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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.

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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