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Tennis Tiebreaks – How They Work. How to Win.

While most rules of the game have remained fairly consistent over the years, one aspect of tennis that seems forever under scrutiny is the tiebreak.

Only introduced to the US Open in 1970 as a nine point game, the tiebreak has undergone a number of iterations since, before settling into its more recognisable first to seven points format.

But even in 2022 changes were again afoot with the four Grand Slams agreeing to trial a ten point tiebreak at 6-6 in the final set.

Prior to the agreement all the Slams dealt with final set tiebreakers in their own way. 

At the Aussie Open they played a ten point tiebreak at 6-6 in the final set. The US Open played a regular seven point tiebreak at 6 all. Wimbledon waited until 12-12 in the final set to play a regular tiebreak while the French Open were clinging to the traditional ‘advantage set’ in the fifth.

Why the indecision?

Before the introduction of the tiebreaker, close matches were simply taking too long to complete with each set an ‘advantage set’ which would continue until either player had a two game lead. 

But when James Van Alen first introduced the concept at his Newport Casino Invitational in Rhode Island many players took against the idea. The tiebreak was seen as too much of a lottery, giving more of an advantage to the underdog and creating too many upsets.

That attitude persists among many purists who would argue that the tiebreak is an unfair way to decide a match. 

How does a seven point tiebreak work?

As discussed in our Guide to Scoring Tennis Matches, in a standard tiebreak set a player must win six games by two clear games to win. If however the score reaches 6-6, the set is decided by a seven point tiebreak game.

Whichever player received serve in the previous game is the first to serve in the tiebreak. The first point is played from the deuce side of the court. 

The next two points are served by the opponent starting on the ad court and then into the deuce court. That sequence then repeats.

Unlike in an ordinary service game scoring is simple and sequential (zero, one, two etc) and the first player to win seven points by two clear points is the winner of the tiebreak. 

As with an advantage set this means the score can run pretty high (up to say 15-13) until the game is over.

After every six points played the players must change ends although unlike in an ordinary set the change of ends does not prompt a break in play.

And how does a ten point tiebreak work?

As mentioned above, in the 2022/23 season all Grand Slams are trialling a ten point super tiebreak for the final and deciding set. Should the score reach six games all in that set the match will be decided by a first to ten tiebreaker. 

The rules are exactly the same as for the standard tiebreak above except the winner is the first to ten points (by a margin of two) rather than seven. 

What’s the longest ever tiebreak?

Despite the recent introduction of the ten point tiebreak, the longest ever tiebreak at the time of writing took place in January 2013 at the Men’s Futures qualifiers in Plantation, Florida. 

During the first set of Benjamin Balleret’s win over Guillaume Couillard the two men contested a 70 point tiebreak with Balleret eventually coming out on top at 36-34.

Do tiebreaks favour the big servers?

John Isner – Tiebreak Titan

Like the penalty shootout in football, the tennis tiebreak has come under fire over the years for being a lottery. Deciding a set – or even a match – on a single extended game does tend to give more opportunity to the underdog. 

The odd flukey point over the course of a long set tends to get levelled out eventually. A couple of lucky returns and service breaks can easily swing a tiebreak.

Still, on the pro tour the most successful tiebreak players are who you’d expect. Roger Federer leads the way in the Open Era with a 65.3% win ratio. Novak Djokovic is not far behind with 65.1%. 

But maybe more surprising is the inclusion of John Isner on the list. With around a 61% win ratio he comes in at number 11.

But why? What makes him so strong on tie breaks?

Some would argue it’s his most obvious asset – the big serve. He’s extremely difficult to break which would appear an obvious advantage. But the rest of the stats don’t back that up. Very few other serve monsters make the list. 

Which does make sense. In a regular game you’d have to take at least four points off of Isner’s serve for the win. In a tiebreak you only need a minimum of one. So he should be easier to beat in a tiebreaker. 

Maybe a more compelling reason for his success is practice. Thanks to very rarely dropping a service game, Isner has the record for most tiebreaks played. That means he’s been there and done that. And perhaps that allows him to keep his cool when faced with such a high pressure game state.

Which brings us to…

How can I win more tiebreaks?

As we know the tiebreak is a great equaliser. If you can take your opponent to a tiebreaker, even one who’s stronger than you, you have a great chance of nicking the set. 

But the tiebreak is also a lot of pressure. Any slip ups could be fatal. So it’s all about mentality. With that in mind be sure to …

Start Strong

You’re seven points away from victory. You can’t afford to give away sloppy points. You might be able to come back from 30-0 down in a service game but drop two service points in a tiebreak and you’ve got a mountain to climb.

Stay Calm

Breathe. Focus. Don’t let the moment get to you. Some players have a habit of making silly mistakes when under pressure. Going for shots they have no right to try. Play your game. Get your first serves in and…

Transfer the Pressure to Your Opponent

Remember, there’s pressure at the other end of the court too. If you can keep your first serve percentage high and the ball in court there’s a good chance of your opponent making unforced errors. That won’t happen if you’re trying to ace your second serve. Finally…

Practice!

Take a leaf out of Isner’s book. Players with the most tiebreak experience under their belts tend to perform better. The more you’ve seen a stressful situation, the less stress you’re likely to experience. 

(Tie)Breaking Bad

Hopefully the above tips will see you better equipped next time you find yourself facing a tiebreak. At least let’s hope your record is better than that of Laslo Djere who managed to lose his 18th tiebreak in a row in 2022. 

Laslo Djere – Desperate to avoid another tiebreak

He just crept past the previous record holder Robin Hasse who went on a losing streak of 17 before finally winning one against Kenny de Schepper in his first round match at Roland Garros in 2013.

If tiebreaks truly are down to luck, then those two must have broken a few mirrors in their time.

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