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Roundtable — The Significance Of The Wimbledon Final-Set Tiebreaker

Tennis Accent Staff

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Susan Mullane - USA TODAY Sports

QUESTION: Whether you like the decision or not, what is the most significant aspect of Wimbledon’s decision to adopt a final-set tiebreaker? 

JANE VOIGT — @downthetee

Kevin Anderson was out of breath and sweating hard. He had just defeated John Isner in the longest semifinal in the history of The Wimbledon Championships, six hours and 36 minutes. The fifth and final set: 26-24.

“I hope this is a sign for Grand Slams to change,” Anderson told ESPN. “I really hope we can look at it and address it; it’s happened to John before. Just playing in those conditions is tough on both of us.”

Anderson’s message — “just playing in those conditions” — was directed at Wimbledon, at The Grand Slam Committees, the ITF, and to tennis. He wasn’t talking about the weather, the air temperature, or the condition of the battered lawn. Kevin was being generous in his delivery. He was gracefully arguing that tradition be dashed, no more agonizingly long fifth sets. Enough!

With the win Anderson advanced to his second major final, a first for him. He lost to Novak Djokovic in straight sets on Sunday, though, a dreadful display for the game of tennis because Anderson couldn’t play anywhere near his best. It had been drained from him two days prior. Forty-eight hours wasn’t enough recovery time for the South African. A month might not have been long enough to really rise to the occasion. After Isner defeated Nicolas Mahut in 2010 at Wimbledon, after three days and a 70-68 fifth set, the American’s feet were so torn up he lost in his next round, naturally, and wasn’t fit to play for months.

What a way to treat the players who earn tennis its income.

And, yes, you could argue that none of Anderson, Isner or Mahut could break serve and run away with a set and a match within its allotted boundaries: five sets, regular scoring for each, last set win by two games. But, thank goodness, they don’t have to worry about that situation every again. Wimbledon finally got off its traditional high horse and changed the rules. Bravo!

In its announcement Friday Wimbledon’s gavel came down at 12-12. That for-whatever-reason score will signal, come 2019 Wimbledon, that a tiebreak is about to determine the winner of the match. Gone will be the three-day matches a la Isner and Mahut. Gone will be the exhaustion Anderson felt entering an all-important Grand Slam final where he tried desperately to shut out the pain and mental chatter that, perhaps, taunted him to give up.

The implications of Wimbledon’s decision are profound because it finally stood up for the players, their health and well-being, which is, after all, the most important part of its fortnight. No players. No Wimbledon. Now what would be even more profound? The Australian Open follows in the footsteps of those folks with the fancy lawns.

MERT ERTUNGA — @MertovsTDesk

To introduce the tiebreaker for the fifth set was long overdue. While it may not be officially called the “Isner” rule, there is no doubt that the American single-handedly managed to make it impossible for Wimbledon to continue the archaic extended fifth set.

Having said that, I am fairly certain that hardly anyone believed Wimbledon would switch to playing a tiebreaker at 6-6, as the U.S. Open does. I was personally hoping they would surprise everyone and do it, but I also knew better. It would have been too much to expect that from the major tournament that changed from white tennis balls to yellow ones several years after all other majors did.

Having stated my preference, there is an argument to be made for playing the tiebreaker at 12-12. The big question is, will a player who wins a match 13-12 in the fifth set, meaning after playing six full sets (also meaning, two of them at least equaling regular 7-6 sets), have enough stamina to perform well in his next-round match, in comparison to winning that match 7-6 in the fifth, thus playing one less full set? That is the difference between using the 12-12 rule for the deciding set Wimbledon has now adopted versus the 6-6 rule the U.S. Open has been using.

Looking at the last 10 Wimbledon men’s draws, within the context laid out above, I found that 33 matches were extended beyond 6-6 in the fifth, but not beyond 12-12. In those 33 matches, 13 of the winners went on to win their next matches (a rate at 40 percent). Therefore, it is not a clear-cut argument that an extended fifth set with a tiebreaker at 12-12 for the deciding set ruins a player’s chances for the next round. Furthermore, when I considered only the last five years’ numbers, 10 out of 18 winners of these matches also won their next round, bringing the rate up to 55 percent. Thus, implementing the tiebreak at 6-6 versus 12-12 does not have a significant impact on the winning player’s chances for the next round.

