I hate to see people suffer, so as a sports columnist I avoided events such as marathons and triathlons, whose main point seemed to be to determine how much punishment humans could endure. Even the winners of those things looked like they’d been through a wringer. Good manners dictated looking away.
I feel the same way about some of the men’s matches in the U.S. Open tennis tournament, now unfolding at the old World’s Fair grounds in the New York borough of Queens, and on your TV screens. The tourney’s best-of-five set format—like that of the other three tennis “majors” (the Australian and French Opens and Wimbledon)—often results in four-or-five hour contests that can leave their contestants stumbling, gasping, cramping and generally hanging on for dear life. It’s an anachronism whose time has passed.
Fact is, best-of-five already is history in the big majority of tennis tournaments—men’s as well as women’s—where matches go to the first winners of two sets. It survives in the men’s majors because… well, just because. Tennis, after all, is the sport in which “love” means nothing, and the roots of whose points system—15, 30, 40, game—are lost in antiquity. I asked around about that “love” thing once, and was told it stemmed from the French “l’oeuf”, which means “the egg.” But though an egg is roundish, like a zero, it’s too thin a joke to be repeated endlessly.
Tennis does alter its scoring rules occasionally—about every half-century. The last big one came in 1970 when it changed the win-by-two requirement by adapting the first-to-seven-points tiebreaker to end sets that are tied at six games each. Typically, though, the change has been less than universal, and the U.S. Open is the only major to apply it to a fifth set. That means that while sets no longer can go on indefinitely in Melbourne, Paris and London, matches can.
It was only a matter of time before Murphy’s Law, which holds than anything that can go wrong will, would bite tennis with a vengeance. In 2011 at Wimbledon the American John Isner and the Frenchman Nicolas Mahut went at it in a first-round five-setter that lasted 11 hours and five minutes and sprawled over three days, with two continuations for darkness. The game score of the last set was 70-68, if you can believe it. Because Isner needed a couple of days to recoup for more singles, and both players had doubles commitments that had to be postponed, it screwed up the tourney’s schedule for a week.
The year 1970 was pivotal for tennis for other reasons. That was about the time when the wooden racquet, the game’s standard forever, began to give way to ones with steel or aluminum frames. Those materials gave players more bang but were only a taste of what would happen when more-exotic substances like graphite, boron and Kevlar came on the scene, sometimes in combination. They allowed racquet frames to become far stronger, lighter and more flexible than previously.
Back in “woody” days, racquets had faces that measured about 65 square inches, weighed 13 ounces and had “sweet spots”—the hitting areas of maximum power and control—about as big as silver dollars. Now face measurements run to 145 square inches (although most pros use smaller), weigh 10 or 11 ounces and have sweet spots as big as grapefruits. Add the improvements in strings and stringing and the difference between today’s racquets and old-style ones is about the same as that between an Uzi and a B-B gun.
The early expectation was that the power surge would most benefit big servers, allowing them to blow their foes off the courts. It didn’t turn out that way. Equally well-armed defenders nullified their thrusts by retreating a few feet from the baseline and slinging serves back almost as hard as they came in. That killed serve-and-volley tennis, once an enlivening stylistic staple, and turned every point into a duel of baseline rockets that continues until one player falters. It’s made matches longer but not, by me, better. When players don’t wear different-colored clothes it’s hard to them apart.
Other factors have made tennis a more grueling game than it once was. The sport these days has a year-round schedule, and its most-used surface is “hard court,” which can mean several things but usually boils down to playing on asphalt. As any recreational runner can tell you, pounding away on hard surfaces is tough on legs and feet, and the better traction they provide means more wear on joints.
Also, there are more good players than there used to be, meaning that the early rounds of the grand-slam events can be testing even for the top seeds. Back in the day those worthies could count on skating through the first three or even four rounds without much resistance, but today some young Slovenian ranked No. 116 can keep numbers one or two scrambling for hours before succumbing, or not. It’s no wonder that just about every top player must play through pain, and few envision grinding on into their late 30s, the way Ken Rosewall or Jimmy Connors did. Roger Federer, the best player of this era, just turned 32 and can’t get through a press conference without being asked about his retirement plans. Rafael Nadal, Federer’s closest pursuer, is 27, and given his all-out style and injury history isn’t a good bet to be playing at 30.
Best-of-five might have made sense in Jack Kramer’s time, when players played a dozen events a year, but no more. Two and a half or three hours of tennis—the usual length of a well-contested three-setter—is more than enough to determine who’s best at any level. The way it is now, someone should call OSHA on behalf of the guys, or the SPCA.