Persistence to keep Sony Ericsson Open best-of-five final fails

4/7/2008 - Tennis

KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. -- For many years the Sony Ericsson Open was called the fifth Grand Slam.

Somewhere along the line that distinction went by the wayside when the tennis pooh-bahs concluded the distinction was affording the tournament too much clout.
So now it is referred to as the fifth most important tournament in the world, which for many seems just like a bit of semantics.

Fifth Grand Slam, fifth most important tournament -- the bottom line is that across the board the Sony Ericsson Open comes in right behind the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open. Part of that has to do with the fact that this has been a combined men's and women's event since its inception in 1985, and that it is played on a 128-player draw for both the men and the women, although the top 32 receive first-round byes.

This year, however, another thing that set apart some of the Masters Series events, including the Sony Ericssson Open, from the run-of-the-mill ATP tournaments has been extinguished. An ATP rule established last year for implementation starting this season stated that only the Grand Slams and Davis Cup would take place in a best-of-five-set format. Translation: All ATP events, large or small, would feature best-of-three-set matches.

Sony Ericsson Open chairman and founder Butch Buchholz -- one of the "Handsome Eight" from the World Championship Tennis (WCT) days, which was an integral part of the advent of professional tennis -- persistently lobbied to keep the five-setter alive in Miami. But his argument fell on deaf ears.

"I think it's a mistake, a long-term mistake," said Buchholz, at a breakfast he hosted for a handful of international media covering the tournament.

It is Buchholz's contention that his savvy patrons want to see the best matches possible. As the conversation at breakfast ensued, others piped in with opinions -- most seemed to believe the best matches in history and five-setters go together like a horse and carriage and love and marriage.

"Every great match I can think of that I've ever seen has been five sets," said longtime journlist Richard Evans, who is currently the tennis editor-at-large for Tennis Week.

And this tournament, which actually experimented with a best-of-three format in 1992, 1993 and 2003 but didn't feel it offered an air of importance befitting the event, has certainly had some classic five-set matches.

In 2005, Roger Federer came back from two sets down to beat Rafael Nadal 2-6, 6-7, 7-6, 6-3, 6-1. In 2000 Pete Sampras won a breathtaking four-set battle that featured tiebreakers in the last three sets against Gustavo Kuerten. In all, the tournament has only gone the five-set distance twice -- in 2005 and the first year of the tournament -- but it has played to four sets on six occasions.

While the prevailing opinion is that it was the ATP's desire to package matches in a time-frame that would be more attractive to television networks, the organization maintains the overriding reason for insisting on best-of-three encounters is to protect players from being overplayed, which would result in players always being at their best and could help to prevent injuries.

"The changes being made to the ATP Tour are designed to ensure that fans can see the best players play consistently at all of the best tournaments," said Mark Young, the ATP America's CEO in a statement for ESPN.com. "Player health is key and the change to best-of-three sets has helped ensure we are enjoying a more complete player turnout at the top events. Nineteen of the world's top 20 arrived to play in Miami, all 20 contested Indian Wells and last season saw a reduction in player withdrawals for the year. The change has helped deliver a healthier season for players and more chances for our fans to see their favorite stars play."

As support of that theory, the ATP cited that this marks the first time since 1988 that the Sony Ericsson Open has had all four semifinalists ranked in the top 10 -- No. 2 Nadal, No. 4 Nikolay Davydenko, No. 6 Andy Roddick and No. 10 Tomas Berdych.

In terms of the TV question, Buchholz indicated that CBS preferred to stick with the best-of-five style as it was wrapping the tennis around its coverage of the Final Four, which made for a heavy-hitting lineup for the weekend. Mary Carillo, a frequent ESPN commentator who is on duty for CBS this weekend, concurred with Buchholz that the network was not overjoyed with the change to best-of-three.

"I understand both sides," Carillo said. "CBS, we wanted it to be three-out-of-five; it's a great day for us. I get it and I understand why it had to happen. But it's a pity because I like three-out-of-five sets. On big events like this, there's something special about that. And I think a lot of the guys like it, too. I understand it for the clay-court events, but this is hard court and next week is kind of an off week with Davis Cup and all. I wonder if they could have finessed that a bit."

As for the players, generally they are happy with the change, even those players who admit they prefer to play the lengthier matches.

"This is a subject to talk about, you know, because I'm a fan of best-of-five-set finals," said Federer, a two-time champion here who didn't have to worry about how many sets the final was as he was removed from the draw by Roddick in the quarterfinals. "But then if you look at the long run of every tournament, we've had many problems throughout the last few seasons where we play a five setter here and guys then pull out the next week.c

"I understand for the live audience it's not good. For us, the players, we'd also like to play five sets. But if you have to back it up with tournament after tournament, it is better for the players and for other tournaments if you have the best-of-three finals. So there's good and bad in this story, and I think it's fair that every tournament of the Masters Series level has the same format in terms of how the finals should be played. They're best-of-three, unfortunately, and that's the way we have to play it here in Miami, as well."

For both Roddick and Davydenko, there was no wishy-washy thought process at all -- best-of-three was a major change for the better.

"I like that, just because I feel like if you start a tournament one way you should finish it one way," said Roddick, who won the Miami title in 2004. "I feel like a three-out-of-five-set tournament is a totally different beast than a two-out-of-three set."

"I think it's great for us and it's not so tough," said Davydenko, days before knowing he would take out Roddick for the first time in six meetings to reach his first Miami final against Nadal.

When questioned as to whether the tournament should've held out and tried to muscle an exception for the tournament to keep to its usual best-of-five final, tournament referee Alan Mills, who once reigned over the referee's office at Wimbledon, said that wouldn't work: "You'd find it very difficult to get ATP players to play if you go against ATP rules," he said.

For Buchholz, how the forced best-of-three final is received by fans is a wait-and-see proposition. He'll have his answer by Sunday afternoon.

"I think how it works out will depend on what happens," said Buchholz, sipping coffee. "If we have this great three-set final and it's really close, we probably won't hear anything."

Sandra Harwitt is a freelance sportswriter who spends much of her year covering tennis around the world.