Is debate about sets played or good tennis?

NEW HAVEN, Conn. -- Anne Worcester was head of the women's tour in 1996, when the Australian Open decided it would no longer offer men and women equal prize money. This put the WTA, on the brink of a new era featuring players named Martina Hingis and Venus Williams, in a bad spot.

So Worcester, whose job description often included lobbying, got together with players such as Steffi Graf, Anke Huber and Monica Seles. She explained the Australian Open had pointed to the fact that the women play best of three sets at the major, while men play best of five. "The top 10 players in the world authorized me to go back to the Australian Open and say if you return to equal prize money, the women will play best of five," Worcester said. "And they said, 'No thanks.'

"So we called their bluff. It wasn't about five sets."

The Australian didn't short the women for long. The major returned to equal pay, and about five years ago, the French Open and Wimbledon followed suit. But the issue of whether the women deserve equal money is still a point of contention.

As recently as this summer, the three-sets-versus-five issue was being wielded once again to justify the same argument -- women don't deserve equal pay at the majors -- made by French player Gilles Simon. "The male players spent twice as long on court at Roland Garros [during the recent French Open] as the women. The equality in salaries isn't something that works in sport. Men's tennis remains more attractive than women's tennis at the moment."

The fact is, women can play five sets.

Robert Laberge/Getty Images

Caroline Wozniacki is open to the idea of longer matches for women, but says it is "tough on the women's body, tougher than on the men."

Unlike a marathon, a tennis match is not defined by length. Men play a best-of-three format outside of the majors -- and so do women. Tickets don't cost more based on how many sets are played at a major, and a five-setter doesn't yield more value than a three-set match.

Some of the women on the tour are open to the idea of longer matches. "I wouldn't mind; I'm pretty fit and I feel I can handle it," Caroline Wozniacki said. "But it's tough on the women's body, tougher than on the men."

The women who play tennis are some of the fittest in the world. They have to be built for power and endurance, and their sculpted physiques are a testament to hours off the court improving their overall fitness. "I think physically we could do it," Christina McHale said.

Perhaps in response to the idea that women needed to play longer to be taken seriously, the WTA tour experimented with a best-of-five final at the season-ending championships from 1984 to '98. In 1995 and '96, Graf was pushed by Huber and Hingis, respectively, to five sets before winning at Madison Square Garden. Some years the format produced that kind of riveting match. Some years, not so much. "It didn't really prove to be very good," Lucie Safarova said.

They can, but should they?

Despite Simon and his sympathizers, some women on the WTA tour aren't interested in mimicking the men's game. Safarova does not want to play longer and doesn't believe that should be the mark for being taken seriously. "It's different tennis," she said. "Men are stronger and able to play five-setters. I understand when they play five hours they think it's more work. But, on the other hand, when you count it, we spend also three hours on the court every day practicing.

"We are doing the same traveling, the same amount of tournaments, we live the same life. And they are paid more on the other tournaments already. So, the least that we could get is [equal money for] the Grand Slams, and I think that we deserve it."

Tennis remains one of the few sports in which many female athletes can make a good living on prize money alone. Women who play other sports -- from soccer to Olympic sports and even the WNBA -- often have to rely on their personal appeal to attract endorsements, or supplement their income in other ways. As a result, female tennis players want the quality of the game played -- especially in the high-profile Slam finals -- to be the absolute best. "I think you can see great tennis in three sets and then the other two it would be very difficult to get good tennis," Safarova said.

And good tennis may have a different meaning when it comes to the women. When new racket technology changed the game in the '90s, service speeds increased but not to the level of the men's game -- where serves can hit 140 mph or better. The 20 mph or so difference did change both games, just not to the same degree. "When power came to the women's game," Worcester said, "it made the women's game more competitive, more compelling, more intriguing -- but it didn't take away the touch and finesse."

Are five sets good for men?

Patrick McEnroe, a former U.S. Davis Cup captain who now does analysis for ESPN, said he had a fleeting thought during the Olympics that the men's game might be improved with a best-of-three format. The only Olympic match that is best-of-five is the men's final.

McEnroe said that the five-set tradition is so entrenched that change would be difficult, but that doesn't mean it's objectively preferable.

"The argument that if you play longer that makes it worth more doesn't make sense," McEnroe said.

Billie Jean King wrote an editorial for the Huffington Post last week after Rafael Nadal withdrew from the U.S. Open, contending that having the men play five sets during majors was shortening careers. "I am going to miss Nadal at this year's U.S. Open and I think sports fans will as well," King wrote. "I still regret the fact that Pete Sampras quit playing at 31 and Stefanie Graf retired at 30. The sport is so much more dynamic today and it is so much harder on the players' bodies than it was when I played."

The trend has been toward shorter matches, even in the Grand Slams. The tiebreak itself is a relatively modern invention, and Wimbledon is one of the slams that hasn't ended the tradition. The 11-hour, five-minute match between John Isner and Nicolas Mahut would have been curtailed by a fifth-set tiebreak (and included tiebreaks in the third and fourth sets, as well) in most other settings.

It's not about five sets

You wouldn't choose to see "The Hunger Games" over "The Hangover" simply because "The Hunger Games" is 42 minutes longer. Major League Baseball doesn't charge more for a game if it goes to extra innings. Soccer and NFL tickets aren't based on the length of the game, but on what the market will bear.

The men get more prize money in ATP events than the women in WTA events, but the amounts are in the same ballpark, unlike that of professional men's and women's golf. The LPGA and PGA tours don't hold major tournaments together.

In tennis, you could separate the men and women in the majors and the men would probably make more money, McEnroe said, "But who cares?"

The Grand Slam events are probably the least interested in having the women play best-of-five, if only because of the scheduling disaster it would create. Imagine if each match had the potential to go five hours. "It's hard enough now, who gets on center court? Who gets on television? That's always been the big hot button between the ATP and the WTA," Worcester said.

Most television windows at a tournament such as the U.S. Open include two men's matches and a women's match. The only way that works is the reliably shorter time it takes to complete the women's match. And those television windows are valuable. At the U.S. Open, the show court at night is likely to have an American or a marquee name.

Regardless of the scheduling and television issues, the argument that women shouldn't be paid equally for three sets instead of five still comes up. It's a good sound bite, but it's not realistic. And Worcester discovered the truth years ago, when she approached the Australian Open, ready to move the women into the format.

It wasn't about five sets. And it's not because the women couldn't hack it -- they could -- but the sport has found a way to balance the men and women during combined events in a way that works for both tours. And despite the distraction of the five-set argument, the Grand Slam format works. For both tours.

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