2014/09/03

Say “No” to Best of Three

By Dave Seminara

Why is it that tennis writers and former players always seem to be agitating for changes that would result in less tennis being played in the pro ranks? For years, we’ve been hearing that the Davis Cup shouldn’t be an annual event, and that tennis’s offseason should be longer. Now during the first week of this year’s U.S. Open, the buzz was all about reducing the men’s matches from best of 5 to best of 3 in majors.

 

Ben Rothenberg made a best-of-3 pitch in the New York Times’ U.S. Open Preview issue, ESPN tennis analyst’s Darren Cahill and Patrick McEnroe said that the idea was getting some traction and merited further discussion and Billie Jean King wrote a piece for The Huffington Post arguing the same point.

 

I’m a tennis fanatic and I live for dramatic five setters. While Cahill and others have said that the Olympics best of three until the final format proved that best of three could be as compelling as the best of five majors, I had the opposite experience. For me, the Olympics felt no different than a Masters 1000 series tournament like Toronto, Cincinnati and the rest.

 

King maintains that the men should play less in order to avoid injuries like the one that’s kept Rafael Nadal out of action this summer. But there are scores of current and former players that continued to win into their 30’s under the best of 5 format- Jimmy Connors, Ken Rosewall, Roger Federer, Andre Agassi- and some athletes from every sport will sustain injuries no matter how many sets they play.

 

Rothenberg’s primary justification for paring back the length of men’s matches is the notion that the player who is leading at the end of 3 sets nearly always wins the match. He cited a statistic indicating that the player leading after the first three sets won 90% of matches in the last five years, but this year’s Open certainly bucked that trend.

 

There was a total of 23 five setters, with 10 players coming from 2 sets to love down to win in the first four days, tied for the second most in the Open era, and only 4 behind the all time record set at the 2002 Australian Open. Of the 23 five setters, the player who was winning at the end of the 3rd set won on only six occasions.

 

If the final had been straight sets win for Andy Murray, just imagine all the drama we would have missed out on. The match was full of plot twists, and despite the fact that it lasted almost five hours, the crowd didn’t want it to end. After Murray won the first two sets, the crowd seemed to shift allegiance to Djokovic-because they wanted more tennis- and then shifted back to Murray in the 5th.

 

One could argue that this year’s draw has been the exception, not the rule, but consider how different tennis history would be if the men had been playing best of three in the majors during the Open era. Roger Federer wouldn’t have a career slam, because at Roland Garros in 2009, his one win there, he would have lost to Tommy Haas in the Round of 16. And he wouldn’t have regained the #1 ranking, breaking Pete Sampras’s record for weeks in the top spot, because he was down two sets to love in the 3rd round of Wimbledon this year against Julien Benneteau.

 

Then again, he would have won the 2009 U.S. Open over Juan Martin Del Potro and could have fared better in other majors, like the 1999 Wimbledon, the 2011 U.S. Open, and the 2002 and 2005 Australian Opens.

 

In a best of three set world, Rafael Nadal would have lost to Robin Haase in the 2nd round at Wimbledon in 2010, rather than winning the title; Novak Djokovic wouldn’t have won this year’s Australian Open or the 2011 U.S. Open; and McEnroe would have a career slam, having beaten Lendl in the final of the ’84 French, rather than blowing a two set to love lead, but he wouldn’t have won Wimbledon or the U.S. Open in 1980.

 

Neither Michael Chang nor Boris Becker would have won majors at 17, and Becker wouldn’t have won Wimbledon or the U.S. Open in 1989. The point here is twofold: first, it isn’t that uncommon for players who are trailing at the end of three sets to win the match and then go on to win the tournament, and second, the better player is more likely to prevail in best of five set encounters. For obvious reasons, fans want to see Rafael Nada late in the final, not Robin Haase; Roger Federer not Julien Benneateau. If the men’s game switched to best of 3 sets now, it would also make it difficult to compare records from one era to another.

 

But the most important reason for keeping the best of five format is that five set matches test a player’s mental and physical strength in a way that three setters don’t. All of the most dramatic men’s matches I’ve seen in my lifetime- Federer-Nadal in the final of Wimbledon in 2008, Federer- Roddick at Wimbledon in 2009, Borg-McEnroe at Wimbledon in 1980, Lendl-McEnroe at the ’84 French, Connors-Krickstein at the ’91 U.S. Open, Isner- Mahut at Wimbledon in 2010, and McEnroe-Becker at the Davis Cup in ’87- were five setters.