Of course, one could argue that if the player had to play two of those types of matches in a row, then it may make a difference. But that is a negligible probability, and in a domain where no perfect solutions exist, the 12-12 solution does not seem unreasonable, although it is still not my preference. I would prefer consistency in all majors, and hope that one day, all four majors will adopt the system currently utilized at the U.S. Open. One argument for the tiebreaker at 6-6 is that it leaves the daily schedule less vulnerable to unexpected fluctuations.

Lastly, how many of these extended sets would Wimbledon have avoided had it adopted the 12-12 system during the last 10 years? A total of 10.

In other words, this rule change is likely to only save us from watching, on the average, one match per year at Wimbledon that would have gone beyond 12-12. But it takes one or two blatant examples to finally break the resistance to making changes. Isner’s marathon match versus Mahut in 2010 and his semifinal match against Kevin Anderson in this year’s semifinals are probably the two biggest influencers of this decision.

MATT ZEMEK — @mzemek

I offered this news reaction at Tennis With An Accent after the story broke on Friday.

I raised questions more than I rendered verdicts, but I did note what Mert pointed out above: the inconsistency of the four major tournaments in handling the same issues. Is that good or bad? What matters most is how the players handle these topics and try to arrive at a better arrangement with the majors in resolving differences or complaints.

Since I addressed the problem of inconsistency in that piece, I will use this roundtable piece to tackle a different point of significance arising from Wimbledon’s decision.

Why does this decision matter so much to tennis? There are many valid answers, but the one I will choose here is that Wimbledon’s move makes it a lot harder for tennis fans and commentators to claim that tennis is or has been static in relationship to reforms and innovations over the years.

Yes, there are some things in tennis which I am not comfortable with: on-court coaching, no-let rules for serves, no-ad scoring. A lot of reforms make tennis “less than tennis,” in my eyes. I know plenty of people will disagree. Discussing reforms in any endeavor, let alone tennis, invites a familiar and irritating conversation in which YOU like reforms in general… but not that one over there. Your conversation partner also likes reforms… but not the one YOU yourself advocate.

Not everyone can agree on which reforms make the best – or worst – ideas for changing how tennis is structured, but at a higher level of discussion, I really like the fact that Wimbledon is willing to evolve. When the world’s oldest and most famous tennis tournament changes, that is a signal to the rest of the sport that it is okay to change as well.

When Wimbledon does something like this, it sends a message: “This thing which seems to have existed forever is not as permanent as you might think. The structure of tennis is not and has not been as fixed or immovable as the historical record actually shows.”

Let me briefly illustrate:

Wimbledon used a tiebreaker at 8-8 in non-deciding sets in the 1970s, then moved to 6-6.

Wimbledon used to play its men’s singles finals on Saturday and the women’s final on Friday before moving them up a day in 1982.

Wimbledon didn’t have a roof. Then it did, beginning in 2009.

Wimbledon didn’t have equal prize money. Then it did.

Ideas such as “Wimbledon is an outdoor tournament,” or “All four majors should be structured the exact same way,” do possess some merit. One can certainly make a case in support of those claims. Yet, Wimbledon and other tennis tournaments are constantly evolving. More precisely, the evolve at different speeds.

Insisting tennis IS a specific kind of entity might feel emotionally satisfying to say, and it might be reinforced by tangible facts and established realities, but it doesn’t represent a complete or unassailable truth.

Tennis can be what you think it is – and you wouldn’t even be wrong to assert as much – but it can simultaneously be something different and something more than your own perception of it. Wimbledon’s change creates a lot more irregularity in tennis, which makes it harder to say that “Tennis has always been like THIS… or THAT.”

Tennis is always changing – that’s what is most true about the sport.

The next time you say, “It was always THIS way,” chances are you’re not being entirely accurate. This opens the door for discussions about the identity of tennis to be more honest… and less filled with knee-jerk assumptions. That’s good for everyone… even if some people won’t acknowledge it.

