Deciding Tiebreaks: Balancing Practicality and Passion

By Nick Carter

On March 16th, it was announced that the major championships would trial for 12 months ending matches with a 10-point tie-break should the final set reach six games all for both men and women. My immediate reaction, as was the case for many, was negative. 

My first thought was that we would now lose opportunities for epic matches. Had this rule been in place much sooner, the classic men’s Wimbledon finals of 2008, 2009 and 2019 would all have been decided by tie-breaks. In addition, two of the best Nadal/Djokovic clashes, Roland Garros 2013 and Wimbledon 2018, would not have lasted as long as they did. The battles between Novak Djokovic and Stan Wawrinka at the Australian Open in 2013 and 2014 would have been disappointingly shortened. I need to rewatch those matches to decide if this would have made a significant difference, but I guarantee that amazing moments would have been lost and the flow of the match would have been very different. We definitely would not have seen Federer miss two championship points in 2019, instead just skipping to a disappointing tie-break earlier, at 6-all in the fifth. Likewise in the Wimbledon 2018 semi-final, we would have missed out on the epic Djokovic hold of serve at 7-7 (in which he saved three break points) and wouldn’t have seen Nadal win an epic rally at 7-8, 15-30, then save a match point later that game. A ten-point deciding tie-break would have changed the story of the match (not necessarily the outcome, that would have been even more up in the air). 

The 12-all tiebreak will remain a one-time sight in the Wimbledon final. The 12-all tiebreak has taken place all of two times since its implementation before the 2019 Championships. Screenshot: Wimbledon

On an emotional level, I will miss the need to break serve to win the match in the final set. It adds that extra tension, that extra challenge. Now it’ll just come down to who plays better in a condensed shootout, which is a completely different dynamic. Tie-breaks can produce incredible drama if they’re close, but are far worse damp squibs when they’re not. There will also be fewer critical points happening in a match as it takes far less effort to earn a mini-break than to win a whole game against serve. 

So, why have the majors done this? Well, as Owen has pointed out, we can thank John Isner for his role in their decision. He was involved in the two longest matches ever, both going on for hours and hours. The first (Wimbledon 2010) was a weird anomaly, the highlight of the tournament. The latter (Wimbledon 2018) resulted in a flop of a final. Now, Isner isn’t the only one who seems to drag matches out. Other big servers like Kevin Anderson, Marin Čilić, Sam Querrey and Ivo Karlović are to blame. You also have those fighters like Stan Wawrinka, Fernando Verdasco and Mackenzie McDonald who just will not give up and run everything down to the end. 

Whether a player is just unbreakable on serve or continues to grind and not go away, the men have a way of extending their matches. The result is that we have very long matches which are difficult to market on TV. When I try to introduce my friends to the sport, they always ask “what time does it finish?” My answer is always “I don’t know”. For me, that’s one of the best parts of the sport. However, a lack of definitive end may put people off. I don’t think a match lasting four, five, or even six hours is a problem, provided it doesn’t go much longer. Whilst the existing fanbase is important, tennis cannot rely on it for long term success. 

Where I do agree with the majors is having consistency between them in how matches are played and decided. Again, explaining to newer fans that different majors decide matches differently does overcomplicate things for them. So, from a perspective of trying to get new fans, the decision makes sense. 

Let’s take a reality check, and ask whether the decision was necessary. Since 2008, there have been 151 major men’s matches that went past a 6-6 score in the fifth set (not including US Open tie-breaks). That’s an average of 10 to 11 per year across all majors. However, not all majors contribute to this equally. Roland-Garros doesn’t often produce matches with high game counts, whereas this happens far more at Wimbledon (probably because of the varying effects of big serves on clay and grass). Essentially, a marathon men’s match is now a regular event, which causes headaches for tournament schedulers and TV broadcasters.

It has to be said, we have romanticised these long battles to a certain extent. It’s very rare for such long matches to be high quality, unless it involves one or two of Djokovic, Nadal or Federer. The reality is, most of these marathons are played in the early rounds of a major, usually involving good players but none that are likely to win a big title. Dragging out a medium quality match isn’t necessarily a great spectacle, even if we love the tension and drama. In fact, of the matches that have gone really long (beyond a 12-12 score), only one could be seen as really special (Wimbledon 2009 final).

Most of these 151 matches that would now be in tie-break territory under the new rules were decided by a score of 8-6 anyway. To me, this suggests that a tie-break for those matches would produce a similar level of drama given the match was drawing to a natural conclusion anyway. So, I am willing to concede that introducing a tie-break into the deciding set might be a good idea. The impact on the overall sport, in terms of numbers, is minimal, and reduces the impact of some more frustrating elements.

However, I still can’t shake the sense that tennis is denying itself future classics. They’ve gone with the simpler method of the Australian Open model of deciding a final set. However, I’d suggest a hybrid of the AO and Wimbledon models. Of the 151 men’s matches mentioned, only 15 (so around 10%) went past the 12-12 score. This is still a very rare event, even more rarely are such matches classics. So, I think Wimbledon were right to put a tie-break at this point. Making this a ten-point tie-breaker extends that drama and makes a match’s final moments even more special. It adds a unique element that would only be seen in exceptional circumstances.

Of course, this has focused on the men’s game, which is where most of the delays come from. Looking at the women’s game over the same period, there have been 153 matches that went past a 6-6 score in a deciding set. The trends are much the same, but some are more exaggerated. The vast majority were decided by an 8-6 score, so a tie-break wouldn’t have much impact on many women’s matches. In fact, only four real marathon matches have taken place since 2008, going beyond a 12-12 score in the deciding set. These are Gorges vs Srebotnik (Wimbledon 2008), Kuznetsova vs Schiavone (Australia 2011), Rybáriková vs Muguruza (Australia 2013) and Halep vs Davis (Australia 2018). None of these involve a clash between really big names, except for the Australia 2011 match. In fact, most extended deciding sets for women in recent years happen in the early rounds. For whatever reason, the top players don’t often get epic scorelines playing against one another. Essentially, this rule change will probably have a much smaller impact on the women’s game in comparison. Extended deciding sets on the women’s side haven’t been as much of a talking point – even with a 15-13 final set, the best-of-three format keeps matches from reaching, say, four hours in length. However, this change could deny us an epic that could capture the imagination, and finally put the women on the same level as the men in mainstream media coverage. Imagine if we get a Barty vs Osaka Australian Open final ending with a 9-7 deciding set score. Or Świątek vs Halep at Roland Garros, Raducanu vs Gauff at Wimbledon or even Fernandez vs Andreescu in New York. We probably will never quite get this with a 6-6 final set decider. We would with a 12-12 final set decider.

In summary, once I get over the initial emotional reaction and look at the detail, I can see why the majors have made this decision and agree with a lot of their reasoning. I just feel we still need room for those special moments of critical and decisive breaks in a long decider that can produce really special moments. By introducing this hybrid AO/Wimbledon model, we still get our classics whilst also managing to put a lid on any match that looks to be going unnecessarily long or overly dragging out a mediocre contest.

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