Have women ever played 5-sets in tennis?

November 24,1996: The final match of the season saw Steffi Graff win a thrilling 5-set match against Martina Hingis in the Chase Championships, now known as the WTA Finals.

That was the last time when women contested a 5-set match. Various postulates and theories have came up on this subject. Those arguments focus on various sectors that pertain to sexism, equality, stamina, scheduling, etc. Let us have a look at each logical and debatable point and give it a shot to answer the question, “Why don’t women play 5-set matches?”

1) “Have we ever given it a shot?”

Zooming insdie the timeline of tennis, there are three major phases which featured women play 5-set matches.
The first of these was in the US Open from 1894 to 1901. Womem played every match as a best of 5-sets match. In this phase of seven years, four final matches (1894,1897,1898,1901) were completed in 5-sets. 

The second phase or more precisely an event, was the revolutionary match between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King famously known as the “Battle of Sexes.” The 5-set match took place in 1973 and it was King who emerged the winner in straight sets. Yet another point proven in favour of women’s 5-set match.

The third and the last phase was from 1984 to 1998 in the WTA Finals. It was decided that the championship match will be played as a best of 5-set match. 3 instances (1990,1995,1996)  saw the final being stretched to 5 sets. The first one was won by Monica Seles and the latter two were won by Steffi Graff.

“We had one of the most exciting matches ever, I think. I played great, she played great, it was a hard match, but I enjoyed every minute.”- Monica Seles after her 5-sets victory over Gabriel Sabatini in 1990 tour finals.

2) Women run out of gas faster

Let me tell you that before finding this line offensive, there’s a scientific evidence behind this statement. When it comes to exercises which last for a longer time than normal, women burn more fat and less carbohydrates which in turn reduces their muscle glycogen faster than men. Monica Seles defeated Gabriel Sabatini 6-4, 5-7, 3-6, 6-4, 6-2 in the championship match of the year-end finals.

“Five sets is great for women’s tennis and great for the players. I think they should have them for the finals of the Grand Slam tournaments. Everybody among the women can do it.” – Anke Huber after losing to Steffi Graff in the 1995 year-end championship match in 5-sets.

3) Money and men

Most of us come up with the argument that if men can play 5-sets, why not the women? Let us twist this question a bit. If women play 3-sets, why not the men? It was a decade ago when the grand slams decided to pay the same prize money to both the men and women. If payment in tennis is based on the number of sets, than women earn a good profit comparatively. Besides, based on various viewership surveys, men’s grand slam matches are seen more than women’s grand slam matches. Instead of solving the debate this particular point raises a couple of questions. Should men play 3-sets based on the current prize money? Should women play 5-sets based on the current prize money?

4) Unpoised scheduling

128 singles matches, doubles and mixed doubles matches, all in a span of 14 days is a difficult task to manage. Women currently play three sets and yet the players have grumbled about insufficient rests in between matches. To think of 5-set matches for women as well will hamper the scheduling. Moreover, if grand slams will be extended beyond two weeks then it may disturb the participation of players in the upcoming tournaments.
“We’ve long been in this discussion that we’ll play five sets but the slams don’t want us to. I look at the intensity of play, the athletes’ bodies and three sets over two-and-a-half to three hours is probably enough. We need them over 40 weeks – it’s a long circuit.”- Stacy Allaster, former WTA CEO

5) “5-sets only from QFs”

Another point put forth is introducing 5-set matches only from the quarter-finals stage; and this applies to both men and women. This would be the most suitable solution to the debate. Even if the WTA agree upon it, its ultimately up to ITF’s Grand Slam Committee that will decide whether there should be any change of rule made.

Nearly 125 years back women used to play the 5-set matches at the US Open that too with restrictions on their apparel. It is not that women are not hardwired to play 5-sets, its just that probably they are not allowed to.

“It isn’t about it being inferior. As I see them, they’re two different sports. It’s just because we play five sets. I’m not saying the men work harder than the women, but if you have to train to play five sets, it’s a longer distance. It’s like someone training to be a 400-meter runner and someone training to be a 600-meter runner. I think the women should play best-of-five sets.[Maybe] it doesn’t have to be from the first rounds. I think either the men go three sets or the women go five sets. I think that’s more what the guys tend to complain about, rather than the equal prize money itself.”- Andy Murray

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