There are two match formats in tennis, best of 3 sets and best of 5 sets. In women’s tennis, the best of 3 sets format is always played, while the men play best of 5 sets during some tournaments. What exactly is the reason for that, and why do women only play three sets in tennis? I’m going to explain that to you in this article!
In 1901, tournament officials decided that women in tennis would play three sets instead of five sets. This was because they were poor "dainty women." This decision is maintained by tradition, sexism, broadcast problems, and uncooperative tournaments.
In the rest of this article, I’ll explore this question in much more detail. For example, we’ll dive into history and find out since when women have been playing three sets in tennis. So would you like to know more about this? Then be sure to read on!
Before I answer the question, I would like to clarify the following:
Women tennis players didn’t always play best-of-three set matches.
So, since when do women play three sets in tennis then?
It might be hard to believe that male tournament officials were the ones who decided that women should play best of three sets due to them being “dainty women.”
In 1901 they decided that playing best of five sets was too much to put their bodies through. Ever since, women tennis players have been playing best-of-three sets from the junior level to the grand slams.
The decision was protested immediately by the women players.
Sixteen-year-old Bessie Moore, who played in the first five-set women’s match at the 1892 U.S. National Championships – what would later become the U.S Open – was very vocal about the decision and stated:
“I do not think any such change should be made without first canvassing the wishes of the women players. 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.”
Now that we know when this tennis rule was introduced, its exact reason is also important.
Why do women only play three sets in tennis?
The main reasons why women play three sets are based on tradition and sexism, and if tennis is known for one thing, it is sticking to tradition.
Tennis players, tennis fans, tennis officials don’t love change. Just look at the uproar the serve clock caused when it was first implemented, and it’s still a point of contention for some.
Women playing best-of-three sets is, simply, tradition.
Another more logistical reason behind the tradition is that it would be tough to schedule all the matches at the Grand Slams and be able to get them aired on TV.
It’s already a struggle for the networks to get matches on the networks. Imagine having to lengthen the women’s matches. It would make things so much worse.
So in summary, these are the main reasons why women in tennis play 3 sets and the men play 5 sets:
It is certainly sexist that women in tennis only play three sets. This rule was instituted by men without the consent of the female players. They were seen by them as poor "dainty women." In addition, equal prize money has only been in place at all grand slams since 2007.
The history of why women began playing three sets is steeped in sexism – after the male officials ignored the complaints from the women players in 1901, the debate of three-set versus five-sets didn’t emerge again until prize money was at stake.
The Open Era of tennis began in 1968 – meaning tournaments were allowed to offer prize money.
The first year that prize money was allowed, the U.S. Open paid the men’s champion $14,000 while the women’s champion was only paid $6,000.
This was when Billie Jean King began fighting for the rights of women tennis professionals. The WTA was founded in the summer of 1973, and it was then that King began lobbying for equal pay at the U.S. Open.
King went to the U.S. Open tournament director at the time and showed him the survey proving the popularity of women’s tennis.
She already had Ban Deodorant as the tours sponsor to donate the $55,000 it would take to make the prize money equal. The director agreed, and the U.S. Open became the first Grand Slam to offer equal pay.
The other majors were slow to follow – Wimbledon being the last to adopt equal pay, only in 2007.
King would score another important victory in women’s tennis on September 20, 1973, playing Bobby Riggs at the Houston Astrodome.
Bobby Riggs was a top player back in the 1940s and was infamous for expressing his feelings about the inferiority of the women’s game. He was always challenging the top female players to play him.
King took that challenge in front of thirty-thousand fans and ninety-million TV viewers known as the Battle of the Sexes. It was a best-of-five-set match.
King would beat Riggs in straight sets: 6-4, 6-3, 6-3.
Along with the other women of the newly formed WTA, she would continue to lobby for the remaining majors to offer equal pay.
There was a lot of pushback, and some came from the top men’s players themselves.
They all pointed to the fact that equal pay should mean equal play. The women should be playing best-of-five to receive the same amount of prize money as the men.
But since promoters never requested women play longer matches, the equal pay-equal work principle was flawed logic, according to Billie Jean King.
