Tiebreak (noun) [ tahy-brey-k ]
How do tiebreaks work in tennis?
A tiebreak is one of the few elements of a tennis match which can vary from across tournaments and leagues. This fact often causes confusion among players who are new to the game, so it’s important to learn how to play tiebreakers before you take part in your first match.
To understand how a tiebreak situation arises during a match, we need to refresh ourselves with how the basic tennis scoring system works.
Each point won during a tennis match has a unique value. During a game, a player will progress from 15 to 30 and 40, as they earn points. A score of 0 is referred to as love in tennis so a score of 30-0 would be expressed as 30-love.
Once at 40 points, a player can win the game as long as they’re up by two points. For example, if the score is 40-30 the player with a score of 40 can secure the game if they win the next point. However, if the score reaches 40-40, referred to as deuce in tennis, then either player must secure two points in a row to win the game.
A set is won once a player wins 6 games, with a clear two-game margin. As a result, a set cannot be won 6-5. Should a 6-5 situation arise, the set can be won 7-5 by the player in the lead.
Should the set reach a score of 6-6, a tiebreak is usually played to determine the winner of the set. We will go into more detail about how tiebreaks develop later on.
What is an advantage set?
Before tiebreaks were introduced in the 1970s by former tennis official James Van Alen, every professional set was an “advantage set.” This means that when the score reached 6-6, the set would continue as normal, with both players taking turns to conduct service games.
The ‘advantage’ set would conclude when one player registered a two-game advantage. For example, the set could finish with a score of 12-10, or even 23-21.
Tiebreaks were introduced mainly to avoid extremely lengthy matches. As explained above, ‘advantage sets’ can potentially take a very long time to complete. One of the most notable ‘advantage sets’ in history was John Isner and Nicolas Mahut’s mammoth 70-68 final set during Wimbledon 2010.
You might have noticed the above example occurred many years after the introduction of tiebreaks, so why is that?
How does each Grand Slam manage tiebreaks?
The Grand Slam tournaments, traditionally, played all final sets without the use of a tiebreak. They would use ‘advantage sets,’ such as the famous Isner vs. Mahut example.
As of 2019, this rule is now only enforced in the French Open. All other Grand Slams enforce tiebreaks in their final sets, to prevent many lengthy matches.
- At Wimbledon, a tiebreak is played once the score of the final set reaches 12-12.
- At the Australian Open, a ‘first to 10’ tiebreak is played once the score of the final set is 6-6.
- At the US Open, a regular tiebreak (‘first to 7’) is played once the score of the final set becomes 6-6.
- The final set of a French Open match is played as an “advantage set.”
What are the different kinds of tiebreaks?
James Van Alen proposed different lengths of tiebreaks, but the most commonly used type nowadays is the 7 point tiebreaker. This kind of tiebreak is played until one player scores 7 points against their opponent, with a two-point advantage. A player cannot win a 7 point tiebreaker with a score of 7-6.
Somewhat confusingly, the official name of a 7 point tiebreaker is the “USTA 12 point tiebreaker.” That’s because it is technically a ‘best of 12’ tiebreaker, with the first to score 7 points being the best of 12 points.
By their nature, tiebreaks can still take a while to complete since a player needs to win by two clear points. However, they typically conclude much faster than ‘advantage sets,’ which players need to win by two clear games, as opposed to points.
In addition to the 7 point tiebreaker, there is a 10 point tiebreaker. This tiebreak consists of the same rules as a 7 point tiebreaker, but with the winner being the first to reach 10 points with a two-point lead.
Tiebreaks can, of course, be some of the most dramatic moments in tennis. They occur at the end of sets, and can often decide the winner of the match.
One of the most memorable tiebreaks was during the Wimbledon 1980 final between Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe. The latter managed to save five Championship points during the tiebreak, meaning that had he lost that point, Borg would have won the final. He ended up winning a mammoth tiebreak 18-16, making the score of the match 2-2.
Borg ended up winning the final set 8-6, making the match one of the instant classics.
The longest tiebreak on record occurred in January 2013. It happened at Plantation, Florida, during qualifications for the $10,000 Men’s Futures tournament. Benito Camelas overcame Jorge Nitales in a 178 point tiebreaker with a score of 90-88.
There was no official match umpire, but the ITF and ATP verify the score.
At Grand Slam level, the longest tiebreaks recorded have all been at a score of 20-18.
- Goran Ivanisevic beat Daniel Nestor 20-18 in a 1993 US Open first-round match.
- Jo-Wilfried Tsonga beat Andy Roddick 20-18 in the 2007 Australian Championships.
Classic on clay
Marco Cecchinato defeated Novak Djokovic 12-10 in a classic French Open quarterfinal in 2018. Many consider it to be the best tiebreak ever to happen on clay. Cecchinato had to dig deep to save several Djokovic set points, making some astounding shots.
Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, two of tennis’ most recent greats, are often referred to as ‘Fedal’ when appearing at events together. The pair produced one of the greatest Wimbledon finals in 2008, in a match that lasted more than 5 hours.
At the end of the 4th set, they played out a thrilling tiebreak, which was won 10-8 by Roger Federer. He saved a couple of match points during the tiebreak with his trademark backhand.
Nadal went on to win the final 3-2.
How are tiebreaks played?
Now we know about when tiebreaks occur, different types of tiebreaks, and some examples of famous tiebreaks.
Let’s take a closer look at exactly how a tiebreak would play out.
- The player that served to level the set at 6-6 receives the first serve of the tiebreak. During a tiebreak, players disregard the standard tennis scoring of 15,30,40 and replace it with a traditional 1,2,3 point system.
