The French Open, the second Grand Slam of the tennis year, is underway at Roland Garros, which means that, like clockwork, it’s time to question whether women’s tennis players deserve equal pay — something they’ve had at all four major tournaments since 2007 and at the U.S. Open since 1973.
That argument has been particularly heated in recent months, sparked by (now former) Indian Wells CEO Raymond Moore saying women’s tennis players “ride the coattails of the men,” which No. 1 Novak Djokovic followed up by referring to the female athletes’ “hormones.” Earlier this month, Madrid tournament owner Ion Tiriac fueled the flames when he openly ogled women’s tennis players for having “long legs” but complained that he had to pay them so much money.
These comments inspired a recent Associated Press column: “Women need five-sets tennis to win equality battle.”
The columnist is referring to the fact that, at the four majors, women play best-of-three set matches while men play best-of-five sets. (At all other events on the tennis calendar, men play best-of-three as well.) His take is not a new one. Even male tennis star Andy Murray, a vocal advocate for equal pay, suggested in 2013 that women play best-of-five sets at the Slams.
But the ‘equal pay for equal sets’ argument spawns another set of questions: Can women play best-of-five? If so, why don’t they? And what are the chances of that happening in the future?
The short answers to those are: Yes; sexism; and who knows? But obviously there’s more to it, and it merits a look back at the history of women’s tennis, five-set matches, and the ongoing battle for equality.
Petticoats And Protests: 1891–1901
Believe it or not, the first time women played a best-of-five match in elite competition was back in 1891. Yes, you read that correctly. One hundred and fifteen years ago, women began to play best-of-five matches in the final of the U.S. National Championships, the tournament that later became the U.S. Open.
At the time, the tournament was held at the Philadelphia Cricket Club in June, a few months before the men’s U.S. National Championship took place at the Newport Casino in Newport, Rhode Island.
Since the tradition didn’t continue, those matches must not have been very good, right? Not so fast.
In 1891, Mabel E. Cahill defeated Ellen Roosevelt, 6–4, 6–1, 4–6, 6–3 in the very first best-of-five women’s match.
The New York Times said the match was “splendidly fought from start to finish, and every stroke was liberally applauded.” There was beautiful lobbing, great side-to-side play, and hard and accurate “backstrokes” that excited the engaged crowd. The points were all “fought to the end with wonderful tenacity.”
The following year, Cahill met 16-year-old Bessie Moore in the final, and they played the first five-set women’s match in tennis history. Cahill was able to defend her crown with a 5–7, 6–3, 6–4, 4–6, 6–2 victory.
“The match was very close and very exciting,” the Times reported. “Both ladies were cool and skillful, and the rallies were prolonged to a great length.”
The tournament briefly went back to a best-of-three final in 1893, but in 1894, both the all-comer’s final and the challenger’s final was best-of five. (In those days, the defending champion only had to play in one match, the challenger’s final. The rest of the tournament was held to figure out who would be the challenger.)
Overall, six five-set women’s matches were played at the U.S. National Championship, culminating in the 1901 tournament, when both the all-comer’s final and the challenger’s went the distance.
Moore won both of these matches, defeating Marion Jones in the all-comer’s round and Myrtle McAteer in the challenger round, 6–4, 3–6, 7–5, 2–6, 6–2 — a total of 105 games in 24 hours. Despite the fact that Moore was fine, the all-male officials at the United States National Lawn Tennis Association decided that was simply too much for those poor, dainty women to be put through, and they changed the women’s tournament back to best-of-three sets throughout.
Remember, this was not a time of women’s liberation. In mixed doubles, women were not allowed to keep track of the score because it was believed to be “too much of a strain.” Their dress was so restrictive that its a wonder they were able to move around the tennis court at all — female tennis players wore ankle-length skirts with petticoats underneath them, tightly-laced corsets, a girdle, a stiff collar, a necktie, long sleeves, stockings, boots, and a hat attached with a pin. In his book Tennis Confidential II, Paul Fein wrote that after playing tennis, the elaborate wardrobes were often “stained in blood.”
The women “vehemently” protested the decision by the all-male council to switch finals back to best-of-three. But they weren’t even consulted about it.
“I do not think any such change should be made without first canvassing the wishes of the women players,” Moore said. “Lawn tennis is a game not alone of skill but of endurance as well, and I fail to see why such a radical change should be made to satisfy a few players who do not take the time or have the inclination to get themselves in proper condition for playing.”
Battle Of The Sexes: 1973
After the men in charge ignored the complaints of Moore and Co. back in 1901, the debate over best-of-three versus best-of-five didn’t emerge again on the big stage until money entered the picture.
In 1968, the “open era” of tennis began, meaning tennis tournaments were now allowed to offer official prize money, opposed to the shady back-room deals between players and tournaments that had long been a fixture in the sport. That year at the U.S. Open, the men’s champion won $14,000, while the women’s champion only earned $6,000.
Right away, one of the biggest names in the sport, Billie Jean King, began fighting for women’s professional tennis players, and 1973 was her year to make big moves. The top women had been playing on two separate pro tours at the time, but that summer, they all came together to form the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA).
