Women volley into equality, but what of 5-set matches?
New York — For the women players at the United States Open Tennis Championships, this has been a year for winning concessions -- a larger field, a commensurate increase in prize money, additional TV coverage, and more featured matches in the main stadium.
You might say the Women's Tennis Association drove a hard bargain, for its members were just about ready to pick up the rackets and play in New Jersey if they didn't get their way.
They were satisfied enough with the changes to drop a threatened boycott, but the feeling persists that the men remain in the limelight, even without lobbying for it.
Both the men and the women now have 100-player draws, yet the men easily outstrip the women in time on the courts. The reason is simple. The men play best-of-five-set matches, the women best-of-three. Consequently, the longest women's match (three sets) lasts no longer than the shortest men's match. And in the case of a lopsided victory, the women's match is almost over before you've settled into your seat. For example, when Hana Mandlikova blitzed Duk Hee Lee 6-1, 6-0 in the fourth round, the elapsed "play time" given on a special clock at courtside was a mere 29 minutes! The men frequently take longer than that to play one set.
Theoretically, the women could ask to play the best-of-five format themselves , and maybe they will someday. To do so would certainly be in keeping with the equality theme they've pushed. Equal prize money for equal work: It only seems fair. Yet no one's crying out for it. Why?
Probably because neither the depth in women's tennis nor the dominant, slut-it-out-from-the-baseline style is conducive to longer matches.
Frankly, the men's matches can be overlong when they go five sets, but at least more of their points involve a mix of ground strokes and net-rushing volleys. As women develop more power in their games, which is sure to happen, they too will exhibit the type of serving and volleying that make five-setters more enjoyable to watch.
The number of high-quality players has certainly increased in recent years -- no one can argue it hasn't -- but there are still too many soft touches in a big draw like the Open's to go to five sets. To do so would only point up a talent gap that is clear enough using the best-of-three format.
To cite the available results from this year's Open illustrates the point. About 70 percent of the women's matches played during the tournament's first eight days were decided in straight sets, compared with 50 percent of the men's. Perhaps even more telling are the number of 6-0 (love) sets, a fairly accurate indicator of a poor match. The men had only 18 in 431 sets, the women 27 in 275 sets.
Still, in the later rounds one almost feels robbed when the women only play best-of-three matches. Maybe once the quarterfinals have been reached, they should switch to the best-of-five format, or at least drop tiebreakers and require a two-game advantage to win a set. The record book, by the way, shows that the women played best-of-five up until the turn of the century -- and that was during the age of ankle-length tennis dresses!
Sports in general should do a better job of encouraging good sportsmanship, and certainly tennis is no exception. Bad language, obscene gestures, and disrespectful behavior are more evident than ever before, in part, perhaps, because of greater media coverage in the use of directional microphones.
In an attempt to lessen unacceptable behavior, tennis has tried meting out fines and point penalties, with limited success. The sport is really handcuffed in this regard, because the surest deterrent -- ejection from the court -- is one tournament organizers consider unthinkable. Therefore, when Vitas Gerulaitis smashed a ball at a lineswoman the other day, missing and hitting a spectator, he was fined $750 but allowed to continue his match. By winning, he earned himself $3,200 for reaching the quarterfinals.
Though there is nothing wrong with discouraging bad behavior, more could be done to spotlight the good, which belongs to the game's heritage (many Australian stars of the '50s and '60s -- the Lavers, Rosewalls, and Newcombes -- were as well schooled in proper court conduct as in stroke mechanics).
Asked why tennis's sportsmanship awards receive so little attention, one US Tennis Association official replied, "Because the same people win them all the time," Chris Evert Lloyd and Stan Smith. A close examination of the back pages of this year's Open program suggests otherwise, with a picture of Brian Gottfried accepting the William M. Johnston Sportsmanship Award from past winners Bill Talbert and Gene Scott. And though Evert Lloyd did win the women's Karen Krantzcke Sportsmanship Award in 1979, Evonne Goolagong has been the recipient during two of the three years it's been awarded.
By finding a way to bring more recognition to these awards, tennis would be doing itself a favor. For to do so would help establish the game's good sports as role models for succeeding generations of players.