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Fifth-set tiebreaker debate: Should the Australian Open, French Open and Wimbledon introduce fifth-set tie-breakers?

Live Tennis Staff in ATP Tour 25 Jul 2018
  • Should the Australian Open, French Open and Wimbledon follow the U.S. Open's lead and introduce fifth-set tiebreakers?
  • editors Hannah Wilks and Andrew Hendrie share their contrasting views on the subject
The scoreboard on Wimbledon's Centre Court after Kevin Anderson beat John Isner in the semi-finals (Photo by GLYN KIRK/AFP/Getty Images)

The subject of fifth-set tiebreakers has been popular within the tennis community on the back of Kevin Anderson and John Isner’s marathon at Wimbledon - should they be introduced at the remaining Grand Slams?’s Hannah Wilks and Andrew Hendrie debate the matter below!


Let me start by saying that I recognize my take on the fifth-set tie-break and the necessity of introducing it, at Wimbledon anyway, is definitely prejudiced by the ten-plus hours I spent live-blogging Kevin Anderson vs John Isner followed by the first three sets of Novak Djokovic vs Rafael Nadal on Wimbledon men's semifinals day. My right arm still threatens to seize up randomly and I've developed an unfortunate reaction to the words 'big serve' or 'holds to love'.

Anderson and Isner embrace at the conclusion of their semi-final battle at Wimbledon (Photo by OLI SCARFF/AFP/Getty Images)
So I'm biased - but I also don't think that I'm wrong to advocate for the introduction of a fifth-set tie-break, at least at Wimbledon. 

It's true that what's not broken need not be fixed, but a knee-jerk adherence to tradition is just as bad as a trigger-happy demand for change, and there are plenty of aspects of the sport which we take for granted which should be looked at critically. The prevailing format of the matches at Grand Slams is one of them, and introducing a tie-break in the fifth set can only improve things in my eyes. 

Ideally a match will be settled by breaking and holding serve, and introducing a tie-breaker at 12-12 in the fifth set, or even 16-16 (although potentially logistically problematic) won’t change the fact that that's how the vast majority of matches will be decided. It's a contingency that will only come into play when two players can't be separated after four sets and 24 games.

This isn't about the fact that whenever the schedule gets clogged up, it's always women's matches which seem to suffer. It's purely about trying to ensure that whichever player goes through to the next round has at least a decent chance of making that match competitive.


All reasonable points and I certainly didn’t envy you having to endure those men’s semi-finals - I think we can all unite in blaming John Isner and move on! (he is the common denominator in this situation)

You’re right when you say that a knee-jerk reaction to keeping tradition mirrors that of trigger-happy calls for modification, but in this instance, I really don’t think anything has to change.

Perhaps I’m influenced by these recent shake-ups in contemporary tennis - the Laver Cup, which is a glorified exhibition (and simply another avenue for generating $$$ when we should be looking at cutting down the season) that will die as soon as the Big Four retire and don’t even get me started on Fast4, Tiebreak 10s, Gerard Pique trying to destroy the Davis Cup and calls for best-of-three sets at Grand Slams.

But this is something that we simply don’t need to mess with. I’m an adamant believer that you should have to break serve to win a match. And I don’t agree with the assumption that the winning player in a marathon match is automatically disadvantaged in their following round or that we should be in any way feeling sorry for them.

Isner fires down a serve at The Championships (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)
It’s John Isner and Kevin Anderson’s fault (and any others that find themselves involved in a lengthy five-setter) that they are not skilled enough to break serve. They are simply paying the price for that. It may seem harsh, but for me, that’s the reality - and if you’re not fit enough to back up with a day’s rest in-between, then that’s not the sport’s problem. Furthermore, it’s not as if these types of players are engaging in frequent and punishing rallies. Firing down a big serve and finishing off rallies in less than four shots is hardly taxing stuff.

Last year Ivo Karlovic beat Horacio Zeballos 22-20 in the fifth in the first round of the Australian Open in a match that lasted five hours and 22 minutes. He proceeded to win his next match in straight sets. Why would he be tired, with a day’s rest, when all he’s really doing is delivering bombs from the baseline. And these are the sorts of players that you will typically find in these long, drawn-out marathons.

