In which I eat my words

I am gladly eating my words.

I have gone on record in the past saying that I am glad Wimbledon has a “no 5th set tie-break” policy.  After watching the match between Frenchman Nicolas Mahut and American John Isner,  I wonder whether it is time to rewrite the rule.

My objection to deciding the fifth set with a tie-break was that it would mean that both players could hold their own serves, all through the tie-break, and one player could win the set and match by virtue of winning just a couple extra tie-break points.  In other words, each player could hold their serve, no one breaks the other’s serve and just a couple of tie-break points decide who wins the match.  Imagine a championship being decided like that.

But consider the drama that has been happening in Wimbledon for the last three days.  Mahut and Isner have been engaging in a epic battle in a first-round match (the kind that sometimes get decided as 6-4,6-3,6-1).  At the end of the second day of play, the score read 4-6,6-3,7-6,6-7, 59-59 (or 6-4,3-6,6-7,7-6, 59-59).   Wimbledon’s scoreboard gave up after 47-47, the website reset to 0-0 after 50-50.   The match has lasted 10 hours so far, and it’s still not over.   At over 7 hours, the 5th set alone is longer than any match in history.  When the players come on court today, they will have been playing for 3 days.

No physios were called, no one suffered a cramp,  no curses were uttered, nobody argued with the umpires.  You could be forgiven for thinking you were watching a match from decades ago.


John Isner during the Mahut-Isner epic battle.  Look at the scoreboard!    Pic courtesy: AELTC/

John Isner during the Mahut-Isner epic battle. Look at the scoreboard! Pic courtesy: AELTC/

I am going to be very sorry when this match ends today.  It is certainly not fair to whoever loses this match.  Not that the winner is going to be much better off – having played the equivalent of three games in three days, he is going to be at a disadvantage to whoever he meets next.

But here is the clincher – in that mammoth 5th set, where each has won 59 games, they have still won those games by holding their serve.  They have not traded breaks.  So in the end, when this match does come to a close, it will be decided by the result of  a single game, which seems a small thing when you consider that 120+ games would have been played in the 5th set alone.

When I think about it, that’s not very different from winning a set after winning a couple of tie break points.  Rather, given how these two have battled, it seems a rather unfortunate end.

So maybe we do need to have a 5th set tie break in Wimbledon, like we have in every other Grand Slam the US Open (as an alert reader has pointed out, only the US Open has a 5th set tie-break rule).  But I still don’t think it should come into effect at 6-6.  The players should be given a chance to battle it out, otherwise would be ever have games like this, which truly show the spirit of human persistence/ endurance and determination?

So maybe a tie-break should come into effect after the players are tied 12-12 in the fifth set?  (or maybe 25-25?)


6 thoughts on “In which I eat my words

  1. It’s pretty damn jaw dropworthy no? I couldnt see the match but I read 59-59 and i thought it was a typo. If there was a tennis god, they would have got a direct entry to the third round. Life, is not fair

    • A direct entry to the third round would definitely be just 😀 Or maybe both players should play with the 2nd round opponent to determine who will advance to round 3.

  2. So maybe we do need to have a 5th set tie break in Wimbledon, like we have in every other Grand Slam

    I believe u r wrong here. If I am not mistaken, US Open is the only one that has a tie-break. all the other 3 have no tie-breaks in the 5th. So, its not a wimbledon-specific rule.

    • You are right, thanks for pointing that out. As wikipedia says:
      As of 2010, the Australian and French Opens, as well as Wimbledon, allow tiebreakers for all sets except the final set in each match. Of the four Grand Slam tournaments, only the U.S. Open utilizes the tiebreaker during the fifth set.

  3. I too did not support 5th set tie breaks until this match happened. These guys both have top-tier serves, and mid to low-tier everything else compared to the rest of the ATP. The result was a disaster — several games into the fifth set, they were too tired to return each other’s serves, but still able to ace 130mph bombs on the lines.

    I think they need to implement a 5th set tie break at 18 games all.

  4. That’s true – there were hardly any rallies, not even many volleys. Just a lot of aces from both players. At some level, it was also a reflection of what tennis these days has come down to – you don’t need a return of serve, or a backhand, or anything as long as you can belt out aces.

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