Last week, it took 11 hours and 51 minutes to finish two men’s semi-final matches — stretched over two days — to conclude, all because Wimbledon does not have a tie-breaker in the deciding set. The organisers of the prestigious event, however, are now considering making the change. “Ever year we take time to review each championships and consider improvements and enhancements for the following year,” a spokesperson for the All England Club told The Sunday Times.
For the men’s singles semi-final, the lineup included an irresistible contest, the 52nd, between Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. The marquee clash, which had ticket prices start at a hefty £170, was crucially, the second semi-final scheduled on Friday.
What was unexpected was Kevin Anderson and John Isner’s power-serving-fest to go on for six hours and 36 minutes, the final set (26-24) went on for two hours and 55 minutes alone. It resulted in the Nadal-Djokovic match getting pushed till 8pm, and lasted just three sets before it was stopped and play resumed the following day.
Despite Anderson and Isner playing their hearts out to get that maiden spot in the Wimbledon final, theirs wasn’t the match spectators wanted to watch. And they made their emotions felt. “It’s tough being out there, listening to some of the crowd,” said Anderson. “They’ve paid to see two matches, and they came pretty close to only seeing one match. They’re pretty antsy for us to get off the court. They’ve been watching us for over six hours.” A match that is prolonged to the point that the schedule is severely disrupted takes its toll on the broadcast as well.
In exhibition tournaments, such as the International Premier Tennis League (IPTL), the format involved a set played with the no-ad rule. Essentially each set would be completed within an hour, giving television spectators a rough idea as to when they should tune in for a match that isn’t the opener they want to watch.
When it comes to television, a definitive timing is required, particularly for a sport like tennis where there is no exact match time – such as the 90 minutes of football or 80 of rugby. It’s through such an idea that the concept of the tie-break was developed by Jimmy Van Alen, former tennis official and founder of the International Tennis Hall of Fame Museum.
“It struck me that there had to be a better, more exciting way to control the length of matches without those damnable deuce sets,” he told Tennis.com. “Matches like that (without the tie-breaker) are Chinese water torture for players, court officials, and fans alike. With deuce in there, matches are theoretically interminable. You ought to be able to schedule tennis matches at specific times like any other sport.”
In 1970, the US Open became the first Grand Slam to introduce tie-breakers. The Davis Cup, too, followed suit in 2016. Wimbledon now is considering the change. Especially after Djokovic and Nadal’s match pushed the women’s singles final back by over two hours — another scheduling hazard for broadcasters and televisions spectators who wanted to tune in to Angelique Kerber and Serena Williams’ match.
The set of people that are most effected by the lack of a tie-breaker though are the players themselves.
Anderson did not have energy to celebrate after his match, instead he had swollen feet, “jelly-like.” The tall South African’s immediate task, and worry, was to recover significantly before the final last Sunday. And as Djokovic dispatched the withered big-server in straight sets, it was clear Anderson hadn’t recovered.
Since 2000, Wimbledon has had 28 men’s singles matches that have gone beyond 20-games in the fifth set. On only one occasion did a winner of a marathon contest win more than one subsequent round, when Sam Querrey beat Lukas Rasol (12-10 in the final set) in the first round of the 2016 edition and eventually reached the last eight.
Roger Federer, who lost in the quarterfinal to Anderson, in another match that went beyond 20 games in the final set, suggested a tie-breaker after 12-all. “It is very cool if it goes 12-all, 14-all, 18-all, 20-all,” he said. “It goes further and further. [But] the chances get slimmer and slimmer to win that next round. They can make a compromise and make a tiebreaker at 12-all. Play another six service games each.”
Eight years ago, Isner was involved in an 11 hours 5 minute first round match at Wimbledon that was played over three days. John McEnroe watched that match from the stands. On Friday he was commentating the marathon between Anderson and Isner.
“As an ex-athlete seeing these guys going for it, you have the utmost respect,” said the seven-time Grand Slam champion. “But this is absurd. It just seems cruel and unusual punishment for these guys.”