Skip to main content
Menu
Serena Williams Is Getting A Raw Deal By Only Playing Best Of Three Sets

Serena Williams is three matches from winning her fifth consecutive Grand Slam tournament after advancing to the U.S. Open quarterfinals Sunday. She has amassed her 32-match winning streak at Slams the hard way: 10 times she has had to play a third and deciding set, eight times after dropping the first set.

But winning doesn’t have to be so difficult for one of tennis’s all-time greats and her top rivals. While women play best of three sets at Grand Slams, the men play best of five. That means male stars have more chances to exert their superiority over opponents and the opportunity to stage hard-fought comebacks even after falling behind by two sets. Generally in sports, the longer the contest, the greater the chance the favorite prevails. Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray have each come back from losing the first two sets at Grand Slams this year; Rafael Nadal has come back from trailing by two sets to one.1


Baseline: A special U.S. Open mini-podcast

Carl Bialik is hosting a short podcast throughout the tournament. New episodes can be found in the ESPN Podcenter as well as in iTunes. In the latest episode, he discusses Serena Williams’s comebacks with Louisa Thomas of Grantland.


The shorter format hasn’t yet stopped Serena Williams’s quest to win all four Grand Slam events this year. But it may be hurting women’s tennis overall by leaving later Grand Slam tournament rounds with fewer top players compared with the men’s side. At the U.S. Open, for example, only three of the top 10 women’s seeds reached the third round, while nine of the top 10 men’s seeds did.2 This often means exciting upsets for women’s tennis fans but also more matches without marquee names.

The early exits of top women’s stars from major tournaments has led some commentators to label them as inconsistent — and one men’s star to blame “hormones.”

But Stephanie Kovalchik, a statistician at the RAND Corp., blames the best-of-three format. Taking advantage of the fact that everyone — both women and men — plays best of three in non-Slam tournaments, Kovalchik studied match results from 2010 to 2014 and found that women are no less consistent than men when competing under the same format.3

The chart below, from Kovalchik’s paper, shows the frequency of upsets in men’s and women’s matches at the nine highest-level non-Slam events — called Masters for the men and Premier 5+4 for women. (“WTA”5 in the chart refers to women’s players and “ATP”6 refers to the men. The “rank differential” is the difference between the ranking of the match’s higher-ranked player and that of its lower-ranked one.) Here, when men and women both play best of three, the upset frequency is about the same for each rank differential, with upsets more common when the opponents are more closely ranked:

figure1a

But it’s different at the Slams. In this chart, also from Kovalchik’s paper, we see that upsets are much more common for women than for men:

figure1b

Playing best of five sets also makes comebacks more likely. Women at the majors this year have come back from losing the first set 14 percent less often than men despite Williams’s having done it eight out of eight times.7 Women who lose two of the first three sets are out of the tournament, while men in the same position can still win. At Slams this year (through the first three rounds of the U.S. Open), men have come back from two-sets-to-one deficits 59 times, including 19 times after losing the first two sets.8

Women’s Tennis Association chief Stacey Allaster said in 2013 that WTA players were willing to play best of five sets at the Slams, after Murray backed the idea. But her statement hasn’t led to any real movement for change.9

Women play matches as long as men’s in many other international sports, including Olympic basketball and soccer, as well as World Cup soccer. And there’s precedent in tennis for women to play best of five: They did so from 1891 to 1901 at the U.S. National Championship.10 Tournament organizers changed the format after a five-set 1901 final, a decision that the winner of the match said was “to considerable expressed dissatisfaction of the leading women’s players, including myself.”

Best-of-five made a comeback in the women’s game in 1984, in the final of the annual tour championships. The five-set final in 1990 “was so intriguing and so enthralling that the 17,290 fans at Madison Square Garden were roaring for more,” the Philadelphia Inquirer reported. After another five-setter in 1995,11 runner-up Anke Huber said “everybody among the women can do it” and called for the format to be introduced in Grand Slam finals.

While women haven’t played best of five since 1998, their Grand Slam matches often go longer than men’s. Twice in the past five years, Francesca Schiavone has beaten Svetlana Kuznetsova in matches that lasted more than three and a half hours; each of their epics was longer than almost all of the men’s matches at the same Slam. I asked Kuznetsova after the second match if she minded playing so much. She said that it provides “more possibilities, more chances.”

If women and men both started playing best of five sets at majors, schedules during the early rounds would get crowded. To prevent this, Kovalchik told me in an email that she suggests having men and women play best of three in the first two rounds and then best of five in the last five rounds. That wouldn’t reduce the number of early upsets on the women’s side, but would mean the men’s side would likely have more upsets than it does now — perhaps as many as the women’s side.12 And playing shorter matches might help reduce the number of midmatch withdrawals13 by players, which are higher on the men’s side during Slams than during other events.

While Williams has put together her 32-match Slam winning streak despite the best-of-three format, she might have benefited from playing best of five during her three losses in early rounds of Slams last year. After her latest comeback from a lost first set Friday, I asked her whether she’d rather have the increased margin for error provided by the best-of-five-sets format. “I totally could” play best of five, she said. “But [it] doesn’t matter to me. Best of five, best of seven, whatever.”

CORRECTION (Sept. 7, 2:24 p.m.): An earlier version of this article gave an incorrect title for Bill Babcock in a footnote. He is the director of the Grand Slam Board, not the chairman of the Grand Slam Committee.

CORRECTION (Sept. 7, 8:34 p.m.): An earlier version of this article incorrectly described the deficit that male tennis players have come back from at Grand Slam events this year (through the first three rounds of the U.S. Open). They have come back to win 59 times after being down two sets to one, not from a two-set deficit.

Footnotes

  1. Nadal lost after leading by two sets to none at the U.S. Open on Friday, but usually, the men’s format favors the favorites.

  2. One of the top 10 women’s seeds, Maria Sharapova, withdrew before the tournament; six others lost before the third round.

  3. Kovalchik presented the paper at the Joint Statistical Meetings in Seattle last month. It is scheduled to be published in the magazine Significance next month, according to Kovalchik.

  4. Kovalchik’s term for Premier Mandatory and Premier 5 tournaments.

  5. The Women’s Tennis Association, which oversees non-Slam women’s events.

  6. The ATP World Tour, which oversees non-Slam men’s events.

  7. In the 486 completed women’s Grand Slam matches this year through the third round of the U.S. Open, first-set losers have come back to win 18.5 percent of the time. In 470 completed men’s matches, first-set losers have come back to win 21.5 percent of the time. If each player had an equal chance in every set, the player who loses the first set would have a 25 percent chance of coming back in a best-of-three-set match (because she’d have to win the next two sets) but a 31.25 percent chance of coming back in a best-of-five-set match (five out of the 16 possible combinations of wins and losses in the next four sets yield a win). The actual comeback percentages are lower because the better player usually wins the first set and has a better than coin flip’s chance of winning each subsequent set.

  8. Playing the shorter format also means women’s matches take less time, which diminishes their share of prime-court and TV exposure at the Slams.

  9. Bill Babcock, director of the Grand Slam Board, which sets the rules for the Slams, declined to comment. The WTA’s communications staff didn’t respond to a request for comment.

  10. A forerunner of the U.S. Open.

  11. A match that left fans “gasping for breath more often than either of the women, who had been swinging from their heels,” according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

  12. Men played best of three in early rounds at the Australian Open and French Open in the 1970s.

  13. Called, confusingly, “retirements” in tennis.

Carl Bialik was FiveThirtyEight’s lead writer for news.

Comments