It’s in the news again: Some tennis execs think that matches are too long, fans’ attention spans are too short, and the traditional format of tennis matches needs to change. Since ATP and WTA doubles have already swapped a full third set for a 10-point super-tiebreak, something similar would make for a logical proposal to cap singles match length.
Let’s dig into the numbers and see just how much time would be saved if the WTA switched from a third set to a super-tiebreak. It is tempting to use match times from doubles, but there are two problems. First, match data on doubles is woefully sparse. Second, the factors that influence match length, such as average point length and time between points, are different in doubles and singles.
Using only WTA singles data, here’s what we need to do:
- Determine how many matches would be affected by the switch
- Figure out how much time is consumed by existed third sets
- Estimate the length of singles super-tiebreaks
- Calculate the impact (measured in time saved) of the change
The issue: three-setters
Through last week’s tournaments on the WTA tour this year, I have length (in minutes) for 1,915 completed singles matches. I’ve excluded Grand Slam events, since third sets at three of the four Slams can extend beyond 6-6, skewing the length of a “typical” third set.
The average length of a WTA singles match is about 97 minutes, with a range from 40 minutes up to 225 minutes. Here is a look at the distribution of match times this year:
The most common lengths are between 70 and 90 minutes. Some executives may wish to shorten all matches–switching to no-ad games (which I’ve considered here) or a more radically different format such as Fast4–but for now, I think it’s fair to assume that those 90-minute matches are safe from tinkering.
If there is a “problem” with long matches–both for fan engagement and scheduling–it arises mostly with three-setters. About one-third of WTA matches go to a third set, and these account for nearly all of the contests that last longer than two hours. 460 matches have passed the two-hour mark this season. Of those, all but 24 required a third set.
Here is the distribution of match lengths for WTA three-setters this season:
If we simply removed all third sets, nearly all matches would finish within two hours. Of course, if we did that, we’d be left with an awful lot of ties. Instead, we’re talking about replacing third sets with something shorter.
Goodbye, third set
Third sets are a tiny bit shorter than the first and second sets in three-setters. If we count sets that go to tiebreaks as 14 games, the average number of games in a third set is 9.5, while the typical number of games in the first and second sets of a three-setter is 9.7.
Those counts are close enough that we can estimate the length of each set very simply, as one-third the length of the match. There are other considerations, such as the frequency of toilet breaks before third sets and the number of medical timeouts in different sets, but even if we did want to explore those minor issues, there is very little available data to guide us in those areas.
The length of a super-tiebreak
The typical WTA three-setter involves about 189 individual points, so we can roughly estimate that foregoing the third set saves about 63 points. How many points are added back by playing a super-tiebreak?
The math gets rather involved here, so I’ll spare you most of the details. Using the typical rate of service and return points won by each player in three-setters (58% on serve and 46% on return for the better player that day), we can use my tiebreak probability model to determine the distribution of possible outcomes, such as a final score 10-7 or 12-10.
Long story short, the average super-tiebreak would require about 19 points, less than one-third the number needed by the average third-set.
That still doesn’t quite answer our question, though. We’re interested in time savings, not point reduction. The typical WTA third set takes about 44 minutes, or about 42 seconds per point. Would a super-tiebreak be played at the same pace?
While 10-point breakers are largely uncharted territory in singles, 7-point tiebreaks are not, and we have plenty of data on the latter. It seems reasonable to extend conclusions about 7-pointers to their 10-point cousins, and they are played with similar rules–switch servers every two points, switch points every six–and under comparable levels of increased pressure.
Using IBM’s point-by-point data from this year’s Grand Slam women’s draws, we have timestamps on about 700 points from tiebreaks. Even though the 42-seconds-per-point estimate for full sets includes changeovers, tiebreaks are played even more slowly. Including mini-changeovers within tiebreaks, points take about 54 seconds each, almost 30% longer than the traditional-set average.
The bottom line impact of third-set super-tiebreaks
As we’ve seen, the average third-set takes about 44 minutes. A 19-point super-tiebreak, at 54 seconds per point, comes in at about 17 minutes, chopping off more than 60% off the length of the typical third set, or about 20% from the length of the entire match.
If we alter this year’s WTA singles match times accordingly, reducing the length of all three-setters by one-fifth, we get some results that certain tennis executives will love. The average match time falls from 97 minutes to 89 minutes, and more importantly, far fewer matches cross the two-hour threshold.
Of the 460 matches this season over two hours in length, we would expect third-set super-tiebreaks to eliminate more than two-thirds of them, knocking the total down to 147. Here is the revised match length distribution, based on the assumptions I’ve laid out in this post:
The biggest benefit to switching to a third-set super-tiebreak is probably related to scheduling. By massively cutting down the number of marathon matches, it’s less likely that players and fans will have to wait around for an 11:00 PM start.
Of the various proposals floating around to shorten matches–third-set super-tiebreaks, no-ad scoring, playing service lets, and Fast4–changing the third-set format strikes the best balance of shortening the longest matches without massively changing the nature of the sport.
Personally, I hope none of these changes are ever seen on a WTA or ATP singles court. After all, I like tennis and tend to rankle at proposals that result in less tennis. If something must be done, I’d prefer it involve finding new executives to replace the ones who can’t stop tinkering with the sport. But if some rule needs to be changed to shorten matches and make scheduling more TV-friendly, this is likely the easiest one to stomach.