Time to Change Wimbledon’s Fifth Set Tiebreaker Rule?

When a tennis match lasts all day, it’s a great one.

If it continues into a second day, it’s incredible.

But, a third day, with still no clear end in sight? That’s unfathomable.

After exactly ten hours of tennis, played over two days, in what has already become an historic, record-setting match at London’s All England Club, American John Isner (from Tampa, Florida) and Frenchman Nicolas Mahut have still yet to decide their unbelievable first-round marathon of a match at Wimbledon.

Isner, 25, and Mahut, 28, have given new meaning to the term “holding serve,” with the two deadlocked at 59 games apiece in an epic fifth set which has thus far produced no service breaks, during easily both the longest fifth set and longest tennis match in the history of the sport.

It all started on Tuesday with 23rd-seeded Isner taking the opening set, 6-4. Mahut, ranked 148th in the world, took the next two sets, 6-3 and 7-6 (9-7), before Isner set the stage for the history-making contest by winning the fourth set 7-6 (7-3).

Catching his breath after being stopped because of darkness for the second straight evening, Isner, a former University of Georgia star who is ranked 19th in the world, said in a courtside television interview, “Nothing like this will happen again, ever.”

Since he’s probably right, it begs the question of whether it may be time for Wimbledon to consider departing from tradition and go the route of other grand slam events. Perhaps “The Match That Won’t End” between Isner and Mahut is a sign that Wimbeldon should replace its current rule of requiring fifth sets to be won by two games with the types of tiebreakers that Mahut and Isner won in the third and fourth sets, respectively; or, at least, make a switch to having players win by just one game after a certain amount of games that doesn’t border on the ridiculous.

One valid argument may be that if a match this long could, as Isner suggests, never be duplicated or surpassed, some of the drama (at least in terms of breaking records) would be lessened if we were ever to see a similar match again. If so, why let future matches drag on for so long when they could be decided a lot earlier with tiebreakers or some other rule change?

Another reason for a change might be that let alone Isner or Mahut, but could even one of the highest seeds be expected to realistically compete for a Wimbledon crown after finally winning such an exhausting early-round effort? Perhaps, but it would be hard to think that possible even for the most talented and well-conditioned tennis players in the world. At some point during the tournament, anyone, no matter who, would seemingly run out of gas. Thus, an early-round match like the one Isner and Mahut are embroiled in puts players at a severe competitive disadvantage.

However, one thing you don’t hear is any complaining from either the two participants or from the capacity crowd at the small 782-seat Court 18 at Wimbledon.

When Mahut finally convinced chair umpire Mohamed Lahyani to halt the match for the second consecutive day because it became too dark for Mahut to see, the fans in attendance chanted, “We want more!” and called for the match to be moved to Centre Court (the only one at Wimbledon equipped with lights) before sending Isner and Mahut off until Thursday with a standing ovation.

Even noted umpire challenger during his playing days, John McEnroe, admitted it was “one of the few times he felt bad for the umpire” who had to keep himself sharp enough to preside over hour after unending hour.

And, if Isner and Mahut themselves, who only stopped for a bathroom break at 58-all in the fifth set are willing to  compete for so long, why change the rules at all?

Among many others, two main reasons we watch sports are to appreciate the pure competition of athletes like Isner and Mahut giving it their all, and for the chance at seeing something we’ve never seen before.

While the match is still in doubt, we’ve already seen each of those two things.

No one could have predicted such a fifth set from Isner and Mahut.

The numbers alone tell the amazing tale to this point: 881 points, 612 in the fifth set alone; records of 163 games played (and counting), and 118 fifth-set games (and counting); 1,894 strokes (and counting) have been taken in the fifth set; a record 98 aces for Isner (and perhaps, counting), 70 of those coming in the fifth set thus far, while Mahut has tallied 95 of his own aces, 69 coming in the fifth set, which is already at seven hours and six minutes, breaking the previous full-match record of six hours, 33 minutes set at the 2004 French Open.

And, there’s the good quality of play to make it all last this long –- 218 winners and just 53 unforced errors for Isner; 216 winners and only 56 unforced errors for Mahut; and, Isner being turned aside by Mahut on four different match points in the fifth set -– has been nothing short of remarkable.

Isner and Mahut even outlasted the scoreboard, which got stuck on 47 games apiece in the fifth set, before going completely dark.

There are certain moments in sports that are monumental “I remember exactly where I was when…” moments. If you’re a fan of tennis or even of sports in general, this is one of those times, the type of event that we would have never seen if Wimbledon had made a prior rule change as suggested above.

“He’s serving fantastic, I’m serving fantastic. That’s all there is to it,” Isner said.

Don’t sell yourself or your very worthy opponent short, John. There has been a whole lot more to it than that.

Maybe Isner will be right. We may in fact never see anything like this again. Then again, we didn’t think we’d ever see a  masterpiece quite like this, and leaving Wimbeldon’s rules intact have allowed it to happen.

About the Author

Jon Wagner

Jon has been a credentialed writer with New York Sports Day since 2009, primarily covering the New York Knicks and Hofstra men's basketball. He has also occasionally covered other college basketball and New York's pro teams including the Mets, Giants, Jets, Islanders, Rangers and Cosmos (including their three most recent championship seasons).Jon is former Yahoo Sports contributor who previously covered various sports for the Queens Ledger. He's a proud alum of Hofstra University and the Connecticut School of Broadcasting (which he attended on a full scholarship).He remains convinced to this day that John Starks would have won the Knicks a championship in 1994 had Hakeem Olajuwon not blocked Starks' shot in Game 6 of the 1994 NBA Finals.

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