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SportsColumnistsBarbara Barker

Why women and men should play an equal number of sets in tennis majors

Serena Wiliams with the forehand return against Karolina

Serena Wiliams with the forehand return against Karolina Muchova during their third round match in the 2019 US Open Tennis Tournament on Friday, Aug. 30, 2019. Photo Credit: Joseph D. Sullivan

Women have been running the full Boston Marathon since the late 1960s. Girls stopped playing six-on-six and half court high school basketball in the early 1990s.

Why, then, do women still play best-of-three sets in Grand Slam tennis tournaments while men play best-of-five?

The answer is quite simple: tradition and sexism.

And that is why it is time to stop. It’s time for women and men to play the same number of sets in Grand Slams, just as they do in the rest of the tour, when all matches are three sets.

This seems to be the growing opinion of a number of tennis players and greats, including Billie Jean King, the player who led the charge for women and men to get equal pay in Grand Slam events when she threatened to boycott the U.S. Open in 1973.

“I want the men’s and women’s matches to have the same format, which will reduce confusion for the fans, especially the younger fans,” King told Newsday in an email on Friday.

“ . . . Sometimes not taking a risk is a bigger risk and I think a change in this format would benefit tennis. For the health of our players, the management of our tournaments and the enjoyment of our fans, I feel it is best to get all men’s and women’s tournaments on the same page and two out of three sets is the way to go.”

Yes, there are multiple reasons to have men and women play three sets in Grand Slams.

Tennis, an industry leader in gender pay equity, does a grand disservice to women when it continues to have them play fewer number of sets than the men in their premier events. The tradition perpetuates offensive beliefs about women being the weaker sex and reinforces repressive ideals of what is feminine — slender as opposed to powerful, glowing as opposed to sweat-drenched.

But the worst thing that this lack of set parity does is reinforce arguments that women don’t deserve prize money equal to men because they just don’t work as hard.

Never mind that the majority of work a player does to get to the top of his or her game takes place in practice and preparation, not during a match. I am guaranteed to get at least three livid emails complaining about equal pay for equal work every time I write something about the pay parity in tennis.

But it’s not only the women who would benefit from this change. Playing five sets in this era of power is not a good thing for the men. It puts incredible pressure on bodies and leads to injuries.

Take Rafael Nadal’s run to last year’s U.S. Open semifinals. Nadal played four-set matches in the third and fourth rounds. He then won a five-setter in the quarterfinals against Dominic Thiem that didn’t end until after 2 a.m. Two days later, he was forced to retire in the second set of his semifinal against Juan Martin del Potro when his knees — which obviously had seen a lot of miles in the past couple days — started giving him trouble.

Shortened matches also might help the sport’s popularity. Traditionalists may like to talk about marathon five-setters, but the truth is very few people can sit through them.

John McEnroe said he leans toward everyone playing best-of-three despite having been involved in some epic five-set matches, including the 1980 Wimbledon final against Bjorn Borg. It lasted 3:53 and featured a 22-minute, 34-point tiebreaker in the fourth set.

“People’s attention spans in general are so much shorter than they used to be. I think if anything, they’re looking to shorten men’s matches in a way because of the issues with the amount of time you are out there, just two people,” McEnroe said in a telephone news conference call last week.

Several compromises have been batted around. One is to have players of both sexes play best-of-three until the quarterfinals; then it would be best-of-five. Another is to have everyone play best-of-three but eliminate the tiebreaker for the final set.

Still, some believe there is something so unique about the warrior-like spectacle of a five-set match that they just can’t see giving it up.

Pat Cash, the Wimbledon champion in 1987, would like to see the women play five sets.

“I see no reason why the WTA players can’t play a five-set final for a Grand Slam title,” Cash told Tennis.com. “I think it would create massive interest. Something they deserve.”

There is a New York precedent for women playing five-set tennis. The Virginia Slims/WTA Tour Championships at Madison Square Garden featured five-set finals.

Both Serena and Venus Williams, who led the charge for equal pay at Wimbledon, repeatedly have said they are willing to play best-of-five.

“I totally could play best-of-five,” Williams said several years ago at the U.S. Open. “But [it] doesn’t matter to me. Best-of-five, best-of-seven, whatever.”

Whatever. As long as they are the same. It’s time for tennis to stop sending a message to young girls that in the greatest of all tennis tournaments, they are inferior.

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