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Why Douglass Perry is wrong on 5th Set Tiebreakers

June 27, 2010
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Dear Doug,

I’d heard there were people like you out there, people making the argument that Wimbledon should do away with the “play until it’s settled”, no-tiebreaker 5th set (just like the French Open, and the Australian Open), so I Googled around a bit and found your article, “Wimbledon: John Isner, Nicolas Mahut and the death of tennis

“I’m just going to go ahead and say it: The John Isner-Nicolas Mahut match, which will finish up (we hope) today, isn’t very interesting.”

“Yes, both players have impressive serves, but this scoreline says more about the weaknesses in the rest of their games. Quite often in that endless fifth set on Wednesday, the play — the actual play itself, rather than the drama of waiting for one of the players to mentally snap — was simply boring.”

Boring?  Boring!  Sorry Doug, but it seems to me that you are missing the point.  The remarkable thing about this contest is that these players were so evenly matched that the outcome could only be determined by the player who had the mental fortitude to weather the storm.  This was the very personification of guts, and grit, and courage, and resolve, and the will to find a way to win.  Who wanted it more?  Who could keep his wits, his focus, and his nerve in check under that sort of pressure?

“I realize I may be alone in this view. Veteran tennis writer Richard Evans calls the death march on Court 18 “quite possibly, the most extraordinary tennis match ever played.” John McEnroe enthuses, “This is the greatest advertisement for our sport.”  I don’t think it is.”

Look at the headlines Doug.  This match captured the attention of the entire world.

“I have always liked that Wimbledon (and the French and Australian championships) do not use a tiebreaker in the fifth set. But maybe it’s time they did. After all, it no longer matters whether Isner or Mahut wins this first-round match. Whoever survives will be dead when he takes the court with his next opponent. This is the last match he will win at this Wimbledon, and in case you’ve forgotten, the point is to win seven matches.”

Well, you’re right about Isner’s next round match: he got smoked 6-0, 6-3, 6-2 by Thiemo De Bakker in an hour and 14 minutes.  However, you’re wrong about “the point”.  The point is not to “win seven matches”, the point is to play as well as you can, for as many matches as you can, and see how far that takes you into the draw.  If that’s good enough to win, congratulations.  If it isn’t, then the point is to try to learn from your mistakes, and do better the next time.  Winning isn’t the “point”, it’s just the result of playing well, and playing well enough.

“And since we’re on the topic: Why is only the fifth set exempt from the corrupting influence of the tiebreak?”

Why do we say players have to win games by two points rather than three?  Why is Wimbledon played on grass, but the French Open is played on Clay?  Why don’t players get three chances to serve instead of two?  Why not one chance to serve?  Why do the first two points go up in increments of fifteen (15, 30), but the next point goes up an increment of ten (40)?  Why not just say, 1, 2, 3, 4, etc?

Why?  Because that’s how the rules have evolved, that’s why.

“So I say, let’s be consistent. Either every set is subject to the tiebreaker, as is the case at the U.S. Open, or none of them should be. Who’s with me?”

The U.S. Open is the odd-ball of the four grand slams.  Three of the four do not have 5th set tie-breakers.  If we’re going to be consistent, the U.S. Open should get on the same program as the other three slams.

Sorry Doug, I’m not with you.

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