A tennis match can be played as a best-of-three or a best-of-five sets match. The five-set format is seen in men’s grand slam matches, which make the highest tier of tournaments (Australian Open, Roland Garros, Wimbledon, US Open). The number of sets in a match is a major factor that plays in determining the length of a match.
Another major factor in deciding the length of a tennis match is the scoring format. In grand slams, each tournament has its own rule when a match enters the fifth set. At the Australian Open, a 10-point tiebreak decides the match when the fifth set score is tied at 6 games apiece. At the Roland Garros, a.k.a the French Open, the match ends when there is a difference of two games and hence there is no tiebreak in the fifth set. Wimbledon introduced a fifth set tiebreak rule in 2019, according to which the first to 12-points in a tiebreak at a score of 6-6 wins the match. The US Open was the first to introduce the fifth set tiebreak rule among the slams. Its fifth set tiebreak rules is same as any conventional tiebreak set, where the first to reach 7 points with a difference of two points wins the set.
The length of a three-set match rarely exceeds the three-hour mark. A five-set match usually touches the two and a half hour mark if the match ends in straight sets. However, there have been multiple instances when the length of a tennis match has gone beyond our imagination. Let us have a look at those instances.
The longest match in the history of professional tennis was played in the first round of the 2010 Wimbledon Championships when John Isner defeated Nicholas Mahut after playing for 11 hours and 5 minutes across 3 days. Wimbledon had no fifth set tiebreak rule back then. Hence, the fifth set score read 70-68.
The longest matches of the other three slams have not exceeded the 7 hour mark. In 2012, Novak Djokovic defeated Rafael Nadal after 5 hours and 53 minutes in the final. This is till date the longest final in slam history. Fabrice Santoro and compatriot Arnaud Clement played a 6 hours 33 minutes first round match at the 2004 French Open, which was the longest match in the history of the tournament. Finally, US Open saw its longest match played in 1992, when Stefan Edberg defeated Michael Chang in the semi-finals after 5 hours and 26 minutes.
In best-of-three set matches, Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic’s 2009 Madrid Masters semi-finals is regarded the longest match in the history of Masters events. It lasted a little over four hours, wherein Nadal won the match 3-6 7-6 7-6.
In the women’s category, all matches, including the slams are played as best-of-three set matches. The longest match was played in 1984 between Vicki Nelson and Jean Hepner in a tournament in Richmond. Nelson won the match after 6 hours and 31 minutes. The final score read 6-4 7-6.
The length of a tennis match thus depends a lot on the scoring format, the intensity of the players and the surface on which the match is being played.