Introduction

For more than 100 years, men have played best-of-five sets at the four professional tennis majors. There has been, however, much debate on social media and elsewhere about the merits of moving to a best-of-three format. Ben Rothenberg of The New York Times, a vocal proponent of shortening matches, wrote an article five years ago stating this case. But, for an issue that generates passionate opinions, it is rare to see actual statistics cited.

To satisfy my own curiosity, I analyzed the scoreline of every match at a major from 2000 through 2016, which encompasses 8,253 matches after walkovers and retirements are considered. The data is cross-referenced by year, venue, in which round the match occurred as well as its duration. What follows are the more interesting results that I found.

Global Results

The following charts are based on all completed matches at majors from 2000-2016 less retirements and walkovers. This totals 8,253 matches. Week One refers to the first three rounds of a major; Week Two is from the Round of 16 onward.

How many sets does the average match last?

The average men’s match lasts 3.69 sets
Breakdown by Number of Sets Played2000-2016Three Sets (50.16%)Four Sets (30.78%)Five Sets (19.06%)
 
 THREE SETSFOUR SETSFIVE SETSAVERAGE
MATCH LENGTH
All50.16%30.78%19.06%3.69 sets
Week One50.45%30.61%18.94%3.68 sets
Week Two48.08%31.98%19.94%3.72 sets

Note:

  • Overall, almost exactly half of all matches ended in a straight-sets victory.
  • The proportion of three-set matches drops in Week 2 when there are more four-set and five-set matches played.

What is the breakdown of these matches?

The ten possible scorelines are represented below:
 
Set 1
Set 2
Set 3
Set 4
Set 5
W
W
W
W
W
L
W
W
L
W
W
L
W
W
W
W
W
L
L
W
W
L
W
L
W
L
W
W
L
W
W
L
L
W
W
L
W
L
W
W
L
L
W
W
W
Percent50.16%9.12%9.89%11.77%3.10%2.39%2.98%3.43%3.08%4.08%
Raw4,140753816971256197246283254337

Note:

  • The winner of the first set goes on to win 78.09% of the matches.
  • The winner of the first two sets goes on to win 93.86% of the matches.
  • If the first two sets are split, the winner of the third set goes on to win 80.59% of the matches.
  • All other things equal, the winner of his best-of-five match would’ve lost 10.59% of the time if it had been played as a best-of-three match.
  • The most common four-set scoreline is when the winner loses the first set only to win the next three.
  • The most common five-set scoreline is when the winner loses the first two sets only to win the next three.

How long does the average match last?

The average duration of a match is 2 hours 28 minutes
MinutesAverage Duration of Match by Number of Sets Played2000-20161h 54m2h 43m3h 30mThree SetsFour SetsFive Sets050100150200250MinutesFive Sets : 209.94
 
 THREE SETSFOUR SETSFIVE SETSAVERAGE
All1h 54m2h 43m3h 30m2h 28m
Week One1h 53m2h 41m3h 28m2h 26m
Week Two2h 02m2h 53m3h 41m2h 38m

Note:

  • The average duration of a set is 39 minutes 58 seconds.
  • The average duration of a match increases by 12 minutes in Week Two as compared to Week One.

Results by Major

The following charts are for the seventeen years of results further broken down by the four majors. The majors are listed in the order of their appearance in the calendar year.

How Many Sets Does the Average Match Last?

PercentageBreakdown by Number of Sets Played by Major2000-201650.1%30.18%19.72%51.09%30.38%18.53%49.62%30.67%19.71%49.85%31.88%18.27%Australian OpenRoland GarrosWimbledonU.S. OpenThree SetsFour SetsFive Sets0102030405060
 
 THREE SETSFOUR SETSFIVE SETSAVERAGE
MATCH LENGTH
All50.16%30.78%19.06%3.69 sets
Australian Open50.10%30.18%19.72%3.70 sets
Roland Garros51.09%30.38%18.53%3.67 sets
Wimbledon49.62%30.67%19.71%3.70 sets
U.S. Open49.85%31.88%18.27%3.68 sets

Note:

  • Wimbledon has the lowest percentage of three-set matches; Roland Garros has the highest.
  • The U.S. Open has the highest percentage of four-set matches and the lowest percentage of five-set matches.
  • If the conventional wisdom of the relative speed of court surfaces is to be believed, then the percentage of matches that go three sets correlates to the speed of the court surface.

