LONDON — It was a surreal moment. Defending champion Novak Djokovic sat in his chair, leading Roger Federer 6-5 in the final set of the Wimbledon men’s final on Sunday, when he thought he had better ask the umpire a question: “Is it tiebreak at 10-all?”
The players were not sure. Nor were the fans inside Centre Court, which is hardly surprising since until this year, Wimbledon had always played out the final set in full, with a two-game margin required for victory.
Indeed, until Wimbledon announced in late 2018 that it intended to bring in a tiebreak in the final set for the first time — at 12-12 rather than 6-6, just to be a bit different — the US Open had been the only Grand Slam event to use a tiebreaker in the final set, in its case at the more traditional 6-6.
The Australian Open quickly brought in its own final-set tiebreaker, doing it slightly differently again with a first-to-10-point decider at 6-6. That, too, caught some players by surprise at the Aussie Open in January, with British player Katie Boulter celebrating when she got to seven points, only to be told it was first to 10. Thankfully, for her own sanity, she still won the match.
That leaves the French Open as the only one of the four Grand Slams not to have a tiebreaker in the final set, although that may yet change next year as night sessions creep in. No wonder everyone is a bit confused.
Wimbledon’s move to have a tiebreaker in the final set was surely overdue. It probably should have happened sooner, perhaps after the 11-hour, five-minute, first-round epic between John Isner and Nicolas Mahut in 2010 that spanned over two days. Isner finally won 70-68 in the final set only to barely be able to serve in the following round.
It took another marathon, last year’s 26-24 final-set semifinal between Kevin Anderson and Isner (again), for Wimbledon organizers to finally make the change. Andy Murray telling BBC Television that watching long matches was hard work might also have helped.
As Djokovic and Federer headed toward 12-12 on Sunday, and again after Djokovic won it to claim his fifth Wimbledon title, there was plenty of debate as to whether the tiebreaker was the right move. Some felt they should play it out as they have always done at Wimbledon; others thought enough was enough. As Jamie Murray, the British doubles player and older brother of Andy, told reporters at the US Open last year: “If you haven’t sorted the match out by 6-all in the fifth … the players have played enough tennis, the fans have seen enough tennis, TV’s seen enough of that match, a tiebreak is enough.”
Murray’s reasoning was that a final-set tiebreaker, wherever it comes, helps to look after the health of players, not mess up their chances in the following round or impact the schedules. All of which makes total sense.
Djokovic admitted on court that it had been “a bit strange to play a tiebreak at 12-12,” while Federer just said: “It is what it is. I respect whatever the rule is. You play with it. I don’t know if I was looking forward to it or not. I was feeling good about either scenario.”
But — and there’s a significant but — is there really a need to have a final-set tiebreaker in the championship match itself, when there’s nothing to come after?
Only one match had gone the distance in this year’s Wimbledon before Sunday, a men’s doubles match won by Henri Kontinen of Finland and John Peers of Australia. They lost in the next round, again in five sets.
But Djokovic and Federer didn’t have to worry about playing the following day, or for a few weeks for that matter. They could have kept going, and maybe that would have been more satisfying than a tiebreaker, where anything can happen.
Numerous players and coaches expressed their respect and admiration for both Djokovic and Federer after a match that was not only the longest-ever Wimbledon final, at four hours, 57 minutes, but also one of the best. With the exception of the second set, when Djokovic let the set go after falling two breaks down early on, the tension was incredible.
The standard of the fifth set made up for some of the ups and downs — notably in Djokovic’s usually flawless baseline game — and the drama was almost unbearable, especially as Federer looked set to win his ninth Wimbledon title but could not close out his two match points when serving at 8-7, 40-15.
As always, Wimbledon’s committee will sit down in the coming weeks to review this year’s Championships and assess how everything worked, with a view to improving things for the following year.
ESPN analyst and commentator Brad Gilbert was among those who said 12-12 is a good time for a tiebreaker, while Sven Groeneveld, the former coach of Maria Sharapova and now the coach of Sloane Stephens, feels it is unnecessary.
And it is ironic that Anderson, whose efforts last year prompted the rule change, said he would have liked the final to have carried on.
— Kevin Anderson (@KAndersonATP) July 14, 2019
The bottom line, though, is that no one format suits all the players. Djokovic was grateful for the tiebreaks in the final, winning all three of them, while Federer, who has such a good overall record in tiebreaks, probably wished there had been none whatsoever. Losing hurts, no matter how it happens.
As Federer said: “Take it on your chin, you move on. You try to forget, try to take the good things out of this match. There’s just tons of it. Similar to ’08 maybe (when he lost 9-7 in the fifth set to Rafael Nadal in the final), I will look back at it and think, ‘Well, it’s not that bad after all.’ For now it hurts, and it should, like every loss does here at Wimbledon. I’m very strong at being able to move on because I don’t want to be depressed about actually an amazing tennis match.”