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Forty Years of Tiebreakers

Björn Borg and John McEnroe

The WSJ sports section today includes a short piece by Tom Perrotta celebrating the 40th anniversary of the tennis tiebreaker, which was first used at the 1970 US Open. Perrotta opens, “As this year’s U.S. Open begins, please raise a glass to America’s most significant contribution to the sport of tennis: the tiebreaker.”

The article caught my eye, since I spent a good five or six days at that Open (as I did every year in those days), and I well remember the tiebreaker’s introduction. I was as much surprised by what Perrotta didn’t say as by what he did. If we’re going to reflect on the inaugural tiebreaker, I would have thought that two of its features in particular should be mentioned:

1. Whenever a set reached the score of 6-6, mandating a set-ending tiebreaker game, a red flag would be put up by the umpire’s seat to draw fan attention to the tiebreaker in progress.

2. The tiebreaker initially employed consisted of a nine-point (or fewer) game, with the first player to five points winning the game and thereby the set.

Perhaps a few more words would be appropriate in order to explain the significance of these features.

In case you haven’t been to a major tennis tournament read much about them, you need to understand that the early rounds are played on some two dozen courts spread on grounds surrounding the main stadium or stadia. The US championship was played for decades at the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills, an area of Queens. There was a concrete stadium, built in 1923, that seated around 14,000 people and, by the time I was a regular attendee, seemed in a state of near collapse. It was, in effect, a dump, but a warm and friendly one. The tournament, as you may know, used to be referred to simply as “Forest Hills,” just as that other tournament, in London, is called “Wimbledon.” Of course, it was for amateurs only for most of its history, pros arriving on the scene only in 1968. On the men’s side that year, Arthur Ashe beat the Dutchman Tom Okker, but Okker received the winner’s prize money since Ashe was still an amateur.

Plus, the courts at Forest Hills were grass in those days. The move from grass to clay was made in 1975, with the tournament moving a few miles north to Flushing and its hard courts in 1978. That I think the tournament lost its character along the way no doubt brands me as a desiccated old man. I can live with that.

By the way, the Forest Hills Stadium was also used for concerts, most notably the first Beatles concerts in New York City. Looking it up, I see that we’re celebrating their anniversary too. They were on August 28 and 29, 1964. I was there, but for which one I don’t remember. What I do remember is waiting forever for the helicopter to appear overhead with them inside.

Anyway, one point I wanted to make was that a spectator during the first week at Forest Hills would ordinarily wander the grounds much of the time, watching part of a match here, another one there, occasionally wandering into the stadium to see whatever match was featured there. This was the context for putting up those red flags when a tiebreaker broke out. You’d see the flag go up across the way and maybe leave the match you were watching to catch it. The flags were a gimmick, but occasionally a useful one.

As for the tiebreaker scoring system, the essential point to keep in mind is the huge advantage the serving player has on a given point. (Too many “points”, I know.) Tennis scoring evolved to take this into account, but the weakness of the initial tiebreaker system is that it didn’t. Let’s review.

The idea for a tiebreaker was introduced by James Van Alen, whose primary motivation was to shorten matches. He had a much more radical idea. As I recall, he wanted to do away with the “win by two” rule at all levels. Ordinarily, a game is scored as follows. One of the two players — player A say — serves throughout, with player B receiving. Each point is won by A or B. Putting aside the standard scoring terminology, we can say that one counts the number of points each wins, and the first one to reach 4 or more points with a 2-point margin over the other wins the game. Thus, a game doesn’t end at 4-3. Another point must be played, and if the player at 4 wins it, he wins the game. If the player doesn’t, they are deadlocked at 4-4 and at least two more points will be required. This continues on perhaps indefinitely. (Of course, we don’t say 4-4 or 5-5 or 6-6, or whatever; we say “deuce”. And we don’t say 5-4 or 4-5. We say “Advantage A” or “Advantage B”. No matter.)

Van Alen wanted to dispense with this. His idea: first to 4 wins the game. End of discussion. No deuces. No extended games.

Next let’s move to the set level. Players A and B alternate serve with each game. The first player to win 6 games with a 2-game margin wins the set. (And the first to win 2 sets out of 3, or at major events, for the men, 3 sets out of 5, wins the match. No 2-set margin is required.) Here came Van Alen’s next idea. We can’t dispose of the 2-game margin, because to do so gives unfair advantage to the player who serves the first game of a set. That player — A say — could win every game he or she serves and win the set at 6-5, with player B also winning every game he or she serves but losing the set nonetheless. Van Alen’s idea was to maintain the required 2-game advantage for winning a set, but if a set did reach a score of 6-6 in games, then the set would be decided by a single, final game: the tiebreaker. In this game, serves would alternate, rather than a single player serving throughout. I have to admit that I don’t remember the precise alternating scheme. Whatever it was, the first player to 5 points would win the tiebreaker game, as noted above, and the set.

When one combines both of Van Alen’s innovations, one ensures that no match can run too long. the number of points in a game is capped; the number of games in a set is capped. Well, sure, two players could play a single point forever, but that doesn’t happen. They could, however, play an unlimited number of points in a game or games in a set. We saw the damage this lack of a cap does just this past June at Wimbledon, where John Isner and Nicolas Mahut played a fifth set that went to a game score of 70-68. The first four sets were played one day, the fifth set the next, but even then they couldn’t finish, with play called on day two at 59-59 in the fifth set and finished on a third day. That this was possible, I should explain, is because at the three majors besides the US Open, tiebreaker games are used to end other sets, but not the fifth set (for men) or third set (for women) of a match. The old rules apply for final sets.

The problem with Van Alen’s tiebreaker system, as adopted at Forest Hills 40 years ago, is that in a 9-point game, one of the players has a serving advantage. Other tournaments adopted modified versions, until everyone settled on the current system, which brings back the need for a two-point margin before a game can end. Not at all what Van Alen had in mind, but it does ensure in a game that produces alternately ties and one-point margins with each point played that neither player wins on the basis of having served one more time than the other. Explicitly, the first to win 6 or more points with a 2-point margin wins the tiebreaker game. Serving alternates as follows: Player A serves once, then B twice, A twice, B twice, and so on to conclusion. This way, each player has served at most one more time than the other, and the two-point margin rule does indeed ensure, in an even tiebreaker, that neither player can win by merely holding all his or her service points.

This revised tiebreaker rule is what made possible the famous fourth set tiebreaker game between Björn Borg and John McEnroe in the Wimbledon finals of 1980. McEnroe won 18-16 to force a fifth set, saving five match points. (He would succumb 8-6 in the fifth.)

Have I said enough yet in service of celebrating this 40th anniversary? I suppose I have.

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