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Tennis tumult: 1971 makes 2019 look tame

Matt Zemek

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Susan Mullane - USA TODAY Sports

Some people in tennis don’t care about this next topic. Others in tennis care a lot. Regardless of what you think, it is plain that the four majors have four different final-set tiebreaker formats in 2019: The Australian Open has its extended-length tiebreaker at 6-6. Roland Garros has eschewed the tiebreaker. Wimbledon will have a tiebreaker at 12-12. The U.S. Open retains its tiebreaker at 6-6, which is shorter than the Australian Open’s version.

Those who like this setup — or at least, those who don’t lose sleep over it — view the differentiation as a manifestation of variety and originality. Those who hate this reality view it as inconsistency and an inability to put up a united front, robbing players of a streamlined and dependable experience of match play.

I’m not going to weigh in on whether this is good. I will, however — in this continuation of our series on Tennis Tumult — make note of the point that compared to 2019, the year 1971 marked an even more volatile time for the majors in terms of the tiebreaker.

The tiebreaker was introduced to the majors at the 1970 U.S. Open. Jimmy Van Alen created the breaker, which began as a first-to-five-points tiebreaker with a sudden death point at 4-4 if the two players split the first eight points. Only later did the tiebreaker become “first to seven points by two.”

Much as the Kevin Anderson-John Isner 2018 Wimbledon semifinal gave rise to the use of final-set tiebreakers in 2019, a Wimbledon marathon was the true impetus for the use of the original Van Alen tiebreaker.

In 1969, Pancho Gonzales outlasted Charlie Pasarell in a true epic: 22-24, 1-6, 16-14, 6-3, 11-9. The last set went long, but the third set and especially the first were extremely long as well. 46 games in an opening set? 30 in a third set? The two men played 112 games!

The Anderson-Isner match 49 years later: “only” 99 games.

It made complete sense for the tiebreaker to be introduced, in order to spare players the complete exhaustion Gonzales and Pasarell played through in their 1969 Wimbledon mind-bender.

So, what did the majors do in 1971 after the U.S. Open took the tiebreaker plunge?

Roland Garros didn’t use any tiebreakers — like 2019, but worse: no tiebreakers in ALL sets, just not final sets.

Wimbledon — somewhat like 2019 with the 12-12 breaker instead of a 6-6 breaker — insisted on a tiebreaker in an expanded-set format. Wimbledon waited until 8-8 in 1971 to play a tiebreaker. What was 7-6 at the U.S. Open was 9-8 at Wimbledon.

Roland Garros continued one more year in 1972 without tiebreakers before adopting a 6-6 breaker in 1973.

Wimbledon didn’t let go of the 8-8 tiebreaker until 1979. It is worth noting that NBC televised the men’s final live to the United States in 1979. Was the downscaling of the tiebreaker from 8-8 to 6-6 based on that fact? I don’t know, but it wouldn’t have been the first time that TV influenced a sporting event’s format change.

When one makes the simple realization that tennis still allowed 8-8 sets at one major (Wimbledon) and allowed endless-length sets at another (Roland Garros), this complete lack of consistency is more severe than our 2019 reality.

As far as tiebreakers go, 1971 was objectively a more unsettled and uncertain year than 2019… which is saying something.

Matt Zemek is the co-editor of Tennis With An Accent with Saqib Ali. Matt is the lead writer for the site and helps Saqib with the TWAA podcast, produced by Radio Influence at radioinfluence.com. Matt has written professionally about men's and women's tennis since 2014 for multiple outlets: Comeback Media, FanRagSports, and independently at Patreon, where he maintains a tennis site. You can reach Matt by e-mail: mzemek@hotmail.com. You can find him on Twitter at @mzemek.

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