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Tennis Tumult: Wimbledon men’s finals

Matt Zemek

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Susan Mullane - USA TODAY Sports

We know that Wimbledon can be slow to respond to the modern world. To be fair, in 1971, Wimbledon did institute a tiebreaker after the U.S. Open first brought the device to the major tournaments the year before in 1970. Wimbledon similarly adjusted multiple rules after the contentious and complicated men’s semifinal weekend in 2018. It moved to a 12-12 final-set tiebreaker because of the Kevin Anderson-John Isner match. It changed its way of handling matches suspended under a roof and resumed the next day due to its experience with the Novak Djokovic-Rafael Nadal semifinal.

Wimbledon CAN adjust… but it doesn’t always do so, and on a number of occasions when it does, the tournament takes its sweet time.

Consider the matter of Wimbledon men’s singles finals.

As a kid, my first experience of “Breakfast at Wimbledon” on television in the United States was 1982. Martina beat Chris in the women’s final on Saturday, and Connors beat McEnroe in the men’s final on Sunday.

If you were six years old as I was at the time, and that was also your first Wimbledon, OR… if you had awakened from a five-year coma or had come from a foreign culture and had somehow been introduced to Wimbledon for the first time in 1982, you would have presumed that all women’s finals were on Saturdays and all men’s finals were on Sundays, ESPECIALLY since Roland Garros and the U.S. Open played their men’s finals on Sundays as well.

Yet, that’s not how it was.

From the start of the Open Era in 1968 through 1981, Wimbledon followed its own path. On Saturdays through 1981, with the exception of 1972 only because of rain, men’s finals were played. When Wimbledon instituted a tiebreaker in 1971, this became less of a problem, but the problem still did exist: If you have no play on ANY Sunday at Wimbledon, there are 12 available days of play: Monday through Saturday of both weeks, six days for each week.

The men’s field at Wimbledon had 128 players from the very beginning of the Open Era in 1968. A 128-player field means seven rounds of competition. You can do the simple math: If you have 12 available days of play and seven matches to complete, you will have to play matches on back-to-back days at least once. You can play SIX matches without back-to-back days, but not seven — not in a 12-day span.

You know how the first week of Wimbledon goes before Middle Sunday: One half of the draw plays Monday-Wednesday-Friday, the other on Tuesday-Thursday-Saturday. The second week starts on Manic Monday. Today, the men play Monday-Wednesday-Friday (R-16, quarterfinals, semifinals) and then on the final Sunday.

With a Saturday final, the men have to play back-to-back matches at SOME point.

That’s a problem.

As I noted above, when the tiebreaker came into being in 1971 at Wimbledon, the seven-matches-in-12-days setup was less of a problem than before, for the reasons I just outlined.

However, from 1968 through 1970, before the tiebreaker, can we stop and pause to realize just how much of a cod-slam, brother-trucking joke this was?

Recall Pancho Gonzalez beating Charlie Pasarell in round one of Wimbledon in 1969: 22-24, 1-6, 16-14, 6-3, 11-9. The men could play endlessly long sets and matches, and were still subjected to seven matches in 12 days if they wanted to win the title? Wow.

That is SUCH a bigger outrage than most of the scheduling and formatting problems tennis deals with today. This doesn’t mean Wimbledon failing to put Novak Djokovic and Adrian Mannarino on court on Manic Monday evening in 2017 wasn’t — and isn’t — a HUGE outrage. It was and is.

Nevertheless, the reality of Wimbledon in those three pre-tiebreaker years — 1968 through 1970 — was worse.

Tennis Tumult, baby.

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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