The Tennis With An Accent staff produces roundtable articles and other articles with group input during the tennis season. Staff articles belong to the TWAA family of writers and contributors, as opposed to any individual commentator. Our staff produces roundtables every week of the tennis season, so that you will always know what the TWAA staff thinks about the important tennis topics of the times.

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Majors

A New Era — Wimbledon Breaks With Tradition On Tiebreaks

Matt Zemek

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Susan Mullane - USA TODAY Sports

Kevin Anderson and John Isner reformed the sport of tennis… but to what extent?

For now, the marathon semifinal at Wimbledon this year has led the All-England Lawn Tennis Club to adopt a final-set tiebreak for 2019. It was widely felt — maybe not universally, but certainly to a considerable degree — that the time had come to place at least SOME limits on the length of a final set, given the 26-24 servefest between Anderson and Isner this past July on Centre Court.

The fact that Wimbledon — unlike the other three majors — coexists with a quirky English village which doesn’t want to be disturbed (and owns considerable political clout) has forced the tournament to use a curfew. This means that the nighttime use of Centre Court is something the AELTC doesn’t wish to pursue unless absolutely necessary. It also means that when Wimbledon DOES have to use Centre Court for night tennis, the fun stops at or near the magic hour (11 p.m.), with relative little flexibility. The Australian Open has played matches past 4 in the morning. The U.S. Open has gone past 2:20, and it went deep into the night a few times this past year, especially in the Marin Cilic-Alex de Minaur match.

Wimbledon could not play a fourth set in the semifinal between Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic — not to its completion, at any rate. The Anderson-Isner semifinal pushed back Rafole far too late for the two icons to play four full sets before the curfew.

As soon as that second semifinal between two superstars was suspended due to curfew, everyone in the tennis community knew that Wimbledon was going to make this change. The only question was when the final-set tiebreak would occur: 6-6, 9-9, 10-10, or 12-12? Those were the four primary options. 12-12 won out.

If Anderson and Isner play another semifinal at Wimbledon, their final set — strictly in terms of games played — will therefore not reach even half the number of games they played in the fifth set this past summer. They played 50 games in that last stanza in July. Next July, they would not be able to play more than 24 service games before submitting to a breaker.

Most tennis fans — if not all — can widely agree that a 12-12 tiebreaker represents an improvement over the previous structure. It might not be a perfect solution, but 12-12 means that two players will essentially get to play a sixth full set of tennis, 12 more games, if they can’t break the other’s serve. Six sets with no resolution screams for a tiebreaker. Yet, the sudden-death crapshoot doesn’t come too quickly, as some feel it does at the U.S. Open (6-6). People on various sides of this issue get something, even if some sides don’t get everything they wanted.

Narrowly viewed, this is — in one person’s opinion (mine!) — good for tennis.

HOWEVER:

Yes, there is a “but” here…

While Wimbledon’s decision is, on balance, a good one in microcosm — two men’s semifinals should be able to be completed without a curfew from now on — this move does raise larger questions for the sport of tennis as a whole.

Let’s simply acknowledge that two majors now have final-set tiebreaks and two don’t.

Let’s note that two majors (the Australian and U.S. Opens) have serve clocks while two don’t.

Let’s point out that among the two tournaments with final-set tiebreaks, one is at 6-6 and the other is at 12-12. Even within the realm of the final-set tiebreak, unanimity does not exist in the relationship between the U.S. Open and Wimbledon.

Let’s note that Wimbledon still plays best-of-five-set men’s doubles, unlike other majors.

In these and other areas, we are moving into an even more fragmented and less uniform tennis landscape in which the major tournaments have their own personalities and identities.

Some will say this is a good thing. Others will say this is a bad thing. (Insert “there are very fine people on both sides” snark here.)

As I like to point out from time to time, my opinion on this doesn’t matter. What matters is what players think of all this. This movement by Wimbledon could lead Roland Garros and Tennis Australia to adopt final-set tiebreaks for 2020… but if it doesn’t, will that upset players who feel all four major tournaments need to protect them by limiting the wear and tear on their bodies, which are central to their ability to earn money?

