Wimbledon 2018: Let’s talk about that fifth set problem

While our tennis writer is loving the action at Wimbledon this year, it doesn’t mean he’s afraid to give the tournament a volley when it needs it…

I don’t often agree with John McEnroe these days, but he blurted out what most of us were thinking during Friday’s gargantuan semi-final.

Deep into a final set that looked like it would never end, the three-time Wimbledon champion broke a moment of silence with “this is crazy!”

As you probably know by now, Kevin Anderson’s encounter with John Isner went on for a bit. It took six hours and 36 minutes to be precise, making it the longest ever match on Centre Court and second-longest in Wimbledon history.

After 247 winners, 102 aces and countless cries of “come on!” and “that’s it!”, the South African survived to make his second major final with an extraordinary scoreline of 7-6 6-7 6-7 6-4 26-24.

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The mammoth final set lasted 2 hours and 50 minutes. That’s eight minutes longer than this year’s French Open men’s final!

Anderson, who first played Isner in college over a decade ago, warmly embraced his old rival afterwards. But as the 32-year-old walked back to his seat, he must have wondered what victory actually meant?

One of the South African’s great achievements was heavily marred by the toll taken to get there.

The semi-final added more than six hours to the 13 Anderson had already spent on the grass this fortnight. How could he truly recover for a final after so much wear?

The challenge was immediately evident to the 2017 US Open finalist. In a post-match interview with the BBC, Anderson criticised Wimbledon’s current policy for final sets and said a change was “long overdue.”

Isner, who outlasted Nicolas Mahut 70-68 in the final set of their notorious 2010 epic, agreed with the victor. The American said a change “needs to be done” and proposed a tie-break at 12-all in the fifth.

So, what are the options for change?

Currently, three grand slam tournaments require men’s singles players to claim the final set by two games: the Australian Open, French Open and Wimbledon. At the US Open, a tie-break at 6-all decides the fifth set.

Wimbledon could easily follow the US Open model or set the limit at something like 10-all or 12-all.

The real question is: should the home of tennis tradition change?

Isner has become a lightning rod for this debate thanks to his participation in the two longest matches ever seen at the All England Club.

The 33-year-old tends to find himself in protracted battles because his gigantic serve is so difficult to break. Isner surrendered his first service game of the Championships on Friday, 12 days into the competition.

Given Anderson’s similar serving prowess, a drawn-out semi-final was predictable. It was also unsurprising that spectators found it hard to follow the action as service-dominated games get repetitive.

That isn’t the case with other playing styles and this is where the rule has to be carefully considered.

While everyone is challenging the Wimbledon policy today, I don’t remember a similar outcry when Roger Federer was involved in lengthy contests.

The 2009 final saw Federer overcome Andy Roddick 16-14 in the deciding set of a gripping contest. A year earlier, the Swiss succumbed 7-9 in the final set against Nadal in what many consider the greatest tennis match of all time.

It appears that many fans can’t get enough games out of the 20-time major winner, but reach a limit with some other players.

Despite this difference in sentiment, I think that fifth set scoring should be changed at Wimbledon for everyone’s benefit.

A shift to a normal tie-break, or something similar, would give the winner a chance to recover for the next match. The better the player can perform in the following round, the healthier the tournament and spectacle is overall.

Extremely long matches are also a nightmare for the players due next on court. Stuck in the locker room indefinitely, they are unsure whether to eat, rest or warm up.

TV broadcasters would definitely sign up to a more predictable climax. As the semi-final wore on, there was digital hopscotch on the BBC as it jumped back and forth between channels. It was also tough luck for those who tried to record the play at home.

Finally, the rule should be changed for the sake of the audience.

There can’t be many spectators, either on Centre Court or watching on a screen, who didn’t lose interest over the course of the 396 minutes.

There is already a movement in the sport to discard the best-of-five-sets format due to the strain on viewers. While I don’t agree with this idea, endless fifth sets exacerbate the problem of a lengthy train journey without a last stop.

In most disputes over the sport of tennis, some will gain and others will lose when change arrives. However, a clear finish line gives certainty to every stakeholder, on and off the court.

Besides, the players have given us everything they have for five sets. Do we really need more?

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