The Evolving Role of the Tiebreaker

The Evolving Role of the Tiebreaker

Fifty years ago on the opening day of the French Open, the tournament fell behind schedule when the opening set of a first-round match between two unknowns, Marianna Brummer and Eva Lundquist, dragged on until Brummer won, 15-13.

A new rule allowing for tiebreakers had debuted a few months earlier, but it wouldn’t enter the Grand Slams until the United States Open that summer. The rule, initially resisted by many, rapidly transformed tennis, and its role continues to evolve.

“It was the most important rule change in the history of the sport,” said Steve Flink, a tennis historian. “Those long sets made no sense for television and were not even great in person. The change fueled a golden era on television for tennis.”

At the birth of the Open era, tennis officials were looking to expand audiences. In 1969, after Pancho Gonzales needed 112 games to vanquish Charlie Pasarell at Wimbledon, and John Newcombe beat Marty Riessen 25-23 in the longest Grand Slam set ever at the U.S. Open, they knew change was necessary.

These sets and matches took on a “Samuel Beckett-like quality,” the tennis historian Joel Drucker said. “Fans want two or three hours to get their money’s worth and then say, ‘Bring me to the end.’”

Credit…Douglas Miller/Keystone, via Hulton Archive, via Getty Images

The United States Tennis Association had tested the tiebreaker in the U.S. Open’s 1969 consolation tournament and fans loved it. It officially debuted at the United States Pro Indoor Championships the next February. When the 1970 U.S. Open produced 26 tiebreakers on the first day, it immediately demonstrated the new rule’s value.

The Australian Open and Wimbledon followed suit, while the French held out until 1973.

While tiebreakers yielded immediate benefits for fans, the tournaments and television networks, Flink said it also proved wise in a way no one could anticipate. In 1970, tennis was a serve-and-volley game filled with quick points, but the modern game features hours of heavy spin groundstrokes. “The increased physicality of games being fought from the baseline would kill today’s players without the tiebreaker,” he said.

Players were initially skeptical because the creator of the tiebreaker, Jimmy Van Alen, broke a cardinal principle of tennis as articulated by Drucker: “If you never lose your serve then you cannot lose the match.”

Van Alen, who ran tournaments, had experimented with other scoring systems — like a 31-point set — before settling on his “sudden death” nine-pointer, in which the first person to win five points gets the victory. Thus, one point at 4-4 would decide the set.

Arthur Ashe dismissively called it “a kamikaze drill.” It was too short, allowing for lesser players to get lucky.

The nine-pointer, which survives today in World Team Tennis, lasted on the tour until 1975, when the current format was introduced, requiring a player to reach seven points and win by two.

In 2001, a new tiebreaker again reshaped tennis when the Australian Open replaced the deciding third sets of mixed doubles with a “match tiebreaker,” where teams must win ten points (again by two points). The U.S. and French Opens copied that idea, and it was later adopted in men’s and women’s doubles outside of the Slams. (Those doubles matches also adopted no-ad scoring, in which, at deuce, only one more point is played to decide the game.)

“They had to figure out a way to streamline and innovate doubles so the matches wouldn’t delay singles matches and would also be shorter, appealing to more singles players,” Drucker said. “The format is more tidy.”

The next tiebreaker evolution arrived last year. Unlike the U.S. Open in 1970, which dictated tiebreakers in all sets, the other Slams resisted tiebreakers in sets that decided a match. But after Kevin Anderson needed 50 games to beat John Isner in the fifth set of their 2018 Wimbledon semifinal, change was inevitable. (Isner had won an infamous 70-68 set in 2010.)

“In those incredibly long matches, the winner is not able to recover for the next match,” the ESPN analyst Brad Gilbert said, pointing out that a weakened Anderson could not compete with Novak Djokovic in the finals, hurting the tournament. “There really was a double loser in the Anderson-Isner match.”

Wimbledon switched to a final set tiebreaker in 2019, but only when the set reaches 12-12, as it did that year in an instant classic between Djokovic and Roger Federer. The Australian Open also switched to final set tiebreakers — at the traditional 6-6, but with a match tiebreaker format instead.

“That approach allows more of a chance for a comeback,” Gilbert said.

The U.S. Open just featured its first ever fifth-set tiebreaker in a men’s final, but that electrifying conclusion cannot happen at the French Open, which remains the lone holdout against final set tiebreakers. Gilbert said change is overdue; Flink said that if the French Open ever did acquiesce, either the U.S. or Australian approach would work.

“I was skeptical of the Australian Open rule at first, but it’s a great idea,” he said. “If the French ever do budge, they could use the U.S. Open rules, but the Australian Open route might be even better.”

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