Tennis is one of the unique sports where there is no official clock. Matches can take under an hour, or they can extend several hours. A lot of that is due to how close the match is, but another factor is the number of sets played.
How many sets are played in tennis? In the vast majority of professional tennis events, matches are best-of-three sets. This also extends to most college, junior, and amateur events. Only the men at Grand Slam and Davis Cup events play best-of-five sets to determine a winner.
The History of Five Sets In Tennis
The best-of-five sets format for tennis used to be much more prevalent than now. In fact, even a couple of decades ago, best-of-five sets were played at every Masters Event on the ATP Tour in the finals. The rest of the tournament would be best-of-three sets, but the final would jump to best-of-five. This sort of changed gradually, but in 2007, it changed permanently.
There have been times in tennis history where women did play best-of-five sets matches, but very sparingly. This was mostly limited to the WTA Finals, and maybe a tournament or two a year would have the finals be best-of-five.
Now that points are longer than ever, there is more time between points, TV breaks, and more, best-of-five sets drag on a lot longer. That helped kickstart the shift to a shorter, more fan-friendly format.
What Are The Advantages of Shorter Matches?
The basic principle is that the shorter the tennis match, the better chance of an upset victory. This is great news for the underdog, as they need to string together great play for a shorter amount of time to pull off a victory. With a longer match, the better player has a chance to settle in and ultimately pull off the win.
There is also something to be said for a shorter match providing better entertainment because it is more important on a point-by-point basis. For example, in a best-of-five-set match, some players do not play well for over an hour, and still, win the match. Fans can start to lose interest when that happens, and it becomes frustrating to everyone involved.
Speaking of fans staying interested in the match, there are a lot of people who believe that long, unpredictable matches are driving people away from the sport. It is more competitive than ever to keep fans locked in and excited about tennis.
It is very easy to switch channels, do something else, or turn the television off. It can mess up an entire day of programming if a tennis match goes hours and hours past its predicted time. There will always be diehard fans who are locked in and excited about this match, but it also drives a lot of people crazy.
Players who have great fitness benefit from playing a best-of-five-set match. It becomes a marathon just as much as a tennis match, especially in the heat. Many players believe that it is the true tennis test, even if it does take significantly longer.
Many people believe that the mental side of tennis is more important in the best-of-five sets. Since there are so many twists and turns that can go on in a match, players need to stay as locked in as possible.
Some players do very well in the three sets, only to find themselves really struggling in best-of-five sets. Maybe part of that has to do with fitness, but the mental aspect is tough too. It is much harder to stay mentally locked in and beat a top player in best-of-five sets compared to best-of-three.
Why Do Women Not Play Best-of-5 Sets At Grand Slam Events?
While the men are battling best-of-five sets, the women stay with best-of-three sets at Grand Slam events. So why don’t women play the same amount of sets as men? The major reason cited is that it would make scheduling logistics an absolute nightmare during the two weeks.
It is already a very challenging thing for schedule makers to handle when putting together Grand Slam events. Singles match on the men’s side can take an hour and a half, or it can take six hours. If the first or second match on a court that day takes way too long, it throws the entire schedule off. Since women are playing best-of-three sets, there is less variation of the amount of time used.
Others have stated that it is done not to burn the women on tour out with so much play during two weeks. While there could be some players who have that thought, the overwhelming majority of women on the WTA Tour have pushed to have the opportunity to play best-of-five sets.
Other Scoring Variations
At lower levels of tennis, there are several other variations of the game that can allow for varied results. For example, some tournaments will just play one set or a pro set which is the 1st to win 8 or 10 games. There is also a very fast way of playing tennis by only playing tiebreaks. The majority of tiebreaks either go to seven points or 10 points.
Speeding up the game can go beyond the format for sets. There are also modifications such as counting lets as serves that are in, keeping no-ad scoring, and more. The main goal with these formats is to keep matches as condensed as possible, whether for or to lock fans into the action.
Will Tennis Ever Change The Amount of Sets Played?
As much as tennis likes to keep the tradition, there is growing thought that the sport will eventually change to keep up with the times. There are advantages to changing to best-of-three formats everywhere, but purists are going to be frustrated. Not only that but players might not be sold on the idea in the beginning.
Ultimately, it will come down to money for the most part. If tennis believes that their sport is significantly dipping because of the best-of-five format, they will look for alternatives. Any changes probably are not coming any time soon, but those running the Grand Slam events could roll it out eventually.