There’s no denying that Davis Cup gives us some of the most dramatic moments on the men’s tennis calendar. It’s easy, then, to fall prey to some mistaken conventional wisdom, such as the canard that upsets are much more common in the international competition.
(In fact, upsets are only more common if Amir Weintraub is playing.)
Even if the favorites usually win, what about hard-fought matches? Is it possible that any given Davis Cup match is more likely to go the distance than a Grand Slam match?
It sounds good, but no, the frequency of five-setters (and even four-setters, for that matter) is steady regardless of context. Since 2003, 18.7% of Grand Slam matches have gone five sets, while just 17.5% of best-of-five Davis Cup rubbers have gone that far.
There are differences among levels of Davis Cup, as we might expect. 19.9% of best-of-five World Group rubbers go five, and 20.3% of World Group playoff rubbers go five. But neither of these numbers stands out compared to some subsets of Slam matches. 19.6% of second-round matches at majors reach a fifth set, while 20.3% of fourth-rounders and 20.6% of quarterfinal matches do so.
Here is the complete breakdown by set length:
LEVEL MATCHES 3 SETS 4 SETS 5 SETS Davis Cup 2496 56.6% 25.9% 17.5% Grand Slams 5453 51.2% 30.1% 18.7% DAVIS CUP World Group 473 51.0% 29.2% 19.9% WG Playoffs 261 52.9% 26.8% 20.3% Group 1 688 54.9% 27.5% 17.6% Group 2 1074 61.0% 23.3% 15.7% GRAND SLAMS F 44 40.9% 40.9% 18.2% SF 88 51.1% 29.5% 19.3% QF 173 52.0% 27.2% 20.8% R16 340 49.4% 30.3% 20.3% R32 686 51.5% 30.2% 18.4% R64 1368 49.0% 31.4% 19.6% R128 2754 52.5% 29.4% 18.1%
There are good reasons why we believe Davis Cup five-setters to be so much more common. At the World Group level, there are never many matches going on, so if two players reach a fifth set–especially if it is the day’s second rubber, after other ties have finished play for the day–it is global tennis news. It’s easy to recall Dudi Sela‘s five-set battles against Vasek Pospisil and Kei Nishikori in the 2011 and 2012 World Group playoffs, but how many of us paid a moment’s attention to Sela’s four-hour clash with Andrey Kuznetsov in the first round of this year’s US Open?
Further, the Davis Cup atmosphere leaves the impression that every match is gripping, even when it isn’t. Janko Tipsarevic beat Pospisil in straight sets yesterday, but thanks to the pair of tiebreaks and the electricity of the Serbian home crowd, we’ll remember that match differently than a typical 7-6 6-2 7-6 victory at a Grand Slam.
Fortunately, fan enjoyment isn’t measured in sets. There is plenty to get excited about–especially the weekend of World Group playoffs–even if upsets and five-set matches aren’t any more frequent than usual.