With solidarity in her back pocket, King set her sights on getting equal pay at the U.S. Open.
As reported by Nalia-Jean Meyers of the New York Times, back in 1973, the wage gap in America was as wide as its been in any year since tracking began in 1960: 56.6 percent. But King approached Billy Talbert, then the U.S. Open tournament director, and showed him a survey the newly-founded WTA had conducted that showcased the popularity of women’s tennis.
Crucially, King had already lined up a sponsor, Ban deodorant, to donate the $55,000 it would take to make the women’s prize money equal to the men’s. Talbert agreed, and the U.S. Open became the first major to offer equal pay. It would be another 34 years before Wimbledon, the last major to offer equal pay, followed suit.
“It was the height of the women’s movement,” King said. “I think there was social pressure to start doing things different.”
That September, King took home $25,000 for winning the women’s title, the same amount that Ilie Nastase won for winning the men’s. But just weeks later, she scored a far more important victory.
Sixty-two years after Moore defeated McAteer, King faced a five-set battle of her own against Bobby Riggs in the legendary “Battle of the Sexes” match. Riggs, one of the top players in the 1940s, repeatedly talked to the press about the inferiority of the women’s game and continued to challenge top female players to face him.
On September 20, 1973, in front of 30,472 fans at the Houston Astrodome and 90 million television viewers worldwide, King defeated Riggs in straight sets, 6–4, 6–3, 6–3.
King and other WTA players continued to push the remaining majors to offer them equal pay, but in 1976, an article was written in the New York Times with the headline, “Women’s Demands for Equality in Money Are Threatening $11 Million Tennis Tour.”
The article featured dismissive comments by star men’s players such as Jimmy Connors and Arthur Ashe, and, of course, pointed to the fact that at majors, women only played best-of-three, not best-of-five.
Mrs. King and others maintain that the equal pay-equal work principle ‘is bad logic’ and should have no bearing on prize money, since promoters have never requested the women to play longer matches.
At a WTA meeting, the players voted to play three-of-five-set matches, ‘just like the men,’ if that policy would equalize the prize money at Wimbledon.
‘We’re not fighting for more money,’ said Betty Stove of the Netherlands, the newly elected WTA president. ‘All we want is equality.’
As significant as King’s win over Riggs was, the battle for equality in tennis was far from over.
The Madison Square Garden ‘Gimmick’: 1984–1998
Despite the fact that players voted in 1976 to play five sets like the men, no tournament owners took up the women on their offer. But during the next decade, women’s tennis grew exponentially, with the birth of superstars such as Chrissie Evert and Martina Navratilova.
In 1984, the WTA decided to experiment with the format itself, and decided the championship match of the WTA Tour Finals — the year-end event that only the top players on tour attend — would be best-of-five.
‘’The women’s board felt it would be a good idea for us to try it,’’ Evert, who was the WTA president at the time, told reporters in ’84. ‘’Women players in general are becoming better athletes and therefore can endure longer matches.’’
Martina Navratilova agreed. ‘’The best-of-five final adds another exciting dimension to the tournament, as it gives us more of a chance to showcase our talent,’’ she said.
Unfortunately, not everyone was as excited. George Liddy, a longtime tennis promoter, said that the change was okay as a “gimmick,” but “not a good idea” as a regular occurrence, due to the increased possibility of injuries.
Evert and Navratilova happened to meet in the first best-of-five final at the WTA Finals (then the Virginia Slims Championships), but the new format didn’t make much of a difference, as Navratilova won in straight sets, 6–3, 7–5, 6–1. Evert remembers the match really getting away from her at the end.
“When I played that match, I think mentally I was so used to playing two out of three sets that after I lost two close sets, in that third set, I fizzled out,” the 18-time major champion and current ESPN tennis analyst said on a conference call this month. “Mentally, I wasn’t prepared.”
Not all of the best-of-five finals at the Virginia Slims Championships were that lopsided, though. Overall, there were seven four-set finals and three five-set finals, with the first five-setter coming in 1990 between 16-year-old Monica Seles and 20-year-old Gabriela Sabatini.
Seles finally defeated Sabatini 6–4, 5–7, 3–6, 6–4, 6–2. The match, which lasted 3 hours and 47 minutes, was described by Newsday as “thrilling.” Afterward, Seles didn’t complain about being fatigued — she merely complained about being hungry. “I didn’t have my lunch,” she told reporters.
“We had one of the most exciting matches ever, I think,” Seles said. “I played great. She played great. It was a hard match, but I enjoyed every minute.”
The next five-set thriller didn’t come for another five years, when Steffi Graf and Anke Huber took center stage in a battle that certainly left an impression on New York Daily News writer Filip Bondy:
They did not fade. They did not faint in the fourth set. Graf won the Women’s Tennis Association championship, 6–1, 2–6, 6–1, 4–6, 6–3, and the match just kept getting better as it moved along. What might have been an ordinary three-set victory by Graf became a classic tennis contest, undecided until Graf finally won her fourth breakpoint in the eighth game of the fifth set.
Along the way, Graf and Huber showed us something important. As usual, we have been underestimating female athletes. Given half the chance, they can put on the full, five-set show without a trace of collapse.
