At Wimbledon, is it a tiebreaker or a backbreaker?
Wimbledon was lavishly praised in mid-October when All-England Club chairman Philip Brook announced that the tournament would become just the second of the four Grand Slam events — the US Open was first — to use a tiebreaker to decide final sets.
But lost in all the toasts and praise for famously buttoned-down Wimbledon’s progressive spirit was a simple detail: Wimbledon blew it by calling for the tiebreaker at 12-all instead of, as is customary by now, at 6-all.
First, some backstory.
Final sets played to advantage have long been part of tennis tradition, especially at Wimbledon. The most historic tennis of all is John Isner‘s first-round, three-day, 70-68 in-the-fifth win in 2010 over Nicolas Mahut. Isner was crushed in his next match, as have been most of the winners in extra-long matches. But that isn’t usually a problem, because marathons rarely occur in the late stage of a tournament. Or they mostly didn’t, until this year.
The three non-tiebreaker Grand Slams produced 29 matches that went into overtime in 2018. Only four were in the late stages of the majors (including one women’s semi in Australia), which is fairly typical. But three were played by men at Wimbledon, which is unusual. They accounted for half of the tournament’s six extra-time mens’ matches: Kevin Anderson‘s 13-11 upset of Federer in the quarterfinals, Novak Djokovic‘s 10-8 win over Rafael Nadal in the semis, and Anderson’s 26-24 mastery of Isner in the other semi. In addition to the outsized role fatigue played in those matches, the schedule on site, as well as for broadcasters, was disrupted in a way that was unfair to Anderson as Djokovic and Nadal.
Thus Isner blew his chance to play a Wimbledon final, and while Anderson did not, the effort cost him four toenails (they fell off after the six-and-a-half hour match) as well as any chance to win against resurgent Novak Djokovic. Also, Wimbledon got stuck with a lousy final, and it was subject to a barrage of criticism, the opening salvos fired by Isner and Anderson soon after the completion of their epic match.
“If one person can’t finish the other off before 12-all, then do a tiebreaker there,” Isner said. “I think it’s long overdue.” Anderson was even more forceful. He said: “I personally don’t see the added value or benefit (to playing advantage sets) compared to, say, at the US Open where we’re playing tiebreaks in the fifth set.”
By the end of the tournament, Wimbledon officials were probably having second thoughts. Was it really worth it, staging mini-reprisals of that magical — and publicity generating — Isner-Mahut match? How long before the format produced another final like the 2009 edition, in which Roger Federer defeated Andy Roddick, 5-7, 7-6 (6), 7-6 (5), 3-6, 16-14? It was a great moment, but created with plenty of collateral damage.
Since the year 2000, the fifth set lasted for longer than 20 games in 28 men’s matches. Only once did the winner win his next round. And that’s really the problem with Wimbledon’s “12-all solution.” If you’re doing the math at home, 12-all equals 24 games. The survival rate is proven to be low.
Wimbledon officials jealously guard their reputation as the wardens of tennis tradition, but they also try to flex with the times. So they made a calculation. They split the difference.
Philip Brook, chairman of the All England Club, said in the statement announcing the change in fifth-set scoring: “While we know the instances of matches extending deep into the final set are rare, we feel that a tie-break at 12-12 strikes an equitable balance between allowing players ample opportunity to complete the match to advantage, while also providing certainty that the match will reach a conclusion in an acceptable time frame.”
So is it a fix or a fig leaf? Twelve-all is already a full, extra set. That’s simply too much, as the stats demonstrate. It’s a lot of wear and tear on the body and mind of a player, with inadequate recovery time. If having some kind of overtime seems so important, turn to the tiebreaker at 8-all in the fifth. But why not just play it straight, go for the decider at 6-all and give the survivor a chance to win his or her next match? You could even play out the final set to advantage since nothing but the players’ health will be at stake then. It was encouraging that Wimbledon did something, but a fix would have been better than a fig leaf.