July 25, 1970 : The day the USTA announced the introduction of a tie-break
- 25 Jul 2020
What happened exactly on that day and why it is memorable in tennis history
On this day, the 25th of July 1970, the United States Tennis Association officially announced one of the biggest changes in tennis rules : the introduction, at the 1970 US Open, of a sudden-death nine-point tie-break, still very different from the tie-break we know today. This new addition was hated by the players but loved by the crowds as well as TV broadcasters, who could now predict with more accuracy the duration of a tennis match. Although its rules would evolve in the following years to make it more fair to the players, the tie-break would progressively become the general rule in almost all tennis events throughout the world.
The tie-break was initially invented by James Van Halen, founder of the International Tennis Hal of Fame, in the 1950’s. In order to shorten tennis sets, and thus tennis matches, and make them easier to schedule and more suitable for TV broadcast, he came up with the idea of a nine-point tie-break. The rules were simple : if the players reached six games all, the set was to be won by the first who would reach five points, with a sudden-death point played at 4-4.
To test this new format, Van Halen organised an invitation professional event in Newport, attracting some of the best players in the world, such as Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall, with great prize money. On the 10th of July 1965, for the first time, Mike Davis and Luis Ayal reached six games all : for the first time, Van Halen could wave a red flag to emphasize the start of the first tie-break in tennis history, won by Mike Davis.
In the following years, Van Halen kept advocating for his “breaker”, as he liked to call it. Despite the interest of TV broadcasters, who saw an opportunity to fit live tennis more easily into their programs, it took a few years before Van Halen could convince anyone to try the tie-break in a major event. It eventually happened in 1970, when Bill Talbert, director of the US Open, decided to institute the nine-point sudden-death tie-break in every set. On the 25th of July, 1970, Talbert stated, according to the New-York Times :
“We consider this to be major step forward for the game of tennis. “It provides tennis with a finish line, such as we have in racing, basketball, football and other major sports. No longer will a tennis match drag on for hours. It will be played within a sensible, predictable amount of time, enabling spectators to estimate the length of a match and make their plans accordingly. (…) Sudden ‐ death retains the element of stamina in lengthy matches. But it will force players to improve one of the most ignored aspects of the game, the return of serve. Now the guy with the big serve will also have to learn how to hit the serve back.”
However, not all the players shared Talbert’s enthusiasm, as, in the event of a sudden-death, one of the players would serve five times. Rod Laver, for example, called the nine-point system “unfair”.
Six weeks later, in early September, the US Open started with the new rule. Twenty-six nine-point tie-breaks would be played on the very first day of the tournament. While the spectators would love the drama, the players would still complain a lot about the sudden-death tie-break, and, in 1975, Peter Jones, from the LTA, would design a new tie-break, the one we know today, including the change of sides every six points to maintain fairness.
Throughout the 1970’s, most of the tennis events would adopt the tie-break. At Wimbledon, for instance, it was first decided to play a tie-break at 8-8 in each set but the fifth, and, in 1979, it was played at 6-6. The last major event to introduce the tie-break would be the Davis Cup, which would only change its rules in 1989.
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