The television announcers raved about what a great tennis match it had been after Marat Safin defeated Nicolas Kiefer in a five-set match that lasted more than four hours at the U.S. Open. A newspaper headline the next morning said: "Safin Outlasts Kiefer in Thriller."
It was indeed a monumental contest, with the little-known Nicolas Kiefer matching the very talented and highly ranked Marat Safin shot for shot and game for game for four long hours. But four hours of scrambling and hitting in the heat and humidity of New York were too much. In the end, Kiefer was so cramped up and in such obvious pain that I turned the TV off rather than watch his suffering.
Although Safin did not seem to be hurting as much, the match took a lot out of him as well. Afterward he said: "How was I feeling? Dead. Completely dead." He added, "I was choking so badly I was embarrassed. I couldn't serve, I couldn't play. I couldn't move."
What is the point of reducing great tennis players to a level far below their normal skills and subjecting them to strains that make the match a test of physical endurance more so than anything else?
Seven men have already quit during the first round of the U.S. Open. Why men? Probably because men play the best three out of five sets, while women play the best two out of three.
How many fans would rather watch a five-set match where the level of tennis has fallen off badly, rather than three sets with the players still playing with the high level of skill that the fans came to see?
We may applaud the courage and stamina of a player who hangs in there, despite obvious pain and disabilities, but is that what tennis is about? Does it make for a better experience when you see Pete Sampras throw up on the court or have to be helped off the court when the match is over?
Contrary to what some snobs think about sports fans, most fans are not there to watch pain or blood. When a referee stops a boxing match because one of the fighters is getting too battered, there is usually applause and almost never a sign of disapproval. Fans want to see a contest, not carnage.
In the Safin-Kiefer match, there were wheelchairs waiting in a corridor leading off the field. If you wanted to watch a hospital show, you wouldn't be tuned to the U.S. Open.
If the match between Kiefer and Safin had ended after three sets, Kiefer would have won. On the other hand, if it had ended after one set, Safin would have won. No matter how many sets are played, the number of sets can change the outcome, especially in a closely fought match.
Except in the big, grand slam tennis matches, men play the best two out of three sets, just like the women. Why should the level of skill in grand slam tournaments like Wimbledon or the U.S. Open be brought down by wearing the players out in marathon contests?
Players get worn out in another sense as well. One of the greatest tennis matches ever played anywhere was the Agassi-Sampras semi-final at the U.S. Open in 2000, where spectacular shots from both players thrilled the fans. Neither player lost his serve all day, and every one of the four sets ended in a tie-breaker. Yet after Sampras won a spectacular victory and went on to play Marat Safin in the finals, it was clear that Pete had little left of the great skills he had just demonstrated against Andre Agassi.
There have been complaints that tennis players have to play too many tournaments, in order to maintain their rankings. The men also have to play too many sets in grand slam tournaments. Both the players and the fans would be better off if the tennis powers that be lightened up on the schedule and the rules. The sponsors are entitled to make money but they are not entitled to blood.