Novak Djokovic Andy Murray and defending Champion Wawrinka, winners of 4 of the last 6 US Opens have opted out of the 2017 Edition. So has 2014 runner up Nishikori. 4 top players not playing has led to a debate whether, for the US Open, one can consider playing the first few rounds, say upto the 4th round as best-of-3 matches and having only the quarters, semis and the finals as best-of-5 matches.
The reasons for such a drastic view;
(i) Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open are the 4 Grand Slams of the year (called the 4 Majors). Top players are drained out by the time the US Open which is the last Major of the year starts. Players are too tired or injured and the tournament loses out on top entries.
(ii) Players are drained out as the Australian Open is played in tough conditions, the French Open too is probably the most physical of all the Majors and Wimbledon after 2002 has also become more physical and strenuous than before. Therefore after a tough season, the US Open which comes immediately after Montreal and Cincinnati leaves the players too tired to perform their best.
(iii) Apart from players who have opted out, there are question marks too about players remaining in the fray. For instance Roger Federer opted out of the Cincinnati Open the day after reaching the final at Montreal even though he was a Seven time champion there and it would have given him a fair chance at becoming World Number 1 again. Youngster Sascha Zverev after being Champion at Montreal by defeating Federer too said he was tired – and promptly lost in the 1st round at Cincinnati. Will he and 2014 Champion Cilic who has missed parts of the season so far be able to give their best at the US Open?
(iv)` Precedence is there as in 1975, 1976 and 1978 the 1st 3 rounds were best-of-3. In 1977 the 1st four rounds were best-of-3 , and only since 1979 onwards it is best-of-5 for all 7 matches.
(v) US Open has always been known for innovation. It was the 1st Major to have a tiebreaker in 5th set and the 1st Major to have Hawkeye as well as the 1st Major to have players play at night under floodlights. So why not this innovation of few best of three matches to ensure more top players play.
My view is that it is a bad idea.
Lets recapitulate a classic 5 set match between 2 of the greatest ever tennis players of all time. This was the 2006 Italian Open final between a supremely fit established superstar, the 24 year young Federer ( winer of an incredible 18 of his last 26 tournaments) and the superstar of the future, 19 year young Rafa Nadal. The score which shows a 6-7, 7-6, 6-4, 2-6 and 7-6 win for Nadal in 5 sets hardly reflects the drama. The 2 gladiators played for 5 hours and 5 minutes. Federer led 4-1 in the 5th set before Nadal broke back. He had match point at 5-6 on Rafa’s serve. In the tie break too Federer was leading 5-3. However Rafa was not to be denied an awesome win. The marathon match left the two players so drained that they both opted out of the Hamburg tournament which was to follow. This match was the reason best of 5 set finals were not played any more in masters, except of course for the Hamburg tournament which was the very next day, so they could not change the rules for that.
Now what is pertinent is that if this had been a 3 set match it would have reflected as a simple 6-7, 7-7, 6-4 win for Rafa. Would we have talked about it 11 years later. Would it have been part of history ? I am sure you will along with me answer “A Firm NO”.
The logical corollary is that this was a Masters and while in Masters only the finals were best of five, a conscious decision was taken to make even the finals as best of three sets so as to keep the pre-eminence and integrity of the Majors as supreme. Lets not mess with that please. Please do not reduce the Majors to the level/status of Masters.
Now, to use an oft-quoted cliche, When the going gets tough, the tough get going. The 4 Majors are not being held for 1st time in a year. They are not not being held for a recent few years only. They have been held for several decades now. They are part of tradition and lets not mess with tradition. It is the choice of players how to space themselves out throughout the year.
It is also fallacious to believe that more 5 set matches leads to injuries. The way and style of playing could itself be a contributory factor. For instance Nadal’s punishing style and Novak’s and Murray’s physical style could be a reason. Federer’s fluid style may have led to lesser injuries over the years, though now at 36 he too is feeling the strain and trying to maximise his career by being choosy about which to play and which to miss.
The point I am trying to make is that would best-of-3 matches automatically mean less injuries. Ladies tennis nowadays is only best-of-3 matches. Are there no injuries among lady players ?
In fact since the discussion is on best-of-5 set matches and ladies tennis has been mentioned, one has to also mention that ladies tennis too had best of five set matches in the past. While long ago, in the predecessor to the US Open, the ladies Championship match was best-of-5 from 1891 to 1901, in recent time, the year end Championship also had best-of-5 setter finals till 1998.
The WTA tour finals too had best-of-5 finals from 1984 to 1998 with 3 epic 5 setters, including a legendary 1990 final where Monika Seles came back from a 1-2 set deficit to win in 5 sets. Now this means that Seles would have lost it if it were a best-of-3 match. later, in her memoirs, Seles wrote that it was the only chance of the year where she could “play like a man”.
The best-of-5 format was a hit with the women, with 1990 runner-up Anke Huber saying ‘everybody among the women can do it”. 2 more notable 5 setters among women were Anke-Graf in 1995 and Graf-Hingis in 1996.
Now, ladies tennis has settled down and accepted best-of-3 format. Similarly, Men’s tennis too has settled down and has accepted best-of -3 format for the Masters and best-of-5 format for the Grand Slams, or Majors. Lets continue with that as winning 7 best-of-5 matches is what makes a true champion. It separates the men from the boys and a Grand Slam, which is the ultimate in Men’s tennis needs Champions.
To conclude, in Masters and other tournaments we often see a top player being blown away in 2 sets by an unknown player on an off day. A best-of-5 match gives a chance to a champion to come back. Would we like it if top players like Nadal, Federer, Zverev and Dimitrov lose in 2 sets in early rounds of a Major ? Will it enhance the tournaments value or diminish it. Definitely the latter.
Innovations are welcome but only those which improve aspects of the wonderful sport. Let US Open remain as it is with 7 best-of-5 matches determining the last man standing.