INDIAN WELLS, California — Tennis is entering a new era: an era where marathon final sets that have completed some of its biggest and longest games are no longer an option.
The Grand Slam Board announced Wednesday that starting with the French Open in May, all four major tournaments will impose a 6-6 tiebreak in the decisive sets: the third set in the women’s singles and the fifth in the men’s singles.
The first player to score at least 10 points and a difference of 2 points will win the tiebreak. The move has been advertised as a one-year trial, but will likely be considered permanent given the extensive consultation behind it.
The winds have been blowing in this direction for a while amid concerns about the pace of the game, match lengths, player health and recovery times.
“It’s good that they have this uniformity now, but I think what made them unique was that every fifth set was different, so I can see both sides,” said American veteran John Isner, who won his first round win against Nicolas Mahut. At Wimbledon in 2010, France’s representative went 70-68 in the fifth set, setting a record that defies logic.
If the new rules are adopted permanently, that mark will remain untouched forever.
“It would never break anyway, so these are my thoughts,” Isner said.
It’s hard to argue. Isner-Mahut’s final set lasted three days and monopolized Court 18 at the All England Club, creating global interest for an otherwise indefinite early-round match.
There is a fascination created by two players pushing each other’s physical and mental limits; a particular kind of tension fueled by the final set of a marathon after competitors and spectators have spent too much time on the conclusion.
“It’s like a battle,” said 24-year-old American Taylor Fritz, who reached the quarterfinals of the BNP Paribas Open.
Fritz said the ultra-long final sets made it nearly impossible for the winner to advance much further in a tournament. “If you have one of these, you’re pretty much done for your next match,” he said. “But it’s a tradition and I will miss seeing those crazy battles.”
Prior to the open period, no set tiebreaks were involved in Grand Slam tournaments or the Davis Cup, the premier men’s team competition. A set is won by winning at least six games by at least two margins. In an extreme example from the first round of Wimbledon in 1969, 41-year-old Pancho Gonzales defeated fellow American Charlie Pasarell 22-24, 1-6, 16-14, 6-3, 11-9 in one match. this took two days.
The following year, a six-game all-set tiebreak rule was introduced at the 1970 US Open, and was gradually adopted by other Grand Slam tournaments and major team competitions for all sets except the last one.
But more than a century later, the Davis Cup chose to break the tie in the final set in 2016 and did the same at the Australian Open and Wimbledon 2019, albeit in different ways. The Australian Open chose a top 10 tiebreak at 6 on aggregate, and Wimbledon adopted a traditional top seven tiebreak at 12.
The French Open continued to play the fifth set, which left the four Grand Slam tournaments with four different methods of solving decisive sets – an inconsistency that has confused some players.
In the middle of the fifth set of the 2019 Wimbledon men’s singles final, Novak Djokovic had to double-check with the chair referee when the tiebreak would be played.
Grand Slam tournament leaders clearly wanted a more streamlined solution.
“The decision of the Grand Slam Board is based on a strong desire to create greater consistency in the rules of the game at Grand Slams, thereby improving the experience for players and fans alike,” the board said in a statement.
Uniformity will at least provide clarity, and the top 10-point tiebreaker rule should allow for more tension and momentum shifts from the first-to-seven system.
But if new rules are accepted after trial, it will narrow the horizons of what constitutes an epic match.
Many of the best matches have coincided with overtime in tennis, and that’s no accident.
Bjorn Borg’s victory over John McEnroe in the 1980 Wimbledon final went 8-6 in the fifth set; Rafael Nadal’s win over Roger Federer in the 2008 Wimbledon final went 9-7 in the fifth round; Djokovic’s victory over Federer in the 2019 Wimbledon final went 13-12 in the fifth round, with a draw at 12.
At the French Open, Monica Seles’ victory over Steffi Graf in the stunning 1992 final went up 10-8 in the third round, and Jennifer Capriati’s victory over Kim Clijsters in the 2001 final took her 12-10 in the third round.
But in this new, modern world of tennis, marathons will be out of the question. Consider the 2012 Australian Open men’s final between Djokovic and Nadal, the longest singles final in Grand Slam history in terms of time. They played 5 hours 53 minutes and spent so much time before Djokovic completed his victory that they both needed seats at the awards ceremony.
But this match, undoubtedly one of the greatest in tennis history, could not be shortened by tiebreak, according to the unified rules announced Wednesday.
The fifth half ended at 7-5.