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What Happens in a Tied Tennis Game?
When a tennis score is tied and an advantage set is not in effect, the players enter a tiebreaker round. In tennis matches, the general rule is that you must always win by two—in both points and games. However, there is always a chance the players can tie at six games each, and in that case (depending on the established rules of the particular tournament or game), they’ll play a tiebreak round to determine the winner.
A Brief History of the Tiebreak
James H. “Jimmy” Van Alen, an American benefactor and founder of the Tennis Hall of Fame in Rhode Island, proposed the tiebreak in the early 1950s to resolve the issue of lengthy matches. The Van Alen Streamlined Scoring System (VASSS) advocated for a “first to five” tiebreak (also known as a nine-point tiebreaker), and sudden death, which meant players could each reach a match point with a tie at 4-4. The US Open was the first Grand Slam tournament to introduce this new scoring system. Eventually, this system evolved into the standard 12-point (or first to seven) tiebreaker we see today.
What Are the Different Types of Tiebreaks?
There are two different ways tennis players can play tiebreak games:
- 12-point tiebreaker. Even though this tiebreaker is played first to seven, it's officially referred to as a “12-point tiebreak” game because it is the best of 12 points won by two (7-5). Winning this tiebreaker makes the game score of the set 7-6, and the player wins the set at seven games. However, long tiebreaks can still occur past 12 points if neither player can get a win by two points.
- 10-point tiebreaker. Also called the super tiebreaker, this type is played first to 10, with a win by two points. For men’s singles, this occurs in a tie during the fifth set, and for women’s, for a tie in the third set.
What Are the Rules of a Tiebreaker in Tennis?
When players enter a tiebreak game, there are a few different rules that come into place, such as:
- Players must win by a two-point margin. Tiebreak point scores must be won by a two-point margin. The match can last as long as it takes for one player to reach a win by two. However, longer tiebreaks generally still move quicker than advantage sets. Tiebreak points are counted singularly, rather than the traditional 15-30-40 scoring system.
- Switch servers after the first point. At the beginning of the tiebreaker, the first point is served by the player who received in the previous game. The serve happens and is done from the deuce court (the right side of the center mark). However, they only serve the first point, and the opponent serves the next two. From then until the end of the tiebreaker, the players will alternate servers every two points, with the first serve point of each turn always occurring on the ad court (the left side), and the second point from the deuce side. If a tiebreaker game is played in the initial sets (before the final set), the player who served the first point of the tiebreaker will receive in the first game of the next set.
- Players switch ends of the court. When you’re playing a tiebreak round, players change ends of the court when the sum of the points equals six or multiples thereof (3-3, 4-2, 6-6, etc.).
How Major Tournaments Handle Tiebreak Rounds
Tournaments like the US Open and Wimbledon handle tiebreakers differently than regular-season games. Here are how the major tournaments handle tiebreaks:
- Australian Open. In the Australian Open, singles players use the first to 10 tiebreaker when the game score in the final set of a singles match reaches 6-6. For mixed doubles at the Australian Open and US Open, players will play a tiebreak in lieu of a final set.
- French Open. The French Open is the only Grand Slam that does not use tiebreakers to determine a winner of the final set in singles matches.
- US Open. For the US Open, players use a 12-point tiebreaker in the event of a 6-6 tie.
- Wimbledon. At Wimbledon, players must win the final deciding set by two games. In 2019, Wimbledon instituted a new rule to end marathon matches. Now, if players tie at 12 games, they must play a tiebreaker round.
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