Business News/ Mint-lounge / Mint-on-sunday/  Game, set and (an epic) match

Meanwhile in tennis news—tennis doubles news—one team has just defeated another in a tie-break. Not your routine tie-break, but what’s believed to be the second longest tie-break in the recorded history of tennis, and therefore that word “just" might be rather appropriate. In Washington on Wednesday, Juan Sebastian Cabal and Robert Farah beat Austin Krajicek and Nicholas Monroe, 25-23 in a first-set tie-break. (Second only to a 26-24 tie-break from Wimbledon in 1985.)

There are several sports in which scoring depends on the idea of a “difference of two". Meaning, you win a game only if your count of points won beats your opponent’s by two or more. Tennis takes it further: you win a set only if your count of games won beats your opponent’s count in the same way. It’s a good thing tennis doesn’t extend the same principle to sets won. Or Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe might still be playing their riveting 1980 Wimbledon final, if on increasingly creaky legs.

This principle’s point—no pun intended, I promise—is simple. You want a victory to mean something beyond one great shot, one fluke shot. That is, do it at least twice in a row. Show us that you are at least two-in-a-row better than your opponent. Thus, it works like this. From a 30-30 score in a game, one player must win two successive points. Until that happens, the game is not won. The same principle applies to scoring the set. (Used to, actually, but I will come to that later.) From a 4-4 score in a set, one player has to win two successive games; meaning, she must break her opponent’s serve and hold her own. Until that happens, the set is not won.

This long-accepted principle is the reason for plenty of the drama tennis can throw up. You will hear announcers say in hushed tones: “Fifth deuce in this game!" Or they will tell you that a great player plays the “big points" better, often meaning the tension-wracked tussle for that second point in a row.

Theoretically, this struggle for a difference of two points can go on forever. But in practice, one player eventually does win twice from deuce and takes the game.

But when the principle applies to a set, it produces problems. Not for tennis fanatics like me who like long matches, but for the organizers of tournaments, charged with piffling details like scheduling. A set is won with six games and a difference of two, but that gap is much harder to achieve than with points. At Wimbledon in 1969, for example, Pancho Gonzales and Charlie Pasarell played a 24-22 set. Forty-six games for Pasarell to win it, but that was only the first set. They played four more and Gonzales won the match; the third went 16-14, the fifth 11-9.

Put that 46 in perspective by noting that in this year’s Wimbledon final, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer played four sets for a total of 45 games. Imagine playing the equivalent of a full match, but 80% of your match still lies ahead.

And yet, Gonzales and Pasarell were thoroughly shaded by Nicolas Mahut and John Isner in 2010. Isner won that Wimbledon match with a scarcely-believable fifth-set score of 70-68. 138 games for Isner to go up by two!

The match was a Twitter sensation the world over; Wimbledon put a plaque on the court where it happened; both men are asked about it all the time; and Isner, especially, is forever the “Marathon Man" of tennis. Plenty of drama, oh yes. But the prospect that tennis could produce marathons like this—that every set could end up like this—is the reason somebody introduced tennis to the tie-breaker in 1970.

If one player in a match hasn’t managed to win six games in a set with at least a two-game lead, they get one more chance to end it the conventional way. Meaning, seven games with a difference of two: 7-5. But if they are locked at 6-6, the tie-breaker kicks in, counting as the last (13th) game in the set. Serving two points each in turn, they play until one has won seven points.

The two-point margin remains: You win a tie-breaker 7-5 or better, or you keep playing until one player has two more than the other.

Once more, this can theoretically go on forever. But like in a game that goes to deuces, in practice, one player eventually does establish his two-point lead and takes the breaker. Takes the set 7-6.

And then they might play on. Like Krajicek, Monroe, Cabal and Farah did. One more set they played, and it ended 6-3 in favour of Cabal and Farah, who won the match. Think of it: the 48 points that they played in that tie-breaker might have been more—I don’t know, but it’s possible—than they played in that entire second set.

But here’s the interesting thing about tie-breakers. You could say that there remains a lingering impression that they don’t quite determine the superiority of one or the other player. That there’s still an element of luck—the chance one man hits two fluke shots in succession—and luck shouldn’t decide the winner of a set, let alone a match. So, while every tournament in the world now routinely uses tie-breakers, three of the four biggest tournaments—the Grand Slams—make exceptions.

The US Open has no problems with tie-breakers. But at the Australian Open, the French Open and Wimbledon, the fifth set cannot end in a tie-breaker. This is their concession to the legacy of tennis as it was originally played, to the possibility of indefinite tennis drama that so many of us loved. If a match goes to a fifth set at any of these three Slams, opponents must battle until one breaks the other’s serve and wins by a margin of two games.

Which is why Mahut and Isner whacked balls across that grass court through 138 games in their fifth set. Choose your particular drama: a 48-point tie-breaker? Or a 138-game set?

Once a computer scientist, Dilip D’Souza now lives in Mumbai and writes for his dinners. His latest book is Final Test: Exit Sachin Tendulkar.

Twitter: @DeathEndsFun

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Updated: 08 Aug 2015, 11:32 PM IST
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