Tiebreaker or no tiebreaker? My take on Isner-Mahut at Wimbledon

ESPN reports on a tennis match at Wimbledon that will be remembered for ages. Not necessarily for its players, John Isner and Nicolas Mahut, and not necessarily for the eventual winner (the former). No, this match will probably be remembered for its length and final score: 6-4, 3-6, 6-7 (7), 7-6 (3), 70-68. No, that is not a misprint: the last set was 138 games and easily took longer than the first four sets combined, and was too much for the scoreboard to handle at one point.

The match may also be remembered for igniting a firestorm of controversy about tiebreaker games in tennis. For the unfamiliar: a tiebreaker game is played when the score in a set is tied 6-6, with the winner of that game winning the set 7-6. Wimbledon does use tiebreakers, just not in the final set of a match (the third in a best-of-three or fifth in a best-of-five).

The well-known tennis player John McEnroe said in a BBC interview (quoted in this article from Fox Sports):

This is the greatest advertisement for our sport. It makes me proud to be a part of it. We often don’t get the respect we deserve in tennis for the athletic demands it places on players but this should push that respect way up.

However, John McEnroe will be among the players calling for a deciding-set tiebreaker at Wimbledon in future years. Others are among the traditionalists that say something like this will never happen again. The latter group is more likely to be correct; the Fox news article mentions a 21-19 final set at the 2003 Aussie open between Andy Roddick and Younes El Ayanoui and a 25-23 set between John Newcombe and Marty Riessen at the 1969 US Open. Both of these seem short in comparison to the most recent set of length at Wimbledon.

I’ve been a moderate fan of tennis over the years; it’s not a sport I really get into that often, but I’ve never hated it either. Hearing about an epic match like this one, however, does get me much more interested in tennis and I might even tune in to watch some of the rest of this year’s Wimbledon. Anything that has the potential to make a hardcore tennis fan out of someone like me can’t be all bad.

And maybe this is a rather crazy idea, but I’m going to float it anyway. I think tennis would be a more exciting sport if we got rid of the tiebreaker games all around. Sure, you’d have the occasional 9-7, 10-8, 11-9, or maybe even 12-10 sets and a few more statistical anomalies like those mentioned above. But I think it would make tennis a much more exciting game, and the sport is due for a rise in popularity since its peak in the 1970s and 1980s.

(Sidenote: The residents’ association for the townhouse complex where my mom and I used to live had considered the idea of replacing the dilapidated tennis courts with a park area, an idea which was ultimately shot down in favor of refurbishing and keeping the tennis courts. The argument against refurbishing the tennis courts was that a majority of residents would probably never set foot on them. At the time, that made sense. Now, of course, it’s another story.)