01 July 2022

Have Your Say: Is it time women played five sets?

August 29, 2013

The US Open begun this week and the best players in the world have congregated in North America for the hardcourt swing.

And with women’s tennis at its peak level in popularity, the time is right to play best of five set finals – with the WTA celebrating 40 years, what better way to showcase how far women’s tennis has come? 


In fact, this may surprise the younger ones out there, but women have played best of five set finals in the past.

Between 1984 and 1998 the end of year Masters tournament in New York was a five set shootout. The first history making final to go the distance was in November 1990 when Monica Seles defeated Gabriela Sabatini in three hours 30 minutes. Five years later Steffi Graf defeated fellow German Anke Huber in a five set battle. Then Graf did it again in 1996, this time defeating Martina Hingis in five sets, taking the final set 6:0 against the then teenager.

1998 saw the last ever five set final when Martina Hingis defeated Lindsay Davenport in four sets. There didn’t seem to be any real explanation at the time why the format was jettisoned in 1999, the fans seemed to enjoy it, and so did the players. In her book From Fear to Victory Monica Seles said that playing five sets was the only chance each year “to play like a man”.

Since the tour’s humble beginnings in the early 1970s with sponsorship by Virginia Slims, it has grown worldwide with events taking place all year round from January to October. The tour revolves around the Grand Slams, with prestigious money spinning events held in the middle east in February, Indian Wells, Miami, Madrid, Rome in the spring; and then Canada and Cincinnati in the summer. After a swing in Asia in the autumn, the tour culminates with the end of year championships in Istanbul.

Tennis has also produced some of the biggest female stars of sport. Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova in the 1970s and 1980s, Steffi Graf, Sanchez Vicario, Monica Seles, Martina Hingis in the 1990s. And the 2000s saw women’s tennis move up another level in skill and athleticism with players like Venus and Serena Williams, Justine Henin, Kim Clijsters and Amelie Mauresmo.

Popularity of the tour has grown with worldwide television coverage through channels such as Eurosport, giving WTA stars an international platform. Equal prize money is offered at all of the Grand Slam tournaments thanks to extensive campaigning from the likes of Venus Williams and former Chief Executive Larry Scott.

These are all reasons why the WTA should take the leap and play best of five set finals in major tournaments; in fact we have reached a level of maturity in the women’s game where it would be difficult to argue against it. With the agreement of the International Tennis Federation (ITF) who run the Grand Slam events, best of five sets would be a great showcase and would allow new ebbs and flows to a match, and create the possibility of seeing a player come from two sets down to win.

Women would improve the tactical side of their game, in particular holding serve for longer periods, players would have to raise the bar.

We could have best of five sets for the final round with the rest of the major tournaments played as best of three. A dynamic change as this could have detractors initially but people would get used to the idea after a couple of finals have taken place.

It would be great PR for tennis and would help to dampen down the argument that women don’t deserve equal pay. British Eurosport commentator Simon Reed told me he believes women’s tennis can benefit from such a new format, “I would make all Grand Slam matches best of three sets except for the final,” he said. “I think there is a strong argument that women too should play a best of five set final. It would make a fitting finale.”

Billie Jean King was a great visionary when she helped to found the WTA tour back in 1973.  Playing best of five set finals in major tournaments is the last natural progression for women’s tennis.

Laurie Burnette, Sportsister
The Women’s Sports Magazine

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