Traditionally, a set of tennis would continue until one player, having won a minimum of six games, led by two clear games. As you can imagine, if the competitors were well matched, with powerful serves that were difficult to break, matches could go on for some considerable time.
Whilst some traditionalists wanted to maintain this potential for epic battles, others felt that it would be fairer for the players if match length did not need to be measured in days. Today, supporters of shorter matches have largely won the argument, and the way matches are generally kept to a manageable length is to enforce a ‘tie-break’ when the set score reaches six games all.
This article will tell you everything you are likely to need to know about the various tie-break tennis rules.
History Of The Tie Break
The tie-break (or ‘tiebreaker’ to American readers) was originally proposed by tennis enthusiast and sponsor Jimmy Van Alen in the early 1950s. He called his idea the ‘Van Alen Streamlined Scoring System’ (VASSS).
Essentially, at six games all, a tie-break would be played. In Van Alen’s system, this game consisted of a maximum of nine points, with the first player to reach five winning the set. These points would be scored using a normal counting system (1,2,3,4,5) as opposed to 15/30/40. if the score reached four points each, a sudden death point would decide the set.
In 1965 Van Alen trialled his system at an invitational event in Newport, Rhode Island: he would wave a red VASSS flag to indicate the start of a tie-break. From 1970 to 1974 Van Alen’s system was used at the US Open, with red flags being raised on the umpire’s chair at 6-6.
Many players disliked the VASSS system due to the short length of the tie-break. In the early 1970s, Peter Johns, secretary of the LTA in Britain, and Bob Howe, an Australian doubles player, came up with the slightly longer ‘first to 7, leading by 2 clear points’ tie-break which is widely used today.
Gradually, this format has become dominant, and it replaced VASSS at the US Open in 1975. More recently, the ‘match tie-break’ or ‘championship tie-break’, which requires the winning player to reach 10 points and to be at least two points ahead, has become popular. It can replace the final set in match formats that organisers wish to shorten, or even be played to conclude a final set.
7 Point Tie-Break Rules
During a tie-break, the scoring system switches from the traditional 15/30/40 method to a more easily understandable 0/1/2/3, etc., similarly to the VASSS. The first player to get to 7 points wins the game, and therefore the set, provided that they are at least two points ahead. If the gap is only one point, the game continues indefinitely until one player has a two point lead.
The first player to serve in the tie-break is the one who would have been due to serve next in the set. This player serves from the right-hand court for a single point, and then serve rotates as normal with each player in turn serving for two points. The second point is served from the left, and the side served from continues to alternate. The easy way to remember this is that if an even number of points has been played, you serve from the right. If the number is odd, serve from the left.
The players change ends after every six points in most formats. In ITF Seniors tennis, however, in recent years, there has been a change of ends after the first point of the tie-break and each subsequent four points. When the tie-break is over, the player or team who received serve at the beginning of the tie-break starts serving in the next set.
10 Point Tie-Break Tennis Rules
A match tie-break is played under exactly the same rules as a 7 point tie-break. As with the shorter version, it must be won by at least two clear points. Where a 10 point tie-break is being used in place of a final set, the first player or team to serve is still determined by whose turn it would have been to serve first had a full set been played. However, in a doubles match, each team can determine which player they want to serve first, as this counts as a new set. They would have to follow the existing pattern if the tie-break was being played at the end of a set.
Tennis Tie-Break Rules: Doubles
As explained above, in a doubles tie-break at the end of a set, the players will follow the serving order which applied within the set. The two teams take it in turns to serve, with the first team serving one point, the other team serving the next two, and subsequent servers continuing to serve two points. If the tie-break is effectively a new set, each team can choose to change their serving order at the beginning of the tie-break, although they cannot change it again once the tie-break has started. Beyond this, the rules are the same as for singles tie-breaks.
In Grand Slam events, men’s and ladies’ doubles use a similar format to the singles. However, mixed doubles is always best of three sets. At all Grand Slams other than Wimbledon, the final set of mixed doubles matches is replaced by a 10 point tie-break.
Wimbledon Tie-Break Rules
The Grand Slam tournaments do not necessarily follow the same rules as other events, and the All England Club have been keen to go their own way. From 1971 to 1978, they introduced a tie-break at 8-8 in every set except the last, but in 1979 they revised this to 6-6, which has remained the case ever since.
For a long time, the Club were adamant that the final set should be played out to a conclusion in all events. They finally started to think that this was not a great idea following the legendary John Isner v Nicolas Mahut match in 2010. This titanic battle was finally won by Isner 6-4, 3-6, 6-7, 7-6, 70-68, taking 11 hours and 5 minutes, and spread over 3 days.
This obviously disrupted their schedule and virtually eliminated the chances of an exhausted Isner making further progress. It still took a few more players to get involved in unnecessarily tiring matches before in 2019 they decided to instigate a tie-break at 12-12 in the final set.
Even this has now been superseded, as all four Grand Slam events agreed new tennis tie-break rules in 2022 such that if a match reaches 6-6 in the final set, a 10 point tie-break will be played to decide it.
Other Grand Slams And The Davis Cup
The organisers of the Davis Cup were traditionally opposed to tie-breaks, only introducing them in all sets other than the last in 1989. This made for a very different experience: I attended a tie in 1985 in which the first set of one rubber went to a score of 22-20! Finally in 2016 they agreed to introduce a tie-break in the final set, and in 2019 the competition was revamped with all matches becoming best of three sets with a tie-break in each.
At the French Open, the feeling was that serve cannot be as dominant on clay, so there was no need for a final set tie-break. On the other hand, this led to some long and gruelling matches, even though none of them ended 70-68!
The Australian Open organisers were reluctant to introduce a tie-break in the final set, but in 2019 they relented and introduced a 10 point tie-break at 6-6 in the final set. This initially caused some confusion, with players celebrating victory when they reached 7, but it has now been adopted by all of the Grand Slam events.
The US Open has always led the way with tie-breaks, and has used a tie-break in the final set for many years. At last, all of the Grand Slam events will be using the same system from 2022.
Key points about Tie-Break Tennis Rules:
– The tie-break adds drama and prevents matches continuing indefinitely.
– Today, tie-breaks are always played up to 7 or 10 points.
– 7 point tie-breaks normally decide a set at 6-6.
– 10 point tie-breaks usually replace a final set, as in Grand Slam mixed doubles at venues other than Wimbledon.
– From 2022, all Grand Slams will play a 10 point tie-break at 6-6 in the final set.
Do you think tie-breaks are a good idea, or do you prefer the idea of battling on until someone is two games ahead? Let us know via the comments.
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