Nadal v. Djokovic: Epic or Silly?

Around the web, “epic” consistently describes the Nadal/Djokovic 6-hour marathon match in the Australian Open final.  The effort, stamina, and skill of these competitors deserves admiration.  The final followed on the heels of a nearly 5-hour semifinal between Andy Murray and Djokovic.  A 353 minute match?  That’s 203 minutes beyond Bill Simmons’ suggested 150-minute limit for almost anything (See “Less is More”).  For me, even the Murray-Djokovic match went from epic to ridiculously long, and I didn’t start watching until the third set.

Why does men’s tennis use a best-of-5-set format in grand slam events?  The quick, Econ 101 answer is that it must be profit or revenue maximizing.  I’m willing to be proven wrong, but my default position is that 300 minute matches don’t maximize viewership in the short run or long run.  Sure, there are hardcore fans that may stick in there, but I am the marginal tennis fan.  I watch quite a bit of women’s tennis and very little men’s tennis for the very reason that I enjoy a 1-2 hour match such as Clijsters-Azarenka, but at 2 hours, a competitive men’s match has barely started.  I once referred to the NBA, where hardly any game matters.  In men’s tennis, hardly any set matters in terms of sets played where both players face elimination.

A longer version of the Econ 101 answer might go like this:  fans like to see the best players matched up; 3-set matches lead to more upsets and fewer semis and finals between highly-rated players, and therefore, less viewers.  Ok, Matchups between highly-rated players in semis and finals raise viewership, but that a partial impact.  Fan enjoyment of upsets and uncertainty offsets it to some extent, and match length certainly pulls viewership the opposite direction.  Why not play 9-set matches?  For that matter, why not make tennis like cricket and extend matches over 5 days?  If 5 sets over 6 hours is epic, wouldn’t  25 sets over 30 hours reach  “mega epic.”

My guess is that the answer goes beyond Econ 101.  Political economy enters the picture.  Why does FIFA play the World Cup in South Africa and not only endure but sometimes seem to promote faking. (FIFA: Money, Control, or Both).   Yes, the FIFA aristocrats like money (that’s obvious) but they have other interests and internal disputes between, for example, the English Football Association and continental associations.   Four different associations organize the tennis grand slam events.  All of them care about money, but all are also  subject to a variety of internal politics and by somewhat aristocratic organizations, with the exception of the Australian Open.


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Author: Brian Goff

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7 thoughts on “Nadal v. Djokovic: Epic or Silly?”

  1. You hinted at this above, but I’d like to expand the argument that shorter men’s tennis matches would raise interest in the game? My reasoning goes like this:
    1. People love underdogs and upsets in high stakes tournaments, which is why we love the NCAA Basketball Tournament, the FA Cup, and the occasional final day collapse by a big leader in a golf tournament.
    2. People love short playoff series. Just about every other pro and college sport uses the short playoff format, where teams’ season long body of work is thrown out in favor of heightened stakes over a few games. Randomness ensues.
    3. People still turn out and tune in to non-major tennis tournaments where they play only best-of-three set matches. There appear to be plenty of sponsor dollars flowing into these events, so one could assume they are quite profitable, at least for someone. Plus, there doesn’t seem to be a dearth of top ranked matchups in the late rounds at these events.

    Every marathon match at a major seemingly creates storylines for the media AFTER the fact. Does anyone really watch a ridiculously protracted Wimbledon 5th set before it has been suspended by darkness and is resumed the next day amid a host of media attention. Onion headline that writes itself, “Oh Those Wacky Brits Won’t Let These Two Guys Stop Playing Tennis.”

