Why the Djokovic-Federer Wimbledon final was decided by historic tiebreak

Editor’s note: This story originally ran on June 25. It has been updated to account for Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer’s historic five-set Wimbledon final on Sunday, with Djokovic winning 7-6 (5), 1-6, 7-6 (4), 4-6, 13-12 (3). This was the first singles match at Wimbledon decided by a tiebreaker.

On Sunday, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer entered the record books when their Wimbledon championship match reached 12-all in the fifth set. Djokovic won the ensuing tiebreaker 7-3, marking the first Wimbledon final decided by a final-set tiebreaker after a new rule was instituted this year at Wimbledon that would trigger a tiebreak if the final set of a match reached 12-12. Previously, Wimbledon did not use a final set tiebreak, instead playing the match out to conclusion.

But as good as this reform looks, Wimbledon’s transformative decision to adopt a final-set tiebreaker may not solve the worst feature of the overtime fifth set: the impact it has on the winner’s immediate future. As Roger Federer said of extra-long matches at Wimbledon in 2016: “It’s very cool. … It goes further and further. [But] the chances get slimmer and slimmer to win that next round.”

How slim?

Since 2000, the fifth set lasted for longer than 20 games (or, 10-10) in 28 men’s matches at Wimbledon. On only two of those occasions did the winner advance beyond the next round.

In 2017, Novak Djokovic was unable to complete his fourth-round match on the scheduled day because of the time soaked up by Gilles Muller‘s 15-13 fifth-set upset of No. 4 seed Rafael Nadal (Muller would lose his next match in five sets). Djokovic later said, “For a player to play a five- to six-hour match, come back the next day and perform, it’s not really what your body’s looking for. … If you are already getting to 6-all in the fifth set, you might as well just decide it in a tiebreak.”

The advantage final set produced a perfect storm at Wimbledon last year. Three of the extra-time men’s matches occurred in the quarterfinals and semis — Kevin Anderson over Federer in the quarterfinals (13-11 fifth set) and Anderson over John Isner (26-24) and Djokovic over Nadal (10-8) in the semifinals — and they unfairly disrupted the schedule.

Worse, Anderson — who went into overtime to beat Federer in the quarters — was beyond useless in the championship match against Djokovic following his marathon 26-24 semifinal win over Isner. Anderson not only lost the final after his ordeal, four of his toenails later fell off because of the punishment.

And contrary to the mythology that surrounds such matches, the length of Anderson’s match didn’t have the crowd entirely enthralled. One fan eager to see Djokovic and Nadal in the second semifinal yelled, “Come on, I came to see Rafa.”

Anderson heard.

“It’s also tough being out there, listening to some of the crowd,” he said later. “Hopefully they appreciated the battle that we faced out there … [but] they’ve paid to see two matches, and they came pretty close to only seeing one match.”

A tiebreaker at 12-all in the third may not be such a heavy lift for the women, who have demonstrated that, if necessary, they can play five-set matches. The Wimbledon solution means they might play the equivalent of four sets plus a tiebreaker. But for the men, the 12-all tiebreaker means the winner in effect plays a six-set match. And that’s a lot to recover from in as little as 36 hours.

“I think a tiebreaker at 6-all creates more drama,” Greg Rusedski, a former US Open finalist who now works as a commentator for Sky Sports, said last fall when Wimbledon announced its decision. “It also has the added advantage that players will be less tired for the next round. A whole extra set will take the legs away even more.”

Initiating the change was a bold reform by the tradition-minded All England Club, and most stakeholders welcomed it. Marathon match veteran Isner — who arguably has the most skin in this game, having played the two longest matches in Wimbledon history — said that the change was “long overdue.” He, like Federer, endorsed Wimbledon’s new rule.

The Australian Open, taking its cues from Wimbledon, soon followed suit. Like the US Open, the Australian Open now ends final sets with a tiebreaker at 6-6, albeit the 10-point “match tiebreaker” variant on the common 7-point one. The French Open is the lone holdout, continuing the advantage-set tradition.

Announcing the scoring change in October, All England Club chairman Philip Brook said in the statement: “We feel that a tiebreak 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 time frame.” Brook’s use of the term “ample opportunity” is a little odd. It implies that ending a match in a tiebreaker is a regrettable necessity, perhaps even a slight to the game.

So which Grand Slam does it best?

Wimbledon’s leadership role is earned and deserved, but it ranks third of four majors when it comes to deciding final sets. The best solution is the newest: the Australian Open’s use of the match tiebreaker, which is also used in place of a third set in tour-level doubles matches. The 10-pointer is longer than the common 7-point tiebreak, diminishing the role of luck and bolstering the idea that the solution is not just practical but unique. Who’s going to find that disappointing, at a time when soccer matches are decided by penalty-kick shootouts and the NFL embraces sudden death in overtime?

The next-best solution is the US Open’s standard option: a common 7-point tiebreaker at 6-all in the final set. Many matches have been decided that way, and only staunch traditionalists have complained.

Wimbledon does still beat out the French Open solution, which is to just stick with the same old, same old. Clearly, the French Open is trying to take the high ground of tradition by refusing to change. But it’s also true that clay isn’t nearly as hard on the body as grass or hard courts.

Isner is the big winner here. His place in tennis history was assured when he won that epic, three-day 2010 Wimbledon first-round match with Nicolas Mahut, 70-68 in the final set. Then came that 26-24 loss to Anderson last year. Those moments made headlines. He cherishes them. But he has no desire to repeat them.

Like so many others who survived overtime five-set marathons, he lost in the next round after beating Mahut. And isn’t winning the point?

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