How long does the average match last?

MinutesAverage Duration of Match by Major2000-20162h 29m2h 31m2h 22m2h 28mAustralian OpenRoland GarrosWimbledonU.S. OpenAverage Duration050100150200
 
 THREE SETSFOUR SETSFIVE SETSAVERAGE
All1h 54m2h 43m3h 30m2h 28m
Australian Open1h 54m2h 45m3h 31m2h 29m
Roland Garros1h 58m2h 47m3h 36m2h 31m
Wimbledon1h 49m2h 35m3h 24m2h 22m
U.S. Open1h 55m2h 45m3h 30m2h 28m

Note:

  • Despite the U.S. Open having a fifth-set tiebreak, its average fifth-set duration is 6 minuteslonger than Wimbledon’s.
  • Wimbledon has the fewest matches that go three sets yet, on average, its matches are the quickest.

How Many Matches End in a Walkover or Retirement?

The percentage of matches that end in a walkover or retirement is 4.43%
PercentagePercentage of Walkovers/Retirements by Major2000-20164.4%4.26%3.66%5.42%Australian OpenRoland GarrosWimbledonU.S. OpenMajor0246
 
 WALKOVERS/
RETIREMENTS
TOTAL MATCHES
SCHEDULED
PERCENTAGE
All3838,6364.43%
Australian Open952,1594.40%
Roland Garros922,1594.26%
Wimbledon792,1593.66%
U.S. Open1172,1595.42%

Significant Trends

The following charts analyze how the data has changed over time. A moving average of three-years is used in order to smooth out short-term fluctuations and highlight any longer-term trends.

How many sets does the average match last?

PercentageBreakdown by Number of Sets PlayedThree-Year Moving Average from 2000-2016Three SetsFour SetsFive Sets200220032004200520062007200820092010201120122013201420152016102030405060
SetsAverage Number of Sets Played per MatchThree-Year Moving Average from 2000-201620022003200420052006200720082009201020112012201320142015201633.253.53.754

How long does the average match last?

MinutesAverage Duration of MatchThree-Year Moving Average from 2000-2016200220032004200520062007200820092010201120122013201420152016100125150175200
 
 THREE SETSFOUR SETSFIVE SETSAVERAGE
MATCH LENGTH
AVERAGE
MATCH DURATION
200048.6%34.3%17.1%3.68 sets2h 20m
200147.3%31.4%21.3%3.74 sets2h 23m
200243.5%34.6%21.9%3.78 sets2h 28m
200346.2%34.8%19.0%3.73 sets2h 24m
200448.7%31.8%19.5%3.71 sets2h 23m
200551.3%30.1%18.6%3.67 sets2h 24m
200649.8%30.0%20.2%3.70 sets2h 28m
200754.1%28.5%17.5%3.63 sets2h 24m
200850.5%31.8%17.7%3.67 sets2h 29m
200952.2%29.0%18.9%3.67 sets2h 31m
201050.3%29.0%20.7%3.70 sets2h 33m
201155.2%29.8%15.1%3.60 sets2h 30m
201247.0%31.3%21.6%3.75 sets2h 41m
201353.7%26.6%19.7%3.66 sets2h 28m
201453.9%29.3%16.8%3.63 sets2h 27m
201551.0%29.3%19.6%3.69 sets2h 26m
201649.6%31.7%18.7%3.69 sets2h 29m

Note:

  • Over time, the percentage of three-set matches has increased while the percentage of four-set matches has decreased by almost the same amount.
  • Even though there has been a slight decline in the average number of sets played per match, the duration of matches has increased.

Acknowledgments

Most of the raw data used for analysis was gathered from the glorious repository of ATP match results compiled by Jeff Sackmann. Additional data from the ATP Web site filled in any gaps. A Microsoft Excel file is available for download if you wish to view the raw data that I compiled.

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