The sport of tennis presents many confusing terms and concepts to new players and spectators. Let, deuce, and hawkeye are just a few. As you progress through the ranks in tennis, you will eventually participate in match play. To win a match, you must win a given number of sets. So you might ask: what is a best-of-3 and a best-of-5 match?
A best-of-3 set match is one in which you must win 2 sets for a victory. Best-of-3 set matches are played over 2 or 3 sets and are by far the most common format in tennis. All junior and women’s matches, plus the majority of men’s matches, are contested in this manner.
Best-of-5 set matches are a lot more challenging because players must win 3 sets for a victory. These contests comprise 3, 4, or even 5 sets. People are most familiar with best-of-5 set matches from male Grand Slam tournaments as well as the Davis Cup.
In this article, we will go into greater detail about each format to help you better understand the pros and cons. We will discuss competitions that feature both match styles, the opinions of professional players, and the future of tennis match formats.
How Does a Player Win a Best-Of-3 or a Best-Of-5 Set Match?
In a best-of-3 match, a player (or doubles pairing) needs to win 2 out of a maximum possible 3 sets. There are 3 combinations: a player can win in 2 straight sets, they can come from 1 set down to win the last 2, or they can win the first and third sets.
A best-of-5 set match finishes when a player has claimed 3 out of a maximum possible 5 sets. These matches have more combinations ― for example, a player can win in 3 straight sets or by coming back from 2 sets down. They can also win in 4 sets after losing the first, second, or third set.
Sometimes, best-of-3 matches have no third set. Instead of playing a full set, a single tiebreak determines the winners.
What About Deciding Sets?
A deciding set is the third set in a best-of-3 encounter (when the players are tied at 1 set all) or the fifth set in a best-of-5 contest (when the match is tied at 2 sets all). Almost every junior and professional tournament uses a tiebreak at 6-6 in the final set to decide the winner.
However, this is not always the case at Grand Slams as each tournament has its own rules.
Australian Open: recently introduced a “super tiebreak” for deciding sets. Instead of a player winning the tiebreak at 7 points (or more with an advantage of 2), a player must get to 10 points or beyond with an advantage of 2.
French Open: still does not have a deciding set tiebreak. After 6 games all, one player must break serve and achieve a 2-game lead to win the match.
Wimbledon: After 2018, Wimbledon introduced a final-set tiebreak but at 12-12 instead of 6-6.
US Open: The U.S Open is the only major to feature a normal final-set tiebreak at 6-6.
Where Is Each Format Played?
Only male players compete in matches longer than 3 sets. All 4 Grand Slam tournaments require men to play best-of-5 matches in the singles draws. For men’s doubles, Wimbledon has a best-of-5 format, but the other majors are best-of-3. Every other Grand Slam draw (women’s singles, mixed doubles, wheelchair, etc.) plays best-of-3.
Qualifying for Grand Slam main draws involves 2 or 3 set matches to preserve players’ energy for the main competition. The exception is the final round of men’s qualifying at Wimbledon which is a best-of-5 match.
Note that, except for at Wimbledon, mixed doubles contests are best-of-3 with a tiebreak. Instead of playing a whole set, pairs need to win a tiebreak (up to 10 points) to claim the match.
Davis Cup & Olympics
The men’s Davis Cup competition used to be played with a best-of-5 set format in every tie for singles and doubles matches, but recently removed it.
Until the 2020 Olympics (Played 2021), the tournament consisted of best-of-3 matches until the final, which is best-of-5. Now, all matches are played best-of-3.
ATP & WTA Tour
Finals of the Masters 1000 tournaments on the ATP Tour were historically played in the best-of-5 format, but not anymore. Both men’s and women’s matches no longer exceed 3 sets at these highly-regarded competitions.
The ATP and WTA tour finals, ATP 500, ATP 250 (and WTA equivalents), plus the Challenger and Future ATP circuits are exclusively best-of-3 set events.
What Are the Benefits of a Best-Of-3 Set Match?
1) Fairness: Less experienced tennis players will not be daunted by a 2 or 3 set match which means they are more likely to play without fear. The shorter duration also gives them a fighting chance against seasoned opponents with better stamina. You could therefore argue that best-of-3 contests are fairer, more unpredictable, and more exciting.
2) More Attractive: The length of 2 or 3 set matches makes them more watchable for new spectators. A 5-set marathon that takes over 5 hours to finish could cause potential fans of the sport to lose interest. A shorter match allows new fans to experience the entire drama in a couple of hours, leaving them hungry for more tennis.