The women were happy to adopt the best of five, they even voted for it at a 1976 WTA meeting, but none of the tournament owners took them up on their offer.
There was a brief period of time where the WTA did adopt five-set matches for women. In 1984, it was decided that women would play the longer format at the WTA Tour Finals.
The decision received mixed reviews, but the players were excited.
Ultimately, best-of-five sets were a tough ask for the athletes that endured a long season prior to coming to the end-of-the-year finals.
In 1999, the WTA Tour Finals changed back to the traditional best-of-three final.
Women's tennis will probably never go back to 5 sets. Tennis seasons are long, it increases the chance of injury, and it's easier for TV networks to manage.
Tennis is the only sport on the planet that has a different format for men versus women. Before we dive into if women will ever play five sets, we must understand the very basics of the professional tennis world.
The women’s game is governed by the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), and the men’s side of the game is governed by the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP).
The WTA has separate events from the ATP during the calendar year. Both have adopted a best of three set format at their events.
So, the question should be, why did the men change their format at non-major tournaments?
It was a case of lessening the men’s workload.
Professional tennis has one of the longest seasons compared to other sports. The calendar year goes from January through November.
There’s an opportunity to play a tournament every single week, on top of training, that’s a lot of tennis. That’s a lot of wear and tear on the body.
How to maintain that high level throughout the year? Five-set matches paired with an eleven-month season is just asking for injuries and burnout.
Ben Rothenberg, a legend when it comes to tennis reporters, tweeted: “Best-of-five is carnage.”
The change from five sets to three for ATP events also makes it easier for fans to sit through, leaves players fresher in the later rounds, and makes it more manageable for TV networks to broadcast.
Most importantly, it eliminates the age-old argument of equal pay.
The Grand Slams maintain the best of five sets for the men’s tour. Why is it different?
Because the Slams are governed by the International Tennis Federation (ITF), and five-sets are believed to be the ultimate test of mental and physical stamina.
And because it’s steeped in tradition, not much will change in the sport of tennis.
There’s a lot to be said whether the women’s tour will ever adopt five-set matches. Some have weighed in saying that, at the very least, that women should play best-of-five in Grand Slam finals.
Changing to five sets would provide greater gender equality. We must ask ourselves, at what cost?
With players’ schedules already so jam-packed for eleven months, is changing the format of the women’s game going to improve anything?
Pam Shriver, an American former tennis professional and owner of 21-singles titles said:
“I don’t think the women should ever feel the need to play three out of five. They put everything they have into best-of-three now, and that makes those matches more intense. Every point feels like it counts, which isn’t true for best of five.”
So, will women’s tennis change to 5 sets?
Although in 2014, Serena Williams stated:
“We women are strong, ready, willing, and able. All the women players have agreed to it, but it’s not what the Grand Slam tournaments want at this time.”
It’s doubtful that tennis will change much in the coming years, as it’s a sport that thrives on its traditions.
There have been some innovative thoughts on what the next steps should be for the format of tennis.
Some think that best-of-three matches should be played by both the men and women at Grand Slams until the quarterfinals.
Then the best-of-five sets would be played for the last three rounds of the tournament – the quarters, the semis, and the finals.
Maybe we should be looking at the men and asking that side of tennis to change. Perhaps the debate should be switching the men from best-of-five to best-of-three.
Indeed, this can also have advantages. A best-of-three format makes winning a game more urgent.
There is less chance that the level of play will drop; it gives players a greater sense of urgency. And by switching to a shorter format, perhaps the men will suffer fewer injuries and have longer careers.
Again, the argument dies simply because of tradition – and possibly some toxic masculinity.
Women are capable of playing five-set matches, as we’ve seen from the history of tennis.
They were able to do it in the 1890s and the 1990s, and there is no doubt the women of the current era would have no problem going the distance.
With the dominance of power seen by Serena and Venus Williams since they came onto the scene, to the variety of Ash Barty and Simona Halep, the women have what it takes to play the same format as the men.
It’s doubtful the powers that be -- the tournaments, the TV networks, and age-old tradition -- will ever give the okay for the women’s game to change from three-sets to five-sets.