The Last Set Tiebreak Debate: The War Of Attrition v The Work Of Art

John Isner, Nicolas Mahut and Mohamed Layhani during the epic Wimbledon match in 2010 that lasted three days. (

Imagine this. You have endured a four hour epic in one of the biggest matches of your career. Nothing separates you and the opponent as it is 6-6 in the final set. So after four hours of brutality a seven point tiebreak decides your fate… A bit of a flat ending, right?

You see, tennis is evolving in many ways at the moment with experiments with the scoring system and different rules within the game being evaluated. One of these is a last set tiebreak, which has been introduced at the US Open, Davis and Fed Cup as well as recently grand slam qualifying tournaments.

It’s the classic battle between the ‘War Of Attrition’ and the ‘Work Of Art’, when it comes to deciding if a last set tiebreak is for you especially when assessing the best of five format. It is clear that the tour is currently wanting to re-package tennis to a younger audience and economic market, however is this how we introduce a new younger audience.

The ‘War Of Attrition’ is for the classic audience, a physical battle to the end, where you have to win by two clear games to win a final set. It is a constant War to earn your victory and break not only your opponent’s serve but to mentally and physically prove your superiority. This ‘War Of Attrition’ has seen legends made and legacy’s reinstated, who could forget Federer v Nadal to decide the Wimbledon title in 2008. Or Nadal and Djokovic’s epic battle at Roland Garros.

However even as a fan of the ‘War Of Attrition’ it can get out of hand quite easily for example who would forget the insane battle that Nicolas Mahut and John Isner which lasted over 11 hours and across three days as the American would claim victory 70-68 in the final set. This can evoke mental torture not only for the players but the fans that are emotionally invested, which leads to the other side of the argument… the ‘Work Of Art’

The ‘Work Of Art’ is all about the quality rather than the quantity produced in a match, high drama for a modern day audience. Players like Roger Federer, Richard Gasquet and Stan Wawrinka, who don’t physically battle in a match but play the big points better, benefit this theory. It is all about the big servers and getting high rewards for playing the pressure points well.

This format is all about winning points and not games as a result it produces high drama, which is necessary in today’s modern audience, where shorter apparently is better. Does it benefit the big servers? Yes. Does it benefit the grinders and typical baseliners? No, of course it doesn’t. Tennis is about earning and physically as well as mentally outmanoeuvring your opponent, not producing high drama and entertainment for the modern game and market.

Last set tiebreaks can only have a negative effect on the game as it will only destroy the legacies that have been created by the great champions of the past. Those like Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Bjorn Borg, who really battled throughout their career to earn their grand slams and legacy.

However time will tell if Tennis chooses market value and modern day audiences over the interest of the players involved.

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