Entire US Open must continue as best-of-five sets

Ritesh Misra Roar Guru

By , Ritesh Misra is a Roar Guru

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    Stan Wawrinka will not contest this year's US Open. (Kyodo)

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    Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and defending champion Stan Wawrinka, winners of four of the last six US Opens, have opted out of the 2017 tournament, as has 2014 runner up Kei Nishikori.

    Four top players not playing has led to debate as to whether, for the US Open, best-of-three matches should be played up to the fourth round and having only the quarters, semis and the final as best-of-five matches.

    There are several reasons for such a drastic view.

    The Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and US Open are the four Grand Slams of the year. Top players are drained out by the time the US Open – the last major of the year – starts. Players are too tired or injured and the tournament misses out on top entries.

    Players are drained out as the Australian Open is played in tough conditions, the French Open 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, coming immediately after Montréal and Cincinnati, leaves the players too tired to perform their best. 

    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 Masters the day after reaching the final at Montréal even though he was a seven-time champion there. It would have given him a fair chance at becoming world number one again.

    Youngster Sascha Zverev, after being Champion at Montréal by defeating Federer, said he was tired too – and promptly lost in the first round at Cincinnati.

    Will he and 2014 Champion Marin Cilic, who has missed parts of the season so far, be able to give their best at the US Open?

    Marin Cilic will take on American John Isner in the third round at Wimbledon

    (Photo: WIki Commons)

    Precedence for a reduction in match length is there, as in 1975, 1976 and 1978 the first three rounds were best-of-three. In 1977 the first four rounds were best-of-three, and only since 1979 has it been best-of-five for all seven matches.

    The US Open has always been known for innovation. It was the first major to have a tiebreaker in the fifth set, the first major to have Hawkeye, as well as the first major to have players play at night.

    So why not this innovation of a few best-of-three matches to ensure more top players play?

    My view is that it is a bad idea.

    Let’s revisit a classic five-set match between two 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 old Federer – winer of an incredible 18 of his last 26 tournaments – and the superstar of the future, 19-year-old Rafael Nadal.

    The score ended up a 6-7, 7-6, 6-4, 2-6 and 7-6 win for Nadal in five sets, but that hardly reflects the drama.

    The two gladiators played for five hours and five minutes. Federer led 4-1 in the fifth set before Nadal broke back. He had match point at 5-6 on Rafa’s serve.

    In the tiebreaker 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 they both opted out of the Hamburg tournament which was to follow.

    This match was the reason best-of-five finals were not played anymore in masters, except of course for the Hamburg tournament which was the very next day, so they could not change the rules for that.

    What is pertinent is, if this had been a three-set match, it would have read 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 logic 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 best-of-three so as to keep the pre-eminence and integrity of the majors as supreme.

    Let’s not mess with that. Please do not reduce the majors to the level or status of masters.

    To use an oft-quoted cliche, ‘when the going gets tough, the tough get going’.

    The four majors are not being held for the first time this year. They have not been held for a few recent years only. They have been held for several decades now.

    They are part of tradition and let’s not mess with tradition. It is up to the players to pace themselves out throughout the year. 

    It is also fallacious to believe more five-set matches leads to more injuries.

    The style of play could itself be a contributing factor. The punishing and physical style of Nadal, Novak and Andy Murray could be a factor.

    Federer’s fluid style may have led to fewer injuries over the years though, now at 36, he too is feeling the strain and trying to maximise his career by being choosy about when to play.

    The point I am trying to make is best-of-three matches wouldn’t automatically mean fewer injuries.

    Ladies’ tennis nowadays is only best-of-three matches. Are there no injuries among female players?

    In fact, one has to also mention ladies’ tennis too had best of five set matches in the past.

    While long ago, the predecessor to the US Open, the ladies’ championship match was best-of-five from 1891 to 1901. In recent times, the year-end championship also had best-of-five finals until 1998.

    The Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) tour finals too had best-of-five finals from 1984 to 1998 with three epic-five setters, including a legendary 1990 final where Monika Seles came back from a 2-1 set deficit to win in five sets.

    Seles would have lost if it were a best-of-three 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-five format was a hit with the women, with 1990 runner-up Anke Huber saying “everybody among the women can do it”. Two more notable five-setters among women were Anke-Steffi Graf in 1995 and Graf-Martina Hingis in 1996.

    Now, ladies’ tennis has settled down and accepted a best-of-three format. Similarly, men’s tennis too has settled down and has accepted best-of-three format for the masters and best-of-five format for the majors.

    Let’s continue with that, as winning seven best-of-five 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 two sets by an unknown player on an off day.

    A best-of-five match gives a chance to a champion to come back. Would we like it if top players like Nadal, Federer, Zverev and Grigor Dimitrov lose in two sets in early rounds of a major?

    Will it enhance the value of the tournament or diminish it? Definitely the latter.

    Innovations are welcome, but only those that improve aspects of the wonderful sport. Let the US Open remain as it is, with seven best-of-five matches determining the last man standing.