Cheteshwar Pujara

Five-Set Tennis Matches Are Like Test Series Cricket

by Rajagopalan Rohinee

In the cricketing world, the recent Test series between Australia and India concluded on a remarkable note, in more ways than one. India won the series 2-1, marking their first Test series win on Australian soil after 71 years. On an individualistic front, Indian player Cheteshwar Pujara with his gruelling game recapped how Test cricket was supposed to be played – with perseverance and doggedness complimenting players’ talent.

To the uninitiated, Test cricket is the longest – and oldest – form of the game, played over five days, across three sessions. The playing conditions are arduous and punishing – especially in Australia and in the sub-continent under the blazing heat – just as they are tricky, when the matches are hosted in England, or in the Caribbean. As the name suggests, the format ideally tested the players to outwit their opponents, playing ball-after-ball, and over-after-over, to see if they can secure a draw instead of trying to get an outright win. On the other hand, getting a draw would mean staving off a defeat to keep the team’s hopes – and even dignity – intact.

In the last few years though, the significance of Test cricket had, then, come to be eroded with the clamouring for fast-paced cricket necessitating a change where only one-way results – be it win or loss – mattered. The newer genre of players, too, feeding on this demand for quicker cricket, opted to showcase flashes and blazes instead of displaying finesse and painstakingness to build up their repertoire of Test cricket.

In tennis, five-set matches can be considered as Test cricket’s equivalent of the longest form of the game, asking for patience and endurance aside from tactical ingenuity. In all these years, receptiveness to the format’s continuity has continued to alter, forcing tweaks to be put in place, in order to seemingly reconcile with time constraints.

Then, be it changing the best-of-five set finals in the Masters to best-of-three, or initiating tie-breaks in the first four sets in the Majors, or coming up with concepts such as best-of-four-games’ sets, or the recent theme of introducing tie-breaks in the fifth set in two of the four Majors – thereby giving three of the four Majors leeway to give their own interpretation of the enforcement of the tie-break – the influx of new to the existing has been a process of evolution. It is also taking the newer generation of the sport’s audience further away from its quintessence.

Consider this: for all the clamouring about best-of-three set matches saving time, some of the most memorable matches that have emerged at the 2019 Australian Open have come at the best-of-five sets of play. In the first five days of the event, around 20 five-set matches have been played, with each result outweighing the others in its qualitative appeal – even Polish qualifier Kamil Majchrzak’s painful retirement in the fifth set to Kei Nishikori in the opening round.

These results, then, also raise the inevitable question as to whether the players’ being able to dig deep – within themselves – to find the composure, and the emotional and tactical wherewithal to eke out a win, would be possible if there were no margins to fall back on? Because, if there were not, we would not have seen epic comebacks from when two sets down, not only at the ongoing Australian Open – like Marin Cilic against Fernando Verdasco, or like Alex Bolt against Gilles Simon – but across the rest of the Majors, and even at the (now-defunct) Davis Cup.
More importantly, though, the best-of-five format also acts as a reality check for the younger generation against their aspirations and ambitions. They can be touted as the players to take the game – and the sport – forward, each with an individualistic game. But, then, it is their ability to step up and muster a challenge in the longer format that stutters even as they are able to close out matches relatively easier in the shorter format. And since it does, it is their composure and emotional and tactical wherewithal that needs to be recalibrated and improved upon rather than the sport needing to change to accommodate the so-called change of guard. And that is perhaps the difference between the past players and the current crop. The former, with their dominance, changed the way results came about – with lengthier formats – even as the latter seek noticeable enabling to ensure they can match up, and surpass, what has been achieved up to now.

Borrowing from cricket one last time, which has an old-school Test cricket representative in Pujara, maybe tennis, too, does have similar misfits in its ranks. These could, perhaps, establish their legacy, without wanting to modify the game beyond the cursory, unmindful of the scepticism coming their way.