During the 13-12 changeover in the fifth set of the Wimbledon semifinal between John Isner and Kevin Anderson, BBC broadcaster John Inverdale remarked that playing out the fifth set without a tiebreaker is a wonderful thing. People watching at home would feel so riveted they would not dare leave it, nor ever forget it. That was what great sports was all about.
John McEnroe, his booth-mate for that match, took a moment before he replied:
"I believe strongly that if we want people to keep watching our sport, we don't need to do this," said McEnroe, also an ESPN analyst. "You can't say it wouldn't be a riveting ending to the match if we had a tiebreaker to end this magnificent match at what, almost five hours? We'd be better off for the winner of this match, and for Sunday's final, if we did that. We're risking something here, and it's not worth it."
McEnroe is absolutely, 100 percent right.
Playing out the final set in deuce-ad games accomplishes no great purpose in this day era of grueling, physical tennis other than allowing Grand Slam tournaments to declare themselves the wardens of tennis tradition, as if that automatically is equated with credibility or even superiority. The majors no longer need to posture as guardians of the game. They're better off than ever, and therefor free to do the sensible thing.
Among the four majors, only the US Open has seen the light and adopted the fifth-set tiebreaker. Few people have challenged the authenticity of the tournament's results. And in 2016, the struggling, tradition-rich Davis Cup also adopted the fifth set tiebreaker -- with no noticeable impact on its fortunes.
There's a sameness to epic matches that break the five-hour mark. Take the case at hand, Isner vs. Anderson -- a marathon eventually won by Anderson 6-7 (6), 6-7 (5), 6-7 (9), 6-4, 26-24. The games between Isner and Anderson ticked by with a comforting, metronomic regularity over the first three or four sets. It was good stuff. But as the fifth set wore on and went into overtime, the games took on a hypnotic quality -- and not in a good way.
By 14-all it seemed increasingly unlikely that either man would have the strength or mental sharpness to break serve, yet each had enough gas in the tank to hold, mustering that extra bit of power when it was needed. Anderson had a handful of break points in the fifth set, but Isner lifted his service efficiency and blasted his way out of trouble. That happened time and again, at both ends of the court.
Of course, Isner has been there before. He outlasted Nicolas Mahut in that remarkable, three-day, 70-68 in-the-fifth match in 2010. That match put him off extra-time fifth sets for good. "I wouldn't want to play two out of three [sets]. Best-of-five is what makes the Grand Slams unique," Isner told ESPN.com last year. "But if I could change anything, I would like a final-set tiebreaker."
You can't blame Isner for feeling that way. After that first-round marathon, he was spent, had absolutely no chance to advance beyond his next opponent. Another detriment of super-overtime is it's a real hardship on players scheduled to follow on the same court. In Friday's case, that was Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. The players who follow a marathon match walk out on to the court on a day in which the circus already left town.
What does it tell you when Anderson, the exhausted winner, said in a television interview immediately after the match, "I hope this is a sign for the Grand Slams to change [the five-set format]. At the end, you don't feel that great out there. It's something [players and officials] need to talk about."
Never mind talk; they need to do something about it.