A tennis player union would certainly help in moments such as this, and with the offseason not very far away (it has already arrived for some tour pros due to injury, and for much of women’s tennis as the WTA Finals and Zhuhai approach), this is a great time for players to communicate among themselves as they try to process what is happening around them.

We — at Tennis With An Accent — will have more to say about what this tiebreaker reform means for the sport, but for now, simply realize that a good decision within a narrow context has created many more questions for the sport on a larger level. How those questions get resolved will have so much to say about how tennis lovers — fans who pay for tickets and those of us who comment in a professional capacity — perceive the sport.

How we adjust — and if we even WANT to adjust at all — will be a commentary in itself about the tennis community’s relationship to a sport which, as much as we might love it for its traditions, is constantly changing.

That reality of constant change was affirmed by Wimbledon on Friday, three months after a July Friday which altered the way the world’s most famous tennis club handles its fabled tournament.

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U.S. Open

RAFAEL NADAL AND THE COMPLICATIONS OF A GOLDEN ERA

Matt Zemek

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Streeter Lecka/Getty Images North America

The Golden Era of men’s professional tennis has received a new stamp of greatness with Novak Djokovic’s 14th major title, making the Big 3 a true big three in major championships. Federer 1, Nadal 2, Djokovic — and Sampras — at 3. The moment is historic, resonant and powerful, affirming how great these three tennis players — from Switzerland, Spain and Serbia — have been over the past 15 years.

As the 2018 U.S. Open recedes into memory, Djokovic’s championship and his triumphant 2018 rightly exist as the most important ATP tennis stories of the year. Djokovic has stolen Fedal’s major-tournament thunder to become the best Big 3 player at tennis’s four most important tournaments in 2018. Djokovic deserves to be spoken of in the same lofty and exalted tones Fedal has received in recent years. The Big 3 is much better viewed as a brotherhood than a three-part hierarchy with a clear order of quality.

This next sentence needs to be absorbed and processed with care, and I will do my best to make sure it is absorbed and processed with care: Rafael Nadal embodies the complexities of the Big 3 era more than Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic.

The key word: embodies.

Nadal isn’t necessarily a more complicated player than Federer or Djokovic — that is not being said or implied. Nadal merely EMBODIES these complications in ways which are more conspicuous.

The 2018 U.S. Open brought those complications into full view.

The point is familiar — so familiar, in fact, that it does not need to be commented on at great length: Rafael Nadal has lost more major tournaments to injury than Djokovic or Federer have. Hardcourt tennis in particular, and full-season tennis in general, have been less kind on Nadal’s knees and knee joints than on any body part belonging to Nole or Fed. That is not a criticism. That is not an indictment. That is not a diminishment. That is a simple reality.

What people choose to DERIVE or CONCLUDE from that reality is the great debate involving the Big 3. Should Nadal be downgraded for these injuries, or should he be upgraded given how well he has been able to push past and transcend them so many times in his career? You could make a case for each answer, which means you could make a case for a “both” or “all of the above” answer as well. What you choose to do in the process of interpreting the meaning and value of Nadal’s injuries will shape how you view Nadal and the era.

This is not the only complicated story of the past 15 years. How Federer has played since 2010 has been very good, but not usually good enough to beat Nadal or Djokovic in their primes in five-set matches at majors. How does one evaluate that? It is a very complicated question.

Djokovic currently has six fewer majors than Federer, but he has won 14 majors by venturing into the teeth of the Fedal axis, whereas Nadal and especially Federer accumulated a large chunk of major titles before the Djokovic ascendancy of 2011. How does one evaluate that? Again, it’s a complicated question. All three members of the Big 3 own enormous complexities and contradictions. Nadal isn’t necessarily MORE complicated… but his complications are easier to identify, partly because they emerge more often, as shown at this year’s hardcourt majors.

It is a very striking fact, is it not? Nadal — who did not play Acapulco, Indian Wells or Miami, and then skipped Cincinnati when the time came — has played only three hardcourt tournaments this year. In two of them, both at major tournaments, he had to retire. Nadal is rightly celebrated for pushing to his limits and then finding a way to push PAST those limits. He is “the great transcender” of this era, the one who seems to defy reasonable limits of stamina and endurance.

