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Why tennis’ final-set tiebreakers are both a solution and a problem


Tennis Australia’s decision to go with a 10-point tiebreaker at the Australian Open starting in 2019 is innovative, but it exacerbates an already spectacular lack of consistency among the Grand Slam tournaments. It also makes a scoring system that is already baffling even more confusing for casual fans.

The 10-point version — also known as the “super-tiebreaker” — is almost identical to the 7-point version already used to decide most sets when games reach 6-all. It is already used instead of a third-set in ATP World Tour doubles matches and some other formats. The only difference is that the winner must reach 10 points instead of seven by a margin of two.

In a statement, Tennis Australia grandly declared the decision was made on the heels of “the most extensive consultation [with players, agents, analysts and other officials] in the tournament’s history.” One-upmanship might have had a teensy-weensy bit to do with the decision as well. Is the inevitable confusion this choice will create worth the difference it will make on the court, or are the hard-charging Aussies trying to reclaim the high ground of innovation they so cherish?

With three of the four Grand Slams now instituting their own version of a final-set tiebreaker, we likely won’t see scores like this anymore. AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth

In the statement, Australian Open tournament director Craig Tiley said: “We went with a 10-point tiebreak at six-games-all in the final set to ensure the fans still get a special finale to these often epic contests, with the longer tiebreak still then allowing for that one final twist or change of momentum in the contest. This longer tiebreak also can lessen some of the serving dominance that can prevail in the shorter tiebreak.”

Well, if that one “final twist” is the target, why not bump it up to a 12-point tiebreaker, or a 14? There’s no end to it. Besides, the tiebreaker itself is the final twist to a close match. But the larger issue is that there is no consistency between the Slams.

The French Open is now the only major in which the final set will still be played until one person wins by two games. The US Open has used the 7-point tiebreaker at 6-all in the final set for decades. In October, Wimbledon announced it will begin using the 7-point tiebreaker in the final set as of 2019, but not until the score reaches 12-all in games.

Although the clay courts of the French Open are conducive to long rallies and matches, the soft surface isn’t as punishing on the joints as hard courts, nor does it require as much lunging and bending as grass. The weather in Paris is usually cool, which also helps. There’s been surprisingly little outcry for a final-set tiebreaker in Paris.

The players seem content with the tiebreaker at the US Open, partly because they’ve come of age with it. Wimbledon’s reform has been met with mixed response, including by the two men who did the most to bring it about, Kevin Anderson and John Isner. It was their semifinal this year (Anderson won it, 26-24 in the fifth) that goaded Wimbledon to act.

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“I’ve always said go to the [tiebreaker] at 12-all, and that’s what they did,” Isner said recently. “I thought it was a sensible compromise between a definite end and letting a special thing happen.”

Anderson was less gratified by Wimbledon’s decision. “I can see why they wanted to keep that uniqueness of the fifth set, but I feel they could have gotten more aggressive and gone to it at 6-all,” he said. “But 12-all is still better than no end in sight.”

Australian officials have worked hard to position their tournament as the most progressive of the majors. In most ways, including tournament infrastructure, prize money and player and fan amenities, they have succeeded. But for a long time, the Aussies stood firm with the French Open and Wimbledon in resisting the final-set tiebreaker. That all changed when Wimbledon broke ranks.

The Australian officials don’t like to look like copy cats. Thus, the “extensive consultations.” The 10-point tiebreaker is TA’s way of glossing over that it was late to the party and reclaiming the high ground of innovation. The 10-point tiebreak will work fine, but the 7-pointer has been popular and effective. In solving an image problem for itself, TA created one for tennis in general.



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