The modern armchair sports fan can just about keep his focus for 9.63 seconds. With 1,001 television channels, and then a 1,000 more options on the red button, it is hardly surprising that the 100 metres is preferred to following the drawn-out agonies and fleeting pleasures of the marathon. Few have the time or the inclination to sit around for more than two hours watching 26 miles of running. And you have to consider that tennis has some lessons to learn from the fact that many people – yes, not all – prefer a dash to a grind.
During the tournament, we asked on Twitter whether the grand slams should shorten their men’s matches from best-of-five sets to best-of-three. And while some were vehemently against the idea, suggesting it would cheapen the tournaments, many thought it was an idea worth exploring further. The men’s singles tournament at the Olympics showed that playing best of three sets gives you plenty of scope to create drama; Roger Federer’s semi-final victory over Juan Martin del Potro will long be remembered for that 19-17 final set and a contest which took almost four and a half hours.
Maybe that’s not the best example, because of the running time, but it did show that you don’t need five sets to produce an epic. Maybe take the other semi-final, Andy Murray’s straight-sets win over Novak Djokovic, which showed playing first to two sets brings extra urgency and tension to the piece. Murray knew that he had to be on his game from the beginning. And so he was. There was much to celebrate on Sunday when Murray beat Federer in the only best-of-five match of the Olympics – the men’s final – but it was not much of a contest. Television would, of course, prefer shorter matches. And television matters more than ever before – you only have to look at Centre Court’s retractable, £100 million roof to be reminded of that truth.
One effect of shortening the men’s matches at slams would be to take away the central argument of all those still whining about equal prize-money, that women don’t deserve parity of pay because they’re not on court for as long. That could even be the best reason for considering this move – to end the most tedious debate in the sport. Call this the Gilles Simon Rule Change.
This week’s tournament in Toronto could be the most unloved Masters event of recent times. No tournament director is going to dance like Serena when he takes the calls informing him that Federer and Rafael Nadal aren’t boarding flights. But this year it’s going up against the final week of the Olympics. In a contest between Usain Bolt and Milos Raonic, there’s only ever going to be one winner, and it’s not going to be the man who serves tennis balls at 155mph.