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Exploring alternatives to the final set tiebreaker at Wimbledon

ANALYST
Feature
195   //    08 Jan 2019, 12:34 IST

Anderson & Isner look relieved than anything else at the conclusion of their 6 hour 36 minute marathon
Anderson & Isner look relieved than anything else at the conclusion of their 6 hour 36 minute marathon

What’s the most fascinating thing about Wimbledon? Some might say it is the fact that it is the only Grand Slam played on grass. Some would argue that the aura and royalty that surround the tournament are unmatched; for them, Centre Court on SW 19 is the home of tennis, very much like Lord’s is for Test-cricket lovers.

If you ask the question to greats like Roger Federer and Pete Sampras, they would happily call Centre Court their second home, having tasted so much success on the lush green grass of the All England Club.

But to me, what makes Wimbledon special is the captivating, engrossing, nail-biting, and at times never-ending final sets on Centre Court. Just like Roland Garros and Australian Open, Wimbledon refused to employ a final set tie-break rule until 2018; the match would continue till the time someone broke his/her opponent while holding his/her own serve.

Now traditionally, if it is the easiest to break serve on clay, it is the hardest to break on grass. As a result, we have witnessed a lot of marathon matches at Wimbledon in the past, particularly on the men's side. And we are not even talking about the epic Mahut-Isner Wimbledon 2010 first round match whose final set score was a barely believable 70-68.

Should Wimbledon have a fifth set tie-breaker? This question came to the surface again at this year’s Championships. The Kevin Anderson vs John Isner semifinal lasted a whopping 6 hours and 36 minutes; with the tie-breaker not in effect, the final set saw the game tally 26-24.

In light of such recurrences, officials at Wimbledon finally decided last October to introduce the rule of the final set (5th set for gentlemen, 3rd set for ladies) tie-breaker at 12-12. While the issue is still up for debate and will surely remain for some years to come, there are pros and cons to this solution.

As mentioned earlier, grass being the hardest surface to break serve, any match at any point of tournament has the potential to virtually last forever. This certainly supports the introduction of the final set tie-breaker.

On the contrary, it is unfair to those players who would rather prefer breaking their opponent than playing a mere tie-breaker, where there is hardly any margin for error. Also, if we have tie-breaks for all the sets including the final set, potentially a player can win the championship final without breaking their opponent even once. The possibility is remote, but it certainly can’t be ruled out.

And last but not the least, not having a final set tie-breaker is a tradition that is an integral part of the rich history of Wimbledon. It should not be forgotten that thanks to this age-old tradition, we have been privileged to witness some of the most mind-boggling, edge-of-the-seat thrillers that not only have a special place in the history of Wimbledon but also deserve a special mention in the history books of our sport. The Nadal-Federer 2008 final, Federer-Roddick 2009 final and Nadal-Djokovic 2018 semifinal immediately come to mind.

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As far as my tennis mind is concerned, I would like to break this issue into three steps and propose a unique solution to every step rather than follow the practice of a tie-breaker at 12-12 in the final set of every match.

#1 Play a tie-breaker at 6-6 for Round 1 to Round 4 matches

With a huge number of matches in the early rounds involving a lot of players, it would be wise if we introduced a tie-breaker as per conventional rules at 6-6 following the footsteps of the US Open. This will make sure we do not have extra-long matches in the earlier parts of the tournament where the scheduling is a bit congested so as to manage a high volume of matches.

Also, the winner of the match won’t be tired from a long stint at the court just because of the absence of a tie-breaker, and would stand an equal chance of winning against his or her opponent in the next round.

#2 Play a tie-breaker at 12-12 for quarterfinals and semifinals

As we progress into the business end of the tournament, the action gets heated up and the intensity level goes up a notch. Therefore, it would be unfair to separate equally-matched rivals based on a mere tie-breaker at the relatively early stage of six games all in the final set.

In a match where neither opponent is willing to give an inch, it would be appropriate to decide a winner only if they have looked inseparable even after playing 24 games and not 12. With the introduction of tie-breaker only after 24 games, this will provide both players enough opportunity to create a decisive breakthrough and seal the set and match before leaving it at the mercy of a tie-breaker.

But at the same time, they will go through a strenuous test of skill and character throughout the course of 24 games and more often than not, that should be enough to separate the best from the rest.

Last but not the least, since neither of these matches is the last round of the championship, the players wouldn't want to completely empty their tanks. If that happens, the winner would be completely exhausted for the semi-final or final, as we saw in the case with Kevin Anderson at this year’s Wimbledon.

#3 No tie-breaker for the final

As mentioned earlier, each Grand Slam has its uniqueness and idiosyncrasies that very much define it. And cometh the final of the Wimbledon Championship, we would like to experience and treasure these idiosyncrasies, wouldn't we?

That is why, in my opinion, the final should be played in the exact same way as it has been played for so many years - without having a tie-breaker in the final set. This will make sure that we at least partially preserve the rich tradition of Wimbledon that has been a cornerstone of its long history and popularity.

With no tie-breaker in the final, we can still continue to witness the finals like Roddick-Federer in 2009 or Federer-Nadal one year before that - the finals that will be remembered for decades to follow.

After all, for a real tennis fan, there is no bigger euphoria than experiencing their heroes taste unprecedented success on the grandest stage of their beloved sport.

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