Our story begins not with a review of the first week of the U.S. Open, but with a story about the evolution of American college football.
Europeans and other international readers, you’re not going to get an explanation about the innards of Yankee-style football, merely a note about the culture of this sport and how it once engaged in practices that — in modern eyes — seem downright cruel. It has a lot to do with the backdrop to the notion of why best-of-five-set tennis is essential to retaining the drama and stature of major tournaments for the men of the ATP Tour.
There is a book and a movie by the name of The Junction Boys, both chronicling an actual story of how football practices were once conducted by the sport’s best coaches. Paul W. “Bear” Bryant is widely regarded as the greatest coach in college football history. In 1954, at Texas A&M University, Bryant conducted a brutal set of offseason practices in which players were not given water breaks. As you can read in the link above, recent decades have witnessed football players die — not many, but one death is one too many — in offseason practices conducted in brutal summer heat. The idea that — 60 years earlier — players weren’t given water breaks strikes the modern reader as savage.
Yet, there once was a time when that kind of treatment toward players was not only accepted, but romanticized. THIS IS HOW MEN GROW UP TO BE MEN! YA GOTTA BE TOUGH! YA GOTTA BE STRONG! Through a modern lens, it’s the worship of hyper-masculinity gone overboard, but it used to be valued, even revered, in large parts of America’s sports culture, especially in the South.
With that cultural reality as a backdrop, it’s easy to think that support for best-of-five-set tennis is little more than an attempt to preserve that old way of thinking. THIS IS WHAT SEPARATES THE MEN FROM THE BOYS.
I understand opposition to best-of-five-set tennis in the early rounds of a major. I get why it makes sense, especially in light of Jack Sock collapsing during the first week of the U.S. Open in extremely hot conditions. (It’s also why I understand the opposite side of the argument, in which old-school players will draw a hard line about fitness being the responsibility of the tennis player, no matter what the conditions.)
There are two basic points to be made about best-of-five-set tennis at major tournaments. I’ll start with the reformist element to be introduced here, and then go to a more entertainment-based realm for the second point.
The first thing to be said about best-of-five tennis is that if you are going to subject players to extreme heat, there is a way to deal with the issue rather than truncate matches to best-of-three-set affairs.
It is unrealistic to expect every major tournament to build nothing but retractable roof structures. The Australian Open has three, and that’s frankly more than fans and TV rights-holders have a right to expect. Tennis Australia has gone above and beyond in terms of building facilities which can protect players from heat. Yet, even then, you have to play outer-court matches through the round of 32. There’s simply no way around it. If the weather is absolutely overwhelming, and it was in New York this past week, you’re stuck. So, with all due respect to old-school players who draw a hard line on the matter of fitness (cough, Federer, cough), the sport should move in the direction of giving players more relief… even if it means more avenues for coaching.
What tennis can and, I think, should do: In extreme heat-index conditions, give a 10-minute break not just after two sets, but after every set. Allow the drama and complexity of whole sets to play out, but when those stanzas are done, give players not just the break itself, but the knowledge that they WILL be able to get that break. That’s almost as important in the grander scheme of things. For anyone who doesn’t like on-court coaching, these breaks would occur off the court. They would also mean that players would still have to figure out their own situations or predicaments late in sets. The idea of giving a player added coaching during a heat break seems a lot more tolerable if delayed until after the conclusion of a set.
If these added protections were afforded to players, tennis could certainly strike a balance between being more attentive to player safety while still maintaining the “majors ought to be majors” idea I’m going to briefly explore next.
Why does tennis need to protect the likes of Jack Sock yet maintain best-of-five at the majors?
Two examples soared off the page and into the front of our consciousness this past week in New York.
On Thursday afternoon, Andy Murray was doubted. He was doubted in ways that Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic never would be (not when any of the three were in their primes; Djokovic is obviously in the middle of his right now). After he fell behind by two sets to Adrian Mannarino, only 36 percent of ESPN poll respondents felt Murray would come back. For Fed/Rafa/Djokovic, that number would have been at least 55 percent if not 60.
Therefore, when Murray did come back to win in five sets, he was able to make more of a statement about his competitive chops. On the other side, Mannarino once again met his limitations, consistent with much of his career and his place in the tennis pecking order. If we had best-of-three for the men at the majors, even just in the first week of the tournament and not the second, this test of winning a third set against an elite player would not exist, and you’d see so much more chaos in brackets.
Is it hard for lower or mid-tier seeds to win major tennis tournaments? Yes… and that’s a feature of the whole operation, not a drawback. It should be hard for lower seeds or lower-ranked players to win these things. It should be that the very best take the court with an advantage, and are in a position where it’s hard(er) to knock them off. Players work hard to build up a base of fitness and a track record of mental might, so that when major tournaments arrive, they are in the best position to advance. Turning matches into best-of-three shootouts would rob men’s tennis of this sifting component, this wheat-from-chaff element.
We were given another example late Friday night, when Fabio Fognini, 0-7 on hardcourts in 2015 entering this U.S. Open, became the first player in 152 instances to beat Rafael Nadal after the Spaniard had gained a two-set lead at a major. The very fact that Nadal (151-0) and Federer (178-0 before his first loss from two sets up) had combined to win 329 straight matches at majors after gaining a two-set lead is precisely what amplifies their legend. The best-of-five gauntlet is exactly why Federer and Nadal, and now Djokovic, are carving out names and reputations which will stand the test of time.
Take away best-of-five, and you take away something very central to tennis.
As long as more precautions and policies are added to provide for player safety, there’s really no (other) good reason to downshift to best-of-three.
Fabio Fognini and Andy Murray would readily agree.