June 14, 1997: The day the longest tiebreak in history changed the game on grass
- 14 Jun 2020
What happened exactly on that day
On this day, June 14, 1997, in the Queen’s Club Championships semi-final, Goran Ivanisevic and Greg Rusedski tied the longest tiebreak in a men’s singles match, with the Croatian, winning 20-18 to seal the victory in three sets, 4-6 6-4 7-6. Two 38 points tiebreaks had been played before
- In 1973, at Wimbledon, won by Bjorn Borg against Premjit Lall;
- At the 1993 US Open, won by Ivanisevic against Daniel Nestor.
The 1997 Queen’s Club tiebreak was remarkable. Not only because Ivanisevic was tying the record a second time, but also because it was the start of Rusedski’s best six months which would lead him to his best-ever ranking, world no.4. This super long tiebreak between two big servers also contributed to the general tendency to slow down the conditions of play in order to see longer rallies and entertain the public.
Goran Ivanisevic, the serial-server
Goran Ivanisevic was born in 1971, and he had his breakthrough year in 1990, at the age of 19. That year, he made himself famous by reaching the quarter-finals at Roland-Garros after defeating world no.3 Boris Becker in the first round, just before reaching the Wimbledon semi-final where the same Becker defeated him (4-6 7-6 6-0 7-6). In 1991, his season was disturbed by political issues : his country, Yugoslavia, was ravaged by civil war and he couldn’t focus on tennis. In 1992, he came back to the top and, firing 206 aces during the tournament, he reached the Wimbledon final where he was defeated in five sets by Andre Agassi (6-7 6-4 6-4 1-6 6-4).
In the five following years, Ivanisevic remained a solid top 10 players, claiming 14 titles and reaching at least the quarter-finals in every Grand Slam tournament. In 1994, after reaching a second Wimbledon final (lost to Pete Sampras, 7-6 7-6 6-0), he obtained his highest ranking as world no.2. Left-handed, Ivanisevic’s attacking game relied mostly on an extremely precise serve. In 1996, he served an unbroken record of 1 477 aces in one season. Ivanisevic was also known for his emotional outbursts and his habit of smashing an unusual amount of rackets.
Greg Rusedski, the serve-and-volley specialist
Greg Rusedski, born in 1973, was also left-handed and his serve and volley game depended on his massive serve. After entering the top 100 in January 1995, he was ranked No 44 when he arrived at the Queen’s Club, in June 1997. He had claimed three titles before, the first in Newport, on grass, in 1993, and the most important in 1996 in Beijing, where he defeated Martin Damm in the final (7-6 6-4). So far, his best result in a Grand Slam tournament was a fourth round reached at Wimbledon in 1995, when he was defeated by the future champion Pete Sampras (6-4 6-3 7-5).
The Queen’s Club, founded in 1886, was the first multi-sport complex ever built. Its main activity was tennis, and it was owned by the British Lawn Tennis Association from 1953 to 2007. The Queen’s Club Championships were held there since 1890. Considered as the second main grass court event after Wimbledon, numerous tennis legends lifted its trophy through the years. Up to June 2005, six times, the All England Club champion had triumphed at the Queens before : John McEnroe did it twice (1981, 1984), followed by Jimmy Connors in 1982, Boris Becker in 1985, Pete Sampras in 1999 and Lleyton Hewitt in 2002. That’s why the Queen’s final was always watched closely by the pundits.
In this 1997 Queen’s Club Championship, Goran Ivanisevic was seed no.3. Even if his 1997 season had not been great so far, it was not a surprise to see him performing well on grass, his favourite surface. After all, he had reached two Wimbledon finals in the last four years. He had not lost a set before the semi-final against Greg Rusedski.
On his way to the semi-final, Rusedski, world no.44, defeated three Australian players : Mark Woodforde in the first round (4-6 6-4 6-3), Scott Draper in the third round (6-3 6-2) and Patrick Rafter in the quarter finals (4-6 7-5 6-3).
With two left-handed big servers like Ivanisevic and Rusedski facing each other on grass, the audience expected the rallies to be few and far off. They were right. Although the Croatian, who had won their four encounters before, was favourite, Rusedski managed to take the first set 6-4 with one break, while Ivanisevic claimed the second set on the same mark. In the third set, the players did not even get close to obtain a break opportunity and they ended up playing a last set tie-break, where they both defended six match points before Ivanisevic eventually sealed his win to reach the final, 20-18.
Goran Ivanisevic would be defeated in the final by Mark Philippoussis, in a match which would remain famous because in the second set, the Croatian, clueless, would handle his racket to a ballgirl and let her play a point against the Australian giant. Ivanisevic would lose a third Wimbledon final in 1998, against Pete Sampras (6-7 7-6 6-4 3-6 6-2). This loss would devastate him and he would brutally decline in the following years, until, in 2001, entering the Wimbledon draw as world no.121 thanks to a wild card, he would eventually make his dream come true by edging Patrick Rafter in the final at the All England Club (6-3 3-6 6-3 2-6 9-7). Suffering from a shoulder injury, the Croatian would then scarcely play on the tour and he would officially retire in 2004, having claimed a total of 22 titles since his professional debut.
Greg Rusedski would not be stopped on his way up by this close loss and he would make 1997 the peak year of his career. The following week, he would claim the title in Nottingham, edging Karol Kucera in the final (6-4 7-5). Rusedski would then achieve the two best Grand Slam results of his life, by reaching the quarter finals at Wimbledon (defeated by Cédric Pioline, 6-4 4-6 6-4 6-3), and above all, the US Open final which he would lose to Patrick Rafter (6-3 6-2 4-6 7-5). Rusedski would claim his biggest title in 1998, in Paris-Bercy, where he would beat Pete Sampras in the final, for the only time in ten encounters (6-4 7-6 6-3). The same year, he would fire the fastest serve in tennis history, at 149 mph, which would be only beaten in 2004 by Andy Roddick. He would lift the last of his fifteen trophies on grass, in Newport, in 2005, before he would quit professional tennis in 2007.
Four 38-point tie-breaks would be played after the Ivanisevic-Rusedski 1997 effort, the last one won by Andy Murray against Philipp Kohlschreiber in 2017 in Dubai. Although this record would not be beaten on the main tour, in 2013, in the last round of the qualifications of a future event in Plantation, Benjamin Balleret would win a 60-point tie-break (36-34!) against Guillaume Couillard.