INDIAN WELLS, Calif. – Tennis is entering a new era: one in which the marathon final sets that have concluded some of its greatest and longest matches are no longer an option.
The Grand Slam Board announced Wednesday that beginning in May with the French Open, all four major tournaments will put in place a tiebreaker at 6-6 in decisive sets: the third set in women’s singles matches and the fifth set in men’s singles.
The first player with at least 10 points and a 2-point margin will win the tiebreaker. The move was announced as a one-year trial, but is likely to be adopted permanently considering the extensive consultation behind it.
The winds have been blowing in this direction for some time amid concerns about the pace of play, match lengths, player health and recovery times.
“It’s good they have that uniformity now, but I guess what made them unique was also how each fifth set was different, so I can see both sides to it,” said John Isner, the American veteran whose first-round victory over Nicolas Mahut of France at Wimbledon in 2010 established a logic-defying record by stretching to 70-68 in the fifth set.
If the new rules are embraced permanently, that mark will forever remain untouchable.
“It was never going to get broken anyway, so those are my thoughts,” Isner said.
It is difficult to argue. The final set of Isner-Mahut stretched across three days, monopolizing Court 18 at the All England Club and generating global interest for an otherwise obscure early-round match.
There is a fascination created by two players pushing each other to their physical and mental limits; a particular sort of tension fostered by a marathon final set after competitors and spectators have invested so many hours in the outcome.
“That’s just like an absolute battle,” said Taylor Fritz, the 24-year-old American who reached the quarterfinals of the BNP Paribas Open.
Fritz said ultralong final sets make it all but impossible for the victor to advance much further in a tournament. “You’re so done for your next match if you have one of those,” he said. “But it’s tradition, and I’ll miss seeing those crazy battles.”
Before the Open era, there were no tiebreakers in any set at the Grand Slam tournaments or in 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 one extreme example from the first round of Wimbledon in 1969, 41-year-old Pancho Gonzales defeated his fellow American Charlie Pasarell, 22-24, 1-6, 16-14, 6-3, 11-9, in a match that stretched over two days.
The following year, a tiebreaker at six games all was introduced at the 1970 US Open for all sets and was gradually adopted by the other Grand Slam tournaments and major team competitions for all sets except the final one.
But after more than a century, the Davis Cup opted for a final-set tiebreaker in 2016 and the Australian Open and Wimbledon followed suit in 2019, though in different ways. The Australian Open opted for the extended first-to-10 tiebreaker at 6-all and Wimbledon adopted a traditional first-to-seven tiebreaker at 12-all.
The French Open continued to play out the fifth set, which left the four Grand Slam tournaments with four different methods of resolving decisive sets – a discrepancy that 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 umpire when the tiebreaker would be played.
The Grand Slam tournament leaders clearly wanted a tidier solution.
“The Grand Slam Board’s decision is based on a strong desire to create greater consistency in the rules of the game at the Grand Slams, and thus enhance the experience for players and fans alike,” the board said in a statement.
Uniformity at least will provide clarity, and the first-to-10-points tiebreaker should allow for more suspense and momentum shifts than the first-to-seven system.
But if the new rules are adopted after the trial, it will shrink the horizons of what constitutes an epic match.
Many matches that are ranked among the greatest went into the tennis equivalent of overtime, which is certainly no coincidence.
Bjorn Borg’s victory 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 went to 9-7 in the fifth; Djokovic’s victory over Federer in the 2019 Wimbledon final went to 13-12 in the fifth with a tiebreaker at 12-all.
At the French Open, Monica Seles’ victory over Steffi Graf in the 1992 final went to 10-8 in the third, and Jennifer Capriati’s victory over Kim Clijsters in the 2001 final stretched to 12-10 in the third.
But marathons will not be out of the question in this new, streamlined tennis world. 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 spent by the time Djokovic finished his victory that both needed chairs at the award ceremony.
But that match, undoubtedly one of the greatest in tennis history, would not have been shortened by a tiebreaker under the unified rules announced on Wednesday.
It ended at 7-5 in the fifth.