Wimbledon's decision to implement 5th set tiebreaker is practical, but will it rob tennis of some of its romance?
With this new tiebreaker rule, Wimbledon has once again taken the lead in progressing with the times. The other two Slams admittedly don't have such a big problem considering it's not that hard to break serve there.
It's hard to identify the precise moment when a long tennis match stops being a contest of technical skills and becomes, instead, a gladiatorial battle of wills. It is, like so many eventually-epic things in life, a gradual process. Every little thing matters in the transition: a stray "Come on!" from one of the players, a slight reduction in the amount of sunlight streaming on to the court, a distinct look of urgency on the faces of the people in the players' boxes, a particularly fierce forehand winner that thuds into the perimeter wall.
But irrespective of when it happens, once the transition is complete, you can't possibly mistake it for anything else. It turns into something so distinctive, that there's almost a pattern to the way everything unfolds.
Ace. You get an update from your mobile tennis app stating that the match is going into overtime.
Forehand winner. Your non-tennis friends start asking you about the score.
Hold of serve. Your favourite all-sports website flashes a headline screaming about the match.
An impossible get that defies the limits of human endurance. Your mom calls you and asks why those two poor kids are being tortured.
A missed opportunity for a break. The entire world lets out a sigh that is equal parts relieved and frustrated.
In all my years of watching tennis, I've never known anything that can attract the attention of outsiders the way a long-drawn-out match can. And the culprit — or hero, depending on your perspective – is almost always Wimbledon. Or to be more precise, one particular player at Wimbledon.
So when the All England Lawn Tennis Club announced yesterday that final sets will now have tiebreakers after 12-12, it didn’t exactly come as a surprise. It also didn’t come as a surprise that several present and former tennis players applauded the decision.
Boris Becker called it an "excellent decision". Mardy Fish said it was a "fantastic move". Vijay Amritraj believes Wimbledon has achieved "perfect balance". Patrick McEnroe applauded Wimbledon by simply saying "Well played". And John Isner, well, he tweeted this.
A bit of context for those unaware about the slightly more complicated tennis rules. Up to this year, the US Open was the only Grand Slam to have a decisive set tiebreaker at 6-6. The other 3 Grand Slams — the Australian Open, the French Open and Wimbledon — had no tiebreakers in the 5th (or 3rd for the women) set of any match. Even if it went to 6-6 in the final set, the players kept going until one of them broke serve and attained a two-game advantage.
The result, of course, was that we had some truly outlandish scorelines in matches involving big servers (*cough* John Isner *cough*) at Wimbledon. The quick grass courts at SW19 are not particularly conducive to breaking serve even in normal circumstances. And when you tell the players that the match won't get over until you break or get broken, well, sometimes they go rogue.
The semi-final between Isner and Kevin Anderson this year lasted 50 games in the final set, with Anderson ultimately winning 26-24. The match took 6 hours and 36 minutes to complete — an eternity by the standards of today's short attention spans. Or by any standards, really.
Even more famously, Isner and Nicholas Mahut played a laughably staggering 138 games in the fifth set back in 2010, with Isner winning 70-68. Both Isner and Mahut became instant legends, but the length of the match – 11 hours and 5 minutes – made everyone fear for the health of the two men. Predictably, Isner had absolutely no energy left for his 2nd round match and went out of his career's most memorable tournament in extremely tame fashion.
For humanitarian reasons alone, the decision to implement a tiebreaker at some stage, even if not necessarily at 12-12, was absolutely necessary. Theoretically, a tennis match can go on forever. There was a chance that 70-68 could have been 170-168. That's just not healthy, for anyone involved – not even for the fans.
Sure, it was unlikely, but why would anyone want to take the risk? Humans, especially professional athletes, are known to be stubborn. John Isner particularly so.
Since we are talking such a great deal about Isner in this discussion, the question needs to be asked: would the rule change have been required at all if the American had never picked up a tennis racquet? The stats paint an interesting story.
In the last 20 years, 14 men's matches have gone beyond 12-12 at Wimbledon. That's 14 out of a possible 2540 matches, for a ratio of 0.55 percent. In other words, for any given men's match at Wimbledon, there's a 0.55 percent chance that it will go beyond 12-12 in the fifth set. More pertinently, only 2 matches out of those 14 – the aforementioned Isner epics – really created a buzz loud enough to prompt calls for a reconsideration of the rules. If you are looking for a numerical expression of that, it's 0.07 percent.
Those are pretty low numbers if you are someone who swears by statistical probabilities. But there's a flip side to the story. As reported by Christopher Clarey, since the year 2000, there have been 28 instances of men's matches at Wimbledon going beyond 9-9 in the fifth set. In 26 of those instances, the winner of the match failed to win more than one subsequent match. The only two exceptions: Sam Querrey in 2016, and Roger Federer in 2009 (Federer didn't have to play another match as his marathon occurred in the final).
If we assume that a failed attempt to win more than one match due to an excessively long battle in a previous round is something to be avoided, then the undesirability rate – 26 out of a possible 2413 matches – goes up to 1.07 percent. It's still a pretty low number, but not something that can be completely disregarded; at least it's not zero-point-something.
Clarey believes that the ideal solution would have been to introduce the tiebreaker at 9-9 instead of 12-12. But many others believe that 12-12 has too nice a ring to it. In fact, the players themselves have often called for a tiebreaker to be introduced at that exact stage; both Anderson and Isner said after their marathon match that 12-12 was the perfect middle ground. And back in 2016, even Roger Federer had advocated the introduction of a tiebreaker at 12-12.
Taking all this into consideration, it is hard to fault the All England Club for the decision they've taken. Wimbledon has, in recent years, seen an admirable marriage of tradition and change. The all-white dress code remains, but the rain delays are (almost) a thing of the past; Middle Sunday is still a (fairly annoying) feature of the tournament, but super-fast courts with one-shot rallies no longer are.
With this new tiebreaker rule, Wimbledon has once again taken the lead in progressing with the times. The other two Slams admittedly don't have such a big problem considering it's not that hard to break serve there. But just to pre-empt an unlikely but possible case of two players having an exceptionally strong serving day and playing forever, it might be wise to implement the tiebreaker in Melbourne and Paris too. Can you imagine the sheer preposterousness of the 2012 Australian Open final between Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal going beyond 12-12?
Even as I applaud Wimbledon for the practicality of their decision though, a small part of me can't help but think wistfully of what we are losing in the process. Like I said earlier, there's nothing quite like a marathon Wimbledon battle to make the whole world tune in. For those few exhilarating and exasperating hours, tennis becomes a truly global phenomenon.
We are a generation of short attention spans, but we also love our excesses. Anything that breaks the norm is lapped up. A long match is boring, but a super-extra-long match is legendary and it's easy to see why.
Isner and Anderson in 2018, and Isner and Mahut in 2010, weren't just playing tennis in the final set. They were also putting their bodies – and sanity – on the line for hours together. They were straining every last sinew, and spending every last ounce of energy, on hitting a small fuzzy round object above an arbitrarily placed net, over and over and over again. Was that madness, or divinity?
We could never tell, and there was something intensely romantic about that. But what we could always tell was that the effort took too much out of the players. In the interest of keeping tennis a cruelty-free sport, Wimbledon's decision must be welcomed with open arms.
There was no other way, and we as spectators can – and should – learn to live with that.
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