three sets.
Jelena Jankovic needed three sets to defeat Canadian Aleksandra Wozniak, in round two, but the match took less than two hours, which is outside the top three durations for the women.
Kim Clijsters (#8 seed) and Justine Henin (#17 seed) have played quickly and won quickly. Neither has dropped a set, which follows in the footsteps of the two heavyweights -- Serena and Venus Williams. Clijsters and Henin meet next in the round of sixteen. It will be the first big battle of the tournament.
If Serena advances to the round of sixteen and Maria Sharapova (#16 seed) advances to that round, they will face off as they did in the final at Wimbledon in 2007. Sharapova dusted Williams in straight sets then to win her first major title.
Both the men and women are paid equal amounts of money per round. That's not the point. The point is the discrepancy between the depth of the men's and women's game and, therefore, the time they each spend winning matches.
Serena and Venus Williams dominate with a heavy hand, early in majors. They could continue to win in straight sets and walk off court smelling somewhat fresh as daisies. Federer and Nadal also dominate. In any major, these are the two men to beat, as are the Williams' sisters.
But as the ranking numbers go up for the women, the level of the game goes down with the exception of Justine Henin and Maria Sharapova, who have recently returned to tennis after a year's hiatus. These two women will make their ways to the top ten before the year is out. Kim Clijsters came back last summer after 18 months off to rest and have her first child. She won the US Open as a wildcard, mowing down the field of women in her way.
Serena, Venus, Justine, Maria, Kim are on a par with Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, Murray, and Roddick when comparing intensity and commitment to excellence at majors. But the gap between those five women and the others is wide and deep; whereas, the gap between those five men and others measures inches, if that.
Nicolas Mahut had to qualify for Wimbledon because his ranking is #149. He came within a game of defeating the #23 seed John Isner. There is no woman in the top fifty that could effectively mount a real threat against Serena and Venus, let alone Henin, Sharapova and Clijsters, at a major, no matter how much time they spend on a court, let alone a grass court.
Kaia Kanepi, currently ranked #80, took out Samantha Stosur (#8 seed) in the first round. Like Mahut, she had to qualify for the main draw. She is a threat and has made her way to the third round. Kanepi is welcomed anomaly. And, bets are she won't penetrate the second week.
The men work hard and reap big rewards. The women work hard, but don't spend as much time on court as the men, and reap the same big rewards. We're talking money.
Why, then, are there so few challenges to the upper echelon in women's tennis? Kim Clijsters won the US Open last year as a wildcard. She blew past the competition and hadn't played steadily for 18 months before coming back earlier that summer. What does that say about the women's game?
There are just as many women as men in the rankings. The big names draw just as many fans as the men's big names draw. That's why the prize money is equal. And, everyone knows how to train like mad to get that edge. Is athleticism in short supply with the women? Is their temperament in question?
It's a tougher haul for the men, cutting out all discussion about physiology. If you had a grounds pass at Wimbledon on day three, would you go see a men's match between a top-twenty seeded player and a qualifier or a women's match between a top-five seeded player and one ranked fifty? Guesses are that you'd head for the men's court. The quality would probably be better and the length of the match would seem more satisfying because it would probably last longer and you'd feel better about the time you spent watching it.
The door is open for women to approach the sport. How to get them to the court remains problematic. Elevating their games and their results so the level of competition is driven throughout the rankings is a bigger and better opportunity.