Tennis is one of my favorite sports. It is also as international as a sport can get. Unfortunately, that means that most of the big tournaments are not played on the east coast of the United States, so it is hard for me to watch. I can usually watch part of the weekend matches, but I’m either at work or asleep during the week. This year, though, I was home sick on Friday, so I got to watch an extraordinary match. It was the men’s semifinal at Wimbledon between John Isner of the United States and Kevin Anderson of South Africa. The first three sets all went to tiebreakers. Anderson won the fourth set 6 to 4. So it came down to a decisive fifth set. There are no tiebreakers in the final set at Wimbledon (or at the French and Australian Opens). Anderson wound up winning the fifth set 26 to 24.
The match lasted six and a half hours. That’s more than double the typical length of a tennis match. It was riveting. It was some of the tensest, most exciting sports I’ve ever had the pleasure to watch. As a fan, I was hoping it would keep going. I’m just lucky to have been able to see it.
I was able to watch most of the men’s and women’s finals over the weekend (Congratulations to Kerber and Djokovic, by the way). The announcers kept talking about the men’s semifinal. And all they kept talking about was how they had to change the rules to implement a tiebreaker in the fifth set at Wimbledon. Their big takeaway from one of the best matches I’ve ever seen was that we need to change the rules so that kind of match can’t happen again.
I was struck by the disconnect between the fans’ point of view and the professionals’ point of view. From the fans’ point of view, more of the thing they love is good. For the professionals, the players and commentators and coaches, it’s almost like being stuck working overtime. They just want to be home at a reasonable hour.
John McEnroe was probably the most vocal proponent of the rule change. And one of the things he kept saying was that it would be good for the fans if they implemented a fifth set tiebreaker. He just doesn’t get the fans at all. One of the biggest reasons we watch sports is because at any moment, you might see something that no one has ever seen before. The rule change would limit those possibilities. And tennis fans all over the world would be poorer for it.