Yet, much as a 37-year-old Federer has shown his physical limitations this year, and much as Djokovic finally ran into injury problems after his enormous level of output and success from January of 2015 through June of 2016, Nadal — for all his transcendent powers — is not able to defeat the laws of physics all the time, only occasionally. His work ethic, intensity, and full-tilt tennis have enabled him to climb the highest mountain, but they haven’t come without cost. This U.S. Open reminded us of that.

In reviewing the ATP side of the U.S. Open in 2018 — a tournament which put ATP players through a hellhole of profoundly attritional situations and forced them, including Djokovic and Federer, to play in conditions unsuited to tennis — the Nadal story is relevant for numerous reasons. It is probably beyond the scope of this column to dive into several different reasons. (It is also beyond my pay grade, given that Tennis With An Accent has not yet raked in large sponsorship dollars from businesses and is still dependent on donor support through our GoFundMe page, which is also posted on our website’s Twitter page.)

Allow me, therefore, to focus on just one question Nadal’s unfortunate exit from the 2018 U.S. Open raises about this Golden Era of men’s tennis: Has it been a blessing for Nadal to play on relatively slow(er) and homogenized courts which have similar speeds, as opposed to highly differentiated ones?

I would bet that if I asked 100 random people in a room this question — “Have slow courts helped or hurt Nadal?” — a solid majority (at least 60 people if not 65) would say they have helped him.

Uh-oh, you might be thinking. MATT IS GOING TO THROW THE CURVEBALL AND TELL YOU THE CONVENTIONAL WISDOM IS WRONG.

No… but I’m not going to say that it is COMPLETELY right, either. Hashtag #ItsComplicated.

A slower court has often helped Nadal, making it easier for Rafa to play defense, engage in long rallies, and wear down opponents. Slower courts magnify Nadal’s immense powers of concentration, his stamina, his willingness to hit the extra ball, and his penchant for problem solving. Slower courts have helped Nadal in his matchups on grass and hardcourts against Federer…

… but you will notice that I did not refer to clay.

The one clay venue where Federer had reasonable success against Nadal was Hamburg, when the tournament was part of the Masters 1000 rotation and before it was downgraded to a 500 event played after Wimbledon. Hamburg clay was often heavier clay. Slower surfaces on hardcourts and at Wimbledon gave Rafa more time against

Federer’s attacking strokes, but on Hamburg clay, the heavier conditions made the ball bounce lower. This put more shots in Federer’s lower strike zone while reducing Rafa’s ability to plant that reliable topspin forehand crosscourt to Federer’s one-handed backhand. When Rafa hit the forehand to Federer’s backhand on Hamburg clay, it was a lot harder for Rafa to make Federer hit shoulder- or eye-level backhands.

In marked contrast, the clay of other ATP venues — Monte Carlo and Rome — plus Roland Garros was not as heavy. In those tournaments, a sun-baked clay court was much more receptive to the ball, creating the spinny, high bounce which would force Federer to hit backhands way out of his preferred strike zone. On clay, court speed worked differently in the Fedal rivalry compared to grass and cement.

Then consider this point about court speed, which goes beyond individual matchups in this era: What if more hardcourt tournaments — on a tour whose primary surface IS hardcourts — had noticeably fast surfaces? If processed through the prism of individual matchups, Nadal might have lost at times. However, if he knew he had to hit bigger — something Nadal definitely did at the 2010 U.S. Open, which might have been his best start-to-finish performance at ANY non-Roland Garros major tournament he played — Rafa probably would have been able to make the various adjustments needed to succeed.

Moreover, Rafa probably would have made those adjustments and, as a result, shaved many hours of court time — hardcourt time on those knee joints — off his odometer. He might have lost a few more matches in 2011 or 2013, but he might have won more matches in recent years and might not have had quite as much wear and tear on his body.

All the members of the ATP Big 3 own complicated careers and resumes which deserve extended examination. Rafael Nadal’s complications aren’t necessarily greater than those of his two celebrated peers, but they can be easy to miss below the surface…

… and below the speed of the surfaces of the courts on which he has played.

