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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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