One of the most telling images at Wimbledon last year was of Kevin Anderson, standing for his post-match interview, unable to find the energy to smile. The South African had booked a spot for himself in the final of tennis' most coveted Grand Slam after beating John Isner 7-6 (6), 6-7 (5), 6-7 (9), 6-4, 26-24 — a match that went on for 6 hours and 36 minutes.
“At the end,” he said, “you feel like this a draw between the two of us.”
Both men toiled on the carefully manicured grass of Centre Court to record the longest ever Grand Slam semi-final, with the final set itself going for 2 hours and 55 minutes. But apart from the fatigue-soaked image of the victor — who would not be able to recover sufficiently to put up a challenge in the final — the match re-ignited the debate over the introduction of a tiebreak in the fifth set.
By October, Wimbledon opted to make a change, and by December, the Australian Open added its own deciding set rule.
Now as the biggest names of world tennis descend upon Melbourne Park to compete in the first major of the year, they come up against a set of scoring rules that are unique to the Australian Open. In fact, each of the four Slams now has a different format for the deciding set.
In Australia, the final set (fifth for men and third for women) will have a super tiebreak (race to 10 with a difference of two) if the score reaches 6-6 in the deciding set. The French Open's rules remain unchanged — the match will go beyond 6-6 till a player has a difference of two games. Wimbledon, in turn, will introduce a tiebreak after the game score of 12-12 in the final set.
Meanwhile, the US Open, which was the only Slam to have a tiebreaker in the deciding set, will continue with that same system.
“The funny thing is we have four different formats in four Slams,” Roger Federer said on the sidelines of the Hopman Cup. “So it is important to remind yourself what's going on and which one it is.”
The year 2018 was, it seems, a tipping point. As many as 12 matches — seven women's and five men's singles — went beyond 6-6 in the final set of the Australian Open. Five matches at Roland Garros — three men and two women's — and 12 ties at Wimbledon — six each for men and women — including both the men's semi-finals and Anderson's ousting of Federer in the quarterfinal — went beyond that scoreline.
“Our view was that the time had come to introduce a tiebreak for matches that had not reached their natural conclusion at a reasonable point during the deciding set,” read a statement by All England Club chairman Philip Brook on the tournament website. “While we know the instances of matches extending deep into the final set are rare, we feel that a tiebreak 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."
In the last 20 editions of Wimbledon, 14 men's and one women's singles contest had gone beyond the 12-12 scoreline in the decider.
Meanwhile, the organisers of the Australian Open opted for a different rule.
“We went with a 10-point tiebreak at six games — all in the final set — to ensure fans still get a special finale to these often epic contests,” said tournament director Craig Tiley to Sport 24. “The longer tiebreak still (allows) for that one final twist or change of momentum in the contest.”
These changes ensure players get a better chance at progressing further in the tournament after winning a long match in the previous round. Since 2000, the London-based major has seen 28 men's singles matches go beyond 20 games in the deciding set. From those, only Sam Querry, in 2016, managed to win more than one subsequent round.
“It is very cool if it goes 12-all, 14-all, 18-all, 20-all. It goes further and further. (But) the chances get slimmer and slimmer to win that next round,” Federer had said after his five-set quarter-final loss to Anderson that ended 13-11 in the decider.
The players though have mixed feelings about the changes.
2016 women's singles champion Angelique Kerber asserts that the changes take away from the physical requirements of the Australian Open.
“I like physical matches and if you come here to Australia you have be really fit, with the weather, the conditions, it's really hot and humid and you have to ready for that,” she said at the Hopman Cup. “It might be easier because you can save energy, on the other side it is a tradition to play the advantage set. I have no idea if I like it or not.”
Her compatriot Alexander Zverev though was dead against the changes.
“I don't like the change too much because I think it has something special when you go 12-10 in the fifth set, or something like that,” he told The Australian. “I really enjoyed those kind of situations, really enjoy those kind of matches, even though they are physically tough. These are the things we play for, and now, at every Grand Slam except for Roland Garros, there is a tiebreak, which I am not in favour of.”
In the past few years, the tour has made numerous experiments in the attempt to make the sport quicker, more competitive and viewer-friendly. The ATP Next Gen Finals has been the biggest innovation, with eight of the top Under-21 prospects playing in an event that mirrors the 'fifth Slam,' the ATP Tour Finals.
There have been recent trials with a four-game set (a tiebreaker played at 3-3), shot clocks of 25 seconds between serves, and even a new review system put in place at multiple events on a test basis.
The rules for the deciding set though had remained one that only the US Open had addressed. A rule that had come under constant criticism from players and pundits alike: John McEnroe, while commentating during the Anderson-Isner match stated: “It just seems cruel and unusual punishment for these guys.”
That complaint is unlikely to be registered anymore. The four majors in the sport maybe equally coveted but they have always competed to stand out from the rest. The deciding set tiebreak format is now another degree of separation.
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Updated Date: Jan 11, 2019 14:54:56 IST