Tennis has a lot of rules that set it apart from other sports. From the scoring convention to the vocabulary used, there are a lot of idiosyncrasies in our beloved sport.
One of the most pivotal changes that has ever been made to the game of tennis is the introduction of the tie break.
This was a revolutionary rule change that added a new twist to the sport and has continued to evolve the sport even up to the present day.
Tie breaks are unique in their own right, given that they follow a completely different format to games or sets.
This brings a different set of challenges, especially as they are specifically designed to be played in high pressure, pivotal moments in tennis matches.
So, where did the idea of the tie break come from and how should you play them? Well, we’ll explain all along with a round up of some of Wimbledon’s greatest tie breaks!
History of the Tie Break
The first tournament to sport a tie break in the tennis scoring system was the Newport Casino on Rhode Island and was invented by James Van Alen.
After some tweaking and trialling at various levels of competition, the tie break was used at the US Open in 1970.
However, in this version it was a 9 point game, whereby a maximum of 9 points could be played and a winner would be determined regardless of how many serves each player had had.
There were other iterations such as a 12 point tie break if a set reached 8-8, which was introduced at Wimbledon in 1979.
It was not until the early 2000s when most major professional tournaments started to phase in the tie break as we know it today.
This being a tiebreaker played at 6-6 in a set, first to 7 points but a player must win by 2 clear points.
The tie break has been the centre of much controversy over the years, namely due to its short duration.
Once the scoring format had been universally agreed, there was then the matter of the tie break being adopted on a worldwide level.
Whilst this was not too much of an issue at regular professional tournaments, the grand slams were a bit more reluctant to adopt the tie break.
This is likely due to grand slam matches being played over 5 sets, so there is a natural tendency to keep the matches going as long as possible so that paying spectators can get their money’s worth.
Also, this is one of the most unique aspects of grand slam tennis.
Tie breaks have been universally used in all sets apart from the final set at grand slam level for a while, but it is only in very recent years that the final set of a grand slam match has been decided on a tie break.
This again is a controversial move that some traditional fans may deem unfair on players, given that two world class players may well battle out a 5 hour match, only for a 5 minute tie break at the end to decide the winner.
The Australian Open, Wimbledon and the US Open all now use tie breaks in their final sets in singles (they have been using them in doubles for some time), whilst the French Open remains the only grand slam not to use tie breaks in the final set of singles matches.
How to Play a Tie Break
Tie breaks are unique, given their scoring format and the high pressure players tend to play them under.
The key to playing a good tie break is to not take your foot off the gas, whilst remembering what it is that got you to this position in the match.
The chances are that you will be playing an evenly matched opponent in a tie break, given that you will have to have both won 6 games in a set to get to this stage.
So, it is important not to take a break and think the set is over when you start the tie break, or your opponent may well run away with things!
It is important to remember that you will have two serves at a time in a tie break, rather than serving for a whole game as you will have done throughout the set up until that point.
This is worth bearing in mind, as you can win or lose your serve much more quickly in a tie break than you can in a standard game.
That being said, you also have the opportunity to break your opponent’s serve in the tie break much more quickly too, so remember to stay focussed and keep your intensity up throughout.
Ultimately, playing a good tie break requires you to manage your nerves and treat every point with the utmost respect.
At the tail end of a set, you have the opportunity to make the difference in a few short moments, so make it count!
Remember to focus on consistency, getting the ball in play and building points rather than going for outrageous winners.
Usually, the player that stays more solid tends to win the tie break, as it is easy for points to slip away quickly.
When playing a tie break, it is also crucial that you stay in the present moment as much as you can, as thinking about the outcome of the next point can lead to you placing added pressure on yourself.
Simply play good, solid tennis and if your opponent is able to come up with the goods and blast winners past you every point, then frankly they deserve to win the set!
But more often than not, if you focus on keeping your first serve percentage high, getting your groundstrokes deep and making returns up the middle of the court, you’ll put a lot of pressure on your opponent who will likely crumble.
Wimbledon Tie Breaks
Some of the most epic tie breaks we have ever seen have come at the home of tennis, Wimbledon.
These have often come at pivotal times in championship matches, so are played under pretty much the most amount of pressure imaginable!
