Tennis tiebreak is the decision maker on a tied match. Understand how it works!
As in Padel, Beach tennis and many other sports, tennis tiebreak has the main goal of quickly defining the winner between two players, or two doubles, who are tied until a certain moment. It was invented in 1965 by Van Alen, founder of the Tennis Hall of Fame.
Tennis is not a simple sport, any layman on the subject who stops to watch a match gets completely lost with the score. On the tiebreak is not much different, it is full of rules and particularities. Even experienced tennis players, sometimes have doubts and make mistakes on score, serving order, side changes and other fundamental points.
To clarify these doubts, we will explain each one of them in detail. By the end of the article you will find a summary with the main rules. We will also talk about tiebreak in doubles, in Grand Slam tournaments and about the main reason for its existence. Let’s go?! 😉
When tennis tiebreak occurs
To understand the right time to play a tiebreak, it is necessary to know that a tennis match is played in the best of three or five sets and that each set consists of games.
As a rule, in any set, the player who makes six games first wins, however, he must have at least two games of advantage over his opponent. Therefore, it is natural for a set to end with one of the following results: 6×0, 6×1, 6×2, 6×3 or 6×4. If it is tied in 5 games to 5, the set “gets” an extra game , and the tennis player must reach seven games to win. If there is a tie again in six to six, then it is time for the tiebreak!
Note that we are considering an official set of six games, used in professional tournaments and most amateurs. There are also long sets, of eight or nine games, where tiebreak is used in a similar way.
How the score works
Unlike points in games, which are 15, 30 and 40, points in a tiebreak follow the simple ordering of numbers: 1, 2, 3, 4 and so on. The first player that makes seven points wins the tiebreak and, consequently, the set. There is also a need of being two points ahead. If there is a draw on six to six, players continue playing until one of them reaches two points in advantage.
What is the correct order of the serves?
The first player to serve in the tiebreak is the one who was returning in the previous game. This first point must be served from the right side, as in the beginning of each regular game.
On the second point, the service goes to the other player, and from there, it alternates every two points. Now, on each server change, the first point must be served on the left side.
A very common question is who will start serving on the next set. Is it the player who ended up returning at the last point? Or who started returning? Maybe who lost the tiebreak? Or who won? Although there are good reasons for all these, the rule is clear. Whoever started returning the serve in the tiebreak, should start serving in the next set.
When to switch sides
The change of sides occurs every six points played. 4×2, 5×1 and 6×6 are some examples of scores where this change occurs.
The big difference from the side changes that occur throughout the match is that in the tiebreak there is no time to rest. The player must keep walking to the other side of the court and play the next point. Except for a physical problem, the player cannot sit and rest.
Tiebreak can still be used at other times, depending on the competition, category and modality. It is very common to see the super tiebreak replacing the third set in professional doubles. It follows exactly the same rules, with the exception that the player needs ten points to win.
Tennis tiebreak on Doubles
As in the beginning of each set, at the beginning of the tiebreak, partners can alternate their returning location and serving order.
Tiebreak on Grand Slams
The tiebreak started to be used in the ATP in 1970, starting in the US Open. Nowadays it is used in all tournaments.
In Grand Slam tournaments, with the exception of US Open, only in the decisive set, there is no tiebreak. The player must get two games of advantage in the 5th set (when male) to win the match, no matter how long the set becomes.
Why does tennis tiebreak exists?
It is important to understand why there is a tiebreaker in tennis. Wouldn’t it be more interesting and fair to eliminate it? Why perform a quick race to determine the winner, when the match is so intense and exciting? Well, these questions can make a lot of sense, but there is a stronger reason that makes it essential:
There is no time limit on tennis, so the game only ends when someone reaches the needed score to win and, because an advantage of two games is needed to win each set, these matches can be quite long. Men’s tennis games in a Grand Slam, for example, usually last two, three, four hours.
Can you imagine if if there was no tiebreak? Many of these matches could easily go from three to five, six hours. Imagine Karlovic’s matches, almost all sets are defined in tiebreak. It would be exhausting for tennis players, who could not physically endure. It would also not be ideal for spectators, who would have to stop for an entire day to watch a match. Here are two real examples of what we are talking about:
- In 2015, in the Davis Cup, a competition that, like most Grand Slam, does not use tiebreak in the 5th set. João Souza (Feijão) from Brazil played a six hours and forty-two minutes match against the Argentine Leonardo Mayer. The score of the match was 7×6, 7×6, 5×7, 5×7 and 15×13;
- In 2010, John Isner and Nicolas Mahut played an eleven hours match at Wimbledon. The score was 6×4, 3×6, 6×7, 7×6 and 70×68.
A final summary
As we have seen, tiebreak is essential for tennis and it is extremely important that you understand its rules well. Here is a short summary of the main rules that we mentioned:
- As a rule, tiebreak is played whenever the set is tied in six games to six;
- Whoever returned the serve on the game previous to the tiebreak, will start serving. In the next set, this player should start by returning;
- With the exception of the first point, the serve is alternated every two points;
- Change of sides happen every six points;
- Wins the tiebreake the tennis player who reaches seven points first, as long as he has two points of advantage.