The Australian Open Deserves A Serve For Introducing A Final Set Tie-Break
The Australian Open’s decision to introduce a final set tie break is another example of popular sports hurrying along their games to remain relevant in a market that increasingly values time.
Short and sharp is in vogue. Long and complex is not.
Late last week the Australian Open announced that it was foregoing the advantage final set in favour of a super first to 10 tie-break at six games all.
The decision has left more than a few scratching their heads, and shaking them too.
But shocked? No.
For the game of tennis, this has been coming for some time. The straw that broke the camel’s back was the neverending six-and a half hour marathon match at Wimbledon earlier this year between Kevin Anderson and John Isner, which Anderson finally won 26-24 in the fifth.
The final set almost reached three hours.
Subsequently, Wimbledon announced earlier this year that it, too, will be introducing a final set tie break, but not until the combatants are locked at 12 all in the deciding set.
Those who follow the sport of tennis will have observed a range of rule changes over preceding decades that have been designed to keep the game moving at a more rapid pace.
The tie break was developed in the 1960s and adopted by the US Open in 1970. Before that, any set could last for hours on end. Earlier that year, the first two sets of the Australian Open men’s quarter-final between American Dennis Ralston and Australia’s John Newcombe produced a score line of 19-17 and 20-18.
Then there are the more subtle changes that have been made along the way, such as reducing the time between points and reducing the number of medical and toilet breaks players are permitted to take.
Then there’s Fast4 tennis, which was initiated by Tennis Australia. It’s a quickfire form of the game designed to attract kids to take up the game. As the name suggests, it’s fast -- the first player to four games is declared the winner of the set, tie breaks are at three games, there are no advantage scores and lets are played.
But it’s the Next Gen ATP Finals in Milan, a tournament for the best players around the world aged 21 and under, that we should be perhaps monitoring most closely. Not only does it showcase the future stars of the game, but a closer examination reveals it may also provide more than hint of the game’s future.
It has adopted many Fast4 initiatives. The tournament plays first to four sets, with no ad scoring and no let rule. The warm up is reduced to five minutes and a shot clock is used between points to ensure the time between points does not exceed 25 seconds.
If this is the future, what is the compromise?
Well one thing’s for sure, when a game is shortened, something is lost. And in the case of the final set tie break, some of the theatre and magic will be lost too.
The advantage set provided another unique hurdle to winning a Grand Slam, making ultimate victory all the more incredible. To win, players had to climb a mountain, which on more than a few occasions consisted of staring down the face of exhaustion late into a fifth set to find something superhuman.
It was in these matches legends were made and legendary matches were played.
One of my favourite memories of tennis in the 1990s was watching an epic third set marathon between Chanda Rubin and Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, which Rubin eventually triumphed 16-14. The contest was gruelling. The efforts of both players and their will to win, or to never, ever give up, was inspiring.
Yet Rubin herself spoke out in favour of the Australian Open’s decision to introduce the final set tie break this week, tweeting, "As proud as I am of the long tough matches I got through, it is no longer humane to watch athletes almost 'kill' themselves to win. Many times, players don't realise the long-term toll a match takes. This is a good move that helps player wellbeing."
But it should also be noted that while some games go the distance, deep into a final set, most don’t. Most matches at the next Australian Open will be decided long before a final set tie break is required.
Plus, for many tennis fans around the world there was nothing more exciting than watching an epic encounter reach its final set and wondering aloud when and how the contest would ultimately end. It was unscripted theatre at its most dramatic.
Well, wonder no more. It will now end shortly after both players reach six all, if not before.