Serena Williams, Wimbledon Champion (July 4, 2009) / Photo by Graham Hodgson
Last week, while bowing out of Wimbledon early, the worlds thirteenth-ranked mens tennis player, Gilles Simon, reignited a perennial controversy by questioning whether female players should be paid as much prize money as the men.
The equality in salaries isnt something that works in sport, the Frenchman said. Mens tennis remains more attractive than womens tennis at the moment.
When asked about his comments, Simon said, My point was that I have the feeling that mens tennis is actually more interesting than womens tennis.
Simons comments sparked outrage and guffaws among the top womens players and tennis media. There isnt a lot of reasoning behind his indignity, an indignant Jane McManus concluded for ESPN W.
What Simon said was ill-considered, impolitic, and uncouth, but his conclusion that mens tennis is more interesting is justified. The irony of this flap is that Simons comments could motivate a reform of the womens game that would catapult it to the heights of the mens game, if not beyond.
The reason why mens matches are, in fact, more interesting than womens matches doesnt have to do with the quality of play, which is subjective. Rather, it is that best-of-five-set matches, which only the men play in the all-important Grand Slams (Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon, and U.S. Open), are intrinsically more interesting than best-of-three-set matches.
Consider for instance the mens final of this years Australian Open: Novak Djokovic bested Rafael Nadal 7-5 in the fifth set of a nearly six-hour titanic thrillerthe longest Grand Slam final in history. The sheer endurance the two players displayed, along with the many swings in momentum, made the match one of the best in the history of the sport and justified Djokovics ripping off his shirt in triumph.
Now imagine if the match had been limited to best-of-three sets. Djokovic would have prevailed in a well-contested match, but it would have fallen short of the memorable battle the two champions actually produced.
Try the same exercise for all the mens matches considered classics. (Is there a classic mens match that didnt go four or five sets?) Andre Agassis comeback from two sets down in the 1999 French Open to complete a career Grand Slam? A straight-set loss. Michael Changs cramp-defying, underhand-serving marathon victory over Ivan Lendl in the 1989 French Open? Again, Lendl in straight sets. And so forth, and so on.
Theres the problem, in a nutshell. The best womens tennis match imaginable can never come close to rivaling the drama of the best mens matches, because best-of-three limits the narrative possibilities. Three-set matches are like short stories, restricted in scope, whereas best-of-fives are like novels. Womens matches can generate The Lottery, but never War and Peace. When women split the first two sets, the third set serves as the climax of the matchs narrative. (This is why after watching an excellent three-set womens match, I always feel let down, because it has the potential for further, greater tension that goes unfulfilled.) By contrast, the third set of a mens match is often when it just starts getting interesting. Its like an intermediate peak on the way to the greater summit beyond.
Moving to best-of-five sets would represent a tremendous boon for the womens game.
That men are required to play longer matches offers further reasons for the superiority of mens tennis. Five-set matches demand greater fitness; they add the suspenseful possibilities of physical exhaustion and cramping, always an enticing prospect for a long mens match, but one that happens all too rarely in the womens game; and they promise fairer odds to players who are grinders, i.e., who are consistent and win with patience but lack power.
It is surprising that even though the womens tour is historically better known for consistency than the menswhich at times has been dominated by powerful but inconsistent championsthe rules of womens tennis actually discount consistency in favor of power. Consider Denmarks Caroline Wozniacki. Despite reaching the number-one ranking, she has never won a Slam, which has led commentators to dismiss her abilities. But her chances, and those of players like her, would improve if the women played best-of-five sets. Under current rules Wozniackis greatest strengthsher consistency and fitnessare diminished, while her greatest liabilitiesher lack of power and weaponsare magnified. By contrast, Serena Williams and Kim Clijsters have continued to succeed, despite questionable fitness and inconsistent play, due to their incredible shot-making abilities. As a tennis fan, I would love to find out whether the Williamses and Clijsters of the world could continue to edge players such as Wozniacki through four or five sets.
That playing best-of-five sets makes mens matches intrinsically more interesting doesnt justify unequal pay. But it does weigh in its favor in another sense: because men play three-out-of-five sets, their matches are on average 75 percent longer than womens matches. In other words, male players spend on average 75 percent more time out on the court entertaining paying customers. If the male entertainers at a night club worked many more hours than the female entertainers, surely no one would object if they were paid more, unless the women were unfairly restricted from working more hours.
We might still agree with Billie Jean King that the moral importance of gender equity justifies equal pay in the sport. But we would do so in the light of two facts that, I suspect, trouble mens players: they work longer hours to entertain the fans and their matches are more interesting. So long as we pay male and female players equal prize money despite these two facts, we can expect some of the men to gripe and the eternally recurring controversy to continue.
There is fortunately a simple way to end this battle of the sexes once and for all: women should play best-of-five sets. The best-of-three-set match should be tossed aside as a relic of a bygone era in which women were seen as incapable of the physical exertion of men.
When women started competing at Wimbledon in 1884, seven years after the men, they were restricted to best-of-three sets because they were thought not to have sufficient stamina for best-of-five, according to Audrey Snell, librarian at the All England Lawn Tennis Club, which hosts Wimbledon. This was a dubious claim, given that the first Wimbledon champion, Maud Watson, also won the Irish Ladies Championship that same year in a best-of-five match.
Wimbledons Victorian-era precedent did not prevent the U.S. womens singles championships from being best-of-five sets between 1891 and 1901. However, in 1902 the United States Lawn Tennis Association, led by all-male officers, decided amid protests from the leading female players of the day that best-of-five was too strenuous for women. The womens U.S. Open and the other Grand Slams have been best-of-three ever since.
Rejecting this 1902 setback and moving to best-of-five sets would represent a tremendous boon for the womens game and equalize its quality with the mens. It would improve the overall fitness of the athletes, and it would produce more classic matches to rival the best of the mens game. In fact, it would give women a powerful argument for something they should want but, unsurprisingly, have failed to even broach: a right to the final match, the final event, of a Grand Slamsomething that has to this point been restricted to the men. Imagine what it would do for the women to alternate Sunday finals with the men, to have the concluding day all to themselves? That would be equality.