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Steve Flink: Should Wimbledon have a fifth set tiebreak?

6/24/2010 5:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

It’s no wonder that the sports world is ablaze with talk, analysis and astonishment about the John Isner-Nicolas Mahut first round match. And how could that not be the case? Consider the essential facts. They played this contest over three days. It was by far the longest recorded match in the history of tennis. The two gladiators were out there for no less than 11 hours and five minutes. The last set alone consumed 8 hours and eleven minutes. On Tuesday, they fought through two hours and 54 minutes and four sets before darkness intervened. Back came Isner and Mahut on Wednesday for the fifth set, which went to 59-59 before the fading light halted the match again. That day, they were on court for seven hours and six minutes. And then today, this historic battle ended with Isner victorious by scores of 6-4, 3-6, 6-7 (7), 7-6 (3), 70-68.

Both men fought valiantly through the entire confrontation, and their capacity to hold serve was remarkable. Isner was broken only once in the match, dropping his delivery in the second set. Mahut lost his serve only twice. Isner set a new record by blasting 112 aces, while the cagey Mahut was not far behind with 103. To be sure, this was a match that was bound to spur on conversation among the general sports public all over the globe, but not because the level of play was stupendous. The primary reason this match captured the imagination of so many casual sports fans was the fact that it was so inconceivable that a tennis match could go on for so many hours. Followers of other sports undoubtedly admired the fitness and athleticism of both competitors, and realized the immense effort it took for them to put that much effort and intensity into one match. Isner and Mahut set a record that is unlikely ever to be broken, and gave tennis a good name with the way they comported themselves.

But while we celebrate the durability of both men, and marvel at the history they made with their improbable showdown, it is also time for the game’s authorities to recognize that final set tie-breaks must be mandatory. It amazes me that the U.S. Open is the only Grand Slam event to stick with the tie-break in the fifth set of men’s matches and the third set of women’s duels. I believe that is not the way it should be. I have long contended that the tiebreak is an essential part of the modern game, and it is now 40 years old. It makes no sense to me that Wimbledon, the Australian Open and the French Open all insist on discarding the tie-break in the final set.

The fundamental purpose of the tie-break from the beginning was to prevent-- or at least reduce the duration-- of marathon matches like the Isner-Mahut clash here. The tie-break was put in place to show the players a finish line, to make them face a different kind of pressure, to give the fans a more exhilarating brand of tennis. And it has become standard procedure in the sport. One of the most intriguing statistical categories in tennis is the tie-break record of any leading player. It is a very good barometer of how much confidence a top competitor has at any given time. Winning tie-breaks is a crucial part of the business, a significant measure of how a competitor is handling the biggest and most stressful points, a guide to how a player is performing.

I just don’t understand how the three majors outside the U.S. Open can justify the omission of the tie-break in the final set. Every set in a match has a bearing on the eventual outcome. Would Wimbledon, the Australian Open and the French Open be willing to get rid of the tie-break altogether in an attempt to demonstrate that they believe strongly that tie-breaks simply are not the traditional or proper way to determine who wins or loses crucial matches? There is no way they would ever do that because the risk for too many interminable matches would be far too great, and the schedule for the fortnight could be thrown badly off course. Everyone in the know realizes that the tie-break has played a pivotal role in how matches are played these days, and that is precisely as it should be.

In the case of Isner-Mahut, let’s consider what transpired. The first four sets went by in less than three hours, including a pair of tie-breaks in the third and fourth sets. But while there was utter fascination surrounding the seemingly endless fifth set, it really was much more than a set. It was more like ten sets all rolled into one, and that is asking entirely too much of the players. It is much more than they have ever bargained for, and a great deal more than they could ever try to envision as they train for the premier events. Isner has now been sorely compromised for the rest of the tournament. How will he recover from such an unreasonably long and physically demanding confrontation?

But I will tell you one important reason why the rules will probably not be changed in the conceivable future by the Australians, French or British powers that be. Listen to what Isner said when asked after the match if a tiebreaker should be played in the fifth set at Wimbledon. He responded, “I don’t think so. Nothing like this--- it won’t happen again. Not even close. I think just keep it the same.” I admire Isner’s selflessness, but surely he should realize that the penalty for being part of such a marathon will be substantial. He might bounce back from this and display a kind of resilience he never knew he had, but that would be a tall order.

Isner explained after the match that he did not play a grass court event leading up to Wimbledon so he could be with his trainers at Saddlebrook in Tampa, and put in the time he needed to get in the best of shape for Wimbledon. “I didn’t play in Eastbourne,” he said, “because I didn’t feel fit. I had the long clay court season so I stayed an extra eight days in Tampa where it was a hundred degrees and a hundred percent humidity. I got in pretty good shape. My coach actually--- believe it or not--- said jokingly before the tournament started that I’ll be able to play ten hours. That’s the truth. After practicing in Saddlebrook in Tampa in that heat, he was right.”

Perhaps that is the case, but it was apparent for one and all to see during the second day of this debilitating clash that Isner was deeply fatigued. He looked considerably more worn down physically and mentally than Mahut, who had survived some grueling matches as a qualifier to earn this appointment with Isner. In the second round of qualifying, Mahut--- currently stationed at No. 148 in the world--- upended Alex Bogdanovic of Great Britain in a best of three set match by scores of 3-6, 6-3, 24-22. In the final round of qualifying, the Frenchman came from two sets to love down to oust Stefan Koubek in five hard sets. So he had worked inordinately hard just to make it into the tournament.

Yet Mahut pushed Isner to his outer limits, and almost beyond. Most striking of all, he was serving from behind all through the fifth set. He had to serve to stay in the match all the way from 4-5 up until he was behind 68-69. But he never wavered, saving one match point at 9-10, two more at 32-33, and a fourth at 58-59 just before the match was halted on the second evening. He played some brilliantly strategic attacking tennis out on Court 18, taking the play away from Isner, moving his serve around skillfully, volleying with crispness and panache. He was superb off the ground as well, drilling backhand winners down the line almost at will, hitting both inside-in and inside-out winners off his forehand side. Isner, meanwhile, served prodigiously, and backed it up with his devastatingly potent and largely reliable flat forehand, going inside out off that side for winners with machine-like regularity. And Isner ended the battle in style. With Mahut serving at 68-69, 30-30, Isner hooked a forehand passing shot down the line just inside the sideline for a dazzling winner, and then drove a two-handed pass down the line for another winner to wrap up an extraordinary victory.

It was an encounter neither Mahut nor Isner will ever erase from their memories, a tribute to their character and endurance, a battle of both the spirit and the mind between two sterling sportsmen and competitors. It will be a part of sports lore, for those who love trivia and are fascinated by numbers. Be that as it may, I don’t believe it should have played out as it did. The tie-break was created to avoid making matches excessively long, to strike a good bargain between players and spectators, to balance entertainment with athletic endurance. In my view, it is high time for the authorities to revisit their stance on the fifth set tie-break, to keep the rules uniform and consistent from the beginning until the end of every match. For the sake of the players, let’s get sensible and play tie-breaks in each and every set, the way it was meant to be.

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