The first week of a Grand Slam usually sets the tone for the rest of the fortnight. The men’s draw – played in the best-of-five-sets format – usually produces predictable, lopsided results, while the best-of-three women’s draw throws up plenty of upsets.
Roland Garros has stayed true to that this week. Taylor Fritz, seeded 13th, is the highest-ranked men’s player to fall so far, while only three of the top eight seeds are left in the women’s draw. Barbora Krejcikova still reeling from an elbow injury lost in the first round.
There have been calls to do away with the best-of-five format altogether. Due to long matches and complicated schedules, tennis has struggled to compete with other sports for younger viewership, and the likes of Novak Djokovic and Daniil Medvedev have called for a format change in the past. Invariably, the best-of-three format throws up more upsets, but as has been the case in the first week in Paris, the better player over the long run is favoured over five.
The mental and physical effort
Carlos Alcaraz – who is in the unique, albeit tricky, position of arriving at a Major as the favourite despite being a teenager – prevailed in five sets over compatriot Albert Ramos-Vinolas on Wednesday. He did, however, show that he felt the weight of expectations. The 19-year-old struggled to cope with his opponent’s heavy forehand, made several errors on his backhand side, and the timing was off on his two biggest strengths – the powerful forehand and the usually well-disguised drop shot.
Alcaraz trailed 2-1 in sets before he was able to reset mentally, save a match point in the fourth set and win it in five, and put on a show on Court Simonne Mathieu using his natural power and court coverage. Alcaraz’s triumph of grit and perseverance showed that despite all his evident talent to win in best-of-three matches, it takes something more to win at a Major.
Two other top guns needed to produce five-set comebacks in Paris this week. Last year’s finalist and fourth seed Stefanos Tsitsipas overturned a two-set deficit in the first round against Lorenzo Musetti on Tuesday. The Italian – whose one-handed backhand has already produced plenty of highlight-reel moments in his young career – was also 2-0 up over Djokovic last year. While the last three sets were not as lopsided as they were against the Serb – Musetti even had an early break in the fourth this time – his legs gave way before the more experienced Tsitsipas dug deep to win 5-7, 4-6, 6-2, 6-3, 6-2.
Third seed Alexander Zverev was also forced to overturn a two-set deficit in the second round against Sebastian Baez. After quickly racing to a two-set lead, the Argentine had a match point in the fifth, before Zverev weathered the storm and won 2-6, 4-6, 6-1, 6-2, 7-5. “You just have to find a way,” the German said in his post-match press conference. “You talk about mental strength, you talk about some players — the greats, Roger, Rafa, Novak – they always find a way in the most difficult moments.”
‘Big 3’ domination
Men’s tennis’ fabled ‘Big 3’ –Nadal, Djokovic and Federer – and the race among them for the Grand Slam record, have dominated the narrative in men’s tennis in recent years. Nadal currently leads with 21 Majors, while Federer and Djokovic have 20.
If Majors were best-of-three though, they would still likely be far ahead of the chasing pack. Both Nadal and Federer have come back from trailing positions three times to win a Major, while Djokovic has plotted a comeback a whopping six times. The trio also have a remarkable number of five-set wins to their name. Djokovic leads with 36, while Federer has won 33 and Nadal 24.
The Serb’s superior record in comebacks and five-set wins would hardly be a surprise to his fans, given the trademark physical and mental resilience that has come to define his legacy. His record is also proof that the best players – few can argue Djokovic is one of the best in history – are rewarded over five sets.
The Big 3’s rivalry with each other has been defined by some of the best five-set matches of the modern era.