For some that adds to the unpredictability and excitement of the sport. For others – tournament organisers, TV schedulers, impatient audiences and even some players – that’s a problem.
Ask Andy Murray. When he came back from two sets down to beat Thanasi Kokkinakis in his recent Aussie Open match he was still on court at 4 o’clock in the morning, the match having gone on for five and three quarter hours.
Murray was fuming (not least as he’d been denied a bathroom break) and it’s hard to imagine too many viewers at home stuck with the action to the bitter end.
It’s not great news for Tennis Australia either when you consider what it must cost them in ad revenue, staff costs and their ability to plan a tournament. But the trouble is that match duration is just so hard to predict.
What factors affect tennis match length?
What makes tennis matches so unpredictable is the number of elements that could influence their duration. Here are some of the most common:
Three Sets or Five?
Probably the most obvious is the match format.
While most ATP and WTA tournaments matches are best of three sets, men’s Grand Slams are best of five. And that’s when things can get crazy.
The most famous example is John Isner’s marathon against Nicolas Mahut at Wimbledon in 2010. Isner squeaked it 70-68 in the fifth set after a mere 11 hours and 5 minutes of play.
Saying that, Grand Slam organisers have since introduced a fifth set tie-break so, understandably, we may never see the likes of those multi-day marathons again.
The second greatest factor influencing the length of a tie is how closely matched the opponents are. In an early tournament round a top seed might face a low ranked wild card and despatch them with a double bagel in twenty minutes.
More embarrassing is if it happens later in the tournament between two more evenly ranked players. That’s what happened in the French Open final in 1988 as Steffi Graf beat Natasha Zvereva 6-0, 6-0 in just 34 minutes (including a rain break!).
If you break it down by the minute those were possibly the most expensive courtside tickets in tennis history!
The other side of that coin are of course the marathon matches (step forward messrs Isner and Murray) where two fairly closely ranked players slug it out for hours on end until one of them breaks.
Traditionally, slower court surfaces such as clay have encouraged longer rallies meaning longer points, longer games, longer sets and longer matches.
In recent years the difference in speed between surfaces has narrowed, especially on the grass but surface speed is certainly still a factor when it comes to match length.
The final factor that can influence match length is of course the weather. Obviously it won’t affect actual playing time but long term Wimbledon watchers know the frustration of sitting down to enjoy a game scheduled for 2pm on a Monday only for the rain to come down and Cliff Richard to stand up.
More of the big venues now have roofs over their main arenas but matches on outside courts and of course lower down the food chain will still be affected.
How long is an average three set match?
As I hope we’ve made clear, there are too many factors to really predict the length of any one match but we can have a stab at guessing a rough average.
Looking at data from the ATP and the WTA, the average service game lasts around 4 minutes. The average number of games per set is around 10.
That means the average set length is about 40 minutes.
If you consider that around 70% are won in straight sets (taking an average of 80 minutes) and 30% go to a third (an average of 120 minutes) you could expect the average three setter to last around 92 minutes – an hour and a half.
How long is an average five set match?
Using the same numbers as above we can say that a best of five match should last between an average of 120 minutes (for a straight sets win) and 200 minutes (for a full five setter).
Most five setters fall somewhere between the two so a decent guess is around two hours and forty five minutes.
Are tennis matches getting longer?
At the professional level, despite the removal of John Isner style outliers, matches do indeed seem to be getting longer.
There are various reasons for this.
Firstly, in the last twenty years certain tournament organisers have made a conscious effort to slow down the courts. Wimbledon in particular became so dominated by big servers that they reseeded the grass to encourage longer rallies.
Meanwhile, the game has changed. Players – no doubt inspired by the success of the big three – are much stronger, faster athletes than they used to be. Their ability to chase down balls and extend rallies have grown. They’ve been helped by increases in prize money enabling bigger and better fitness and nutrition teams.
What are the shortest matches in tennis history?
The shortest men’s singles match took place at the 1946 Surrey Open as Jack Harper beat J Sandiford 6-0, 6-0 in just 18 minutes. He only dropped one point.
At Wimbledon in 1969, Susan Tutt took only 20 minutes to beat Marion Boundy 6-2, 6-0 for the fastest recorded women’s match.
What are the longest matches in tennis history?
The longest men’s singles match in tennis history was John Isner’s win over Nicolas Mahut in the first round of Wimbledon in 2008. Isner won 6–4, 3–6, 6–7, 7–6, 70–68 over 11 hours and five minutes of playing time stretched over three days.
The longest doubles match was Tomáš Berdych and Lukáš Rosol’s win over Stanislas Wawrinka and Marco Chiudinelli in the 2013 Davis Cup. They won 6–4, 5–7, 6–4, 6–7, 24–22 over seven hours and one minute.
The longest women’s singles match came at the 1984 Central Fidelity Banks International when Vicki Nelson beat Jean Hepner 6-4, 7-6 over six hours and thirty one minutes. That match featured a single rally which lasted 29 minutes!