Thursday, June 13, 2013

Musing on the 5th-Set Breaker

(June 13, 2013)--With the Blackhawks defeating the Bruins in triple overtime in Game One of the Stanley Cup Finals tonight, I couldn't help thinking about 5th-set tiebreakers in tennis. It's a logical cognitive jump to take; debated hotly ever since John Isner tussled with Nicolas Mahut for eleven hours and five minutes at Wimbledon in 2010, the 5th-set tiebreaker has become a de facto discussion in tennis. These days, whenever a match goes beyond 6-all, commentators on TV all tighten their debate caps and begin espousing.

What exactly is Roger Federer wearing here? 
For the record we will state that we are talking about Grand Slams, the last vestige of five-set-ness in professional tennis. Wimbledon, Roland Garros and the Australian Open all rule that a tiebreaker cannot end a match. The U.S. Open switched to the fifth-set tiebreaker in 1970 but the other three Slams never followed suit.

What did the U.S. Open know that the other three don't, or vice-versa?

Is the 5th-set breaker good for tennis or bad for tennis?

What does the athlete want, what do the sponsors want, what to the fans want?

If you look at it from a fan's perspective, the issue is murky. Who wants to see some 9-foot-tall guy rain down aces and then fumble around on return like he's Herman Munster? Still, when we hand over the player's fates to a tiebreaker we limit the amount of possible drama. Suspense builds over time in a match that goes to 16-14 or 12-10, and when we institute the tiebreaker we essentially give up on the match and all others like it, saying, "Oh well, let's get it over with so the network can run a sitcom."

That sucks, but there are other angles to consider. The health of the players is of major consideration in this debate. Wimbledon, Roland Garros and the Australian Open could have their cake and eat it if they opted to play a 5th-set tiebreakers at 10-10 (could be 12-12, you get the point). That way they could give fans the "extra innings" effect while not demanding an athlete to rip his body to shreds in the name of victory.

They'd also appease their sponsors, an overlooked but vitally important part of the equation.

Ending matches in a tiebreaker also makes sense from a player perspective. A guy like John Isner goes to 70-68 in the fifth set and his shoulder needs a 20-week ice-bath after the match? Not good for the player. We've seen it time and time again: Players on their last leg, fighting fatigue, keeling over, looking like they could use an IV. In a game that is ever more physical these days, is it smart to play these marathon matches when there is a clear cut and widely acceptable (see, soccer, the world's most popular sport) alternative?

Should Roger Federer and Andy Roddick have gone ahead and played a tiebreaker at 6-6 in the 2009 Wimbledon final? Opinions vary. They ended up playing 30 games, and while nobody really remembers many of the last 18 games of the final set, we all remember how the drama grew and the energy was frenzied. Partially due to that drama, it is one of the most memorable Grand Slam finals in recent memory.

You could say the same thing about Novak Djokovic and Stan Wawrinka in Australia earlier this year. It was the consensus best match of the year until Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal played their epic semifinal at Roland Garros, which needed extra games in the fifth set as well.

As the Blackhawks and Bruins skated through a grueling 112-plus minutes of hockey-affirming goodness on Wednesday night, tension mounted as well. It made for a great game--an unforgettable game. But it also wreaked havoc on TV and probably caused a few injuries that will end up keeping a few players on pain medications for the next 44 years.

There is drama and there is consequence, and they are both weighing on the scale that will eventually settle this debate.

Which brings me to my next question: We love to live vicariously through the exploits of our athletes, but in the end, are we asking too much from them?

On one hand we love the bloodsport/warrior aspect of a scrum that simply won't end because neither player will budge. On the other hand, we hate to see a  guy's shoulder get fried or his abdomen torn, or whatever, as his whole season goes up in smoke.

What is our mission here as a tennis community? Are we looking out for the players or are we looking out for bloodlust?