If the ATP Cup has had a signature moment so far, it was the sight of Australia’s Nick Kyrgios picking up his doubles partner Alex De Minaur and throwing him over his shoulder after their tie-clinching quarterfinal win against Great Britain earlier this week. It was a celebration worthy of their victory. The Aussies had been down multiple match points—and had watched Jamie Murray miss the easiest of put-aways on one of them—before ultimately winning 18-16 in the deciding super-tiebreaker.
Or should we call it a “match tiebreak”? Or a “10-point tiebreaker”? Tennis has never quite made up its mind about how to refer to this elongated version of the old-fashioned tiebreaker, which is first-to-10-points instead of first-to-seven. That lack of specificity may reflect the sport’s ambiguous feelings about this scoring innovation. The super-tiebreaker has been around for years, and is even used in place of a third set in ATP doubles matches. Yet it has also been widely scorned by recreational players and traditionalist fans. There was an outcry when it was announced that men’s doubles was going to the 10-pointer a decade ago. The move was widely, and correctly, seen as a way to get doubles matches out of the way faster.
Are those attitudes changing before our eyes? Is the much-maligned match-tiebreak having a moment? Last year, the Australian Open became the first Grand Slam event to incorporate it in singles, at 6-6 in the final set. But if there has been a change of heart toward the super T, it’s probably Laver Cup that has been responsible for it. The Roger Federer-led team competition has extended the use of the 10-pointer to all of its matches, singles and doubles, and in the process has given fans a glimpse of the efficient drama that the format can produce. Seemingly every match of note, in all three Laver Cups, has ended in a close 10-pointer. For millions of fans, if something is good enough for Federer, it’s going to be good enough for them. Laver Cup itself is an exhibition that goes out of its way to try to make us believe that it’s also a serious competition; it can’t do that without getting us to believe that the match tiebreak is a legitimate format for real tennis.
And it is. Over the years, I’ve heard complaints about super-tiebreakers from fellow rec players at tournaments and clubs. The primary beef is that the format is too much of a crapshoot; even if you’re the better player, all your opponent has to do is find a way win a set, and then you have to roll the dice in the super T. I’ve never thought of it that way. To me, as a player and a spectator, the 10-pointer is long enough to feel substantial; it’s much harder to win on big-serving alone, the way you often can in a seven-pointer. But the fact that every point counts also gives it a sense of momentum that you don’t get from a regular deuce-game sets. As far as ways to shorten matches go, I’ll take a deciding 10-point tiebreaker over a series off four-game sets. By using 10-pointers, Laver Cup has also avoided the wee-hour finishing times that plagued the Davis Cup Finals in Madrid last November.
Tennis is proud of the fact that “some points count more than others,” and justifiably so; it gives the best players a chance to rise to the occasion and show off their nerve and their smarts, rather than just their skill. The downside, from an efficiency-of-entertainment standpoint, is that lots of points don’t end up counting at all in the final score. The points that count the most, of course, are the ones that come in tiebreakers. A super T just means we’ll see more of them.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not arguing for any match-shortening scoring changes, at least at the big events. I like tennis’s medieval system. I like six-game sets; I like the tension that builds during drawn-out deuce games; I like best-of-five at the Grand Slams; I like saying 15-30-40 instead of 1-2-3; I like using mysterious, elitist terms like “love” and “deuce”; I like that you can win lose more points and still win. Part of me, though, does think that a 10-point tiebreaker might be a good substitute for a fifth set at the majors someday; in volleyball, the first four sets go to 25 and the fifth goes 15, and it makes for an exciting, turbo-charged way to finish a match. But fifth sets in tennis are exciting enough as they are; there’s no reason to shorten them. My only advice would be for Wimbledon to consider joining the Australian Open and making its new tiebreaker at 12-all in the final set into a properly grand 10-pointer. It could be re-branded as the “royal tiebreaker.”
The two best singles matches at the ATP Cup so far have been Dan Evans’ win over Alex De Minaur, and Novak Djokovic’s win over Denis Shapovalov, in the quarterfinals. Each involved a full third set, and each ended in a regular seven-point tiebreaker. I wouldn’t have wanted either of those excellent contests to be a point shorter than they were. But that match-deciding super-tiebreaker between Aussies and the Brits, when each team was facing the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat at virtually the same moment, was pretty cool—and very real—too.