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The Toss: Should men’s Olympic tennis stay best-of-three?

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Novak Djokovic olympics

Novak Djokovic has been pushed to a decisive third set twice at the London Olympics. (Abaca Press)

With Olympic tennis underway at the All England Club, the Games have a similar feeling to Wimbledon. The top guys are in action with a lot of pressure riding on their performances. But there’s a key difference: The matches are best-of-three until the men’s final, unlike the best-of-five format of the Grand Slams. Toss regular Ben Rothenberg of The New York Times returns for a debate about the Olympic format.

Today’s Toss: Should the Olympics follow the same best-of-five format as the Slams?

Courtney Nguyen: We reconvene to discuss the Olympics again, Ben, which for the most part have gone on without a hitch through six days. Heck, if you didn’t know any better — and if you were color blind — you might even think you were at a Slam. What with the worn grass courts, the athletes’ intensity, the curious court scheduling (come on, Caroline Wozniacki with three straight matches on Centre Court?), the … oh, heck, who am I kidding. Olympic tennis feels as much like a major as Maria Sharapova’s shrieks sound like a seductive whisper. This whole event just feels wrong and I’m still not over it.

But let’s set aside the eyesore that is the wrinkled purple signage, ushers who clearly have no idea when to open the gates (hint: changeovers!) and behind-the-scenes organization that isn’t exactly impressing the players (no Wi-Fi, no food before 11 a.m.), let’s look at what’s happening on the court. Specifically today’s question is this: How do we feel about the men’s best-of-three format?

On one hand, I enjoy the uncertainty that comes with a best-of-three duel, particularly this year with the tournament held on grass. It adds an element of capriciousness to the results that we just don’t get in the men’s game at Slams. The top four of Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray shine in best-of-five matches because of their talent, fitness and consistency (and the relative lack of consistency from the rest of the field). All bets are off when it comes to best-of-three, though, with lower-ranked players having more belief that they can take two sets while knowing that they’re not in for a four- or five-hour grind. Of course, that’s why you see more upsets in best-of-three events compared to Slams. John Isner can beat Djokovic in Indian Wells, Andy Roddick can knock off Federer in Miami, Philipp Kohlschreiber can upset Nadal in Halle and Nicolas Mahut can oust Murray in Queens.

Which is why best-of-three shouldn’t be the format adopted at the Olympics.

There’s a reason why the mandatory ATP Masters 1000 tournaments are a step below the Slams, and for me it has little to do with draw size, ranking points or prize money. When you alter the format to blunt the factors that define the best athletes in any sport (fitness and consistency), then you undermine the significance of the results. Steve Darcis, ranked No. 75 in the world, upsets No. 7 and former Wimbledon finalist Tomas Berdych on grass in the first round of the Olympics. Honestly, I shrug a bit at that result. The again, if Darcis takes three sets off Berdych, then I tip my cap. It’s the same reason Lukas Rosol’s upset over Nadal at Wimbledon shifted tennis’ plate tectonics, and why Jo-Wilfried Tsonga’s comeback win over Federer at last year’s Wimbledon was so memorable. Two sets? We see that all the time. Three sets? That’s the stuff of legend.

So when it comes to the Olympics, the best-of-three format undermines the importance of the results and thereby, the competition. Obviously, I understand why they have to do it. As opposed to a Slam, which is contested over two weeks, the Olympics is a nine-day competition that requires players to play back-to-back days in the later rounds. That’s a nearly impossible ask for the players to play best-of-five and given its placement in the calendar, it would probably discourage player participation. The solution? Either turn this into a proper event that takes place over two weeks like a major, or shrink the draw to allow for fewer matches with proper rest time scheduled between matches.

As it is, does best-of-three make tennis at the Olympics exciting? Absolutely. Does it make it an elite competition? Not even close.

Ben Rothenberg: First, let’s begin with where we agree, Courtney.

I definitely think the Olympic tennis competition should be two weeks long. It would allow for players to enter all possible events, which would put them closer to level footing with, say, swimmers who get to treat medals like items on Supermarket Sweep. Plenty of sports last the whole two weeks (basketball, handball, soccer, etc.), and with its many different multiday events, where one player may have to play singles and doubles, there’s no reason tennis shouldn’t be one of those.

And while I do understand why a best-of-five format allows for the better player to win more often in theory, I think the better players are winning more at Slams also in part to their greater motivation. Case in point, have there been any upsets to speak of in these Olympics? Nope, not really. You mentioned Berdych. But he got swept out of Wimbledon in the first round in straight sets as well — it took only one set longer.

Which brings me to my next point: Not only do we not need best-of-five at the Olympics, but we also don’t really need best-of-five ever. Best-of-five was introduced in an era where tennis was exponentially less physical than it is now. Points were not as grueling, and the time between points was almost nothing. In this era of unprecedented physicality, do we really need five sets? Do we really need matches to last upwards of six hours? Do we really need early-round matches that are lengthy foregone conclusions? Switching to best-of-three would force all players to try their hardest in all sets (for the most part), greatly improving the quality of play.

And because of the physicality of the game and the daunting nature of best-of-five, eliminating it would allow big names to stay in the sport years longer than they might otherwise, a boon for fans and promoters alike.

Best-of-five is a pain for television, too. Watching a single match shouldn’t take all night.

Lastly, getting rid of best-of-five would remove the argument that men deserve more money because they play more sets, which I’ve always thought was a fairly flimsy quantity-over-quality stance to have. Best-of-three everywhere would make it equal for all.

I realize this wasn’t exactly the argument we started with, but I thought I should make my feelings on best-of-five clear.

Nguyen: Oddly, even though I’m arguing for best-of-five at the Olympics, I agree with you on the issue of scrapping the format completely. Is my logic inconsistent? Hardly.

All I want is for the Olympics to mirror the Slams in whatever format that may be. It’s the first step in elevating the Olympics into a competition worthy to be discussed in the same breath as the vaunted majors. As long as it mirrors a Masters event it will always be second tier, no matter how much the athletes talk about flags and patriotic cheers.

Getting back to your point about scrapping best-of-five as a concept, I’m behind you 100 percent. The shootout nature of the competition this week has been fun and the mercifully shorter matches (trust me, I didn’t need a third set of Lacko-Petzschner) has made for better viewing. The first set actually means something, which never feels like the case at a Slam, where the margins are wider.

Wait a second. Did we just agree on something? Maybe the Olympics really can bring people together.

Rothenberg: Wow, my work here is done? The Olympics really are special.

  • Published On Aug 02, 2012
  • 1 comments
    UsamaHaq
    UsamaHaq

    Get rid of the best of 5? Are you serious? Think about the greatest tennis matches of all time, I'm sure nearly all of them are best of 5 (Federer-Nadal 2008, Djokovic Nadal 2010, McEnroe Borg 1980). The matches which go the distance live long in memory, not those which last an hour or so. You'd also no longer have epic comebacks from two sets to love down to win a match.