I can just imagine how Martina Navratilova would have reacted if, when she was blowing away all and sundry as she racked up 18 Grand Slam titles, she had been told women should play single-set matches. I certainly would not have been brave enough to tell her myself. So why, I wonder, did Martina say this week men’s Grand Slam matches should be cut by two sets? OK, she said playing best-of-three would reduce the risk of injuries. OK, there is an issue with injuries. The top guys don’t have easy matches like they used to, they have to work from match one, as has been proved here. The points are longer too. But cutting Slams to best-of-three is not the solution.
The five-setters are one of the things that makes Slams special. People come for the epics. If we put the Slams down to an ordinary best-of-three, like the Masters, then why would people plan their vacations around them and pay the prices Grand Slams ask? The five-setters at New York to 2.30am, the Isner-Mahut game here that went on for three days! Three days!
What does surprise me is that it is Martina saying this. Martina, my respect for you is the way you raised the bar when it came to fitness. You could not have played that serve-and-volley game if you’d been carrying 20lb. Your physical condition was a big part of your success, as it is with the top guys today. Being a great player is not just about having a blitzkrieg serve, a punishing backhand and a murderous forehand. It’s about putting in the hours lifting weights in the gym, running the streets at five in the morning, and having the willpower to say no to fast food and a night out in the pub. Players have to earn their titles through what they put in all year.
That’s not all. In a three-setter you can get a fluke result. A top player might be slightly off his game, he drops a couple of points in tie-breaks and he’s out. A five-setter gives him the chance to show his cojones, as the Hispanic guys say in Florida, to dig deep and make the other guy really work for victory. And boy, when that upset still happens, as this week, how much more satisfying it is to have done it in a best-of-five-sets match.
Think of the great matches, the 2008 Nadal-Federer final which finished in the dark, the five-hour-plus final the following year when Roger finally defeated Andy Roddick. In those cases the results would have been the same over three sets, but they would not have become timeless classics. Sorry, Martina, bad idea.