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When tennis marathons become too much of a good thing

The cluster of marathon men’s matches in the opening rounds of this year’s Australian Open attests to a broader trend. AAP/Joe Castro

When tennis marathons become too much of a good thing

The cluster of marathon men’s matches in the opening rounds of this year’s Australian Open attests to a broader trend. AAP/Joe Castro

Extreme match durations are more common today than at any other time in the modern tennis era. This poses a threat to the sport’s standard of excellence.

Ten men’s matches in the first round of this year’s Australian Open went the distance to five sets. There were two four-set matches that had a tiebreak in every set. All but one of these matches lasted more than three hours. Three lasted more than four-and-a-half hours.

At the Australian Open in 2001, by contrast, no match in the entire tournament – let alone the first round – lasted four-and-a-half hours.

A broader trend

The cluster of prolonged matches in the opening rounds of the 2016 Australian Open attests to a broader trend of increasing time on court at Grand Slams.

Between 2000 and 2012, the total hours of matchplay for men’s singles at the hard court majors (the Australian and US opens) increased by 44 hours.

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Because the number of scheduled matches has remained fixed at 127 throughout this period, these trends mean that players in 2012 had to play 20 more minutes per match on average than a decade earlier.

From 2000 to 2012, match lengths also rose considerably at Wimbledon, the one Grand Slam played on grass. Total matchplay hit all-time highs of more than 310 hours in 2010 and 2012.

During the same period, only match lengths at Roland Garros – the single clay court Grand Slam and the tournament where each year match lengths have typically been the longest – were largely unchanged.

Why are matches getting longer?

Modern tennis is played on three major surfaces – hard, clay and grass courts. The type of surface has a huge influence on the pace of the ball: clay results in the slowest ball speeds and grass the fastest.

Today, tennis is a more homogeneous sport than at any time in the recent past. Play on all surfaces looks more like the slow grind that was traditionally associated with clay courts.

The major shift in tennis in the recent era has been the transition from the fast-paced serve-and-volley play of the 1980s and 1990s to baseline play, where rallies are longer and fewer points are played at the net.

No single factor can explain this shift. But new racquet and string technology have been major contributors.

The wide adoption of bigger racquet heads and polyester strings has given elite tennis players the ability to hit with extraordinary power and control from every position on court. This makes net approaches risky.

What effect is it having?

An increase in the length of professional tennis matches has implications for every aspect of the sport. Accommodating two additional days of play into the same two-week tournament schedule can be a challenge under normal conditions and a logistical nightmare if weather delays arise.

After several years in which the US Open’s schedule was tested by weather delays, the tournament moved the men’s final from Sunday to Monday. By moving the main event, the tournament risked the loss of millions of dollars in revenue and a major dip in TV viewership.

The duration of matches also affects fan enjoyment of the game. While the most avid tennis fans will always want more tennis, if the sport is going to grow its fan base around the world it has to be concerned about marathon matches becoming a regular occurrence. Tennis could risk losing some of its core supporter base if being a fan becomes an endurance sport.

Of all the consequences of longer match lengths, the most serious are the potential harms to player performance and health. The game should be a challenge at the elite level but not at the risk of a player being unable to play to his or her full potential.

Although an indirect link, the coincidental rise in the rates of retirements at the very Grand Slams that have also had the most significant increases in match duration – specifically the US Open – raises the prospect that increasing match lengths could be harming players’ competitive potential and contributing to increases in injuries.

What’s being done?

Three Grand Slam men’s singles matches in 2012 lasted nearly six hours. This made the John Isner-Nicolas Mahut 11-hour marathon at Wimbledon in 2010 look less like an outlier and more a sign of things to come.

John Isner defeats Nicolas Mahut 70-68 in the fifth set.

At the end of 2012, the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP), the governing body of the men’s world tour, made policy changes to try to curb the trends in match length. The most significant of these was a change in the time violation policy that would encourage greater enforcement of the 25-second limit between one point ending and another starting.

Although the ATP policy had no direct effect on Grand Slam events (these are governed by the International Tennis Federation, which has a 20-second time violation), all of the majors have experienced a dip in match lengths since 2013. This suggests that the ATP policy change has helped create a global downturn in the lengths of men’s matches.

Match lengths are still much longer today than they were ten years ago. Increased adherence to the time violation rule will reduce the downtime of a match but might do little to help players stay in healthy form. In fact, reducing recovery time between points while keeping the intensity of points the same could actually make matters worse.

So, although the sport’s governing bodies have recently undertaken policy interventions to address the problem, it is unknown whether their effects have been cosmetic and more significant actions are still needed.