June 26, 2019

How Are Ties Broken in Tennis? That Depends

How Are Ties Broken in Tennis? That Depends

One wonders what Jimmy Van Alen would think of it all. It was Van Alen, a wealthy American, who pushed for brisker, innovative formats — including the tiebreaker — in the 1960s. Van Alen, a former play who died in 1991, was also one of the driving forces in creating the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, R.I.

“Jimmy Van Alen would not have liked the confusion of different ways of concluding matches at the four Grand Slam events,” said Steve Flink, an American tennis historian who met Van Alen several times.

Van Alen’s idea of a sudden-death tiebreaker managed to change the game in earnest — a best-of-nine-point duel with a winner-take-all point at 4-4, which in a decisive set could give both players a match point simultaneously.

This was the tiebreaker the U.S. Open adopted for all sets in 1970 at 6-6 but abandoned in 1975 in favor of the best-of-12-point tiebreaker that had to be won by two and seemed, to the players, less of a lottery. Wimbledon embraced the best-of-12-point tiebreaker in 1971, but chose to use it at 8-8 instead of 6-6.

“I guess tennis has always had some inexplicable inconsistencies with formats and scoring systems,” Flink said.

Wimbledon maintained its scoring system until 1979, when it opted for tiebreakers at 6-6, waiting 40 years before adopting a decisive-set tiebreaker at 12-12 after last year’s semifinal between Kevin Anderson and John Isner (Anderson finally won, 26-24, in the fifth set on Centre Court, disrupting the tournament’s schedule).

“I know Jimmy Van Alen was dismayed when his original sudden death nine-point tiebreaker was discarded,” Flink said. “But I have no doubt he would have preferred the Australian Open fifth-set tiebreaker to what Wimbledon is doing. Waiting until 12-12 in the fifth would not have suited him at all.”

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