Even when a big server isn’t involved, the notion that they will be unable to back up the next round is a bit of a myth. Fabrice Santoro beat Arnaud Clement 16-14 in the fifth at the 2004 French Open in the fourth longest match of all time - six hours and 33 minutes - (and the longest Grand Slam match in history that didn’t involve John Isner) in the opening round and then won in five sets the next round against Irakli Labadze. Keep in mind that match was on clay and rallies were much longer and energy-sapping - and it was only three minutes shorter than Anderson vs Isner. Grand Slams are the sport's ultimate prize, and sometimes you need to go through pain and pass adversity to win one.

Coupled with the fact that this barely ever happens, the unique and memorable moments these matches create and the fresh audience tennis reaches when they occur, and I firmly believe that introducing fifth-set tiebreakers at any score is completely unnecessary. There’s plenty of aspects in tennis that need fixing before this.


It is pretty funny that a single player could be responsible for ending a century-old scoring tradition ...

While I completely respect all the points you make, I think the way your argument escalates encapsulates a reactionary element in the tennis community as a whole: You propose one change and people start presuming you're in favour of throwing all sorts of things - Davis Cup, best of five for men at Grand Slams, and all the rest of it - out with the bathwater. It's true that Davis Cup is under serious threat, but despite a few pundits and journalists being in favour of eliminating best-of-five sets at majors, it's not like there's any really serious push to do that as far as I can tell. 

In fact, I would make the point that instituting an extra-time fifth-set tie-breaker at 12-12 or beyond is probably one of the best ways to protect best-of-five set tennis at Grand Slams, if that's something you want to do. Guarantee that even the most marathon matches won't last indefinitely, put a contingency in place that should ensure relatively close adherence to the schedule and avoid difficult questions of fatigue (for players and spectators), and you make continuing the best-of-five format a much less unwieldy and more workable proposition.

You approach the question of a player being able to contest their next match from the perspective of that player and whether or not it's fair to them. I'm thinking of it more in terms of the sport as a product - how the schedule can be kept ticking over so that there's a reasonable chance that when you switch on the TV on Wimbledon women's final day, for example, you actually get to see the Wimbledon women's final; how we can ensure there's still room for the unexpected, for drama, for great spontaneous matches to organically develop but ensure that tennis stays watchable. When you look at different ways you might accomplish this, this is a pretty unobjectionable one.

Roger Federer and Andy Roddick during the 2009 Wimbledon presentation ceremony (Photo by ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP/Getty Images)
What would we be losing if we instituted a fifth-set tie-break at Wimbledon? I say: Nothing that we would miss. Part of the nature of these extended fifth-set serving contests is that as the match goes on, players start losing the energy to even try to break each other's serves and instead it just becomes more and more boring. Isner vs Anderson was actually fairly entertaining tennis, certainly by the low standards of everybody's expectations, for four and a bit sets, but it got boring fast as the extra innings mounted in the fifth. Wondering when something is going to end can be fairly gripping, but it's also pretty worrying when that becomes the main (indeed, only) selling point. It's all well and good saying that Isner should be punished for being unable to break serve, but do we all have to suffer along with him?

I was on Centre Court when Roger Federer beat Andy Roddick 16-14 in the fifth set in the 2009 Wimbledon final, and I believe that match would have lost absolutely nothing by being settled by a tie-break at 12-12. Everything that made it great - Roddick's hopeless, heroic quest to get the title on his last, best chance, Federer clinging on and prevailing by sheer steely strength of will - would have been preserved; but the actual tennis that was played? Dull serving contest, and I'm not just saying that because I had an immense hangover and nothing to sustain me, during the four hours and 17 minutes that match lasted, but a bag of Minstrels I smuggled in. 

