After so many Wimbledon 5-setters, Novak Djokovic would be OK with best-of-3 in early rounds

LONDON (AP) — Every so often, a debate bubbles up around whether it makes sense for men to keep playing best-of-five-set matches at Wimbledon and other Grand Slam tournaments. Consider Novak Djokovic a staunch advocate for keeping the format — at least in the latter stages of majors.

He would be OK, however, with cutting back to best-of-three earlier.

There were 34 matches that went the distance at the All England Club across the first three rounds, the most to that point at any Slam in the history of the Open era, which began in 1968. As the fourth of seven rounds began Sunday, all it was going to take was one more five-setter to equal the mark for the most at an entire major tournament.

“Nowadays you can only see them in Grand Slams, right? That’s what I guess excites both players and the crowd,” said Djokovic, who has won seven of his men's-record 24 major championships at Wimbledon.

The allure is tied to the drama associated with the possibility of comebacks, of twists and turns.

Perhaps he's a bit biased: Djokovic is 40-11 in five-setters. He hasn't been pushed that far during this edition of Wimbledon.

“I enjoyed those throughout my career,” he said. “They’re an important aspect of the history and of the future, as well, of the sport.”

But the 37-year-old from Serbia, who has spent the most weeks ranked No. 1, did concede that there is merit to arguments made against sticking with the best-of-five format in this day and age of limited attention spans and, as Djokovic put it, the need "to attract a young audience.”

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

“The only thing that I’m maybe thinking it could be good to consider is ... opening rounds that could go best-of-three, then you move into the hybrid of best-of-fives from the fourth rounds or quarters. I don’t know. That’s just me,” he said. “I think best-of-five, particularly in the last three or four rounds of a Slam, you need to keep.”

Without best-of-five, the sport would lose the sorts of turnarounds that have been happening at Wimbledon at an unprecedented rate: Djokovic's opponent in the fourth round on Monday, Holger Rune, won his match Saturday night against Quentin Halys 1-6, 6-7 (4), 6-4, 7-6 (4), 6-1, already the 10th comeback from a two-set deficit.

Less than halfway through the fortnight, that is a record for a full Wimbledon.

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

The All England Club has hosted some of the sport's longest matches, including, most famously, the longest ever: John Isner's 11-hour, 5-minute defeat of Nicolas Mahut in the first round in 2010 that stretched over three days and concluded at 70-68 in the fifth set.

That, and Isner's 26-24 loss to Kevin Anderson in the decisive set in the 2018 semifinals, helped prompt Wimbledon — and every Slam — to adopt a first-to-10 tiebreaker at 6-all in the third sets of women's matches and fifth sets of men's. Before that system was put in place, the All England Club briefly tried a tiebreaker at 12-all in the fifth, which was how Djokovic's victory over Roger Federer in the 2019 final was resolved.

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

Might feel differently if he hadn't erased two championship points and come out on the winning end.

Still, the wear-and-tear that comes with playing five sets makes players keen to avoid going the distance, so they can conserve energy for later matches. Djokovic hasn't been pushed to five yet during this tournament, but defending champion Carlos Alcaraz was by Frances Tiafoe, for example.

That's nothing compared to Ben Shelton, a 21-year-old American, who needed to win three five-setters in a row just to make it to his showdown against No. 1 Jannik Sinner on Sunday. No man has won four straight matches in five sets at a major, and Shelton didn't get the chance to try; he was beaten 6-2, 6-4, 7-6 (9) by Sinner.

This year’s Australian Open had a total of 35 five-setters, tied with the 1983 U.S. Open for the most at a major. Why are there so many lately?

“There's just so many good players right now. There's not really any (easy) draws — maybe, if you play some clay-court guys on grass that are not comfortable. But for the most part, everybody’s playing good on all surfaces. And the level of tennis is at a super, super high stage,” said Denis Shapovalov, who lost to Shelton in five on Saturday. “You just have to be ready to grind from Round 1.”

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Howard Fendrich has been the AP’s tennis writer since 2002. Find his stories here: https://apnews.com/author/howard-fendrich

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AP tennis: https://apnews.com/hub/tennis