In an ever-changing world with ever-decreasing attention spans, an important question that is often asked, and more so by the more recent tennis fans is around the length of tennis matches. In this piece we attempt to answer this question not just from the perspective of those who want to take up tennis as a playing sport but for those watching tennis.
So, let’s get this straight off the bat, how does a tennis match last? Unlike a lot of other sports like soccer, cricket and basketball, tennis matches aren’t decided on the basis of who is the better player (or team) in a finite amount of time. Instead, a tennis result is based on which player is the first to win two sets (or three in men’s Grand Slam) and that could take anywhere between 50 minutes to five hours.
Yep, that’s the kind of time range you could be looking at depending on the nature of the surface, the number of sets played, the number of games in each set and even the style of play among other things.
Of course, the above figure is a ballpark, with there being matches in the Open Era that have finished in 25 minutes as well having taken a whopping 11 hours and five minutes (seven soccer matches would have gotten over in that time!).
If you did have 11 odd hours of free time on you and you would like to re-live the thrills and excitement of that Wimbledon match between John Isner and Nicolas Mahut, you can do so below.
You can also do a quick search for John Isner v Nicolas Mahut on YouTube and get yourself a shorter, 10-minute version of the same match but that wouldn’t be doing too much justice now, would it?
Length of Tennis Matches
For starters it’s necessary to understand that a tennis match can last two or three or four or even five sets.
Women’s tennis matches are typically always best-of-three sets, which means they need two or three sets to finish. Men’s matches at all levels except Grand Slams, are also best-of-three sets, which is the same as women’s matches.
In the Grand Slams, i.e. at the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and US Open, the men’s singles matches are all best-of-five sets. So a straight-set win has a minimum of three sets while matches can also last four or five sets.
How long a set lasts also depends on the number of games in play, the surface on which the match is played and the type of players.
Take, for example, a match played at the 2023 Madrid Masters between Holger Rune and Alejandro Davidovich Fokina went on for three sets and lasted over three hours because it had two tie-breakers.
Another match in that same tournament between the 2023 Australian Open champion Aryna Sabalenka and youngster Mirra Andreeva was decided in an hour and 13 minutes only.
Four and five-setters have the potential to last longer and as mentioned earlier, we could be looking at factors like whether the match is played on grass, clay or hardcourt and the kind of player in action which decide the length of the match.
On an average a tennis game in a set lasts anywhere between four to five minutes (could be a lot quicker on grass though). This means a 6-4, 6-4 sort of a scoreline, which has 20 games in the match could last anywhere between 80-100 minutes on an average (about an hour and a half).
Similarly, matches which lasted three sets can be played approximately over anywhere between an hour and a half to three hours, which four-set and five-set matches can last anywhere between two to five hours.
Surfaces all over the world have slowed down but matches played on carpet surfaces, the fastest surface on offer, used to get over quickly. On an average, games in a set played on carpet would last about three minutes each, which meant a 6-4, 6-4 sort of a scoreline could be done in just about an hour.
A Historical View on the Length of a Tennis Match
It’s important to note that there have been multiple tweaks made to the tennis scoring format at the highest level.
It was only in the early 1970s that the tie-breaker was introduced to tennis by James Van Alen. Sets used to be played without a tie-breaker before that till a player had won at least six games and with a difference of two games.
This meant that before the introduction of a tie-breaker, a set could go on for a long, long time like was the case in the 1973 Davis Cup doubles match between Stan Smith/Erik van Dillen and Patricio Cornejo/Jaime Fillol which had a scoreline of 7-9, 39-37, 8-6, 6-1, 6-3.
Interestingly, a women’s match in 1984 between Vicki Nelson and Jean Hepner lasted more than six hours despite it ending at 6-4, 7-6 (13-11) thanks to the long nature of their rallies. One such rally is said to have lasted a shade under half hour and had over 640 shots in it. Hard to believe!
Even after the introduction of the concept of a tie-breaker, tournaments allowed the last set to continue on without using it.
Essentially, the first two sets of a best-of-three and the first four sets in a best-of-five sets match would see the use of a tie-breaker while the final set would continue on as usual after 6-6 as well – like was the case with the aforementioned John Isner-Nicolas Mahut match.
Over the years, all the non-Grand Slam competitions changed to using tie-breakers in the final set too thereby preventing tennis matches from lasting too long. Grand Slams brought about this change in recent times having experimented with a first-to-10 tie-breaker and a tie-breaker after the score read 12-12 in the final set.
All of this has obviously had an effect on the average lengths of tennis matches.
So Which are Some of the Longest Tennis Matches Played in Recent Times?
Well, nothing comes close the aforementioned John Isner-Nicolas Mahut encounter even after taking into account the fact that this came at a time when the first four sets had tie-breakers unlike in the past when that was not the case.
