The end of the endless final set: Grand Slam tournaments adopt the same tiebreaker

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. — Tennis is entering a new era: one in which the marathon final sets that concluded some of its biggest and longest...


INDIAN WELLS, Calif. — Tennis is entering a new era: one in which the marathon final sets that concluded some of its biggest and longest matches are no longer an option.

The Grand Slam Council announced on Wednesday that starting in May with Roland-Garros, the four major tournaments will implement a tiebreaker at 6-6 in deciding sets: the third set in women’s singles and the fifth in singles male.

The first player with at least 10 points and a margin of 2 points will win the tiebreaker. The move was announced as a one-year trial, but it is likely to be adopted permanently given the extensive consultation behind it.

The winds have been blowing in that direction for some time amid concerns over pace of play, match lengths, player health and recovery times.

“It’s good that they have that consistency now, but I guess what made them unique was also how every fifth set was different, so I can see both sides,” said John Isner, the American veteran whose first-round win over Nicolas Mahut of France at Wimbledon in 2010 set a logically defying record by stretching to 70-68 in the fifth set.

If the new rules are adopted permanently, this mark will remain forever untouchable.

“He was never going to break anyway, so those are my thoughts,” Isner said.

It’s hard to argue. Isner-Mahut’s final set spanned three days, monopolizing the All England Club’s Court 18 and generating worldwide interest in an otherwise obscure early-round match.

There is a fascination created by two players pushing each other to their physical and mental limits; a kind of special tension fostered by a marathon final set after competitors and spectators have invested so many hours in the outcome.

“It’s like an absolute battle,” said Taylor Fritz, the 24-year-old American who reached the quarter-finals of the BNP Paribas Open.

Fritz said the ultra-long final sets made it virtually impossible for the winner to advance much further in a tournament. “You’re so done for your next game if you have one,” he said. “But it’s tradition, and I’m going to miss seeing these crazy battles.”

Prior to the Open era, there were no tiebreakers in any set at the Grand Slam tournaments or the Davis Cup, the premier men’s team competition. A set was won by winning a minimum of six games by a margin of at least two. In an extreme example from the first round of Wimbledon in 1969, Pancho Gonzales, 41, beat fellow American Charlie Pasarell, 22-24, 1-6, 16-14, 6-3, 11-9, in a match that spanned two days.

The following year, a six-match tiebreaker was introduced at the 1970 US Open for all sets and was gradually adopted by other Grand Slam tournaments and major team competitions for all sets except the last.

But after more than a century, the Davis Cup settled on a tiebreak in 2016 and the Australian Open and Wimbledon followed suit in 2019, albeit in different ways. The Australian Open opted for the extended first-to-10-to-6-all tiebreaker and Wimbledon adopted a traditional first-to-seven-to-12-all tiebreaker.

The French Open went on to play the fifth set, which left the four Grand Slams with four different methods of resolving the deciding sets – a discrepancy that confused some players.

Midway through the fifth set of the 2019 Wimbledon men’s singles final, Novak Djokovic had to check with the chair umpire when the tiebreaker would be played.

The Grand Slam tournament leaders clearly wanted a more orderly solution.

“The Grand Slam Board’s decision is based on a strong desire to create greater consistency in the rules of the Grand Slam game, and thereby improve the experience for players and fans alike,” said the Board of Directors in its press release.

Consistency will at least bring clarity, and the first-to-10-point tiebreaker should allow for more suspense and change of momentum than the first-to-seven system.

But if the new rules are passed after the trial, it will narrow the horizons of what constitutes an epic match.

Many top-ranked matches have gone into the tennis equivalent of overtime, which is certainly no coincidence.

Bjorn Borg’s win over John McEnroe in the 1980 Wimbledon final went to 8-6 in the fifth set; Rafael Nadal’s victory over Roger Federer in the 2008 Wimbledon final increased to 9-7 in the fifth; Djokovic’s victory over Federer in the 2019 Wimbledon final increased to 13-12 in the fifth with a tiebreaker at 12 all.

At Roland Garros, Monica Seles’ victory over Steffi Graf in the exquisite 1992 final extended to 10-8 in the third, and Jennifer Capriati’s victory over Kim Clijsters in the 2001 final extended to 12- 10 in third.

But marathons will not be excluded in this new world of streamlined tennis. Consider the 2012 Australian Open men’s final, between Djokovic and Nadal, the longest singles final in Grand Slam history in terms of elapsed time. They played for 5 hours 53 minutes and were so exhausted by the time Djokovic completed his victory that both needed chairs at the awards ceremony.

But that match, arguably one of the greatest in tennis history, would not have been cut short by a tiebreaker under the unified rules announced Wednesday.

It ended at 7-5 in the fifth.

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