The Big Fourtnight

Tiebreak Points: Federer on Fifth-Set Overtime

Sunday, June 23, 2013 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

WIMBLEDON, England—Would Roger Federer have won seven consecutive Wimbledon titles if there had been a fifth-set tiebreaker? Would Andy Roddick have won his first? Would Juan Martin del Potro be hanging gold or silver around his neck instead of bronze?

I got thinking about such questions as I left the seven-time champion's welcome-to-Wimbledon press conference, a must-see for journalists with our version of an Olympic medal, a press credential for "The Lawn Tennis Championships" (that's actually how it reads). Federer was asked what he thought about fifth-set tiebreakers at the Grand Slams, something only the U.S. Open mandates. It's an issue that has intensified in recent years, with a spate of marathon matches at majors—and eyes on them, since networks tend to broadcast their conclusions—and an appropriate one to raise at Wimbledon, where three years ago John Isner and Nicolas Mahut contested the longest match in tennis history, 6-4, 3-6, 6-7 (7), 7-6 (3), 70-68.

"I'm not sure if that's what I like, to be honest," said Federer in a typically thorough response. "I quite like the long-set situation."

Had Wimbledon required a match-deciding tiebreaker when a final set reached 6-all, Federer may have benefited in his legendary 2008 battle with Rafael Nadal. Although Federer was two points from victory during that fifth set, which ended 9-7, he was holding on for much of the match, trying to stave off Nadal's relentless targeting of his one-handed backhand both while returning serve and during rallies. I would give the edge to Federer, the stronger server, in the tiebreaker that never was.

The match would also have been certain to finish before dark—hardly a guarantee at the time. But would it have still been called the Greatest Match of All Time? With the benefit of hindsight, I'm glad it wasn't around then.

More parlor debates about matches that already happened: What about Federer's 2009 final with Roddick, which he won 16-14 in the fifth, and his Olympic semifinal last year against del Potro, which he won 19-17 in the final, third set? Roddick, the stronger server despite Federer striking 50 aces that day, probably gets the edge if a tiebreaker was around. Who would you give the edge to if del Potro and Federer had to decide their epic tilt in a tiebreaker?

But these classic contents are often seen as the exception to the argument that extended fifth sets are not worthwhile. There's a bit of bias regarding Federer's matches—each considered a classic—in that he's one of tennis' most popular players, but many other "six-setters" are panned for their monotony and unnecessary physical toll they inflict on the players. How many times has a player won such a match, only to go away meekly in the next round? That complaint is what Federer echoed next.

"But then, of course, you have the Isner/Mahut match, and then you're like, it isn't such a good idea. It then jeopardizes your chances to win the title somehow after that. I wonder why."

Isner knows this all too well, and so do his opponents, who must often go beyond five traditional sets if they are to advance. Last year, Isner beat David Nalbandian in the second round of the Australian Open, 10-8 in the fifth, then fell in five sets to Feliciano Lopez in the next round. When I spoke to Craig Boynton, Isner's former coach, about it, he set the Lopez loss was a direct result of the terms needed to beat Nalbandian.

Then there was last year's French Open, where Isner lost another five-plus setter to Paul-Henri Mathieu, 16-14. The Frenchman went on to lose in the next round to Marcel Granollers, 6-1 in the fifth. But maybe players are learning to live with the byproduct of the tiebreaker-less fifth set: This year at Roland Garros, Tommy Haas—after letting 12 match points come and go—beat Isner in the fifth, 10-8. He went on to beat Mikhail Youzhny in the next round, 6-1, 6-1, 6-3.

Federer's point about the damage players suffer from these type of matches is well-taken, however, and undoubtedly true. But it may still may not be enough of an argument to combat tradition, something the Grand Slams treasure, none more so than Wimbledon.

"It's a big debate, you know. I guess a tiebreak is like a bit of a penalty shootout in soccer for us," said Federer. "You know, anything can happen. I don't want to say necessarily the worst or the better player wins, but it's sort of a bit open. That's why the long set is a good idea sometimes, you know."

Maybe it would have made more sense to pose the fifth-set tiebreaker question to someone like Isner, though he's been asked about it countless times. But Federer was a good an authority as any on the topic. He's an ambassador of the sport and, despite his lofty status, represents most of the tour admirably. And there's this: After playing just two five-set matches at Wimbledon from the years 2002-2008 (the 2007 and 2008 finals against Nadal), Federer has been involved in four since. There was the 2009 final against Roddick, but also a first-round scare against Alejandro Falla in 2010, a quarterfinal loss to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in 2011, and a third-round escape against Julien Benneteau last year. Based on that history, there's a good chance that, at some point this fortnight, Federer will be involved in a five-setter of his own, with no tiebreaker in sight.

"I don't know what I think about it," Federer concluded. "Let's just go with it and have someone else decide if they have an opportunity. It's anyway up to the Slams. I have no power there."

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