The Tie-breaker Set

In the 1980 Wimbledon Final, Bjorn Borg (24) beat John McEnroe (21) 1–6, 7–5, 6–3, 6–7(16-18), 8–6.

McEnroe won the fourth set tie-breaker after saving 5 match points. Borg saved 6 set points and lost on 7th.

An excerpt from the Wimbledon Event Guide:

The Borg-McEnroe tie break was to make history. It was to range over 22 minutes, produce 34 contested points, which is a record for a Wimbledon final, and from start to finish produced moment after moment of changing fortunes.

Inevitably match points and set points followed in a tantalising sequence with Borg first reaching match points at 6-5 and 7-6. McEnroe, next, held and lost two set points before Borg, even more agonisingly, missed three match points as McEnroe dealt with them firmly with a sequence of a great serve, a net cord, and a volley.

Note the words “Inevitably match points and set points followed in a tantalising sequence”. Let us follow the sequence.

McEnroe served first and won the point. Borg served next and levelled. Was it followed by a McEnroe serve? Obviously not. You know the rules. It was Borg again who won that point as well. Time for two more serves by McEnroe. The players were on serve after 5 points. Borg serves the sixth point. McEnroe put the ball wide. It was 3-3. What happened next? The players changed ends.

So both players served three times each from one end. 6 more points followed in a similar order. One Borg serve, 2 by McEnroe, 2 more from Borg and 1 from McEnroe before they changed ends. This description won’t do any justice to the drama on centre court. Watch the video instead:

After 11 points, Borg led 6-5. It was Championship point. McEnroe on serve. He missed his first serve. Was he under any pressure? He served, approached the net and won the point. 6-6. Players changed ends.

Point #13. McEnroe on serve. He serves and approaches the net. Borg winner sails past him. Borg 7-6. Another Championship point for Borg but this time on his serve. He serves and approached the net. After a brief rally he puts the ball in the net. 7-7. Borg serves again. We have another rally which ends with a McEnroe winner. It is 7-8 in favour of McEnroe who has a set point on his serve.

No need to tell you that Borg won the point on McEnroe’s serve to level the scores 8-8. If McEnroe wins, it is another set point. If he loses it is another match point for Borg. Note the words “Inevitably match points and set points followed in a tantalising sequence”.

The drama concludes here:

In the 2009 Wimbledon final, Federer served first in the fifth set to beat Roddick 5-7, 7-6, 7-6, 3-6, 16-14. Paul-Henri Mathieu served first in the deciding set to beat John Isner 6-7, 6-4, 6-4, 3-6, 18-16 in 5 hours and 41 minutes in the second round of French Open in 2012. At 5 hours and 41 minutes, Isner and Mahut were warming up in the Wimbledon first round match where Isner served first in the epic set to win 6-4, 3-6, 6-7, 7-6, 70-68.

Does it seem fair to go on and on letting one player interminably hold an advantage?

Is it possible to make the fifth set fairer?

/————————————————————-

Updated to include Ananth’s comment:

This is how we learn from the tiebreaker’s format. First ensure a break at the end of fourth set. When players return they get to serve once from each end before another break. This time altering the serve order. Player who served in the second game will go first. So in a 12 game final set, first player serves in 1st, 4th, 5th, 8th, 9th and 12th game and returns in 2nd, 3rd, 6th, 7th, 10th and 11th.

Mahut served in the 10th game to stay in the match on 23rd June 2010 when Isner led 5-4. With the proposed format Isner would have served in the 12th game trailing 5-6. Mahut would be under pressure in 14th game and Isner in 16th to stay in the match. Mahut ultimately served 64 times to stay in the match, 55 times in one day.

This is how we learn from the tiebreaker’s format. Ensure a break if the fifth set is tied at 6-6. When players return they get to serve once from each end before another break. This time altering the serve order. Player who served in the twelfth game will go first. So in a “sudden death tie-breaker” set, one player serves in 13th, 16th, 17th, 20th, 21st and 24th game and returns in 14th, 15th, 18th, 19th, 22nd and 23rd and so on until a player earns a 2 game lead.

Mahut served in the 12th game to stay in the match on 23rd June 2010 when Isner led 6-5. With the proposed format Mahut would have served in the 13th game as well with fifth set tied at 6-6. Isner would be under pressure in 14th game and Mahut in 16th to stay in the match. Mahut ultimately served 64 times to stay in the match, 55 times in one day.

End of Update ————————————————————-/

Pete Sampras commented:

“I know from facing some of the great servers in the game, like Goran Ivanisevic, how difficult it is to keep concentrating. You can hold serve for what seems like an eternity, maybe 15, 18 games and then something gives. Someone has to blink. You lose concentration on a ball toss on a second serve and double-fault and then the other guy spears a lucky return, suddenly you’re down 0-30 and it’s easy to be broken.”

Let us address the unfairness in the fifth set of a Grand Slam with a Tie-breaker set.*

*Excludes US Open.

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2 thoughts on “The Tie-breaker Set

  1. Ananth

    Milind

    Great idea. Very relevant and timely.

    It is also true that in all the three matches you have referred to, ultimately the guy who blinked first is the one who was behind on serve, albeit after different number of games. I remember my (understandably selfish) view in the Federer-Roddick match that, it was lucky that the better server, Roddick, was always serving to save the match.

    Yesterday Mahut gave us a glimpse of what steel he was made of and explained June 22-24, 2010.

    That means, like the tie-break, as long as there has been no break of serve, the server while starting the 2-game serve sequence, would be behind. That seems fine since no one should be able to win just by being able to serve out the two games.

    To placate the traditionalists, why not go the normal way until 6-all and allow the 13th game to be served by the second server, thus 12-13 is the first two-game combination. The advantage is that many 6-3 or 6-4 wins will still go the normal way, with a single break.

    Ananth

    Reply

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