Tiebreak with tradition: Wimbledon changes rules to help reduce marathon matches

Tradition dies hard at Wimbledon, the most esteemed and staid of the four Grand Slams in tennis.

So it was notable and somewhat surprising that officials at the All England Club, which hosts the grass-court classic each summer, announced Friday that they will adopt a fifth-set tiebreaker for men — and a corresponding one for women in the decisive third set — if the score is deadlocked at 12-12.

In doing so, Wimbledon becomes the second of the sport’s majors to legislate an end to interminable matches that resist being settled in the decisive set by the traditional two-games advantage. The U.S. Open uses as a fifth-set tiebreaker at 6-6. The Australian and French opens have declined to adopt a final-set tiebreaker, at least for now.

Wimbledon’s change is not without good reason and comes with the chief argument in its favor fresh in the minds of competitors, broadcasters and viewers alike.

South Africa’s Kevin Anderson had little left in the July 15 men’s final against Novak Djokovic after outlasting American John Isner in a 6 hour 36 minute semifinal that was settled by a 26-24 fifth set. Just 48 hours later, Anderson succumbed to Djokovic, 6-2, 6-2, 7-6, in a straight-sets men’s final and conceded afterward that he simply couldn’t summon his best tennis.

“Of course, my body didn’t feel great,” Anderson said. “I mean, I don’t think you’re going to expect it to feel great this deep into a tournament when you’ve played so much tennis.”

That Anderson-Isner semifinal, however, was a portrait of efficiency compared to Isner’s first-round Wimbledon match against Nicolas Mahut in 2010, which spanned three days before the big-serving American prevailed, 70-68.

In announcing the change, All England Club chairman Philip Brook said, “Our view was that the time had come to introduce a tiebreak method for matches that had not reached their natural conclusion at a reasonable point during the deciding set.”

The move was immediately applauded by former U.S. Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe, who speaks from the perspective of a former touring pro, coach and ESPN analyst.

“I love it!” McEnroe wrote in an email exchange, calling Wimbledon’s new policy “a good compromise” that “makes sense for grass because there are fewer service breaks on grass courts.”

“It’s a light at the end of the tunnel for players, fans, TV and [tournament officials],” McEnroe wrote.

Interminable fifth sets are more likely at Wimbledon because grass courts accentuate the power of big serves more so than the clay of the French Open or hard courts of the Australian and U.S. opens. If a dominant server such as the 6-foot-10 Isner or 6-8 Anderson simply can’t be broken, and a resilient opponent refuses to be broken as well, their match plays out like the sporting equivalent of Pi, with neither able to gain the required two-game advantage to end it.

Asked whether most players would support a fifth-set tiebreak following his defeat in Wimbledon’s final, Anderson, 32, recalled that it was a hot topic after the 2010 Isner-Mahut marathon, which he characterized as “ridiculous” and “crazy.”

With the issue in the forefront anew, Anderson, a long-serving member of the Players’ Council that advises the Association of Tennis Professional on competitors’ concerns, offered: “I think if I asked most players, they wouldn’t be opposed to incorporating a fifth-set breaker. I’m sure there’s a few people that embrace the history — that you do play long sets. It is a unique point. But I think just as tennis continues to evolve and just sports in general, I think the incredibly long matches maybe has had its place and time.”

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