Spare a thought for the younger contenders trying to stop Novak Djokovic from winning the men’s calendar-year Grand Slam at the U.S. Open, which started Monday in New York.
The 34-year-old Serbian is one of the greatest tennis players ever to grip a racket. By winning this year’s tournament in Flushing Meadows, Queens, he would not only be clinching the men’s record for the most major championship titles but also joining a rarefied class of players who have won the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open all in the same calendar year. But Djokovic also has a key weapon that his younger competitors do not: best-of-five-set-match experience outside of the four Grand Slam tournaments.
The men’s tennis calendar used to be packed with best-of-five-set contests. Davis Cup, Masters 1000 tournaments, the year-end ATP Finals and even regular ATP events all offered players the chance to learn the nuances of best-of-five-set matches, the unique training and perseverance they require, and the ways they differ from best-of-three-set contests.
When Switzerland’s Roger Federer won his first major championship title at Wimbledon in 2003 at age 21, he had played 76 best-of-five-set matches, and just over 30 percent were matches outside of the four Grand Slam tournaments.
But the sport has changed since then. Now, the only time players can gain best-of-five-set experience is at Grand Slam tournaments. So unless you go deep in a Grand Slam tournament, you can’t get best-of-five experience — and when you’re trying to go deep in a Grand Slam tournament and knock out the likes of Djokovic, it helps to have best-of-five experience.
It’s a lesson young players learn again and again.
“What I learned today is that no matter what, in order for the match to be finished, you have to win three sets and not two. Two sets doesn’t really mean anything. It’s still one away of winning the entire match,” Greece’s Stefanos Tsitsipas said after losing to Djokovic in the French Open final in June.
Then 22, Tsitsipas was playing in his first Grand Slam tournament final. He was leading two sets to zero before Djokovic came back to win in five sets.
Tsitsipas marveled at Djokovic’s ability to regroup after falling behind. “He left the court after two sets to love down — I don’t know what happened there, but he came back to me like a different player suddenly,” Tsitsipas said.
Mastering best-of-five-set matches, however, was hardly a rapid process for Djokovic. It took him years, and he had opportunities throughout the season to experience the more challenging format outside of Grand Slams.
When a 20-year-old Djokovic won his first major title at the 2008 Australian Open, he had played 65 best-of-five-set matches, and 20 percent had come from outside of Grand Slam tournaments.
The three challengers he beat in Grand Slam tournament finals this year — Daniil Medvedev (Australian Open), Tsitsipas (French Open) and Matteo Berrettini (Wimbledon) — are older than Djokovic was in January 2008. Yet, all of them have less best-of-five-set-match experience than he did back then.
Headed into this year’s U.S. Open, Medvedev (25 years old) had played 56 best-of-five matches, Tsitsipas (now 23) had played 47 and Berrettini (25) had played 43. What’s more, all of their best-of-five-set matches came in Grand Slam tournaments.
“They have definitely the quality to reach the heights of major tournament trophies,” Djokovic said about the younger generation in February. “I think just Roger [Federer], Rafa [Nadal] and myself have managed to always play our best tennis at [Grand] Slams. We have the experience of knowing what to do, how we can win matches in best-of-five on different surfaces. I think that’s made it more challenging for guys that are in the next generation.”
That’s not to say best-of-five-set-match experience is a prerequisite for Grand Slam success. American Pete Sampras won his first major title at the 1990 U.S. Open after playing only 23 best-of-five matches. Brazilian Gustavo Kuerten needed only 14 best-of-five set contests before winning the 1997 French Open.
But experience certainly seems to help. Since 2000, only 19 men have won a Grand Slam singles tournament, and the average number of best-of-five-set matches they’ve played before winning their first major tournament is 77.
“To get [your body] to compete over best-of-five-set matches … you need a little bit more than what you have built up over the years. You need to work on the conditioning to have that little extra bit of stamina for the best-of-five-set matches,” said Andy Murray, who won his first Grand Slam tournament at the 2012 U.S. Open after playing 141 best-of-five-set matches.
Tournaments and events outside of the Grand Slams have dispensed with the longer, best-of-five-set format for various reasons, namely to shorten matches and try to make tennis more appealing to broadcasters and younger generations of fans.
Some have criticized the physical toll of completing five sets, too. Nadal, Federer and U.S. Open defending champion Dominic Thiem all are missing this year’s tournament in Flushing Meadows because of injuries.
Even Djokovic has commented on how he wouldn’t mind more best-of-three matches to help preserve his body during tennis’s 11-month season and help the sport attract a broader audience. “I am more of a proponent of best-of-three sets everywhere,” he said in November.
But you likely won’t find Djokovic complaining about the best-of-five-set format during the next two weeks. And that especially won’t be the case if he ends the tournament with his fourth U.S. Open title and becomes only the second man after Australian Rod Laver in 1969 to win the calendar-year Grand Slam in the Open Era.