The Case for Best-of-Five Set Doubles at Wimbledon

Nick Kyrgios Wimbledon
Spread the love

Nick Kyrgios has been the center of attention at Wimbledon so far. Arguments with umpires, a grudge match with Stefanos Tsitsipas, eating during a press conference–this man has done it all. One of his more understated moments, however, is an argument he made on Tuesday. Speaking after his 1st round singles win, the Aussie ripped into tournament officials for insisting on a best-of-five sets format for the men’s doubles draw. “No one wants to play best-of-five set doubles, no one wants to watch best-of-five set doubles,” Kyrgios ranted.

Two days later, the reigning Australian Open doubles champion (with Thanasi Kokkinakis) withdrew from the doubles draw. He reiterated that he wished to conserve his body for singles. The entire affair brought back a years-long debate: should the All England Club switch to best-of-three sets in men’s doubles? Fans and pundits have been almost unanimous, arguing that the answer is yes. Here’s why they’re wrong.

How does Best-of-Five Sets Affect the Players?

In the last 20 years or so, the men’s tennis world has witnessed the rise of the “doubles specialist,” someone who trains and competes almost exclusively in doubles. In many cases, a singles player nearing retirement will become a doubles specialist, as was the case with Nicolas Mahut and Ivan Dodig. As such, most of the top doubles players in the world are over 30 years old. Wimbledon being the only tournament in which they play best-of-five sets, it’s a physically demanding task for the veterans.

Despite this, doubles players are mostly in favor of the Wimbledon format. Since many players play both singles and doubles at the Slams, longer matches give doubles specialists the edge. In 2016, and then again in 2021, the All-England Club changed the doubles to best-of-three sets in the first two rounds due to rain delays. The decision was met both times with anger from doubles players, who thought the alteration opened the door to more upsets. Doubles legend Robert Lindstedt spoke on behalf of all doubles players when he said, “we love to play five sets.” His partner at the 2016 tournament, Sam Groth, argued that those competing in both draws have to be “prepared to play best-of-five singles and doubles if they’re the events you enter.” At the time, Groth was also in the singles main draw.

In the end, best-of-five doubles is a compromise between singles and doubles players. The latter have to play more tennis than they’re used to, but gain an edge over their counterparts who have to compete in two draws. Singles players are more used to the format, but if they want a shot at the title, they’ll need to be ready for a brutal two weeks.

Do Fans Like Best-of-Five Set Doubles?

There’s certainly an argument for changing doubles at Wimbledon to best-of-three sets. However, Kyrgios’ claim that no one wants to watch best-of-five doubles is entirely false.

In 2013, a sell-out crowd in Boise, Idaho witnessed the legendary Bryan brothers fall to Ilija Bozoljac and Nenad Zimonjic of Serbia, 7-6 7-6 5-7 4-6 15-13 in the Davis Cup quarterfinals. Two years later, a lively British audience cheered brothers Andy and Jamie Murray on to a 4-6 6-3 6-4 6-7 6-4 victory over Australia’s Lleyton Hewitt and Sam Groth in the Davis Cup semifinals.

Wimbledon itself hosted one of the most remarkable doubles matches ever in 2017. In the men’s doubles final, Lukasz Kubot and Marcelo Melo upended Oliver Marach and Mate Pavic in five sets, 5-7 7-5 7-6 3-6 13-11, to win the trophy. A near-capacity crowd packed Centre Court for that match. A year later, Jack Sock and Mike Bryan emerged as champions at the same tournament, winning consecutive five-setters in the semis and final.

So why do fans like watching best-of-five doubles? Part of the reason is certainly the dramatic aspect. There’s an epic component to the prospect of a five-setter. Knowing that one team winning two sets isn’t enough makes Wimbledon doubles more exciting to watch. Additionally, even the longest doubles matches aren’t that long. On Saturday, four men’s doubles matches went the distance at Wimbledon. The longest one, featuring two tiebreaks, lasted 3 hours and 47 minutes. The shortest one was over in 2 hours and 27 minutes. The fast pace of doubles matches gives fans a chance to see an epic five-setter unfold in less than three hours. This is practically unheard of in singles.

Should the Format Be Changed?

There are many arguments against the best-of-five doubles format. Perhaps the most valid one is in regards to point distribution, though this is not a concern in 2022. All four Slams award the same number of doubles ranking points, despite the disparity in match length. However, given the excitement, drama, and intensity of Wimbledon’s doubles draw, the format shouldn’t change. Instead, the Grand Slam Board and ATP should consider a change in the point system. There is no doubt that Wimbledon is the most difficult doubles tournament to win. It is certainly a class ahead of the Australian Open, Roland-Garros and the US Open in that regard. Therefore, it should be worth more in terms of the world rankings.

Wimbledon has long been considered the most prestigious tennis tournament in the world, and rightfully so. It is the oldest tournament and upholds centuries-old traditions of the sport. It is also played on grass, which many consider to be the most challenging surface. Best-of-five sets in the men’s doubles draw adds to the prestige of the Championships. It is a fundamental feature of the tournament. This is a tradition that should be maintained at all costs. For the love of tennis, the All-England Club should continue to insist on best-of-five doubles.

Main Photo from Getty.