Commentary

Let women play five-set matches

Updated: June 2, 2012, 3:14 PM ET
By LZ Granderson | ESPN.com

One of the greatest tennis matches I've ever seen was the 2001 U.S. Open quarterfinal featuring Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras.

Great -- because of the names involved.

[+] EnlargeSampras & Agassi
Don Emmert/AFP/Getty ImagesPete Sampras and Andre Agassi played a classic match at the 2001 U.S. Open.

Great -- because in four sets there wasn't a single break of serve, with Sampras winning 6-7 (7), 7-6 (2), 7-6 (2), 7-6 (5).

Great -- because men were playing.

Had it been women, Venus Williams versus Jennifer Capriati, for example, a similarly perfect service game would've been over in three sets -- still a quality match, but not nearly as memorable.

When the fourth-set tiebreak was about to begin, the crowd gave the two legends a standing ovation. Agassi fought off two match points on Sampras' serve before committing his 19th and final error.

There are times in which more is actually more. Matches in the tennis majors would definitely fit in that category.

Now I'm sure you've heard debates in the past about women playing a best-of-three instead of a best-of-five like their male counterparts. There are certainly intellectual inconsistencies at work. World-class female athletes can run marathons, climb the Himalayas and participate in Iron Man competitions, but we're supposed to believe lack of stamina prevents them from playing five sets of tennis. Sounds a bit shaky to me.

Not to mention this wrinkle complicates the arguments about equal pay for equal work on tour. If Rafael Nadal wins another French Open, he will play at least seven more sets than the women's winner but collect the same check.

There's nothing equal about that.

But my desire for women to win three out of five sets is not as connected to those two points as it is to that 2001 match between Agassi and Sampras. Or more recently, the match between Serena Williams and Virginie Razzano in which the No. 111 player knocked the favorite out in the first round.

With maybe the exception of Roger Federer hypothetically handing Rafa three consecutive bagels in the final, there will not be a greater shock to this year's French Open than Williams' loss.

Anyone who plays -- be it a weekend hack like me or a pro on tour -- understands what happened to Williams happens all of the time in tennis. One minute you're cruising along, and then, all of a sudden, your serve abandons you or your forehand begins to spray and you can't find the court with a GPS . The really good players limit the number of times that happens, and if they're lucky the hiccup doesn't cost them the set or match.

[+] EnlargeSerena Williams
Mike Hewitt/Getty ImagesOn Tuesday, Serena Williams lost in the first round of a Grand Slam for the first time.

Williams, obviously, wasn't that lucky.

By the time she started to piece herself back together, she was already down 5-0 in the third. That's a lot for any player to come back from in a best-of-three situation. But in a best-of-five, Williams would have had the time to regroup. The men get to regroup in the middle of matches in the majors all the time. Just last year Novak Djokovic regrouped in his U.S. Open semifinal clash against Federer and came from two sets down to win the match, 6-7 (7), 4-6, 6-3, 6-2, 7-5, and eventually the championship.

The best set to watch? The fifth, as "Nole" fought off two match points.

Women are not afforded the same luxury, and as a result the potential for that kind of drama just isn't there. Fans are sometimes robbed of seeing the best player move on. In 1999, Martina Hingis was at her peak and Steffi Graf was on the verge of retirement. But one mental lapse from Hingis, similar to the one Williams had, opened the door for Graf to win the French Open. In five sets, Hingis wins. Or not. But it would have been great to see.

Anyone who watched Williams' match knows that her opponent, Razzano, barely made it across the finish line, benefiting more from Williams' rash of unforced errors than her own play. That's not sour grapes from a compatriot, but rather a statement about the obvious. No doubt that match would have gone five had the women been allowed to play that long. And in majors, it should be required, otherwise the tournament is like all the others. There should be something more required of women to be called major champions, just as it is for men. There should be something more for fans of the game to see and expect. To hope for.

Remember then-38-year-old Jimmy Connors' amazing U.S. Open run in 1991? It started with him digging himself out of a two-set hole to Patrick McEnroe in the first round. The first time Federer beat Rafa, he came back from a two-set hole in Miami in 2005.

Not every match will go the distance and not every five-setter is a classic. But there is something magical about that possibility, and it is only fair that women get the same opportunity as men to do something really special. Or just regroup with so much on the line. Coming back from a set down is pretty routine on tour. But coming back from two sets down is epic. And what athlete doesn't want a chance at that?

LZ Granderson | email

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine