Christina McHale’s Tokyo Marathon

At the Japan Open in Tokyo last week, Christina McHale won her first career title. It didn’t come easy. She played three sets in every one of her five matches, going all the way to third-set tiebreaks in her first two rounds. Altogether, she spent over 13 hours on court.

We need some context to appreciate just what an outlier that is. Of 50 tour-level WTA tournaments this year, no other titlist has spent more than about 11 hours and 35 minutes on court–and that includes Grand Slam winners, who play two more matches than McHale did! Before Christina’s marathon effort last week, the champion who spent the most time on court in a 32-draw event was Dominika Cibulkova, who needed “only” 9 hours and 20 minutes to win in Eastbourne.

There’s no complete source for historical WTA match-time data, so we can’t determine just how rare 13-hour efforts were in years past. We can, however, hunt for tournaments in which the winner needed to play so many sets.

Going back to 1991–encompassing almost 1,500 events–McHale’s effort marks only the second time a player has won a tournament while playing 15 sets in five matches. The only previous instance was Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova‘s Paris title run in 2014. Serena Williams played five three-setters en route to the Roland Garros title last year, but of course, she played two other matches as well. Three other players–none since 2003–received first-round byes and then won tournaments by playing three sets in each of their four matches.

In general, we might expect a player who goes the distance in every round to struggle in the final. First of all, we would expect her to be tired–especially if, as is almost always the case, her opponent hasn’t spent as much time on court. Second, we might deduce that, if a player needed three-sets to win early rounds, she’s in relatively weak form, compared to the typical tour-level finalist.

Sure enough, the last 25 years of WTA history give us 16 players who reached a final by playing three sets in every round. Of the 16, only four–McHale, Pavlyuchenkova, and two others who didn’t require three sets in the final–won the title. The other 12 couldn’t retain their three-set magic and lost in the final.

While 16 players don’t make up much of a sample, we get a similar result if we broaden our view to those who played three-setters in exactly three of their four matches before the final. Excluding those who faced opponents who also played so many three-setters, we’re left with 134 players, only 48 (35.8%) of whom won the title match. A simple ranking-based forecast indicates that 58 (43.3%) of those players should have won, suggesting that while these players are indeed weaker than their more-dominant opponents, their underperformance may be due partly to fatigue.

McHale spent over 10 hours on court simply reaching the Tokyo final, far more than the six-plus hours required by her opponent, Katerina Siniakova. Even when a player doesn’t spend the record-setting amount of time on court that the American did this week, competitors tend to underperform after playing so many three-setters. The fact that McHale didn’t, and that she triumphed in yet another marathon match, makes her achievement all the more impressive.