Other than that match, however, there have been 13 matches which have lasted more than six hours. Here’s a list of some of the longest tennis matches by time more recently.
- Tomas Berdych/Lukas Rosol v Stan Wawrinka/Marco Chiudinelli which was a 2013 Davis Cup encounter that lasted a touch over seven hours
- Leonardo Mayer v Joao Souza at the 2015 Davis Cup which went on for six hours and 43 minutes
- Kevin Anderson v John Isner (again!) at the 2018 Wimbledon which lasted for over six and a half hours
And Which are Some of the Shortest Tennis Matches Played?
While there have been a few matches before the Open Era that got over even before the late-comers had taken their seats (like in 18 minutes when Jack Harper defeated J. Sandiford in 1946 in Surrey) or when Margaret Court needed a mere 24 minutes to rout Darlene Hard at the Eastern Grass Court Championships, some of the shortest matches in more recent times include:
- Francisco Clavet v Jiang Shan at the 2001 Heineken Open which lasted 25 minutes
- Jarkko Nieminen v Bernard Tomic at the 2014 Miami Masters which went on for 28 minutes
- Steffi Graf v Natasha Zvereva at the 1988 French Open, which is the shortest Grand Slam final in tennis history at 34 minutes
- How to Deal with Injuries & Setbacks in Tennis?
- Best Vibration Dampeners for Beginners & Intermediate Tennis Players
The Introduction of Shot Clock
One of the more recent innovations – or possibly, introductions – to the sport of tennis has been the shot clock. In a bid to speed up play, a 25-second countdown clock has been brought into the game that helps chair umpires to ensure greater consistency in applying the rules.
Essentially, players have 25 seconds between points but the countdown timer is reset after the chair umpire has called out the score. This is typically done after the crowd has settled down, typically at the end of a long and exciting rally, making it flexible but at the same time letting players know they need to hurry things up if they are getting out of hand.
The shot clock was first brought in at the 2017 Next Gen ATP Finals before making its mark at the 2019 US Open and 2020 Australian Open. Since then it’s become a part of every tennis tournament at the highest level.
What this has done is to ensure the length of tennis matches is slightly more streamlined and time-wasting is avoided.
What About the Time Taken for a Tennis Match at the College & School Level?
Depending on which country you are referring to, different formats are used at school and college level.
In some countries, boys and girls under the age of nine are expected to play just one set while in the US, matches can last a lot longer because of the kind of format that’s being used.
At the NCAA level for college students, matches are played as best-of-three sets but the final set is uses the first-to-10-points format instead of first-to-six-games. All of this has a bearing on the length of a tennis match.
Do Other Tennis Formats Take as Much Time Too?
Tennis is typically played in a best-of-three sets or best-of-five sets format but in more recent times, newer formats have been introduced and adopted at different levels.
For instance, the ATP Next Gen Finals uses the Fast4 Format (you can read all about it here), which was introduced by Tennis Australia and has been described as the Twenty20 equivalent of tennis (Twenty20 is a format in the sport of cricket that allows a match to finish in three hours instead of its more traditional five days!)
There are a few differences between the Fast4 format and the more traditional form of tennis in that the sets played to four games instead of six, there are no lets in the match and there’s a no-advantage rule, among other things.
The title-decider of the 2022 ATP Next Gen Finals between Brandon Nakashima and Jiri Lehecka, played in the above Fast4 format, lasted an hour and 20 minutes despite being a best-of-five sets match. The longest match in that year’s tournament played between Francesco Passaro and Matteo Arnaldi went on for two hours and 38 minutes.
There’s another tennis format which goes by the name of Thirty30 (you can read all about it here) and much like the Fast4 format, it is a quicker version of the traditional form of the sport. In this, the game begins at 30-30, which means the time taken to finish off a game is slashed by around 50%.
Final Thoughts on the Length of a Tennis Match
As mentioned in the piece above it’s not easy to predict the length of a tennis match at any level but there has been a greater push to reduce the time spent on court by players.
We, like most tennis aficionados, reckon one mustn’t tamper too much with the sport and any change in the format – i.e. to Fast 4 or anything else – should be well thought of.
The flipside to this is there is a global change in the climate and this change in the weather, especially in countries where it’s getting hotter every year, does beg the question if playing for hours in temperatures soaring to over a 100 degrees Fahrenheit is a fair deal for the players.
After all nobody wants to be on court involved in a hard-fought, four-hour long five-setter where temperatures have reached levels at which one can fry an egg on the surface.
That’s how hot it was. Thank you everybody for being so persistent and passionate about our sport. @ AustralianOpen pic.twitter.com/pc7hAUbHQm
— Novak Djokovic (@DjokerNole) January 17, 2014