Thursday, January 24, 2013

Are five-set matches ruining Grand Slam competition?

The debate over whether five-set matches are in fact hampering the competition of men’s Grand Slam tennis has arisen once against after world number three Andy Murray suggested the format favours only the very best in the world.

Murray answered questions ahead of his semi-final clash with Roger Federer at the Australian Open this week: the season’s first Slam in the calendar and a good measure of how the ATP’s top players will perform throughout the year.

On the hard Melbourne surface, the balls skid off at such a pace it takes great concentration to play even one game, let alone five sets. Indeed, over such a long period of time – many matches exceeding two hours in the blistering heat this year – only the very fittest can survive.

Only two men outside the top four seeds have defied the Tennis odds and reached a Grand Slam semi-final last year: Jo-Wilfired Tsonga at Wimbledon and Tomas Berdych in New York, something Murray himself feels is down to the five-set format.

“There are way more upsets in tournaments that are best-of-three sets in the men’s [game] just because you get off to a bad start and guys can get a quick win over you,” Murray told reporters.
“Whereas over best-of-five it often takes five hours sometimes to beat the top players in the world. It’s not easy.”

Indeed, physicality is beginning to dominate over technique and shot selection as Novak Djokovic, Murray and Rafael Nadal power through opponents over five sets. Although Roger Federer is slightly less ‘built’ as his three main rivals, the Swiss can pull out a strong performance when required in Grand Slams.

The most recent example of physicality taking over the men’s game was Djokovic’s 6-2 6-2 6-1 demolition of world number five David Ferrer in the Australian Open semis. Ferrer, who had worn down Nicolas Almagro in the pervious round, was defenceless against the sting in Djokovic’s serve and returns, leaving him no chance of even making a set let alone three.

Although it is good TV watching, five-set tennis is starting to become predictable and favours the physically strongest on court. Maybe a three-set Grand Slam would be more competitive, although the proposal would sadly never get through organisers and sponsors.

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