How Do Tie-Breaks Work in Tennis?

tennis umpire in chair with electronic results recorderThere are some sports where it has become necessary over the years to find a way in which to separate the competitors. In boxing, for example, there is the points system, which was created in order to decide a winner when neither fighter has been able to knock the other out. In football, matches that require a winner on the day will advance to extra-time and then penalties. When it comes to tennis, the manner in which a match is decided after being too close for a winner to be found immediately is the tie-break. Prior to this, play would go on until one player had a two-game lead in the set.

This was obviously a long-form way of deciding the outcome of a tennis match, often leading to matches going on for a considerable length of time when the competitors were evenly matched. It was James Van Alen who first came up with the system in the 1950s, with the tennis innovator try to find a fair way of expediting the conclusion of a tennis match. It was initially met with scepticism from numerous members of the tennis fraternity, but over the years it gained interest before eventually becoming the accepted manner in which a tennis match is decided.

The History Of The Tie-Break

tennis umpire chair with game and set number boardsThe tie-break in tennis was introduced as a scoring method to resolve tied sets and provide a decisive outcome. Prior to its creation, sets in tennis were traditionally played until one player achieved a two-game advantage. However, this could sometimes result in lengthy sets, causing scheduling challenges and potential fatigue for players. The tie-break format was devised by James Van Alen, an American tennis player, in the late 1950s. Van Alen aimed to address the issue of sets going on for long periods by introducing a system that could see the conclusion of tied sets coming quicker, whilst also maintaining fairness.

The first implementation of the tie-break occurred in 1965 during a tournament organised by Van Alen called the ‘van Alen Cup’. The format was initially met with mixed reactions, but it gained traction and eventually became an accepted part of tennis. Two days after Van Alen died in July 1991, Stefan Edberg and Michael Stich played a Wimbledon semi-final in which Edberg lost in spite of the fact that he never lost his serve during the match. That was thanks to the tie-break system that Van Alen created, with Edberg saying, “If he hadn’t lived, Michael and I might still be out there playing.”

How Tie-Break Scoring Works

tennis player celebrates point

The scoring system of the tie-break is relatively straightforward. In most situations, a tie-break is played when the score reaches six games all (6-6) in a set. Once the tie-break begins, the players compete in a separate tie-break game. The tie-break game is played to a certain number of points, which is usually seven. However, a player must have a two-point advantage to win the tie-break game. The player who served first in the previous game will not serve first in the tie-break. Instead, the serve alternates between players every two points throughout the tie-break. The first player to serve in the tie-break will serve for one point, and then the serve switches to the opponent for the next two points and the pattern continues until the tie-break ends.

Points in the tie-break are scored differently from regular games. Instead of using the traditional love, 15, 30, 40 and game scoring that is in place through the rest of the match, points in the tie-break are counted as numbers. The player who wins a point is awarded one point, with the score being announced as the server’s score first, followed by that of the receiver. For example, if the server wins the first point, the score would be 1-0. If the receiver wins the next two points, the score would be 1-2, which is down to the fact that the server of the first point only serves once initially, then the receiver serves twice, then the serve switches back to the first server, hence their score being the first read.

The tie-break game continues until one player reaches the required number of points with a two-point advantage. For example, if the score is tied at 6-6 in the tie-break, the play continues until one player leads by two points. If the score reaches 7-7, the tie-break continues until one player leads 9-7 or higher, maintaining a two-point margin. The player who wins the tie-break game is declared the winner of the set. The set score is recorded as 7-6, with the number representing the tie-break game score and the winning player’s name mentioned first. For example, if Steve McTennis wins the tie-break game 7-4, the set score would be recorded as McTennis 7-6 (7-4).

One thing that is worth pointing out is that the tie-break format might have variations depending on the governing body responsible for the tournament in which the tie-break is being played. The Australian Open, as an example, uses what is known as a ‘Super Tie-Break’ in the final set for some of the events. In this case, the tie-break game is played to 10 points, though the two-point advantage requirement is still in place. If you’re watching a specific tournament then it is worth looking to see what the tie-break rules are for said tournament, rather than just assuming they’re the same as in other tournaments you might have watched.

For many years, Wimbledon was happy to use the tie-break in the sets up until the final set, but reverted to the requirement to win by two-clear games at that point. This led to some remarkable matches, including in the first round of the tournament in 2010 when John Isner and Nicolas Mahut played for 11 hours and five minutes. The eventual score was 6-4, 3-6, 6-7, 7-6, 70-68. Remarkably, Isner was involved in other long match eight years later when his semi-final against Kevin Anderson finished 7-6, 6-7, 6-7, 6-4, 26-24. The tie-break was finally extended to the final set ahead of the 2022 tournament.

What About Doubles?

tennis doubles matchIn doubles tennis, the tie-break follows a similar format to singles, but with a few key differences. It is still played when the set score reaches 6-6, as in singles, and is used in order to stop a prolonged period of play. The serving rotates as in singles, with the team that served first in the set not serving first in the tie-break. Instead, the serve alternates between the two teams every two points, starting with the team whose turn it would be to serve if the set continued normally. Points are still counted as numbers and the score is announced with the serving team’s score followed by the receiving team’s score. Each team accumulates points in the tie-break game based on their performance.

Where things mainly differ is how the serving rotates within each team. The players in the team take turns serving and receiving. The order of service and receiving is typically determined before the tie-break begins and remains consistent throughout the tie-break. The team decides which player serves the first point, and the order of service continues to rotate between the players on that team every two points. This means that it will be a different team and a different server serving the ball every two points during tie-breaks, which can obviously feel confusing if you’re watching without knowing the rules.