In doing so, Wimbledon becomes the second of the sport’s majors to legislate an end to interminable matches that resist being settled in the decisive set by the traditional two-games advantage. The U.S. Open uses a fifth-set tiebreaker at 6-6. The Australian and French opens have declined to adopt a final-set tiebreaker, at least for now.
Wimbledon’s change is not without good reason and comes with the chief argument in its favor fresh in the minds of competitors, broadcasters and viewers alike.
South Africa’s Kevin Anderson had little left in the July 15 men’s final against Novak Djokovic after outlasting American John Isner in a semifinal that lasted 6 hours 36 minutes and was settled by a 26-24 fifth set. Just 48 hours later, Anderson succumbed to Djokovic, 6-2, 6-2, 7-6 (7-3), and conceded afterward that he simply couldn’t summon his best tennis.
“Of course, my body didn’t feel great,” he said. “I mean, I don’t think you’re going to expect it to feel great this deep into a tournament when you’ve played so much tennis.”
That Anderson-Isner semifinal, however, was a portrait of efficiency compared with Isner’s first-round Wimbledon match against Nicolas Mahut in 2010, which spanned three days before the big-serving American prevailed, 70-68, in the fifth set.
In announcing the change, All England Club chairman Philip Brook said, “Our view was that the time had come to introduce a tiebreak method for matches that had not reached their natural conclusion at a reasonable point during the deciding set.”
The move was immediately applauded by former U.S. Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe, who speaks from the perspective of a former touring pro, coach and ESPN analyst.
“I love it!” McEnroe wrote in an email, calling the new policy “a good compromise” that “makes sense for grass because there are fewer service breaks.”
“It’s a light at the end of the tunnel for players, fans, TV and [tournament officials],” he wrote.
Interminable fifth sets are more likely at Wimbledon because grass courts accentuate the power of big serves more so than the clay of the French Open or hard courts of the Australian and U.S. opens. If a dominant server such as the 6-foot-10 Isner or 6-8 Anderson simply can’t be broken, and a resilient opponent refuses to be broken as well, their match plays out like the sporting equivalent of Pi, with neither able to gain the required two-game advantage to end it.
Asked whether most players would support a fifth-set tiebreak following his defeat in the Wimbledon final, Anderson, 32, recalled that it was a hot topic after the 2010 Isner-Mahut marathon, which he characterized as “ridiculous” and “crazy.”
With the issue in the forefront anew, Anderson, a long-serving member of the Player Council that advises the Association of Tennis Professionals on competitors’ concerns, offered: “I think if I asked most players, they wouldn’t be opposed to incorporating a fifth-set breaker. I’m sure there’s a few people that embrace the history — that you do play long sets. It is a unique point. But I think just as tennis continues to evolve and just sports in general, I think the incredibly long matches maybe has had its place and time.”