How Do You Solve a Problem Like a Tied Set?

Nick Kyrgios knew he could be a top tennis player when he won his first main draw match at the French Open in 2013.

“It was memorable because I beat Radek Stepanek in three tiebreakers,” said Kyrgios, who has twice reached major quarterfinals and been ranked as high as No. 13 in the world. “To have them all go my way, that’s when I fell in love with tiebreakers. I think they’re pretty special.”

When the French Open begins on Sunday, the tournament will feature yet another new tiebreaker rule that will, for the first time, see the four major championships — Wimbledon, and the French, United States and Australian Opens — using the same tiebreaker policies.

When a match reaches 6-6 in the final set, which is the fifth set for men’s singles and the third for women’s singles, the players will contest a super-tiebreaker. The first player to win 10 points by a 2-point margin will win the set and the match. The rule change is being used as a trial in the three majors this year and in next year’s Australian Open.

“Our challenge is to protect the soul of [the French Open ] while entering a new era,” said Amélie Mauresmo, the tournament’s new director and a former world No. 1. “We’re trying to modernize things on a daily basis.”

A 2010 first-round Wimbledon match between John Isner and Nicolas Mahut lasted 11 hours and 5 minutes over three days, finally concluding when Isner took a 70-68 fifth-set win. Credit…Pool photo by Suzanne Plunkett

Tiebreakers, or tiebreaks, as they have inexplicably been renamed by many in the sport, were introduced at the 1970 U.S. Open as a way of shortening matches and holding the attention of spectators and television audiences, as well as preserving the health and well-being of players.

Back then, tiebreakers — first a 9-point “sudden death” version that ended when a player won 5 points, which was later changed to a “lingering death” alternative that required a player to win 7 points by a margin of 2 — were played in all sets except the final one. Final sets required that play continue until someone won by a two-game margin.

The four tournaments that comprise the Grand Slam could never agree on a format for the deciding set, so each event made its own rules. Beginning in 2016, the Australian Open introduced a super-tiebreaker at 6-6, while Wimbledon began playing a traditional tiebreaker at 12-12 in 2019. The rule was immediately put to the test that year when Novak Djokovic defeated Roger Federer 7-6 (7-5), 1-6, 7-6 (7-4), 4-6, 13-12 (7-3) for the men’s title.

Wimbledon was under pressure to make the change after two defining matches. The first was a 2010 first-round match between John Isner and Nicolas Mahut that lasted 11 hours and five minutes over three days, finally concluding when Isner took a 70-68 fifth-set win. Then, in 2018, Isner and Kevin Anderson played a six-hour, 36-minute semifinal that Anderson ultimately won, but that left him so depleted that he lost the final in straight sets to Djokovic.

The U.S. Open has been contesting a 12-point tiebreaker (the first to 7 points wins) in all sets since 1975. During that time, only one men’s final has featured a tiebreaker in the final set: In 2020, Dominic Thiem came back from two sets down to beat Alexander Zverev 2-6, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, 7-6 (8-6) in a made-for-television match in which no fans were allowed in the stands because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“I love tiebreakers,” said Hana Mandlikova, 60, who vividly recalled every point of the final tiebreaker against Martina Navratilova at the 1985 U.S. Open. “You have to be risky, and you have to be a little bit lucky.”Credit…Bettmann/Getty Images

Two women’s finals have gone the distance. Tracy Austin defeated Martina Navratilova 1-6, 7-6 (7-4), 7-6 (7-1) in 1981 and Hana Mandlikova upset Navratilova 7-6 (7-3), 1-6, 7-6 (7-2) in 1985.

“I love tiebreakers,” said Mandlikova, 60, who vividly recalled every point of the final tiebreaker against Navratilova, including a diving cross-court backhand volley on match point.

“People who play riskier tennis instead of staying along the baseline have a better percentage of winning the tiebreaker,” she continued. “You have to be risky, and you have to be a little bit lucky.”

Kyrgios, who beat Stepanek 7-6, (7-4), 7-6 (10-8), 7-6 (13-11) in that 2013 French Open first-rounder, said a tiebreaker was not based on skill. “It obviously favors the bigger serve at times, but it can go either way,” he said. “That’s the beauty of the scoring in tennis. Every point counts.”

Until this year, the French Open shunned the final-set tiebreaker. Since the tournament began in 1891, it has featured very few extended final sets, though the slow red clay and never-ending rallies have produced multiple five-hour matches. Only twice in the men’s draw has a final gone the distance: a 1927 match won by René Lacoste over Bill Tilden 11-9 in the fifth set and a 2004 final between Gastón Gaudio and Guillermo Coria, which Gaudio ultimately won 8-6 in the fifth.

Jennifer Capriati’s win over Kim Clijsters in the final set of the 2001 French Open was one of the tournament’s most suspenseful endings.Credit…Philippe Wojazer/Reuters

The women, on the other hand, have produced some extraordinary final sets in the French Open, including an 8-6 third-set win by Steffi Graf over Navratilova in 1987, a 10-8 third-set win by Monica Seles over Graf in 1992, a 10-8 third-set win by Graf over Arantxa Sánchez Vicario in 1996 and one of the tournament’s all-time highlights, a 1-6, 6-4, 12-10 victory by Jennifer Capriati over Kim Clijsters in the 2001 final.

Danielle Collins, one of the top-ranked U.S. pros, remembers honing her tiebreaker skills while competing in junior matches.

“If you split sets, you played a 10-point tiebreaker for the third set,” Collins said. “I would get down all the time. One time I was down 9-1 and came back to win. Those 10-point tiebreakers can be really fun.”

Stefanos Tsitsipas likes the idea of never-ending matches but understands the need for final-set tiebreakers in today’s increasingly physical matches.

“As a kid I liked watching these crazy best-of-five matches that went all the way to 18-16,” he said. “It was just fun to watch and see who was going to break first. On the other hand, you can’t allow players to play until 6 in the morning with that format. It can get quite exhausting.”

In the 2020 U.S. Open, Dominic Thiem, of Austria, came back from two sets down to beat Alexander Zverev, of Germany.Credit…Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

Stan Wawrinka, who won the French Open in 2015, would prefer that the majors stop tinkering with their tiebreaker formulas.

“What I liked before was that they were all a different ending,” said Wawrinka, who is working his way back from knee surgery. “I enjoyed that. But it’s impossible to find one thing that everybody will like. To all be the same now is not my favorite thing, but it is what it is and we don’t have a choice.”

Djokovic is proud that he and Federer got to play the first championship match in Wimbledon history to feature a final-set tiebreaker. He also knows it was a one-and-only now that Wimbledon will also play final-set tiebreakers at 6-6 instead of 12-12.

“There is history in extended play in most of the Slams,” Djokovic said. “That Isner-Mahut, the longest match ever, it’s written down with golden letters in the history of tennis. Many people remember that match, and it has brought a lot of attention to our sport from the wider audience.”