In the warm afterglow of the festival of tennis that was the Australian Open, and the glorious men’s final match between two of the greatest players of all time, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, fans everywhere are looking back with great satisfaction.
This year’s Open brought us some of the best tennis Melbourne Park has witnessed in many a year. The unexpected early knockouts of both women’s and men’s top seeds, the comebacks of Federer, Nadal and Venus Williams, and emerging future champions like Grigor Dimitrov heightened interest in the tournament rocked by the early exits of Novak Djokovic and Sir Andy Murray, boosted Seven’s ratings for endless promotions of My Kitchen Rules, Hoges and other televisual sludge, and simply made the 2017 Open unusually special.
But the Open also highlighted the depth and richness of the men’s game at the top level, and the way Federer and Nadal progressed to the final, compared to Serena Williams’s scarcely troubled run, highlighted the gulf between the sexes on the Grand Slam courts.
Besides the five-set battle with Nadal, Federer was stretched to the limit by five-setters with Kei Nishikori and Stan Wawrinka. Nadal barely survived a five-set semi with Dimitrov, having prevailed in a dogged five-set battle earlier on, yet came literally within an ace of winning the championship. Djokovic was knocked out in the second round by an unknown in a brutal five-set war of attrition, Murray in a four-setter two rounds later. The whole men’s draw was peppered by entertaining, enthralling and drawn-out four and five set matches that helped shape the whole tournament by the stress they put on players, and by testing how quickly victors could recover to win again.
In contrast, Serena didn’t drop a set all tournament, playing just 14 sets to Federer’s 28 but claiming the same prize-money. Her final produced Serena’s 23rd Slam victory in a regulation 6-4 6-4 result. After just 82 minutes, it was done and dusted. Victory complete, presentations made, speeches delivered. If you blinked you’d have missed it; all over in less than a third of the time it took Federer to beat a determined Nadal in the next night’s sublime epic. The Williams’ sisterly battle was absorbing, but only for the brief time it lasted. Beyond that, it was instantly forgotten.
For the privilege of watching those 82 minutes, however, Tennis Australia charged a heck of a lot. The cheapest concession seats for the women’s final officially cost $173, the dearest seats in the house a princely $407. Yes, this was considerably less than for the best-of-five men’s final, but for a best-of-three match and straight-sets result it was still a big ask of fans, most not having a corporate host or big disposable incomes to splurge on a finals seat.
The Australian Open women’s final was, simply, lousy value for money. If it had been a ticket to Kinky Boots or The Book of Mormon, paying through the nose for not-guaranteed quality and not much quantity would bring accusations of scalping from patrons and consumer watchdogs.
In Grand Slam tennis, women play exhibitions. Only the men play truly serious stuff.
If the Australian Open, and other Grand Slams, want to offer punters better value as well as showcase the depth and richness of women’s tennis, there is a way. Simply make the women’s singles draw a best-of-five-sets contest just like the men’s, guaranteeing a minimum of three sets rather than a rapid-fire two.
Women who play top-class tennis are great athletes. To play at that level requires extreme fitness, stamina and concentration. Just like the men, they train and practise hard and for long, long hours. They merely play fewer sets in Grand Slams. The Williams sisters are just two of many: for any of the 128 women who made the Australian Open singles draw, the story is the same. If they’re good enough they can, and should, manage five-setters.
Five-set tennis at the top level is the equivalent of Test cricket, three-setters Twenty20. Serena may have won 23 Grand Slam titles, and she carries on as if she’s the Greatest of All Time, but her record doesn’t hold a candle to the likes of Rafa, Roger, Novak and Andy, let alone her predecessors like Margaret Court, Evonne Goolagong and Billie Jean King, who made do with Volley sandshoes and wooden racquets with catgut strings that required real skill to win a point, not just raw hitting power. Serena may be at the top of one-dimensional contemporary women’s tennis, but the very structure of the modern three-set women’s game makes sure players like her are not put to the same brutal test as the men.
Women earn the same prize money as men in Grand Slams, despite having lower physical and mental demands in their three-set matches. They should earn it. If women players like the Williams sisters want equal respect as well as equal money, they should compete on equal terms to men like Federer and Nadal.
After all, don’t chat-show feminists like the Clementine Ford keep banging on about women’s careers being treated as lesser than men’s?
If they truly are as marketable as ticket prices for the women’s final assume, and given they’re fit and perfectly capable of going the longer distance, future Grand Slam women’s matches should be best of five-set battles of patience, endurance and attrition, offering the same richness of tactics, strategy, mind games, thrills and spills that longer matches offer players and fans in the men’s draw. Serena Williams versus whoever over five gruelling sets: now that would truly be worth watching.
Combined with the innate grace and subtlety of the women’s game, five-set Grand Slam matches for women would make for a wonderful spectacle and give genuine value for money for fans expected to pay premium prices for a premium event. By adopting women’s five-setters, the Australian Open would have a mighty new drawcard, recreate women’s tennis as genuinely equal to men’s, and show the way for Wimbledon, the French and US Opens.
What about it, Tennis Australia?
You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10