WASHINGTON, October 22, 2018 (by Michael Dickens)
Lost in the shuffle of a busy, late-in-the-season tennis weekend – with ATP World Tour titles being awarded in Antwerp, Moscow and Stockholm, plus the start of the WTA Finals in Singapore – on Friday, Wimbledon’s organizers announced that they would adopt final-set tie-breaks for all matches beginning in 2019.
While it comes as old news to the U.S. Open, which has had a final-set tie-break at 6-all for decades, Wimbledon has decided to add a final-set tie-break – albeit later – at 12-12. It leaves the Australian Open and Roland Garros as the only Grand Slams which still play out a final set to its conclusion.
Of significance, with Wimbledon bucking its long-standing tradition of playing out final sets, one thing’s for certain: “Nothing like this will ever happen again,” as the American John Isner said after winning a fifth set over Nicolas Mahut of France, 70-68, at the 2010 Wimbledon Championships. The Isner-Mahut “ultramarathon” lasted 11 hours and 5 minutes and was extended over three days. Yet, Wimbledon resisted change after Isner-Mahut.
However, Isner’s 6 hour and 36 minute loss to Kevin Anderson in this year’s semifinal round, in which the fifth set was extended to 26-24, just might have been the tipping point for tradition-clad Wimbledon. Mind you, Anderson had been extended to a 13-11 fifth set in his quarterfinal win over Roger Federer two days earlier. As it happened, the second semifinal match between Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic on Centre Court started so late, it was suspended because of Wimbledon’s 11 p.m. curfew and required two days to complete it. It disrupted the flow of the Saturday schedule and Djokovic, who won, didn’t have a full day of rest before the Sunday final as is customary.
After beating Isner, Anderson was quoted at the time as saying “I personally don’t see the reason not to include it now at least at all the Slams.”
In a statement released by the All England Club, the organizers of Wimbledon, chairman Philip Brook said that the decision to go to the final-set tie-break was done after consulting with both officials and players as well as analyzing “two decades of match data.” Other consideration was given to scheduling and spectator experience.
“Our view was that the time had come to introduce a tie-break method for matches that had not reached their natural conclusion at a reasonable point during the deciding set,” said Brook.
Why 12-12 and not 6-6 like the U.S. Open? Brook said, “While we know the instances of matches extending deep into the final set are rare, we feel that a tie-break at 12-12 strikes an equitable balance between allowing players ample opportunity to complete the match to advantage, while also providing certainty that the match will reach a conclusion in an acceptable time frame.”
While I’m not sure whether to cry or feel nostalgic by the change, it makes good sense – and, besides, we’ll always have memories of Isner’s two epic and monumental fifth sets, against Mahut and Anderson, to rhapsodize about.
On Sunday, Isner was asked about the rule change during an interview with BBC Radio 5. He said, “I have said all along 12-all is good. That is sensible – you’re getting people who like the advantage and people who like tie-breaks.
“It is bucking tradition but a lot of people believe that is not a bad thing.”
Indeed, the tie-break change bucks Wimbledon tradition, but it also takes a player’s physical health and mental well-being into consideration.
Maybe, Wimbledon just might be wise to name the new, 12-all tie-break rule after the tall and affable Isner. It would be a fitting tribute since he’s played in the two longest matches in Wimbledon history. Isner’s all for it and has been a driving force for the change in tie-break rules. He quipped, “The next match that gets to that, they should just say we will now play the Isner Rule.”
The Isner Rule … hmm. It does have a nice ring to it.