We didn’t get the first 12-12 final-set tiebreaker in Wimbledon history, but we got an incredible match—and a compelling example of why the new format may be the perfect compromise for an age-old debate.
First, let’s dig into the match, which featured two Czechs named Karolina. One, Karolina Pliskova, was seeded third and picked by some to end her Grand Slam title drought at the most prestigious tennis tournament of them all. With world No. 1 Ashleigh Barty’s fourth-round loss earlier today, Pliskova also had an opportunity to preside atop the tour rankings. Two, Karolina Muchova, is ranked 68th, had never played in the main draw of Wimbledon before this year and entered the major with a 20-8 record in 2019, including a slew of qualifying matches.
You would have never discerned the chasm in the compatriots’ accomplishments watching this match unfold, all the way to 11-all in the third set. You would, though, have recognized why Pliskova is such a confounding talent, and why Muchova is much better than her current ranking.
After splitting the first two sets, it appeared that Pliskova, who cruised to the Eastbourne tune-up title against excellent competition, would oust her plucky opponent. But at 5-4 in the decider, Pliskova’s infamous nerves came to the forefront, and she was broken. The two players traded service holds until 10-all, when Pliskova broke Muchova for a chance at redemption. It was the match’s ultimate turning point—just not in the way you’d expect.
Even more nervous than the last time she had the match on her racquet, Pliskova was broken at love—a result of poor shotmaking (her flat, low-margin strokes were her own worst enemy) and Muchova’s unrelenting desire. That continued at 11-all, which saw Muchova dive for a ball on game point, pick up a difficult volley at deuce and eventually win the game an attitude of pure positivity, in stark contrast to Pliskova. It wasn’t a shock to see Muchova break a rattled Pliskova in the very next game to end the marathon match, 4-6, 7-5, 13-11.
It would have interesting to see the contest end in the new tiebreaker, implemented after last year’s six-hour, 36-minute anti-epic between John Isner and Kevin Anderson, a 26-24 fifth set in the semifinals that saw few rallies of consequence, left fans waiting for a winner and threw the tournament’s late-round schedule in disarray.
“I think it’s definitely a move in the right direction,” Anderson said about the change. “I have said it a few times. They could have put the tiebreaker at 6-all. I think at that stage it’s a good time to play a tiebreaker.
“I think they tried to balance the historical element of playing long sets with a definitive end. Not a ton of matches go that far, but it definitely protects the players and the schedule. I was happy to see that change.”
I agree whole-heartedly with Anderson, and I would take it a step further—I think it’s the best way to decide a final set, and that at the majors, the men should compete under the same conditions Muchova and Pliskova did today.
In “The Long and Short of It,” a deep dive into the ongoing conversation between the merits of best-of-three-set matches (played by women at the majors) and best-of-five-set matches (played by men at the majors), my colleague Steve Tignor wrote,
Those with a reformist streak are in favor of one of two changes, each promoting gender parity: (1) having the men play best-of-three, or (2) having the women play best-of-five. For many, though, the objective is to lessen the men’s workload.
The brilliance of Wimbledon’s seemingly arbitrary 12-12 tiebreaker in the women’s draw is that it splits the difference between a traditional best-of-three and a best-of-five. In essence, it is a deciding fourth set—but only when the competitiveness of a match dictates it. If one player has clearly demonstrated superiority by a) leading by two games in the third set and b) reaching six games in the third set, then we didn’t need additional tennis anyway. But if both players are trading holds and/or breaks, the extended third set gives them a long-enough runway to let their racquets decide the outcome.
On a week where equality was thrown into global view with the U.S. women’s national team winning soccer’s World Cup—equal pay, thankfully, is something that the Grand Slams have gotten right—it’s a terrible look for the sport when men and women don’t compete under the same rules.
In my opinion, the detriments of best-of-five-set matches—players’ health, fans’ attention spans, tournaments’ schedules—outweigh their merits. There are more routine three-setters and four-setters that drag on in best-of-five, rather than memorable final-set classics.
Again, from “The Long and Short of It”,
After 15 years of grinding away on tour, Andy Murray had a sudden change of heart at Wimbledon last summer.
“As a player, I really like best-of-five,” Murray told the New York Times. “I feel like it rewards the training and everything you put into that.”
But that was before Murray was hired to commentate on the quarterfinal between Nadal and del Potro at that same tournament. The five-set match lasted so long—four hours and 47 minutes—that Murray missed a dinner reservation.
“It was an amazing match, it was a brilliant match,” Murray said, “but it was really long to sit there as a spectator.”
Most tennis fans understand how Murray felt; making it through an entire five-setter is difficult. Spectators at tournaments like Indian Wells and Miami, where men and women each play best-of-three, don’t seem to miss the marathons of the majors.
“It’s not easy to watch two people compete for a really long period of time,” Shriver says. “Give me a hard-fought, three-set, two-and-a-half-hour match, which is about the length of a basketball game.”
The “best-of-four-set” format that Muchova and Pliskova played on Monday accomplishes much:
—It keeps a match going for a reasonable amount of time if the play is competitive enough to warrant it.
—It provides a definitive ending if an outcome can’t be decided in a timely fashion. Pliskova and Muchova played for three hours and 17 minutes on Monday—had they gone to 12-12, did we really need to see more tennis, and deprive the drama that ensued for the sake of a longer third set? Had it been two men playing, did we really need a fourth or fifth set in place of an extended third?
—It allows the drama of a very competitive match to come to the forefront much sooner than it would in best-of-five, with shotmaking, rather than fatigue, becoming a more decisive factor.
—It eliminates a needless third-set win for matches where the outcome is clear after two sets. Did we really need to see a third set of Ugo Humbert vs. Novak Djokovic after the Serb won the first two sets 6-3, 6-2, or Joao Sousa vs. Rafael Nadal after the Spaniard won the first two sets 6-2, 6-2?
—Most importantly, it puts the men and women on an equal playing field.
I don’t expect everyone to agree with me on this, and your definition of “reasonable” and “timely” may be different than mine. But after watching one of the matches of the tournament between Muchova and Pliskova, I’ve made my decision: a best-of-three set match, with a tiebreaker at 12-12 in the third, is the way to go across the board at the Slams. Wimbledon, as it often does, gets it right again.