- To balance the advantage of serving first, the player that serves first in the tiebreak will serve one point.
- After the first point, the second player serves the second point on the opposite ad court, and the third point on the deuce court.
- From this point onwards, each player serves two points each until the end of the tiebreaker. Players must switch sides of the court when the total points served is 6, or a multiple of 6.
- The tiebreaker concludes when one player secures 7 points, and holds a two-point lead over their opponent. If a player reaches 7 points and the other player has 6, the tiebreak must continue as laid out above until one player is winning by two points.
In a doubles match, a tiebreaker plays out as described above, maintaining the service rotation seen during the set so far.
In any tiebreak, the player or doubles team which served first receives the opening service game of the following set should there be one.
How should I approach tiebreaks?
Even a casual tennis player is likely to come face-to-face with their first tiebreak situation fairly early in their career. Apart from being familiar with the rules of a typical 7 point tiebreaker, it helps to know which mentality to adopt for the best chance of success.
Naturally, each point of a tiebreak is a crucial point. It can often be challenging to maintain a routine under pressure, as we touched on in our article about break points in tennis.
Former ATP pro, Brad Gilbert, offers up this piece of advice: “you don’t score three points for screaming winners!” The best way to approach a tiebreaker is to remain calm, composed, and avoid unforced errors caused by chasing a big winner.
At a casual level, unforced errors decide many tiebreakers rather than big winners. Nerves tend to get the better of many a player, leading to irresponsible shots.
If you are up against an opponent with several weaknesses in their game, it can be worth playing a more defensive style while waiting for them to commit to unforced errors.
There are different opinions on whether it is more beneficial to play an offensive or defensive game during a tiebreak. Still, one theme remains the same whomever you ask: maintain your routine.
For example, if you always bounce the ball five times before serving, continue to do so during a tiebreak. It will help prevent you from rushing into crucial points and pressure your opponent by helping you keep more first serves inside the service box.
Another technique is to approach a tiebreak like a new set. Begin the tiebreak cautiously, attempting to secure a mini-break. Once you sense that you have control of the tiebreak, you can try to commit to higher-risk shots to secure the set.
The bottom line for tiebreaks is to play a high-percentage game, which means making shots that are likely to land on your opponent’s side of the court. A tiebreak is not the time to be attempting gimmicky shots or big winners.
What do the pros say about tiebreaks?
Here are some pearls of wisdom from some of the best professionals on the circuit:
- Roger Federer: “I think when you go into a tiebreaker with a negative mindset, very often you will either start poorly and then lose it anyway, or you actually start well, but you’re like: I probably shouldn’t be in the lead. Then you end up losing it. So I think a very positive mindset is good.”
- Dominic Thiem: “It is no coincidence that most tiebreaks are very close. Both players have usually played the set really well to get to 6-6.”
- Grigor Dimitrov: “Sometimes, one shot can change the whole momentum of the tiebreak, so you’ve got to be prepared for that. But you have to have a positive mindset and believe you’re going to win it.”
- Marion Bartoli: “Normally, it’s the person who is trying to attack who has the advantage in a tiebreak. I’d say that 80 percent of the time, the player who is dictating will win the tiebreak. So my advice would be to stay positive and try to take charge of the rallies.”
- Jerzy Janowicz: “The most important thing is to focus on every single point especially on your serves, as those points are the most vital. Personally, I always try to play aggressive in a tiebreak whatever the situation because that’s my game.”
A common theme here is concentrating on every point and keeping a positive approach to your tennis. It can certainly pay off to be aggressive and try to take control of the tiebreak, especially if your opponent is stronger than you are.
What kind of tennis player might play more tiebreaks?
Players with strong serves tend to play more tiebreaks than other players because a match between two strong servers generally sees fewer games broken, as serving is the main attribute of both players.
A set without any serves broken will always reach 6-6, hence a tiebreak.
Data supports this fact: John Isner and Kevin Anderson (some of the game’s biggest servers) were the two players to play the most tiebreaks on the men’s tour in 2018 and 2019.
Tiebreaks in a nutshell
Hopefully, you are now very familiar with tiebreaks in tennis, and how they work. To wrap things up, let’s recap everything covered in the article:
- Tiebreaks were introduced in the 1970s by James Van Alen as a method to reduce the time necessary to complete a match.
- There are several types of tiebreaks, such as the 7 point tiebreak and the 10 point tiebreak. The former is the most commonly used. However, the 10 point tiebreak is used to decide the final set of Australian Open matches.
- Wimbledon enforces a 7 point tiebreak when the score of the final set reaches 12-12. The US Open enforces a 7 point tiebreak when the last set reaches 6-6. The French Open currently does not make use of a tiebreak for the final set, instead playing an ‘advantage set.’
- Tiebreaks follow a different scoring method to the regular 15, 30, 40 point method. Players accumulate points in a more traditional 1,2,3 way, with the first to 7 points being the winner.
- If the first player to reach 7 points has not done this with a two-point lead, the tiebreak must continue until one player achieves a two-point lead.
- The longest ever tiebreak in professional tennis occurred in a match between Benito Camelas and Jorge Nitales. The score was 90-88.
- Most tennis players agree that the best way to approach a tiebreak is to maintain your routine, have a positive mindset, and avoid unnecessary errors.
Now that you are familiar with how tiebreaks work, you are probably ready to head out and play some games of tennis!
Tiebreaks can be one of the most confusing rules of tennis to follow, so be sure to come back to this article on TennisCompanion should you need to refresh your memory.
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