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Time To Go To A Best-Of-3-Sets
Format For Men's Grand Slams
by Dr. Richard E. Trueman

For many years, in the Grand Slam tournaments, women pros and the WTA have diligently worked for equality with men players in regard to prize money, and they have basically succeeded. Now, it's time for men pros and the ATP to achieve equality with women players in terms of the effort required to win Grand Slam matches. Why should men have to play best-of-five-set matches, while the women play best-of-three-set matches? Almost without exception, in all tennis tournaments other than Grand Slams, both men and women play best-of-three-set matches. Is there some meaningful rationale for men to play longer matches in the Grand Slams, other than to demonstrate that they're stronger than women? There certainly are good reasons to consider changing this situation.

As the seven rounds in a Grand Slam proceed, long matches test the strength and endurance of the players. Long matches can become survival contests. Obviously, players must be in very good physical condition to play, but in many cases, what we see is players struggling to finish long matches, sometimes over two days, as was all too common during this past 2004 Wimbledon, with its many rain delays. This certainly affects the level of competition unfavorably, and fan enjoyment is not enhanced by watching two players trying to outlast each other during long matches. In addition to the advantages to both players and fans of having shorter and more competitive matches, the burden of tournament schedulers would be appreciably lessened. The effect of rain delays would be not nearly as disruptive as it has been in the past, and fans would get to see more matches completed on their scheduled day.

Based upon analyses of the 2004 Wimbledon and 2002 U. S. Open tournaments (shown in the Appendix below), it appears that employing the suggested best-of-three-sets format would reduce the number of sets, and thus the playing time, by over 30 percent. Under the current system, the number of 5-setters played is usually under 10 percent of the total matches, and players coming back to win after trailing 2 sets to 1 would appear to have probably no better than an even chance of pulling out the match. So going to the shorter format would have a minimal effect on the tournament results. The overall reduction in playing time and stress would surely be a boon to players, fans, and tournament schedulers, and the quality and competitiveness of the matches would be at a higher level.

APPENDIX: To get some idea of the numbers involved and the expected effect of such a change in the current policy, let's look at some specific results of an analysis of the men's matches in the 2004 Wimbledon tournament:

Of the 126 completed matches in the seven rounds, there were:

63 3-set matches (189 sets)
44 4-set matches (176 sets)
19 5-set matches ( 95 sets)
Total sets = 460

If these matches had been best-of-three-set matches, all 63 of the 3-set matches would have ended at two sets. Of the 4-set matches, 9 would have ended after two sets, and 3 of the 5-set matches would also have ended after two sets. The remainder of the 4-set and 5-set matches would have lasted three sets, so there would have been:

75 2-set matches (150 sets)
51 3-set matches (153 sets)
Total sets = 303, a reduction of 157 sets

A reasonable estimate of the reduction in the number of sets would then be 34 percent [100 x (157/460)].

Of the 19 5-set matches, 8 players won after trailing 2 sets to 1. Thus 8 of the actual 126 pairings, just over 6 percent, would have changed if the best-of-three-sets format had been used.

A second analysis, that of the 2002 U. S. Open men's matches, gave very similar results. Of the 117 completed matches, the total number of sets played was 440. Under a best-of-three-sets format, the total number of sets played would have been 284. The estimated percent reduction would have been 35 percent [100 x (156/440)]. And in the 22 5-set matches, 11 players won after trailing 2 sets to 1. In this case, 11 of the 117 pairings, or just over 9 percent, would have changed using the best-of-three-sets format.


Dr. Richard E. Trueman is a retired Professor of Management Science who has published several articles on statistical analyses of sports. He organizes, and participates in, a weekly seniors round-robin doubles competition in San Luis Obispo, California.

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