Best-of-three sets for men getting lobbed about

The U.S. Open begins Monday.

The U.S. Open begins Monday. (Credit: Getty Images)

John Jeansonne

Newsday columnist John Jeansonne. John Jeansonne

Jeansonne has been a reporter in Newsday’s sports department since

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Not so much a rumpus as a rumination, the idea of a more compact best-of-three-sets format in men's Grand Slam tennis was volleyed around a bit this summer (to no clear conclusion).

This potential heresy resulted from the good show provided by the Olympic tournament, where only the men's final used the best-of-five arrangement employed throughout the four annual major events.

In the midst of that keen Olympic competition, the influential Patrick McEnroe, whose many official duties include serving as the U.S. Tennis Association's player development chief and U.S. Davis Cup captain, sent out this enthusiastic tweet from London:

"I have to admit watching best 2 of 3 in Olympics makes me wonder about going that route ALWAYS. Tension is palpable & best players winning."

Boom. Another made-to-order sports debate. Discuss:

This year's Olympic venue, Wimbledon, added a gravitas to the Games' tournament, similar to Slams status. But the single-week Olympic run really mirrors all those non-Slams on the calendar. In half the time frame of a major, best-of-five matches might have amounted to a lethal dose of tennis.

But, really? Best-of-three at the U.S. Open? Wimbledon? French and Australian Opens?

"No problem," seven-time major champion Roger Federer said of the best-of-three proposal. "But then, we should shorten the Slams [to one week]. We shouldn't make them a two-week event, because then it's like a holiday" to play every other day.

The sport, its athletes and officials agree, has become fiendishly laborious. Chronic injuries to 11-time major champ Rafael Nadal, who is skipping this year's Open because of knee tendinitis, represent the handiest example of how the sport can beat up its best practitioners.

Two respected stewards of tennis conscience, old champion Billie Jean King and journalist / commentator Bud Collins, both are on record favoring best-of-three play. Collins would have the men play best-of-three until major quarterfinals, then best-of-five. King has said that "all tennis should be best-of-three. I want the players around for longer careers."

"I wouldn't be against it," said Andy Roddick, the 2003 Open champion and a top 10 player for a decade who, the past two years, has been hobbled by a series of physical maladies. "But you could easily argue both ways.

"From a fan perspective and a TV perspective, it would probably be easier to put together a product when you know the time slots a little more. Sometimes at Slams, you get a match that's great, but it makes it tricky for TV, and the livelihood of a healthy sport is TV viewership."

For women's tennis, always best-of-three, converting men's major-tournament play to the same system "would be great, from a scheduling standpoint," said two-time Open champion Venus Williams. "You'd get more matches on the top courts. Personally, it would be a relief. You'd know you're not waiting around for five sets on your [scheduled] court."

Still, the bonus of less physical taxation in best-of-three matches, reigning Open champion Novak Djokovic said, is offset by "the tradition" to play best-of-five at the majors, "and we all try to respect the tradition."

Informally polled at the recent Open tuneup in Ohio, a majority of players concurred.

"I think the Grand Slams have to be set aside as unique tournaments," Mardy Fish said. "It's tougher to win a three-out-of-five-set match against the guy you're not supposed to beat than a two-out-of-three match."

At the Olympics, the best-of-three early rounds may have been a boost toward Andy Murray's gold-medal victory, and he may be 0-for-4 in major finals so far, yet he prefers the industrial-strength test of the majors.

"In best-of-three," he said, "you need to be very quick and agile, but you don't necessarily have to have great endurance. That is one of the added benefits of the best-of-five set matches. You get to see that extra mental effort and physical effort from off the court."

Settled, then?