Wimbledon 2018: Kevin Anderson's marathon matches suggest Grand Slams must alter traditions for pragmatism's sake

On Saturday evening, as the men’s doubles final between Michael Venus-Raven Klaasen and American duo Jack Sock-Mike Bryan reached 5-5 in the fifth set, there was a feeling of, ‘here we go again!’ The commentators were left wondering if they should stop talking about the match and discuss the pros and cons of a fifth set tie-break again.

The debate had raged on at Wimbledon since Friday, when the semi-final between Kevin Anderson and John Isner went on for six hours and 36 minutes, the final set finishing at 26-24. The fifth set, which lasted for two hours and 50 minutes, had entered the realm of absurd. It put excruciating, and some thought unnecessary, demands on the players. The exhausted 6’10 Isner kneeled in the middle of that set, demanding wearily for a tie-breaker.

South Africa's Kevin Anderson (R) and US' John played the longest semi-final in Wimbledon history, sparking debate in favour of tie-breakers in fifth set. AFP

South Africa's Kevin Anderson (R) and US' John played the longest semi-final in Wimbledon history, sparking debate in favour of tie-breakers in fifth set. AFP

At the end of that encounter, you didn’t have in Anderson a man ecstatic to be reaching his first ever Wimbledon final. All that was left was a tired man with swollen feet, hoping that each part of his 6-foot-8-inches frame could recover in time for the final on Sunday.

“I think if you ask the players, when you get stuck in these positions, playing such long matches, it's very tiring,” said the 32-year-old. “It's very tough, playing six-and-a-half hours, whatever we were out there for. I personally don't see the added value or benefit compared to, say, at the US Open where we're playing tie-breaks in the fifth set. I think progress was made to introduce a tie-breaker.”

That marathon match delayed the second semi-final between Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, which was actually scheduled as the day’s ‘main course’. Only three sets of the second semi-final were played on Friday, and the final two — this match also went into five sets — had to be played before the women’s singles final.

A statement on Wimbledon’s website reads: “The 11pm curfew is a Planning Condition applied to balance the consideration of the local residents with the scale of an international tennis event that takes place in a residential area. The challenge of transport connectivity and getting visitors home safely is also a key consideration.”

Djokovic and Nadal would go on to record the second longest semi-final match, lasting five yours and 15 minute, with the Serb pulling off a 6-4, 3-6, 7-6(9), 3-6, 10-8 win. But it was played over two days. Meanwhile Anderson played six-hours straight. With Wimbledon deciding to schedule the Nadal-Djokovic match on Saturday, only an hour ahead of the women’s showpiece final between Serena Williams and Angelique Kerber, it reeked of sexism. The women were made to wait in the wings while Nadal and Djokovic battled on.

If there is one thing Wimbledon loves more than its tennis, it’s their traditions. And it’s quite a list. It is the only Grand Slam that has the middle Sunday off, making the next day, dubbed ‘Manic Monday’, a potential scheduling disaster. Their ‘strict white dress code’ has got stricter and whiter with the years. Now, they need the undergarments, headbands, wristbands and soles of shoes also white with only minimal colouring and branding. A few colour trims are permitted, but provided that it is no wider than one centimeter. Even medical supports — bandages, braces, et al — need to be white where possible. And the apparel manufacturers have to get their wares approved, before the Slam, by the committee.

Not surprisingly, Andre Agassi rebelled against all of it: after his uncomfortable debut in 1987 he skipped Wimbledon the next four years. “Really I just felt like I was playing in an overgrown doll's house. It was a bizarre, out-of-body experience for me and it left me not wanting to come back for a number of reasons, which I didn’t for three or four years,” he had recently said of his first brush with Wimbledon.

At last year’s edition, boys’ doubles pair Zsombor Piros and Yibing Wu was stopped mid-match and told to change into white briefs that were handed over to them by officials. Similarly, boys singles player Jurij Rodionov was asked to pull his shorts down, reveal the colour of his underwear (blue), and then told to go change. In 2013, Federer was pulled up for wearing shoes that had orange soles.

Bizarre, but not dangerous.

Harming to the health of a player is the no-tiebreak rule in the final set. Eight years before the six-hour semi-final, Isner made history at Wimbledon by playing the longest match in the history of the sport. An 11-hour gruelling duel against Nicolas Mahut in the first round in 2010 went on for three days. Isner eventually won 6–4, 3–6, 6–7(7–9), 7–6(7–3), 70–68.

Seven-time Grand Slam champion John McEnroe was in the stands on that occasion, watching the 6-foot-10 American play Mahut. On Friday, he was commentating in the semi-final.

“As an ex-athlete seeing these guys going for it, you have the utmost respect. But this is absurd,” he said. “It just seems cruel and unusual punishment for these guys. I hope this magnificent effort by these two experienced and very fit professionals allows the powers that be to make a change.”

Anderson had achieved new highs at this year’s grass-court Slam — most prominent being the victory over Roger Federer in the quarterfinals. But the 6'8" South African is still a stranger to playing seven matches over the fortnight, and he clocked so much mileage in the second week that his final assault had no leg to stand on.

The South African had survived a four set, three-hour 29-minute battle against Monfils in the fourth round, then endured a five-set marathon against Federer, which he won 13-11 in the decider after four hours and 14 minutes. Anderson’s triumph over Federer, his first ever, was incredible. His win over John Isner, in the semi-final, was utterly exhausting.

"It is very cool if it goes 12-all, 14-all, 18-all, 20-all," Federer said about not having a fifth set tie-breaker. "It goes further and further. (But) the chances get slimmer and slimmer to win that next round.” As it happened, an exhausted Anderson went down 2-6, 2-6, 6-7 to Djokovic.

Currently US Open is the only major to employ a fifth set tie-break rule. While people love to match long winding close encounters that test the players involved completely, making these athletes compete when they are well past their physical capabilities dilutes entertainment. When things got really difficult for Anderson and Isner in the fifth set, and there was no finish line in sight, they only set about firing the big serves, and hoping that would save the day.

The demand for a fifth set tie-breaker at all Slams is likely to gain steam in the coming months. It’s an important point of discussion, particularly at a time where the sport is going through various measures to make matches faster, tennis faster. The 25-second serve rule was brought in, a four game set was toyed with at the NextGen ATP Tour Finals. Davis Cup, the annual men’s team event, also adopted the tie-break rule in 2016 but the majors are lagging behind. Common sense or players' well-being is being sacrificed at the altar of tradition.

“I personally think a sensible option would be (to start the tie-breaker) at 12-all,” Isner said. “If one person can't finish the other off before 12-all, then do a tie-breaker there. I think it's long overdue.” Quality over quantity.

On Saturday, as the men’s doubles final reached a fifth set, discussions in the commentary box threatened to focus on the debate that had engulfed Wimbledon over the past fortnight. Until Klaasen, serving at 5-5, lost his serve and Bryan served to win the championship. At least the last five-setter of the competition didn’t overstay its welcome.


Updated Date: Jul 17, 2018 11:08 AM

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