One last point? I'm fairly happy for the no-tie break rule to be retained at the French Open, and even at the Australian Open, if that helps; you generally do have to play a bit of actual fifth-set tennis at those events. But at Wimbledon, where conditions suit themselves to these endless wars of attrition, where players, metaphorically speaking, can dig themselves into trenches and lob shells at each other for hours and hours? It's not that big a deal to nip that in the bud.


For me, part of your last sentence basically sums up my thoughts on the issue as a whole - it’s really not a big deal. But where we differentiate, is the solution. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it - and John Isner playing two marathon matches at Wimbledon throughout his career isn’t enough to warrant changing century-long scoring traditions. If this was consistently happening with multiple players every Grand Slam then I’d take a different stance, but it’s not.

I concur that my personal vision for tennis down the track can be considered as pessimistic, but we’ve got a glimpse of the future (however long it might take to get there) with Fast4, Tiebreak 10s and the ridiculous push for best-of-three in Davis Cup and the entire revamp to condense it from a year-long showpiece into a week-long gimmick. You only have to look at how Test cricket has suffered because of Twenty20 - and we’re playing with fire all because of this ‘short attention span’ nonsense within contemporary society that has bewilderedly generated some steam. But anyway, that’s all a completely different issue!

I’m personally not sure how introducing fifth-set tiebreakers at 12-12 would help protect best-of-five tennis at the majors - we hardly ever get there in the first place, and if the powers at be want the change, a tiebreak in what is essentially the sixth set isn’t going to stop them or be the answer to so-called problems with scheduling or TV.

To elaborate further on scheduling, the women’s final at Wimbledon didn’t suffer at all because of the men’s semi-finals. Yes, it’s previously-scheduled time was pushed back a couple of hours, but the women’s final actually received a larger audience in the UK (4.6 million) to that of the men’s final (4.5 million) according to the BBC. Everyone witnessed the match and no harm was done. It all comes back to the fact that this scarcely happens, and when it does, it’s because of an exclusive and memorable moment - and that’s what the sport is all about.

I was there for the Hewitt-Baghdatis 2008 Australian Open match that lasted until 4:34am in the morning, and although the match didn’t go deep into the fifth, it was the same situation - and that contest is something that I or anyone else who was present inside Rod Laver Arena that night will never forget. Anderson vs Isner was nowhere near as exciting - and I totally agree with your point about their match-up dragging on - but it will live in the memory bank because of the scoreline. I daresay it wouldn’t if the match was capped at 12-12. We’ll also never forget Isner vs Mahut and 70-68, but there’s no way it would ever creep back into my mind if a tiebreak decided the outcome at 12-12. We should also point out that the scheduling issues that Wimbledon encountered was due to the council-imposed curfew and not the matches themselves - if those semi-finals played out at say the Australian Open, Djokovic and Nadal would have finished around midnight and there’d be no alarm bells.

I’ll also re-iterate my stance behind breaking serve to win a match where you bring up the Roddick and Federer Wimbledon final from 2009. Tiebreaks are somewhat of a lottery and in many instances, the better player throughout the course of the match loses. I’d hate to see a Grand Slam title decided by essentially the toss of a coin. Yes, that’s mildly over-exaggerating for the sake of pushing my viewpoint, but the core elements are true. Federer was the one who was able to break serve when push came to shove in that fifth set and he was the deserved winner. He earned the victory by breaking serve - something Roddick wasn’t able to do in the deciding set.

But, at the end of the day, as I said at the start of my response - this simply isn’t a big issue for me. Only four Wimbledon matches in the Open Era have gone beyond 12-12 in the fifth and lasted over five hours. Let’s just enjoy a little bit of carnage and uniqueness on the rare occasions we witness these sorts of matches and move on. As you mentioned, John Isner shouldn’t be responsible for changing a century-long scoring policy.  

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Fifth-set tiebreaker debate: Should the Australian Open, French Open and Wimbledon introduce fifth-set tie-breakers?

The subject of fifth-set tiebreakers has been popular within the tennis community on the back of Kevin Anderson and John Isner’s marathon at Wimbledon - should they be introduced at the remaining Grand Slams?’s Hannah Wilks and Andrew Hendrie debate the matter!

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