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Final-set tiebreaks at Wimbledon: Are they a good idea?

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26th October, 2018
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Tennis matches are almost unique in world sport, in that they can theoretically last forever.

Tiebreaks are the compromise, a way of ending sets and matches which otherwise might never end, or only end when one player gives up.

They are used to make sure that this (unlikely) eventuality never occurs.

Keeping tiebreaks out of the final sets of Grand Slam matches (apart from the US Open) is an even better compromise, as very close matches will not be lost by just a single mistake, but must still be won by two games.

Due to the length of some matches over the past couple of years at Wimbledon, the Championships are introducing a final set tiebreak, to occur at 12-12 in the final set.

At first glance, this again seems like a very good compromise, but is it really?

Tiebreaks in tennis have always been a necessary evil since their introduction in the early 1970s.

They remain almost an anti-climatic way to end a tennis match, where one mistake can be the difference between victory and defeat – a situation that was deliberately avoided in the original rules.

The highly commercial nature of the tour, however, means we must have an endpoint for matches.

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Comparatively few matches actually go to five sets in the men’s game, even fewer go beyond 6-6, and statistically almost none go 12-12.

It will be extremely rare to actually see this change in action. Only 15 times since 2000 has a match at Wimbledon gone beyond 12-12. It’s also happened three times at the French Open and five times in Melbourne. So with 23 times in total out of hundreds of matches, it’s definitely not common.

This is an argument both for and against the introduction of a final set tiebreak. It’s so rare that it will hardly be noticed, but also so rare that a change isn’t really necessary.

The reason for the change can be easily pinpointed, John Isner.

His ridiculous three-day match, a 70-68 final set victory over Nicholas Mahut in 2010 started the conversation about change, while his 2016 (19-17) loss to Joe-Wilfred Tsonga and this year’s (24-26) loss to Kevin Anderson have put the spotlight on how long advantage sets can actually last.

Combine this with Rafael Nadal’s high profile 15-13 final set victory in 2017 against Gilles Muller, in a match that took so much out of him that it basically cost him the chance at the Championship, and it’s easy to see where the momentum for change has come from.

Rafael Nadal

Rafael Nadal’s 15-13 final set win over Thomas Muller might have cost him the title. (Mike Egerton/PA via AP)

If a tiebreak does need to be introduced for a fifth set, it needs to be either a special kind of ‘fifth set tiebreak’, or it needs to not occur in the final – preferably both.

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What does a special kind of tiebreak look like?

Well, we already have match tiebreaks for some doubles matches, where it’s first to ten, instead of seven, so what I would suggest is a tiebreak that goes to 12 at least.

The more points that there are in a tiebreak, the less important errors become early in the tiebreak.

Of course, all tiebreaks are tense in the latter stages, and an ideal solution would have players having to win by more than two points, but as we are trying to restrict games from continuing on for too long, the two-point margin should probably remain.

Another possibility would be to have these final set tiebreaks occur at 18-18, making them even rarer and only for the most exceptional circumstances.

A final suggestion is to make sure that the final has no last set tiebreak so that the history of the tournament is maintained.

As it stands at the moment, in every grand slam, apart from the US Open, a player must break his opponents serve at least once in a match to gain victory.

This is important, as it makes sure that a player cannot win through their serving skills alone. The change that is coming at Wimbledon, which will no doubt be adopted in Melbourne and Paris, will change this.

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It’s a commercial necessity to change, but it must be done carefully, and in a way that will not adversely affect the integrity of the tournament and of tennis itself.