  2. Brian, my take on it is that it has been best-of-five for a long time, and that is has not been shortened to three mainly out of respect for history, but that administrators have sought to make game length a bit more predictable for broadcasters in other ways – the move to tie-breakers from advantage being the obvious one (U.S. Open doesn’t even have advantage in 5th set). Also, we have to remember before professionalism and modern equipment, holding serve was less frequent, and thus sets were less likely to just keep going 5-5, 6-6 and so on. Unfortunately offsetting this, players seem to take measurably longer between points – Nadal and Safin among the worst offenders! Shortening matches has been invoked by administrators more in doubles – for example, until a few years ago at the Australian Open, the men’s doubles were best-of-five from the Quarter-finals on, now best-of three throughout…and in lots of mixed doubles tournaments it’s best-of-two sets, with a tie-break to 10 if those sets are split.

  3. Liam’s right. It’s history.

    Most of the sports of the western world have rules established well over 50 if not 100 years ago and teh current format is just a variation on a key and central theme. So it strikes me that an answer to your question Brian, lies in asking the same question 100-120 years ago. Why, back then, was it that a set of tennis was determined to be first to 6 games with a two game advantage? The difficulty of then making changes that might break with tradition explains the relative minor tweaking to the rules from thereon.

    That said, maybe it IS revenue maximising for a 6 hour epic. Host broadcaster, the Seven Network, gets to show more ads, and as the of Australian TV audiences in the Wall Street Journal’s Australian round-up (link at bottom) notes, there was a peak audience of 4 million (Australian population is approx 23 million), nearly 1.7 million were still watching the trophy presentation at 1.45am and there was an average audience of around 1.86 million across the 5 hour 53 minute game.

    Compare that to the Azarenka-Sharapova final on Saturday night. 6-3, 6-0 in 82 minutes did not feature in the list of high TV audiences (though there is an argument to suggest that less of the screeching is, in fact, more than enough). I doubt the audience would have been high for the men’s doubles final that followed the women’s final on Saturday night.

    Uncertainty of outcome and thus fan appeal can come in many forms – the notion that uncertainty is enhanced by shortening the contest and thus we have a more uncertain outcome and thus a more attractive product seems to be an incomplete analysis. It is not at all clear that uncertainty-created-by-randomness is more desirable. Uncertainty can also be created by the epic nature of the contest and who can prevail in a test of the absolute skill of relatively evenly-matched competitors.

    The more interesting question is not why the men play best of five sets with advantage in the fifth. It is why the women play best of three sets and earn the same prizemoney?

  4. Interesting. While there’s probably a lot of history to do with it, I would say your first argument was probably the most likely. People want to watch the big names. I mean, how many people could name more than a few tennis players below #5? Also, it’s interesting to note they knocked men’s doubles from 3/5 sets to 2/3 a few years ago…

  5. I’ll third the tradition theory.

    I’d also point out that most matches don’t go five sets. And that most matches that go five sets don’t go anywhere near 6 hours. This was an anomaly. (Or maybe when you put together two very evenly matched players who are slower then anything between points, you should just expect something like this.) Either way, I won’t complain about match lengths as long as the quality remains high. The quality remained high in this one, but it wasn’t all that interesting stylistically. I feel like the only reason this match has spurred such suggestions is that while long and sprinkled with bits of intensity, the match was one homogenous block of tennis. The first set looked like the fifth. It was, to put it harshly, boring.

    I’m fine with the current system. Don’t really think shortening grand slam matches will have much of an effect on number of viewers. I feel like tennis fans will watch, at least part of the match, regardless of length. And who really cares if they only watch 3 out of the 6 hours if the total number of eyeballs is the bottom line?

  6. Men play Best of 5 matches in grand slam tournaments to distinguish it from ordinary tennis tournaments in the tennis calendar. For tennis fans, grand slams are special.

  7. I don’t understand the assumption that the rules were set with economic considerations in mind. They were set a long time ago, when the idea of paying spectators would have been fanciful, let alone the idea that somebody might invent television and revenues be derived from that.

    Now, since the sport has become revenue-generating, and particularly since those revenues have been dominated by TV, the trend has been towards shorter matches, as Liam described. So you can assume that economic considerations play a part , I just don’t see why you’d make that assumption when the rules were first laid down. To my mind it would be better to assume that the rules were created by players and their prime consideration was to create a game that would be enjoyable to play.

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