So, let’s take a look at some of the greatest ever tie breaks at Wimbledon.
Borg vs McEnroe – 1980
In one of the most famous tie breaks of all time, Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe locked horns in the 1980 Wimbledon final.
Borg had lost the first set 6-1 but had managed to claw back the following 2 sets 7-5 6-3. With the match finely in the balance, the 4th set went to a tie break.
What ensued was one of the greatest sporting moments the world has ever seen.
The tie break lasted over 20 minutes and was full of twists, turns, unbelievable volleys and stunning shot making.
McEnroe, often dubbed the brat of tennis, held his nerve and managed to save 5 match points, before winning the tie break 18-16!
Borg would go on to win the final 8-6 in the 5th set, claiming his 5th consecutive Wimbledon and his 10th grand slam title.
Federer vs Nadal – 2008
During the match that tennis fans around the world still call the greatest of all time, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal played one of the most epic tie breaks we have ever seen!
Roger Federer found himself 2 sets to 1 down in his 6th consecutive Wimbledon final, where he had won 5 previous titles on the bounce!
His long term rival Rafael Nadal had played a brilliant match and a tie break was needed to separate these legends of the game in the 4th set.
The opening point featured a backhand smash from Rafa followed by a forehand passing shot winner from Roger, which really set the tone for the tie break to come.
Both players played aggressive but solid tennis, going for their shots and looking to force an error.
An ace followed by an unreturnable serve put Rafa’s nose in front and eventually led him to his first match point.
Federer was able to save this with a stunning backhand passing shot down the line.
Federer would go on to win the epic tie break 10-8 and level the match. He would eventually lose the 5th set 9-7, where Nadal claimed his first Wimbledon title.
Nadal vs Djokovic 2018
During the semi-finals of Wimbledon in 2018, two fierce rivals Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic played an all time great match.
The match was poised at a set a piece, with both players producing some unbelievable tennis.
This the third set required a tie break and it was played under the centre court roof. These two greats of the game played with an unmatched intensity, both straining to keep ahead.
At 5-5 in the tie break, they played an epic 23 shot rally that Nadal won with a forehand drop shot.
Djokovic would claim the tie break 11-9 along with the match, as he would eventually win the 5th set 10-8. This truly was a match that needed to be seen to be believed!
Federer vs Djokovic – 2015
In 2014, Roger Feder was enjoying a resurgence to the top of the men’s game following a disappointing 2013 by his lofty standards.
A change or racket and improvement of his fitness following a back injury led him to another Wimbledon final.
But, he was only to come up against his long term rival Novak Djokovic.
Djokovic claimed the first set 7-6 with a comfortable tie break win (7-1), but the second set tie break was a much closer affair.
The standard of tennis between Federer and Djokovic was of the highest order, making this match an instant classic.
The tie break would see Djokovic cruise to a comfortable 6-3 lead, only for Federer to come roaring back with some insanely hard hitting forehands.
He leveled the tie break 6-6 and would go on to win it 12-10! Djokovic would then win the next 2 sets 6-4 6-3 and claim his 3rd Wimbledon title.
Federer vs Djokovic – 2019
The 2019 Wimbledon final saw another clash of the greats, with Roger Federer taking on Novak Djokovic for the third time in a Wimbledon Final.
Both players had fought incredibly well, with the older Federer opting to mix his game up with a range of serve and volley and baseline points. Djokovic stayed incredibly solid throughout the match and was able to weather the storm of Federer’s brilliance.
The 5th set of the match gave Wimbledon fans a new treat, with a tie break at 12-12.
This was the first time the Championships had introduced a tie break into the final set of a singles match, and it was only fitting that the men’s final would come to one!
Djokovic played at an incredibly high level and was pummeling his famous backhand down the line.
He ended up winning the tie break comfortably with a scoreline of 7-4, claiming his 5th Wimbledon title in the process.
Overall, tie breaks provide some of the most crucial and game changing moments in tennis matches.
They were controversial when they were first brought into the professional game back in the early 1970s but have now become a mainstay in world tennis.
Playing a solid tie break is all about holding your nerve and hitting consistently, so be sure to stay calm when you are next out there on the court!