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The history of the tie-break

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Originally published on 22/04/14

The tie-break was invented by James H. 'Jimmy' Van Alen, an American benefactor who lived in Newport, Rhode Island and founded the Tennis Hall of Fame there in 1954.

He proposed in the early 1950s that his Van Alen Streamlined Scoring System (VASSS) should be adopted to shorten tennis matches that were dominated by powerful servers on fast surfaces, especially grass. The VASSS nine-point ‘Tiebreaker’ or ‘Breaker’, as Van Alen liked to describe it, called for a set to be won when a player reached five points. At 4-4 a sudden-death point was played with the receiver choosing which court to receive from. In 1955 and 1956 another version of VASSS was used for two professional tournaments in America. Table-tennis type scoring (first to 21 points) replaced 15, 30, 40 and game but spectators and players both thought the drama had been eliminated so it was abandoned.

However, in 1965 Van Alen staged an invitation professional event on grass at the Newport Casino, home of the US Championships in its early years, using the nine-point sudden death scoring system of VASSS. He would sit beside the court and when a set reached six games all he would wave a red VASSS flag to denote the start of a tie-break. He was a great showman.

At the US Open in 1970 the tournament director was former US doubles expert Billy Talbert. He decided to adopt sudden death scoring and, for the next five hectic years at Forest Hills, red flags were raised on the umpire’s chair whenever a set reached six games all. The spectators loved sudden death; the players hated it. From 1975 to the present day the 13-point tie-break (first to seven or first to lead by two points after 6-6) was adopted for all sets at the US Open.

The 13-point tie-break itself was devised by Peter Johns, secretary of the Lawn Tennis Association, following discussions with Australia’s Bob Howe, a prominent doubles player of the period. Their formula, which included changing ends after six points (to maintain fairness if there was an advantage serving from one end due to sun or wind), was adopted by the International Tennis Federation, who made the tie-break an official part of the game’s scoring system in 1971.

From 1971-1978 the 13-point tie-break was adopted at Wimbledon at eight games all in every set except the fifth in men’s matches and the third in ladies’ and mixed matches. From 1979 onwards it came into force at six games all in all sets except the last. Wimbledon and the Davis Cup are now the only major events to retain five sets in men’s doubles and at Wimbledon three full sets are still played in ladies’ doubles and mixed where the final sets remain advantage sets.

The present rules do allow individual tournament directors or tournament committees to adopt either advantage sets or tie-break sets at six games all, provided that the method to be used is announced in advance.

Furthermore, Appendix V to the Rules of Tennis does allow:
1. Short sets – where a normal tie-break game comes into play at four games all.
2. Match tie-breaks (either seven point or 10 point) – to replace the third set in a best-of-three sets match or the fifth set in a best of five sets match. The winner is the first to reach seven (or 10) by a margin of two.
The 10-point match tie-break is now used to replace a third set for all doubles events on the two professional tours (ATP and WTA) and for mixed doubles at the other three Grand Slam championships in Australia, France and the USA where men’s doubles have a regular tie-break in all three sets.

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