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Advantage everyone: Wimbledon is right to have tie-breaks in fifth set

The Guardian logo The Guardian 19/10/2018 Kevin Mitchell
John Isner, left, and Nicolas Mahut after their 11hr 5min match at Wimbledon in 2010. © Getty Images John Isner, left, and Nicolas Mahut after their 11hr 5min match at Wimbledon in 2010.

It could never be said that the All England Club was bullied into hasty change; indeed it is rumoured some members still hanker after long trousers. However, only a week after putting its hands on 73 acres across the road at the local golf club for expansion that will secure the club’s position as the pre-eminent tournament in tennis once the deal is finalised in December, it dropped a minor bombshell on the game on Friday by announcing the end of the interminable final set at the Championships.

Tradition has bowed to expediency. From next year, matches will go to a tie-break when the score reaches 12-12 in the deciding set, a simple device that brings Wimbledon almost in line with the US Open, a tournament that uses final-set tie-breaks at 6-6 and has shown an inclination in recent years to adapt to the pace of modern life.

To the surprise of some, it was not the longest match in Wimbledon’s (and the game’s) history that forced its hand, but the second longest (and the third longest of all time). Both, fittingly, featured the same player, John Isner, who took 11 hours and five minutes over three days to beat Nicolas Mahut 6–4, 3–6, 6–7 (7), 7–6 (3), 70–68 in the first round in 2010, and lost over five sets in six hours and 36 minutes to Kevin Anderson in this year’s semi-final.

The last set lasted 40 minutes longer than the two hours and 19 minutes it took Novak Djokovic to beat him in the final only 48 hours later.

It was not a good look for anyone involved – including Andy Murray who, as a commentator, had sat through a mere four hours and 48 minutes of Rafael Nadal’s win over Juan Martin del Petro and reckoned: “As a player, I really like best of five but … it was really, really long to sit there as a spectator for the first time.”

If a clincher were needed, that was it: criticism of a long match by one of the sport’s renowned grinders. The scoring system could not be allowed to blight the spectacle any longer – especially if the best player in the country’s storied history was bored watching it.

The UK is likely to be back in the EU before we see pink tutus on Centre Court, courtside coaching or the shot clock. But this is a more fundamental and important change, and stands out as one of the few issues that administrators have been able to agree on lately. It will go down well with players – because the All England Club took the trouble to consult them, unlike the ITF, who has blundered into an unpopular new format for the Davis Cup – television and those fans who are not still living in the 1950s.

Related: Nadal and Djokovic need to break silence over Saudi exhibition | Kevin Mitchell

Some have called for a tie-break at 6-6 – although that would have robbed the game of the dramatic closing moments of the greatest Wimbledon final of them all, when Rafael Nadal outlasted Roger Federer 9-7 in the fifth in 2008.

The club chairman, Philip Brook, sounded a convincing note of compromise.

“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 timeframe.”

The comeback in tennis is one of the greatest sights in sport and, while nobody wants to live through another Isner-Mahut marathon, there is much to be said for the suspense that a long, tough fight brings to an important match between two evenly matched champions.

This time, Wimbledon has got it right.

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