Grand Slam tournaments come and go but leave little room for suspense. While the Fantastic Four of the tour compete for the top spot, the others make do with the leftovers. The format of Grand Slam, with matches...

Grand Slam tournaments come and go but leave little room for suspense. While the Fantastic Four of the tour compete for the top spot, the others make do with the leftovers. The format of Grand Slam, with matches played as the best-of-five-sets, often means that the might is right. But why can't tennis be played in one straight set?

  The Jeu de Paume, or Palm Game. Therein lies the answer. This is also to where Franck Sabatier, head of referees at Roland Garros, refers the curious. You have to go back to the basic rules of this glorious ancestor of tennis to understand best-of-three-sets format (five for the Davis Cup by BNP Paribas and Men Grand Slam tournaments). In charge of the collections and of the cultural mediation at the Tenniseum, the French Tennis Federation Museum, Michael Guittard explains: "Historically it dates back to 1555, when the monk Antonio Scaïno codified for the first time the rules of the game of tennis. The scoring system was then discussed, indicating the 15, 30, 40, game, six games to win a set and two sets to win a match." These historic rules would later be used in the creation of modern tennis: "In 1874, Major Wingfield codified the rules of a sport which will later become lawn tennis. Again, it was specified that you had to win two sets to win the match. However, the "logical" reasons of this choice are a little blurry. Ultimately, there are no clear explanations, but only that a set could be played quickly" continues Guittard. Played quickly? Tell that to John Isner and Nicolas Mahut who slugged it out under blazing sunshine at Wimbledon for five sets in a match that lasted nearly 11 hours.  

"It would lose a bit of its soul if it was played in a single set"

However, this historical reason was adopted by all the cousins of tennis. Indeed, the principle of dividing a match in several rounds is part of the DNA of all sports where a net separates the opponents. The laws of tennis, squash or badminton don't say anything else. It's therefore logical that tennis doesn't see the point of questioning rules known by all and included in its genetic heritage. Volleyball also shares this characteristic of playing its matches in the best of five sets. A format that seems to satisfy Benjamin Toniutti, passer of the France team: "In volleyball, just like in tennis, the sets are part of the codes of the game. A game in a single set could be done but when there are five-set matches, it's still impressive in terms of duration, intensity and show. It would lose a bit of its soul if it was played in a single set.” However, in tennis or volleyball, playing in multiple sets appears to reduce the chances of “David” prevailing against “Goliath”. “With the 5 set format, the big teams almost always prevail because they inevitably have a psychological advantage at the beginning. Generally, the break between games allows the strongest team to refocus and win the next game. In volleyball, it is almost impossible for a second division team to beat a first division one. I think that it's the same with tennis. You have the top 4-5 and then the rest…”  

"Federer doesn't need to fight to win a third one"

Anyway, giving up the idea to having multiple sets is unthinkable. However, tennis has this incongruity to play some matches as best-of-three-sets, and other as best-of-five (Men’s Grand Slams and Davis Cup by BNP Paribas). A double standard that doesn't leave everybody satisfied. Some within the circuit are speaking up to promote the idea of playing Grand Slams as best-of-three-sets. Nikolay Davydenko mentioned it at a press conference after losing in five sets (4-6, 6-7, 6-2, 6-1, 6-2) against Mardy Fish at the latest U.S. Open: "You must be very strong physically for such long matches. Why do we play matches in five sets? We should be playing in the best of three sets in Grand Slams. Everyone would support this idea, even Roger. For him it's easy to win two sets in one hour. He doesn't need to fight to win a third one". It is not known what Federer really thinks of that. Toniutti, on the other hand, thinks differently: "Of course it's hard for them physically. But for me as a spectator, I really enjoy watching a match in five sets. And when I see the intensity they still manage to put in after 5 hours of match, I can only bow to them."   By Arthur Jeanne