WIMBLEDON – The members of the esteemed Wimbledon Committee live in their own time zone in terms of effecting change at The Championships.
They consider history. Surely they debate extensively. They look at every angle. Eventually, they move forward.
The brilliant way they put a roof on the ancient Centre Court, and how they plan to do the same on No. 1 Court in the same seamless fashion without disrupting play for one second is testament to the fact that they most often do things right.
Other times, they seem needlessly laggard. Optic yellow tennis balls were introduced in 1972; Wimbledon finally put them to use in … 1986. Until a few years ago, they looked askance at giving any media credentials to someone from that … world wide web business.
Until a few years ago, they didn’t have on-court interviews so the full house on Centre Court could at least hear from the two participants in the finals.
But here’s one item they should probably look at sooner than later: the anachronism that is best-of-five sets in gentlemen’s doubles.
It’s an idea that has long passed its expiry date, for many reasons.
Unfair to the women
It’s 9 p.m. Saturday night on the day of the ladies’ singles final. And there were four worthy gentlemen battling it out on Centre court for the doubles title. They had been at it for four hours and 40 minutes. Finally, it was over, 5-7, 7-5, 7-6(2), 3-6, 13-11.
The winners, Lukasz Kubot and Marcelo Melo, couldn’t believe it. One rolled in the grass. The other danced the can-can.
By then, they’d already had to stop play at 11-11 to close the roof and turn on the lights.
Thank God for the roof.
Otherwise, they’d have been held over until Sunday. And the women’s doubles final would also have been held over, after the women had been waiting since early afternoon to play.
It tells you what the general mindset here is that throughout the men’s doubles match, there was rarely a mention from the three commentators – including former players John Lloyd and Peter Fleming – of the women’s doubles championship to come, and of how long they had to wait. It was as though it didn’t exist.
After the marathon win came the trophy presentations in the Royal Box with the Duke of Kent.
Kubot and Melo, junior girls champ Claire Liu of the U.S., and the finalists.
By 9:20 p.m., they hadn’t even tossed the coin for the ladies’ doubles final. First serve came at 9:28 p.m.
With an 11 p.m. curfew on the lights at Wimbledon, it was lucky on some levels that champions Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina dropped a double bagel on No. 9 seeds Angel Chan and Monica Niculescu, a fledgling pair.
As it was, it was nearly 10:30 p.m. when they were done. A competitive match would easily have brushed up against the curfew, putting the Committee in the tenuous position of postponing the dénouement, or risk the wrath of local Wandsworth residents.
Putting aside the details of the long, long Saturday (and the fact that 13-11 in the fifth set, and 6-0 6-0 were worth exactly the same prize money to the champions and runners-up), here are six reasons why best-of-five men’s Grand Slam men’s doubles is a dodo bird.
1) No other Grand Slam does it
While that’s not necessarily reasoning that cuts much ice with Wimbledon, it’s the truth. The French Open has third-set tiebreaks for the doubles. In the mixed, they have match tiebreaks in lieu of third sets.
Meanwhile, Wimbledon plays everything out. No tiebreaks in deciding sets anywhere – including junior doubles. No match tiebreaks except for the Legends, and that’s probably only because they don’t want half the expert analysts for the various networks to end up in the hospital.
2) It’s a schedule killer
The Wimbledon world is a beautiful place if the weather holds up, as it has done this year.
But there have been a number of occasions in the past where the Committee has had to truncate the first round (and more) of men’s doubles to best-of-three.
People tend to forget, because of the Centre Court roof, that a lot of rain might mean tennis there no matter what.
But it delays and compresses the schedule on every other court, in all the other events.
In 2011, Canadian Adil Shamasdin and partner Chris Guccione tried for four days to get their first-round match finished. They finally did, on Saturday, after the format had been cut to best-of-three.
Even last year, entering the rare middle Sunday of play, six men’s doubles teams were already in the third round. But two hadn’t even finished their first-round matches yet. The tournament made the decision very early – far too early, according to some of the doubles players – to cut the first two rounds to best-of-three.
In 2004, the men’s doubles was reduced to best-of-three up to the quarterfinals. The same thing happened in 1997.
If you enter a tournament and can’t be 100 per cent sure of what the parameters are, that’s not right.
And if so little regard is given to your event that the first thing they do when they get behind schedule is to cut it down, it seems logical that they don’t consider it enough of a priority to be worth playing best-of-five sets.
3) Grass-court doubles has changed
While the best-of-five set format might give the better teams a better chance to win more often, grass-court tennis is no longer what it once was. That’s most evident in singles, where the serve-and-volley is practically extinct.
In doubles, the teams most often both stay back on first serves on grass, just as they do on the other surfaces. And there are plenty of players who serve and stay back, as well.
It’s still fast. But it’s not nearly the no-rally game that it used to be.
With the rallies extended at least somewhat, there’s less of an element of chance in the best-of-three format than there was a decade ago. Three sets is what they play everywhere else; with half the doubles players also involved in mixed, they certainly get enough tennis. Sometimes too much.
4) The better singles players steer clear
It’s not as though Wimbledon has to worry about pumping up the men’s doubles draw to increase spectators’ entertainment. It’s Wimbledon.
But if a player has any aspirations at all of maximizing in singles, he’ll avoid the best-of-five doubles like the plague – unless it’s a significant part of his livelihood.
Doubles always benefits when the more-known singles players play. It might take pounds sterling out of the doubles specialists’ pockets, but it’s true nonetheless.
Of the more well-known singles players, Fabio Fognini, Feliciano Lopez, Fernando Verdasco and Mischa Zverev played this year. But they most often play doubles at tournaments. And they all lost early.
The Nadals, Djokovics and Federers won’t ever play during a Slam. But you would definitely get a better field.
5) Five sets, no tiebreaks, tired legs
If the tournament thinks best-of-five sets in doubles determines the worthiest winners, it’s worth noting that without the final-set tiebreak, the outcomes are cumulative.
Mate Pavic and Oliver Marach won their doubles semifinal Thursday, 17-15 in the fifth set. Then Pavic had to go out and play mixed doubles, which they lost in three.
By the end of that, he was staggering.
By the time the pair got to the men’s doubles final Saturday afternoon, as close as that marathon match was, all that tennis in his legs may have been the difference between winning and losing.
Top men’s doubles seeds Henri Kontinen and John Peers won their doubles quarterfinal in five sets Wednesday. Then Kontinen had to go out and play mixed doubles. The next day, they lost their men’s doubles semifinal 9-7 in the fifth. Then Kontinen went out with Heather Watson and won a long three-setter, 7-5 in the third, in the mixed quarterfinals.
You could argue that by the time Kontinen played the mixed final Sunday, he was on fumes.
6) It’s a grass crusher
If there’s anything the grounds committee at Wimbledon has learned the last few years, it’s that hot weather and relentless baseline play have put the living, breathing grass courts under increasing duress.
There were complaints this year as rarely before, even if the tournament brushed them off as mere cosmetic concerns.
But the weather isn’t likely to get more helpful going forward, especially with the tournament a week later than it was in previous years. That means an extra week of the sun potentially bearing down on the lawns before the tournament gets under way.
Would it help, if there were a little less tennis going on during the fortnight? You’d have to think it would. Men’s doubles is 61 matches in total, all of them potential five-setters. Cut that down by half and it can only do the courts good.
If they kept the final best-of-five, that would be fine. But perhaps juggle the schedule a little in that case.
Will it happen? Probably in our lifetime.
But only when the Committee decides.