It is often said that the greatest sportsmen and women are so great that they necessitate a change in the rules of their sport to allow other players or teams even a chance of competing against them. Perhaps the best example is the great West Indies cricket team of the 1970s and 1980s, in particular its battery of fast bowlers, who were so good at bowling bouncers at batsmen’s heads (producing “chin music,” as it was famously described in the Caribbean) that in 1991 the governing body of cricket introduced a limit of one bouncer per batsman per over. John Isner may not be a sportsman of quite that high quality, but he has nevertheless made his own piece of sporting history, as it is his ultra-marathon efforts at Wimbledon over the last decade, especially in this year’s semifinal against Kevin Anderson, that have finally persuaded Wimbledon to introduce a fifth set tie-break at 12-12 from 2019 onwards.
The announcement by the All-England Lawn Tennis Club today is a genuinely historic one, as it means that there will never be a repeat of the two extraordinary, and extraordinarily long, matches that Isner has played at Wimbledon in the last eight years. First of all, of course, he won the longest tennis match ever, when he finally defeated France’s Nicolas Mahut 70-68 in their first round match in 2010, which took a total of three days to complete. Then, as if he was determined to prove that it wasn’t just opening matches at Grand Slams in which he could go long-distance, Isner nearly repeated the feat in this year’s semifinal against Anderson, which Anderson finally won 26-24.
That match, or rather its aftermath, was almost certainly the decisive factor in Wimbledon ending over a hundred years of tennis history and deciding to have fifth set tiebreaks. In sporting parlance, Anderson was completely “cooked” after eventually beating Isner in the semifinal and consequently he could only put up very limited resistance against a resurgent Novak Djokovic in the final, which Djokovic won in three straight (and straightforward) sets.
What is particularly interesting, and welcome, about today’s Wimbledon announcement is that it is so perfectly balanced. Wimbledon has not simply copied the US Open, which was the first Major to introduce tie-breaks at all in 1970 and then later introduced fifth set tiebreaks, by having a normal or regular fifth set tiebreak at six games all. Instead, Wimbledon has sensibly recognized the unique importance of a fifth set tiebreak (which, by definition, will decide the match) by having it at 12-12. As the AELTC’s chairman, Philip Brook, put it in explaining the decision, “We feel that a tie-break at 12-12 strikes an equitable balance between allowing players ample opportunity to complete the match to advantage, while also providing certainty that the match will reach a conclusion in an acceptable time frame”.
Although matches such as Isner’s pair of epics at Wimbledon are undeniably fascinating, they are ultimately more of a test of strength or stamina than of tennis ability. Wimbledon’s decision to have a fifth set tie-break at 12-12 means that if a fifth set should go long there is at least an end-point in sight, as there never was before. Indeed, the decision may well increase the tension of a fifth set, as both players will know that the tiebreak is coming and will probably do all they can to avoid it by trying to break their opponent, rather than, as was the case in the past, simply preserving their energy for an apparently endless fifth set and hoping that their opponent would crack and lose serve before they did.
Wimbledon’s decision makes perfect sense, ending the ultra-marathon matches that have nearly broken players in two, while preserving the unique status of the fifth set by having a tiebreaker at the end of it that is different to those in other sets. It will apply at all levels and in all matches at Wimbledon from 2019 onwards, although women’s matches will obviously have a last-set tiebreak after three sets rather than five. The pressure will now be on the other two Majors, the French Open and the Australian Open, to follow suit. Whatever conclusion they reach, though, Wimbledon, as it so often does, has set the bar high with its enlightened announcement today.
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