Novak Djokovic makes ‘tennis is endangered’ claim as he changes tune about key Grand Slam feature

Shahida Jacobs
Novak Djokovic speaks to the media

Three years ago Novak Djokovic was asked if Grand Slams should switch from best-of-five sets to best-of-three sets and he made it clear that the sport needed to change as “tennis has the longest season”.

The question was posed to Djokovic at the 2021 French Open and replied: “I am more of a proponent of best-of-three sets everywhere. You asked me why. I just feel that we have enough tournaments, enough matches during the year.

“We have the longest season of all sports, any sport in the world. Tennis has the longest season from January 1 to end of November. Literally every single week you have tournament somewhere.”

Fast forward to Wimbledon 2024 and Djokovic was again asked about five-set matches at Grand Slams and whether or not they are important to the sport in this day and age.

The tennis great now believes it is an essential part of the sport.

“Five-set matches, nowadays you can only see them in Grand Slams, right? That’s what I guess excites both players and the crowd. Most of the people love to see it. We as players like to play it. Maybe not that often,” he said.

“I think at times, to see an exciting five-set match, like, for example, the one that I can highlight, it was one of the most exciting matches I’ve ever played in my life, the five-setter against Federer here in finals of Wimbledon 2019. I think that was the first year they introduced a 12-all tiebreak. We used it right away the first year in the final. So it was an incredible match with some match points saved.

“If that match was best-of-three, yes, I was two sets to one up, I think it would be quite different, because he was the better player. When you know, even if you’re two sets to love or one down, like [Holger] Rune was here today, who is my next opponent, he was two sets to love down, still he’s not out, he can still win.

“I think if you’re physically fitter I guess than your opponent or have more experience than your opponent in best-of-five, it still gives you a sense of confidence and tranquility, even though you’re two sets to love down. Of course, there is a sense of urgency. You still feel like there’s still quite a lot of time for me to kind of bounce back.

“Throughout my career, I’ve had quite a few matches where I was coming back from two sets to love or two sets to one down. Winning record mostly, positive score in a fifth setter.

“I enjoyed those throughout my career. I think they’re an important aspect of the history and of the future, as well, of the sport.

“I would support it, particularly in the latter stages of the Grand Slam. I’ve seen there’s been quite a lot of debate on that. You guys have been asking a lot of players whether the best-of-five should be turned into best-of-three in the Slams. I don’t think so. I think they should stay best-of-five.”

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And while he is not in favour of three-sets at Grand Slams, he does feel a tweak is needed in order to reduce the load on players and attract a younger audience as he suggested switching to best-of-three earlier during the tournament.

The 24-time Grand Slam winner added: “The only thing that I’m maybe thinking it could be good to consider is the opening rounds that could go best-of-three, then you move into the hybrid of best-of-fives from the fourth rounds or quarters. I don’t know. That’s just me, my thinking.

“I think best-of-five, particularly in the last three or four rounds of a Slam, you need to keep.

“But in terms of innovation in tennis, in our sport, I think it’s necessary. I think we have to, other than Slams, figure out how to attract young audience. I think tennis, from one hand, is in a good place, but at the same time when we look at Formula 1, for example, and what they have done in terms of marketing, in terms of growth of the sport, in terms of the races around the world and how popular they are, I think we need to do a better job on our respective tours.

“The Grand Slams are always going to do well. I think our tours need to do better. And we are lucky to be very historic and very global sport. But I think one of the studies that was done by PTPA three, four years ago, showed that tennis is the third or fourth most popular sport in the world, most watched sport in the world, along with cricket. Number one is obviously football, or soccer as you call it in States. Second one is basketball. Then it’s tennis and cricket.

“But tennis is number 9 or 10 on the list of all sports in terms of using its popularity, commercialising or capitalising on that.

“I think there is a huge space for growth. That we are quite fractioned as a sport. So there’s quite a bit of things I think for us to really collectively look at and try to improve it.”

Tennis players often feature highly on the richest lists for athletes, but it is only those at the top that really earn the big money. Those who are ranked outside the top 300 often struggle financially and Djokovic and his Professional Tennis Players Association are advocating for change.

The Serbian continued: “And we need to grow the number of players that live from this sport. Very rarely do I see in the media that you guys are writing about the fact that you have only 350 or 400 players, both men, women, singles, doubles, across the board who live from this sport on this planet. That’s for me deeply concerning.

“Yes, we talk about the Grand Slam winner wins this or that. Then it’s always the focus on the grand prize. But what about the base level? I think we are still doing a very poor job there, very poor job. Tennis is a very global sport and it’s loved by millions of children that pick up a racquet and want to play.

“But we don’t make it accessible. We don’t make it so affordable. Especially in countries like mine that doesn’t have a strong federation, that has Grand Slam or history or big budgets.

“I think collectively we all have to come together and understand how to maintain the sport’s, let’s say, foundation or create a new foundation, a cornerstone of really what tennis is about, which is the base level, right, the club level.

“Now we have the paddle or padel, as you call it in the States, that is growing and emerging. People kind of have fun with it and say, Yeah, but tennis is tennis.

“Tennis is the king or queen of all the racket sports, that’s true. But on a club level, tennis is endangered. If we don’t do something about it, as I said, globally or collectively, paddle, pickle ball in States, they’re going to convert all the tennis clubs into paddle and pickle ball because it’s just more economical.

“You have one tennis court. You can build three paddle courts on one tennis court. You do the simple math. It’s just much more financially viable for an owner of a club to have those courts.

“Those are just some of the things I wanted to share. In the grand scheme of things, I feel like we need to address all of these, I feel like, challenges and issues for us really. They have been out there for a while, but I don’t think we have been addressing them in a proper way.”