The news that the Australian Open was going to shift from playing out deciding sets to instituting a match tiebreak at 6-6 in those sets is nearly three weeks old now.
The only thing left to be determined was whether it would be instituted as soon as the 2019 Australian Open, which begins in less than a month.
On Friday, it was official: for 2019, the four Grand Slam tournaments will have four different ways of deciding winners.
The Australian Open will have a first-to-10-point tiebreak at 6-6 in the deciding set in singles, doubles, juniors, wheelchairs and quad singles.
(For the men, that’s in the fifth set. For all other categories, it will be in the third set).
The mixed doubles, junior, wheelchair and quad doubles will continue as is. They’ll have a match tiebreak in lieu of a third set.
“We asked the players – both past and present, commentators, agents and TV analysts whether they wanted to play an advantage final set or not, and went from there. We went with a 10-point tiebreak at six-games-all in the final set to ensure the fans still get a special finale to these often epic contests, with the longer tiebreak still then allowing for that one final twist or change of momentum in the contest,” Australian Open Tournament Director Craig Tiley said.
“This longer tiebreak also can lessen some of the serving dominance that can prevail in the shorter tiebreak. We believe this is the best possible outcome for both the players and the fans around the world.”
Each Slam with its own ending
— Paul Henri Mathieu (@PHMofficiel) December 21, 2018
Wimbledon decided in October to institute a deciding tiebreak at 12-12 in the fifth set of the men’s matches, the third set of women’s and junior singles matches. The move came in response to some of the lengthy men’s matches this year.
It also might have considered the lingering legacy of the 70-68 fifth set between Nicolas Mahut and John Isner in 2010.
Wimbledon didn’t specify that agents, commentators and TV analysts were consulted when putting out its own statement.
All of this only matters if it comes to that, of course. The very addition of this new wrinkle, by Murphy’s law, very well might mean it doesn’t happen once in 2019.
The US Open instituted a final-set tiebreak back in 1970 in an early, nine-point form. The current first-to-seven version came in 1975. And they have stuck with it ever since, even if the other three majors playing out the deciding set.
From 1971-78, Wimbledon played the tiebreak at 8-8 – but not in the deciding set.
Wimbledon had no regulation 6-6 tiebreaks in any set until 1979.
In 2019, they’ll have a 12-12 breaker.
French Open stands alone
(Roddick defeated Younes El Aynaoui 21-19 in the quarterfinals of the 2003 Australian Open. He lost to No. 36 Rainer Schuettler in four sets in the semis)
At the Australian Open in 1971, John Cooper defeated Robert Maud 7-6 in the fifth set in their first-round match. That was the first year tiebreaks of any kind were instituted Down Under, and they used them in all sets.
By the next year, they were playing out the fifth set. Until next year.
The change means the French Open remains the only Grand Slam to play the final set to advantage.
Which is a bit of irony, of course.
Even as matches on hard court – and even grass – have lengthened in recent years, clay-court tennis typically offers the longest matches.
The French Open first instituted the tiebreak in 1973.
Notably, from 1973-75, the men played best-of-three sets in the first two rounds of the singles.
Per a story in the New York Times by Simon Cambers, the format got mixed reviews.
And (thanks to the always-on-it Fred Sidhu for the heads up), the US Open did the same from 1975-78.
The 1975 edition was the first of three on Har-Tru after all the years on grass, which was the impetus for the change. The 1978 version was the first-ever US Open on hard courts.
And the tournament went further than Roland Garros. It played the first three rounds in the best-of-three set format three of those years. In 1977, they played the first four rounds with the abbreviated format.
So there’s a precedent there.
Is that next? The way they’re tinkering with tradition these days, who knows?
Tiley’s tune changes from 2016
The decision by the Australian Open is a 360-degree turnaround from its policy as recently as three years ago.
Tournament director Craig Tiley, at the 2016 edition of the event, said there had been “no discussion” about changing it. He added that the Australian Open likely would go no-let on serves before it instituted a final-set tiebreak.
“The feedback we get from the fans is that they like it. They like the opportunity to watch more tennis and real battles, fights of attrition to the end, like who is going to collapse or break first,” Tiley said of the fans surveyed who actually attend the tournament on site.
“We have a balance between the respect of tradition and the desire to be innovative and challenging the status quo,” he added. “If the playing group came to us as a whole lot asking for a change, we would change it.”
The question, of course, is whether the playing group actually approached them asking for a change.
Given the wide range of interests surveyed – agents, television commentators et al – that seems unlikely.
Women also must go to breaker
Such a shame…☹️ https://t.co/zQoK6rsr44
— Kristina Mladenovic (@KikiMladenovic) December 21, 2018
Another question left hanging concerns the women’s side of things.
Doesn’t that always seem to be the question left hanging?
Given the women play best-of-three sets, not best-of-five, the stakes are a little different in terms of recovery for the next match.
(And that’s what this is about, right? To ensure as even a playing field as possible in the later rounds? Okay, maybe).
Have the women complained about playing out the third set?
Can’t think of an instance, although there might well be.
Were they seriously consulted about making a change to the way matches are decided? (And that includes Wimbledon as well as the Australian Open).
But again, the WTA is rarely proactive on the major issues that involve it. You need only look at the planned decimation of the Australian warmup tournament series by the ATP Cup in 2020 – and the total silence from the WTA on that issue – to see evidence of that.
So in the end, the women will have to go along with the new match tiebreak to decide a 6-6 third set – to address a situation that basically has nothing to do with them. The doubles players and the juniors also will have to follow suit.
Epics like this one will go the way of the dodo bird.