‘Five sets is great for women’s tennis and great for the players,’ Huber said. ‘I think they should have them for the finals of the Grand Slam tournaments. Everybody among the women can do it.’
As excited as Huber was to bring the best-of-five format to Slam finals, not everyone shared her enthusiasm — particularly Graf, who despite her superstar status and on-court success, was never a big advocate for advancing the women’s game. She always claimed that pay inequality between men and women in tennis didn’t bother her.
“I think it will be tough for us to play, maybe, on a clay court best of five or even in Australia, where it’s pretty hot,” she said after defeating Huber.
While it did produce a few classic matches, including one more five-setter between Hingis and Graf in 1996, for the most part, the matches just seemed to prolong the inevitable. The format was a particularly tough ask for the athletes at the end of a long season, and in a tournament where most players participated daily, sometimes twice daily if they qualified in doubles as well.
In 1999, the tournament switched back to the traditional best-of-three final.
The War Of Words Wages On
Since the last time women played a best-of-five match, Venus and Serena Williams have taken their sport to new heights, women’s tennis (and tennis overall) has become more physical and athletic than ever, and equal pay has been established at the remaining three major tournaments. And yet, women’s tennis players are constantly forced to defend their abilities and worth, particularly on the sport’s biggest stages.
There are plenty of theories floating around about why women’s tennis players don’t play best-of-five. They don’t have as strong of serves, meaning they are more easily broken, meaning their three-set matches innately have more drama than men’s three-set matches. Women’s matches also have historically featured longer rallies than men’s matches, though thanks to players like Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, that’s not really the case anymore. Plus, there’s the scheduling issue, which is a commonly-cited reason why the precedent isn’t changed: It’s hard enough scheduling all of these matches at a Slam and getting the TV windows — lengthening women’s matches would only make things worse.
But, in all these years, has any Grand Slam ever actually asked women to play best-of-five?
Well, in 1994, the Australian Open announced that the women’s final was going to be best-of-five the following year. The only problem? They didn’t talk to the WTA about this before making the announcement. The WTA Tour found out about the change through a fax, after it had already been announced to the press.
Our players have always said that they are willing to play three of five sets.
The women resented the fact that they weren’t involved in such a huge decision, particularly at a time when things between women’s tennis and the Australian Open were so tense — the tournament wasn’t promoting the women’s players and wasn’t giving them premiere court assignments, and the following year the tournament would actually take away the equal pay for women it had first offered in 1984 as a way to entice more stars to make the trip Down Under.
“They didn’t talk to players, they didn’t get feedback,” former WTA player Marianne Werdel Witmeyer said at the time. “It comes back to people not communicating.”
The WTA players banded together — led by Graf, the tour’s top player at the time — and had the decision to play best-of-five sets overturned before it could ever be implemented. Naturally, the Australian Open was not thrilled.
“We stuck our neck out and got it chopped off,” tournament director Paul McNamee said.
But it’s hard to tell how much of the women’s decision to overturn the Australian Open’s attempted change was due to the disrespectful way it was communicated versus a simple unwillingness to play five sets. After all, these days the players and WTA officials repeatedly say that they have offered to play best-of-five at majors if needed.
“Women players would be happy to play five sets matches in grand slam tournaments,” Venus wrote in her powerful letter in the Sunday Times back in 2006 — the letter many view as the impetus for Wimbledon to finally offer equal pay in 2007. “Tim Phillips, the chairman of the All England Club, knows this and even acknowledged that women players are physically capable of this.”
“Our players have always said that they are willing to play three of five sets,” former WTA CEO Stacey Allaster told the National Post in 2011. “The Grand Slams decide the format at their events and to date each Grand Slam has opted for the women to play two of three sets.”
“We women are strong, ready, willing and able,” Serena said in 2014. “All the women players have agreed to it, but it’s not what [the Grand Slam tournaments] want at this time.”
There are a few unquestionable truths that have to be considered in this debate: Length isn’t always equal to quality, and best-of-three matches can be longer and dramatic than most best-of-five matches. Still, it’s hard to deny the intrigue of epic five-setters, particularly in the later stages of tournaments. Because of this, some analysts, players, fans, and journalists have offered up a creative solution: Perhaps women and men should both play best-of-three before the quarterfinals of majors, then best-of-five for the remainder of the tournament.
Or maybe, men’s matches in Slams should be changed from best-of-five to best-of-three. Potentially, this would help extend the careers of the top players, and provide men’s matches with more of a sense of urgency.
But these solutions face the same stumbling block as the attempt to change women’s matches to best-of-five sets: history. Overall, it seems that nobody wants to mess with longstanding historical precedents, even if they were set over a century ago by men who didn’t even think women were capable of counting.
So, for now, we’re stuck here, having the same conversations over and over again.
“I don’t think that woman would have a problem playing three out of five sets. And I think also on the men’s side, oftentimes three out of five is too long,” former U.S. Open champion and Tennis Channel commentator Tracy Austin said on a conference call this month. “For me, it’s not about the length. When you go to a concert, it’s not how long this one plays or a man plays or a woman plays, it’s just about the entertainment value.”