I once believed that when I died and went to hell, what hell was going to be was having to sit around and watch The Merv Griffin Show
all day long. Now I think hell is going to be having to watch Chris Evert hit ground strokes from the baseline for five sets.
If players really believe that the worth of tennis is measured in the length of a match, better we should put taxi meters on the whole lot of them. And all who hold the view that endurance is that important to sport should be forced to sit through one twi-night doubleheader. That would be the last we'd ever hear of best-of-five sets.
The only possible excuse for five-set matches is that they make conditioning a greater factor. O.K., fine. So players pace themselves, throw away sets when they fall behind and stumble through the last set like zombies. Terrific. If endurance turns you on, go watch 'em swim the English Channel. John Newcombe has become nearly legendary as a five-set player, yet the fact of the matter is he is not especially well conditioned. He wins best-of-five sets for the same reason he would win best-of-five points if they played it that way: he adapts himself to prevailing conditions.
The facts speak for themselves: five-set matches are the law of diminishing returns gone wild. I checked out the results of all the men's singles matches at Forest Hills for four different five-year periods: 1921-25, when the modern game began, more or less; 1946-50, when tennis picked up steam again after the war; 1965-69, the last five years of the no-tie-break game; and 1970-74, years of the tie break. If you want to check out the results of other years or the results from Wimbledon or whatever, go ahead. I'm sure they would be much the same.
In the first five-year period, 1921-25, 6.6% of the results were changed because the matches were best-of-five instead of best-of-three. In the postwar period, 1946-50, the figure was 8.6%; in 1965-69 it was 8.5% and in 1970-74 it was 9.1%. The slight increase in changed results from the 1920s may be attributed to the fact that there is more depth now.
As a final example take the Davis Cup Challenge Round (or finals), where by definition there is the closest competition. In the 62 Challenge Rounds played since 1901, you find that 12.4% of the matches would have had a different outcome if played best-of-three instead of best-of-five. This indicates that for all the time and energy expended in playing best-of-five instead of best-of-three, you can never expect, even under the most competitive conditions, to change more than one result in eight. What is the point in all that? If you play 15-inning World Series games or six-period Super Bowls, one out of eight games might indeed end up differently, but so what? Is it worth all the extra time to change so few results and for no good purpose?
But you can be sure that with each and every one of these suggestions tennis will play a let. (And for those of you who want to stop reading and go to the bathroom, now that the article has ended, you must stay in your seat and keep quiet until you've read the first paragraph of the next article.)