 

Yes, five setters are tough on the body, but at most majors, the players have a day off in between most of their matches. And, let’s face it; watching guys overcome cramps and other injuries to win is high theater. Who could forget watching Pete Sampras gut out a win over Alex Corretja at the U.S. Open in ’96 after throwing up in the plants at the back of the court?

 

Tennis writers often suggest making dramatic changes to the sport, but I love tennis too much to advocate any changes that would result in less tennis. As far as I’m concerned, the sport is just fine the way it is.

 

 

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Jamie Reynolds of ESPN on Approach Shots

Jamie Reynolds (Photo by Rich Arden/ESPN)

Tennis Panorama News had the unique opportunity to visit the ESPN broadcast compound  and spend time in the control room in Melbourne during coverage of the Australian Open back in January. Senior Vice President of Event Production for ESPN Jamie Reynolds took time out from his extremely hectic schedule to speak to us about the logistics, technologies, philosophy and personalities of ESPN’s Australian Open coverage.

Karen Pestaina for Tennis Panorama News: How are the logistics of planning different for the Australian Open versus the other slams?

Jamie Reynolds: The way that we approach the Australian Open is similar in the way we do all four majors. And ESPN is unique in the aspect that we literally take apart our entire operation, our entire family, our entire circus and we take it three continents and an island.

We go to Australia and then go on to Paris, we then go up to the UK for Wimbledon and them back down to New York at the end of the summer. The nine month rip is pretty aggressive. So we probably pick up 115 people, and literally land on these hotspots for these events, move them in for three weeks. And I think we are probably the largest broadcaster who does all four majors at that level of commitment or the magnitude of the production assets that we bring. So it’s pretty challenging.

The biggest thing, the hardest thing for us, relative to the Australian Open, candidly is that we are upside down on the time zone to our audience and the fact that we don’t start until 9pm and we run the overnight hours, that’s great, but when we are trying to grow the sport, it’s a little challenging. How do you get people to stay up all night long or want to get invested, either TIVO, record, DVR the matches, because they are that much of a tennis fanatic to take advantage of what we are doing versus what they getting immediately either texting, news reports, Morning wheel of the news, they can get all that social currency to get up to steam.

So our challenge really, for this particular event is probably more editorial that logistic.

 

TPN: What is the biggest technological challenge in covering the Australian Open?

JR: This event is technically, is one of the easier events for us to handle technically. We’ve got a partnership going with Channel 7 Australia, who is also the host broadcaster. So ESPN comes in and effectively we are a world feed embellisher. We put our own character, our own personality, our own voices, graphics, music. Pick the asset that can actually tailor the world feed presentation to look and feel like a standard ESPN product.

So perhaps our biggest challenge is what if we don’t necessarily agree with you on covering a match? Or perhaps the isolation plan for Tomic or for Federer or for Roddick or for Rafa perhaps. That assignment of cameras may not be perhaps the level or the rate or philosophy that we might bring to a match. So how do we cover that chasm?

Technology wise we continue to push the envelope by bringing assets like the Spidercam, the aerial system that you see out on Rod Laver, that’s a device that we on ESPN brought to the tennis world and introduced at the majors at the US Open three years ago, convinced Tennis Australia, Channel 7 that it might enhance their coverage, convinced all the parties to come together and bring it down and fly through Rod Laver.

This year we’ve been very aggressive in trying to help Channel 7 understand how that could be an asset to enhance the coverage package. I think that everyday we chip away at it and get a little bit bolder with its flight pattern and we kind of rely on it a little bit more. I think that it enhances the value of its coverage.

 

TPN: Now that we are down to one American left in the singles draw, what are your angles going to be?

JR: Without the Americans doing well for the first time in the open era and not get to the round of 16, that’s challenging for us. Because we’ve got a lot of personalities and lot of what we do look at from the access to a lot of these players, what the interest is back home. Our particular productions have migrated to a new way of thinking. Specifically this is truly an international event with so many great personalities form around the globe, and because we do reach a lot of countries with ESPN, we think a little bit broader in how we are actually in going after a Hewitt story, a Roger or a Rafa or a Raonic or Tomic and any of the ladies as well.

That our goal now is to make that as personable, as desirable, in terms of wanting to understand the back story, getting our audience invested inn them, just trying to figure out the best way to convey that to our audience so they don’t mind that there are no Americans. We don’t have to put the red, white and blue all the time but there’s really great tennis out there that is fun.

