I wrote earlier at Tennis With An Accent — specifically in this piece here — that women’s tennis doesn’t need saving in terms of the quality of its product. The quality of women’s tennis is wonderful right now. It is a great time to be a women’s tennis fan. Fresh faces, new champions, young stars, constant unpredictability, and really good play on court. The WTA is providing a banquet table of entertainment and tennis acumen.
So, you might wonder: Why resort to a change some people will understandably perceive as either a gimmick, a panic move, a concession, or all of the above? Wouldn’t that imply that women’s tennis DOES need saving?
It’s a fair question.
However, if women’s tennis can use certain things ON THE COURT to gain more leverage in the worlds of TV rights fees and ticket sales, women’s tennis can also use certain things OFF THE COURT to gain that same leverage.
Remember: The main impediment for women’s tennis regarding fairer and more balanced schedules at the majors — to the extent that all four women’s semifinalists can get a day off between quarterfinals and semifinals at ALL FOUR MAJORS, AND to the extent that they can all play on the main stadium court (Philippe Chatrier at Roland Garros) — is the fact that two men’s quarterfinals are played on Tuesday. This prevents all four women’s quarterfinals from being played on Tuesday.
In the realms of TV and ticket sales, the three non-Wimbledon majors are reluctant to have four WTA quarterfinals on the same day. The economics aren’t right — not at this point, at any rate. The quality of women’s tennis speaks for itself, but TV and ticket sales (and the optics of empty seats) have represented a barrier to all-women’s quarterfinals on Tuesdays at second weeks of majors. The tournaments want to have a mixed ticket with the women and men to, in their minds, ensure better TV, ticket sales, and overall optics.
ON the court, having an entrenched rivalry or two would help the cause of women’s tennis… but what about OFF the court?
This is where the introduction of 5-set finals feels like an idea whose time has truly come.
Again, I totally realize that playing one match (the final) in a manner different from the other matches in a tournament would raise eyebrows and generate a fair amount of criticism. It WOULD feel gimmicky to many, and I accept that.
However: Masters 1000 finals on the ATP side used to be five sets, after the previous rounds in those tournaments were three sets. Also, the WTA Finals had 5-set finals for 15 years, so this is not an entirely new concept in women’s tennis.
The basic question is this: Why should women’s tennis have to do the adjusting?
Seriously: Why can’t the sport show leadership from the top down?
It’s an entirely valid point, and as I said above, moving to 5-set finals might feel like a concession, like buckling in the longstanding struggle over the idea that the women need to play five sets in order to justify equal compensation and equal treatment relative to the men.
The women don’t have to PROVE that they deserve equal pay. They don’t.
However, given the way things currently stand in tennis, it is obvious that the three non-Wimbledon majors do everything they can for Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal — which is hardly a bad thing in itself — at the expense of WTA players. That last part is what matters: not that Fedal are treated well (which they deserve to be), but that it often comes at the expense of the women.
The Australian Open’s use of a Thursday night men’s semifinal and Roland Garros’ show-court placement of matches in 2019 both reflect this reality very clearly and powerfully.
Politically and strategically, women’s tennis needs to do something to change the conversation. If WTA players are to be treated more fairly, something needs to happen which will change the perceptions of people who occupy positions of influence in the tennis and media industries.
I won’t say that any single policy change will clearly or obviously rectify the problem. I won’t claim that any one adjustment will naturally remove currently existing imbalances. I won’t claim this is a magic-bullet solution.
However: Of all the things which could be done to more immediately change the landscape of women’s tennis at the majors — and address the specific need to give the women a day off between quarterfinals and semifinals, which all four semifinalists enjoy only at Wimbledon and not anywhere else — what would have a better chance of working than the move to a 5-set final?
When you consider how great the Petra Kvitova-Naomi Osaka Australian Open women’s final was, and you then consider how great it would have been for that match to have a fourth set for sure, and possibly a fifth set, the appeal of this idea is obvious. Imagine three or four years with at least one memorable 5-set major final per year. That modest rate of success would nevertheless represent a changed reality for women’s tennis as a sport, and from that changed reality could flow new perceptions about the box-office power and ticket-selling attractiveness of women’s tennis.
It’s not as though all matches would be best of five. It’s not as though ANY match other than one — the final — would move to best of five.
This is one match at four tournaments, so four matches per year.
I don’t think most people realize how much there is to be gained from this relatively small-scale adjustment… and if the experiment doesn’t work, just how much will women’s tennis have lost?
The reward is far greater than the risk here. Women’s tennis doesn’t need to improve its quality — the quality is already great — but more strategic thinking, and the willingness to make an adjustment to a longstanding practice, could achieve significant structural and economic breakthroughs for a sport which deserves, on merit, to attain them.