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LONDON — There is ongoing debate about whether it makes sense for men to continue playing best-of-five-set matches at Wimbledon and other Grand Slam tournaments. Novak Djokovic is considered a staunch supporter of maintaining this format – at least in the later stages of the majors.

However, he would have no problem reducing the score to best-of-three earlier.

At the All England Club, there were 34 matches that went the full distance in the first three rounds, the most matches at a Grand Slam tournament in the history of the Open Era, which began in 1968. When the fourth of seven rounds began on Sunday, all it took was another five-set victory to equal the record for most matches played in an entire major tournament.

“These days you only see them at Grand Slams, right? That’s what I guess excites both the players and the crowd,” said Djokovic, who has won seven of his 24 major men’s tournaments – a record – at Wimbledon.

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The appeal lies in the drama that comes with the possibility of comebacks and unexpected twists.

Perhaps he is a little biased: Djokovic has a 40-11 record in five-set matches. He has not been pushed that far at this edition of Wimbledon.

“I have enjoyed them throughout my career,” he said. “They are an important aspect of the history and also the future of the sport.”

However, the 37-year-old Serb, who has spent the most weeks at No. 1 in the world rankings, acknowledged that the arguments against sticking with the best-of-five format are valid in this day and age, when attention spans are limited and, as Djokovic put it, there is a need to “attract a young audience”.

Five-set matches that can last four, five, six hours are of course not ideal for the athletes, but also not for the spectators or TV commentators.







Great Britain Tennis Wimbledon

Serbia’s Novak Djokovic reacts during his third round match against Australian Alexei Popyrin at Wimbledon in London on Saturday.


Kirsty Wigglesworth, Associated Press


“The only thing I could maybe consider is … the opening rounds could be best-of-three and then from the fourth round or the quarterfinals onwards you go into the hybrid best-of-five. I don’t know. That’s just my opinion,” he said. “I think best-of-five, especially in the last three or four rounds of a Grand Slam tournament, is something you have to keep.”

Without best-of-five, sport would experience turning points like those that occurred at Wimbledon with unprecedented frequency: Djokovic’s opponent in the fourth round on Monday, Holger Rune, won his match against Quentin Halys on Saturday evening with 1:6, 6:7 (4), 6:4, 7:6 (4), 6:1. It was already the tenth comeback from a two-set deficit.

That’s not even half of the two weeks ago and is a record for an entire Wimbledon.

“I managed to raise my level, improve my tennis when it mattered,” said Rune, who had never won a match after losing the first two sets.







Tennis Wimbledon Five Sets

John Isner of the United States, left, and Nicolas Mahut of France pose for a photo next to the scoreboard after their epic men’s singles match at the All England Lawn Tennis Championships at Wimbledon in this June 24, 2010, file photo.


Alastair Grant, AP file


The All England Club has hosted some of the longest matches in the sport, including the most famous: John Isner’s first-round victory over Nicolas Mahut in 2010, which lasted three days and ended 70-68 in the fifth set, lasting 11 hours and 5 minutes.

This, and Isner’s 26-24 loss to Kevin Anderson in the deciding set of the 2018 semifinal, contributed to Wimbledon – and every Grand Slam tournament – introducing a 10-6 tiebreak in the women’s third set and the men’s fifth set. Before this system was introduced, the All England Club briefly tried a 12-12 tiebreak in the fifth set, which also accounted for Djokovic’s victory over Roger Federer in the 2019 final.

“One of the most exciting matches I have ever played in my life,” Djokovic called it.

Maybe he would think differently if he hadn’t lost two championship points and emerged victorious in the end.

Still, playing five sets is tiring and players want to avoid going the full distance so they can save their energy for later matches. Djokovic has not yet been pushed to five sets in this tournament, but defending champion Carlos Alcaraz has been pushed by Frances Tiafoe, for example.

That’s nothing compared to Ben Shelton, a 21-year-old American who had to win three straight five-set matches to even advance to his showdown against No. 1 Jannik Sinner on Sunday. No man has ever won four straight five-set matches at a major, and Shelton didn’t get the chance to try; he was beaten by Sinner 6-2, 6-4, 7-6 (9).

This year’s Australian Open saw a total of 35 five-set matches, which is the highest number at a major tournament along with the 1983 US Open. Why are there so many recently?

“There are just so many good players at the moment. There aren’t really any (easy) draws – maybe when you’re playing against clay court players on grass who aren’t comfortable. But for the most part, everyone plays well on all surfaces. And the level of tennis is at a super, super high level,” said Denis Shapovalov, who lost to Shelton in five rounds on Saturday. “You just have to be ready to fight hard from the first round.”