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U.S. Open

WORLD OF TENNIS STILL SPLIT OVER SERENA, BUT ADMIRING OF OSAKA

Jane Voigt

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This U.S. Open should have been a celebration. After all the Open Era began in 1968, 50 years ago. Serena Williams was inches from her 24th Grand Slam title. Novak Djokovic came through to win multiple majors in a single season: Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.

Yet, this tournament ended poorly.

Celebrations were overshadowed by the women’s final, where Williams and Naomi Osaka jettisoned the expected celebratory moment way beyond the confines of Arthur Ashe Stadium. They went to a place many didn’t want to inhabit.

Reactions have varied, though. Twitter and Facebook remain alive with opinions, most siding with Serena. But was Serena right? Was Carlos Ramos, the chair umpire for the final, just another man on a perch dealing out male judgments toward a woman? Was he right to dock her a game? Was the incident sexist?

Monday on ESPN’s Pardon The Interruption, Michael Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser stood with Serena. Wilbon thought Ramos should be sanctioned.

Sally Jenkins, columnist for The Washington Post, took a firm stand alongside Serena, writing, “Chair umpire Carlos managed to rob not only one but two players in the women’s U.S. Open final. No one has seen anything like this.”

Tuesday morning Martina Navratilova aired her opinion in an op-ed for The New York Times, “Martina Navratilova: What Serena Got Wrong.”

Navratilova, winner of 18 Grand Slam singles titles, thought Williams was partially right.

Image – Jimmie 48

“There is a huge double standard for women when it comes to how bad behavior is punished – and not just in tennis,” Navratilova wrote. However, she questioned the incident from another angle: “Rather, I think the question we have to ask ourselves is this: What is the right way to behave to honor our sport and to respect our opponents?” She asks if Carlos Ramos, the chair umpire, could have “gotten away with calling the umpire a thief” if the player was male.

Finally, she made this point: “We cannot measure ourselves by what we think we should also be able to get away with. In fact, this is the sort of behavior that no one should be engaging in on court.”

Bottom line: There’s a time and place for disagreement and outright yelling, but the U.S. Open final isn’t it.

I appeared on “The Drive, Monday Sept 10th,” which aired on ESPN Blacksburg radio. The show’s host, Paul VanWagoner, asked me who was to blame for the chaotic conclusion to the match. I finally admitted “Serena,” adding that she might not have reacted, and continued to react, so boldly had she been playing better. Previous outbreaks from Williams during major finals — the 2011 U.S. Open against Samantha Stosur comes to mind — have followed poor performances, or at least, outbursts tied to what Williams would have considered poor performances, namely … not winning.

Novak Djokovic, who won his fourth Open title Sunday, also chimed in. He split the incident. In his postmatch press conference, he said that Ramos “pushed Serena to the limit” and “changed the course of the match, which in my opinion was unnecessary,” The Independent reported.

So what about Naomi Osaka? She was the winner of the women’s final, the player who was caught up in the whirlwind that had fans packed inside Ashe Stadium booing. On which side of the net have reactions to Osaka landed?

The Associated Press in Japan struck a different perspective. “Osaka charms Japan with her manners – and Broken Japanese.” The piece focused on Osaka as the winner of the final who was born in Japan to a Japanese mother and Haitian father. Japanese readers, it seems, have “embraced” Osaka and her victory, calling her “‘a new heroine that Japan is proud of” and the “New Queen.”

Their readers were captivated by Osaka’s game, her manners, and her broken English. Who can forget the image of her bowing to Serena at the net after her victory and, again, bowing on the podium as she accepted the trophy after apologizing for her win?

“I know everybody was cheering for her; and, I’m sorry that it had to end like this. Thank you for watching the match,” Osaka said at the time, as I reported on Twitter.  

There is no right answer to this unfortunate occasion. No one person, place or thing to blame. However, this episode will make tennis think about its rules and organizational structures, its own prejudices, and its place in the evolving history of women athletes competing in what we all can agree is a male-dominated world of sports.

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