In November 1990, 25 years ago exactly, was held the first match in five sets on the women's tour. An epic encounter played during the World Tour finals and won by Monica Seles against Gabriela Sabatini. If the experiment ended less than a decade later, the debate is on-going, amid controversy about gender equality...
It was the 18th of November 1990 at the Madison Square Garden in New York. On a Sunday, day of the final of the WTA Finals. A way to end the season on a high note with this promising match between the popular Gabriela Sabatini and the very young Monica Seles, not even 17 at the time. It was the latter that had the support of the predictions, as she was seeded number 2 while the World No. 1, Steffi Graf, had been defeated in the semi-finals by Sabatini. The Argentine had the support of a large part of the New York audience, which witnessed an unbalanced beginning of the match, that quickly turned in favour of the young Yugoslavian. She won without trembling the first round 6/4, 5/4, service to follow in the second. Match won? No, because even if she had won the second set, they will have had to play at least a third one. Since 1984 indeed, the WTA had established the rule of the three winning sets in final of the last tournament of the season. An unprecedented decision since the Open era and even since 1901, the time when the organizers of the US Championships, the forerunner of the US Open, had chosen to shorten women's matches by establishing the rule of the two winning sets, which was already standard in other tournaments. Since 1984, the final of the WTA Finals were then played in at least three sets. But never until 1990 a match had been played in five sets. This match between Seles and Sabatini also didn't seem to take this path...
«One of the most beautiful match in history»
In the course of the second set, Sabatini finally woke up and decided to play more aggressively. It surprised her opponent and reversed the situation, winning 7/5 the second set then the third one in stride, 6/3. Certainly upset by this unexpected scenario, Seles pulled herself together and took the upper hand to win the fourth set 6/4. It was a historic moment live from the Madison Square Garden, since it was the first time since 1901 that a women's match was to be decided in the fifth set. And no one complained about it: "The more it was going and the less tired I felt," said Monica Seles at the end of the spectacular match that she finally won 6-2 in the final round. Total Time: 3 hours and 47 minutes for "one of the most beautiful match in the history of women's tennis" wrote Judith Elian in L'Equipe magazine.
Enough to definitely tip the votes in favour of the defenders of these longer matches in major women's tennis tournaments? Not really. The WTA has never instituted this rule in Grand Slam tournaments, and even ended up removing it from the 1999 WTA finals, with a return to the short format. During the 90s, two other finals were played in five sets, both won by Steffi Graf: in 1995 against her compatriot Anke Huber (6/1 2/6 6/1 4/6 6/3) and the following year against Martina Hingis (6/3 4/6 6/0 4/6 6/0).
Former glories support the idea, current ones are against it
This return to the old rule doesn't mean that the debate has ended on the tour, on the contrary. It persists and is even kept going by the highest authorities of tennis. The president of the WTA since 2009, Stacey Allaster, is herself in favour of matches in five sets according to an interview given in 2011 to a Japanese media: "Women train as hard as men. We have always said that women were ready to play in five sets. It's the Great Slam organizers who refuse to do it." Comments confirmed two years later, supported by the lobbying of some influential former players like Martina Navratilova and Billie Jean King. Some other former players (Pat Cash) or current players (Gilles Simon) have also spoken in favour of this change in the rules amid efforts to be made on equality and thus prize money offered during the season. "It’s not sexist, but I believe that women should earn as much as men from the time they play in three winning sets like them. Otherwise, it makes no sense," argued the former Australian champion. Nevertheless, the current stars of the WTA Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova don't agree. They also benefit from the broad support of tournament organizers and broadcasters for whom longer matches in the women's draw would be a real headache in terms of planning. Above all, like the implementation of the tiebreak in the fifth set in the Davis Cup by BNP Paribas, the current trend is a desire to shorten matches rather than lengthen them. "Rather than thinking about reinstating the matches in five sets for women, it would be better to generalize the matches in two winning sets for men," said Nathalie Tauziat. “Marathon matches can certainly produce great moments of emotion sometimes but they are no longer in the spirit of the times.”