 

TPN: Any new technology being implemented at this year’s Australian Open.

JR: The Australian mindset is very unique. They are gregarious fun loving good folks down here. They tend to be incredibly open-minded in terms of progressive introductions of new ideas to help convey the event and one of the initiatives they’ve helped us achieve is what we call our behind-the-scenes franchise. And that behind-the-scenes franchise as effectively as I describe to our teams is this: “Take behind the velvet ropes. Give me discovery and access. Take me places I couldn’t get to if I had a ticket or if I had the ability to watch every hour of what ESPN puts out, I need to feel like I actually in the event and going somewhere where no one else can go.”

And with that kind of mindset and philosophy with Tennis Australia, “where can you give us access to?” Well we can go to the workout room, we can go to the locker room, we can go to the hallways, the waiting rooms for the players, the player lounges. We can go to the car park area, where a lot of them just go and out their headsets on and just get into a zone and just kind of shut the world out to deconstruct their match. They’re very open-minded, progressive in terms of allowing that access. With that comes the ability to kind of shape the way we convey this event as opposed to just a rectangle on a screen, two players back and forth, three-hit rally or a 17-hit rally. It’s a little sexier, a little bit more valuable, more attractive presentation. I actually feel like I’m part of it, a part of the community, behind the velvet ropes and going somewhere where I couldn’t even go if I were on site.

 

TPN: What would surprise tennis fans about being behind the scenes?

JR: There’s an incredible amount of camaraderie and I think that what doesn’t convey that whether it’s the ATP or the WTA, these athletes and personalities do travel the circuit week after week and what you actually see behind-the-scenes is the feeling of family amongst the players themselves. As combative or as aggressive as they can be with each other out on a court there is sincere appreciation, chemistry, commitment to one another, whether they are having a good year or a poor year. There’s respect but there is a dynamic that these athletes share with each other. It’s not as adversarial as it might convey over an 11-hour show window where we are just showing guys beating back and forth with each other.

 

TPN: What is a typical day for you and the talent?

JR: This is probably the most challenging because of the sheer number of hours that we televise. When we say first ball to final ball, it is a very solid commitment to coverage of the most important matches from front end to back end. That really requires commitment of literally hours per day. So when you look at the first ball starting at 11am and often times ending like New York ending after Midnight, if not later, keeping people motivated through that 14-day stand is challenging. And with a roster of  personalities, our talent roster, keep them enthusiastic, keeping them invested and focused on being “on” for that 10 hours a day waiting for a match, getting ready for one that is coming up tonight,  and you really gotta go through your head for 2 hours and come back with the same enthusiasm, that’s challenging. You are asking a lot of people.

So what happens behind the scenes to help that? It’s the sense of community, family and respect for each other we all try to create. This isn’t just a group of specialists, assassins coming into do a single job. We’ve got to keep everybody working with the chemistry and taking advantage of that. So we’ll rotate teams. You might see Chris Evert working with Pam Shriver today or you will see Patrick McEnroe and Darren (Cahill) or Patrick and Chris Fowler so we can actually keep them involved with each other because they don’t have to always rule out “ Oh God I’m just sitting with my partner for this match and I’m doing every single match him for the next 14 days.” It changes up the dinner table a little bit.

 

TPN: Who are the practical jokers behind the scenes?

JR: I think that those in the tennis community and those of us who are running the sport know what kind of personality a Brad Gilbert brings. And we know, we look loving and fondly at Cliff Drysdale. He’s the godfather of our team, the elder statesman. As a perspective, he is the longest running talent on ESPN, bar none. He’s been with us since 1979, so we look at that history, having done Davis Cup that year, he is the man who is the franchise longer than anyone.

And then you look at Darren Cahill. Cahill with the Aussie wit, terrific personality. Patrick McEnroe, that’s pretty good – an acerbic wit. And McEnroe has a pretty good timbre to work with. Look at the gals – Mary Joe (Fernandez) and Pammy (Shriver) are well respected. Pammy can be polarizing, she’s got a great personality, she will go off on a flyer and make us all laugh and look at things a way many of us would never think about. She connects the dots on a lot of different stories and a lot of personalities. So that’s kind of like a really valuable spark. It’s a good roster.

Follow ESPN’s tennis coverage on ESPN2, ESPN3.com, on twitter @ESPNTennis and @ESPN10S and online on their tennis home page.

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