3) Less Taxing: Best-of-3 matches are more sustainable for a professional player’s career. Tennis is an exhausting sport in which players have to spend many hours on the court
Competing and practicing ― not to mention the extra weight and endurance training. This wears down players’ bodies over many years. Shorter matches could prolong their careers or at least allow them to retire injury-free more often.
4) Convenience: These shorter matches are easier to schedule. We are now fortunate to have roofs at all Grand Slam events on the main courts. Except for these arenas and indoor tournaments, all other professional tennis matches take place outdoors. Rain delays can reduce the available playing time and cause matches to overrun to later days. Best-of-3 matches reduce the probability of this happening and allow events to finish on time.
What Are the Benefits of a Best-Of-5 Set Match?
1) Excitement: While very long matches can be unappealing to new spectators, some of the most exciting matches in history have taken place over 5 sets. Every Grand Slam has a history of epic marathon matches that would never have happened in a best-of-3 format. For many fans, nothing is more entertaining than the 5th set of a close match.
2) Rarity: Best-of-5 matches exist only at a small handful of elite tournaments with shorter formats played elsewhere. Players’ bodies benefit from shorter 2 or 3 set matches in the vast majority of competitions. It is only at the renowned Grand Slams and occasionally at the Davis Cup where male players have to prepare for longer contests.
3) Elite Competition: Some commentators and fans make a case that the longer format at Grand Slam events separates good players from the best. To claim one of the sport’s top prizes and write their names in tennis history, players must overcome the physical challenge of 4 and 5 sets. They must also win 7 matches in a row. Decreasing the number of sets might devalue a Grand Slam victory.
4) Comebacks: 4 or 5 set matches give players a unique opportunity to make a comeback. In a best-of-3 match, players can soon find themselves out of contention after losing a set and a break. This is not true in a best-of-5 match. A player can be 2-1 or 2-0 down in sets but still have a good chance to rally from behind and win. If a competitor is mentally strong, these longer matches allow them to keep their dreams alive.
Memorable Best-Of-3 & Best-Of-5 Matches
Both formats have delivered thrilling matches over the years. Here is a list of some of the greatest:
- 2009 Men’s Semi-Final Madrid (Masters 1000): Rafael Nadal defeated Novak Djokovic 3-6, 7-6(5), 7-6(9)
- 2012 Men’s Final Shanghai (Masters 1000): Novak Djokovic defeated Andy Murray 5-7, 7-6(11), 6-3
- 2013 Women’s U.S Open Final: Serena Williams defeated Victoria Azarenka 7-5, 6-7(6), 6-1
- 2018 Men’s Final Indian Wells (Masters 1000): Juan Martin Del Potro defeated Roger Federer 6-4, 6-7(8), 7-6(2)
- 2019 Women’s Australian Open Final: Naomi Osaka defeated Petra Kvitova 7-6(2), 5-7, 6-4
- 2008 Men’s Wimbledon Final: Rafael Nadal defeated Roger Federer 6-4, 6-4, 6-7(5), 6-7(8), 9-7
- 2012 Men’s Australian Open Final: Novak Djokovic defeated Rafael Nadal 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-7(5), 7-5
- 2013 Men’s French Open Semi-Final: Rafael Nadal defeated Novak Djokovic 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 6-7(3), 9-7
- 2017 Men’s Australian Open Final: Roger Federer defeated Rafael Nadal 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3
- 2018 Men’s Wimbledon Semi-Final: Novak Djokovic defeated Rafael Nadal 6-4, 3-6, 7-6(9), 3-6, 10-8
Player Opinions & The Future
Many talented young players have failed to break through at Grand Slams, especially on the men’s side. This has caused people to wonder whether it’s time to remove the best-of-5 format entirely.
Dominic Thiem stated that best-of-5 matches should stay in Grand Slams because of the longstanding tradition. Legend Pat Cash agrees and thinks that these matches are the ultimate mental and physical test.
Novak Djokovic does have some sympathy for changing to best-of-3, mainly because of the lengthy professional tennis season. Despite all his tough matches, Rafael Nadal is still a fan of best-of-5 contests because they demand so much from players.
At the moment, this is just a fun debate. 4 and 5 set matches are so deeply rooted in Grand Slam history that organizers are not eager to make changes. The USTA, for instance, said that there will be no changes to the men’s U.S Open competition any time soon.
Nevertheless, this debate is likely to continue, and you can never know what future rule changes are in store for the sport of tennis.