It’s difficult to find a field in which women don't constantly struggle to prove themselves to be just as good as their male counterparts. Today, though, math is on our side: Statistical proof has emerged supporting the idea that women are just as good at tennis as men, despite being long considered more inconsistent players in comparison. It turns out that the rules of the game put the odds in men's favor — but when we even the playing field, so to speak, it all evens out.
Women's records tend to be dotted with more highs and lows than men's, and careers can be startlingly short-lived. Sports analysts, and even male tennis stars, are quick to attribute these differences in the women’s game to deeply sexist ideas. In the sport, there's certainly no shortage of body-shaming, hyper-sexualization, and concerns over a lack of a traditional home life (gee, thanks). That’s right: You can be Maria Sharapova, and a guy with a bad mustache on ESPN will still tell you there’s simply no way to have it all.
Yet, according to statistician Stephanie Kovalchik, these judgments lack mathematical backing (besides being just plain silly). Kovalchik points out that, in Grand Slam competitions — meaning Wimbledon, the Australian, French, and U.S. Open tournaments — women play best-of-three games, while men play best-of-five. It may seem like a small difference, sure, but it turns out that these two extra matches have huge consequences.
A 2012 article in the Boston Review compares a best-of-five match to a "novel," while a best-of-three is simply a "short story." Both have the potential to be interesting, but one is clearly more compelling, while the other leaves you wanting more. More matches over a longer period of time would produce a more consistent and representational record, which is exactly what the women’s game supposedly lacks.
Kovalchik says that if both women and men both played best-of-five games, the presumed skill gap would shrink exponentially. “A player who wins 60 percent of her individual sets will win, on average, 64 percent of her best-of-three matches and 68 percent of her best-of-five matches,” calculates Kovalchik. Remember your probability unit in high school math? It’s kind of like that — except the red and blue marbles you're pulling out of a bag are actually an entire legacy of overlooked female athletes.
The prospect of equalizing the length of the men's and women's game isn't a new one. Stacey Allaster, Chairman and CEO of the Women’s Tennis Association, has repeatedly urged the Grand Slam organizers to up the number of women’s matches from three to five.
Even if you don't know a serve from a lob, surely we can all agree that a change is in order. Beyond being a symbol of equality in the game, the math reveals that women are being deprived of a literal level playing field. After all, the best-of-three restriction is rooted in a 1902 rule stating that five games would simply be too strenuous for women. Strenuous, eh? Maybe if they had seen Serena Williams' New York Magazine shoot, they'd feel a bit differently.
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