Tennis has witnessed only one major rule in its traditional history of scoring system. This particular change carried a certain force with it. A force which was able to manipulate the minds and adrenaline of not only the spectators but also the players themselves. This rule is popularly known as the “tiebreak.”
For James Van Allen, the deuce system was a 0=huge boondoggle. As a young man, Allen used to play tennis on grass courts. Years passed and he became the director of the Newport Casino. Every summer a tennis tournament was held for amateur tennis players. It was called the “Men’s Invitational.” In 1954, Ham Richardson and Straight Clark were the two finalists at the event. Little did the two players know that their match would be so frustrating for James Van Allen that it would ignite a chain of ideas in his mind. Richardson went on to win the match 6-3, 9-7, 12-14,6-8, 10-8. The crowd was relieved that match was finally over, for they were there to witness the upcoming match that featured Ken Rosewall and Lew Hoad.
When the Richardson match came to an end, Van Allen shared what went through his mind,
“It struck me,” Van Alen said, “that there had to be a better, more exciting way to control the length of matches without those damnable deuce sets. Matches like that are Chinese water torture for players, court officials, and fans alike. With deuce in there,” he said, “matches are theoretically interminable. You ought to be able to schedule tennis matches at specific times like any other sport.”
When all the grumbling came to peace, Van Allen put forth a new scoring system. He named it the “Van Allen Simplified Scoring.” Allen proposed this scoring system for two reasons:
– To shorten and try to keep a fixed time limit for matches
– To limit the advantage that rested with the players with powerful serves
THE FIRST ATTEMPT
Van Allen proposed his scoring system in the 1950s. In 1955 and 1956 at the United States Pro Championships, the VASSS rules were first incorporated. The rules were similar to table tennis.
– 21 points comprised a set.
– Players altered serves after every 5 points.
– No second serves
– A set should be over in 30 minutes or less
These rules though were not accepted positively by the players and the spectators. As a result, they resorted to the earlier scoring system from 1957 onwards.
THE SECOND ATTEMPT
Many tennis players and pundits of that time believed that Van Allen hindered the traditional system of tennis scoring by attempting to eliminate the deuce. But Van Allen was adamant. It seemed as if he wanted to convert the tag of “traitor” to “revolutionary.” And thus, Van Allen gave a second shot, this time with different rules in his “tiebreaker.”
To see a practical example of this scoring system, he staged an event at a level which was undoubtedly a risky effort. He called for the pros. So where is the risk part? Well, Van Allen himself was an amateur.
In 1965, in his kingdom of Newport Casino, Van Allen staged an event with the prize money of $10,000 at stake. One of the pros called this event “The Guinea Pig Derby.” Van Allen proposed two versions of his tiebreaker. The version that he used in this particular event was the 9-point tiebreaker system.
– The players play a tiebreak consisting of nine points.
– The winner can win with a difference of one point.
– At 4-4, a sudden death is played. Whoever wins the next point, wins the tiebreaker. This tiebreak was thereby also known as sudden death tiebreaker.
Due to its amazing acceptance among the fans, this scoring system was used in the US Open from 1970 to 1974. Rod Laver was not a fan of the Sudden Death.
In the second version of VASSS, a 12 point tiebreak system was structured.
– First to 7 points with a difference of 2 points wins
– After 6 points, the players change sides
– The tiebreak may extend beyond 12 points till a difference of two points is reached. Thereby, it was also known as lingering tiebreak.
Van Allen preferred the Sudden death over the Lingering tiebreak. This was because in sudden death Van Allen’s main purpose of limiting the time of matches was served.
Two things happened in tennis that year,
– The VASSS rules were successful
– The first electric scoreboard system was introduced.
THE SCARLET BANNER
“It’s eerie what the tiebreakers do,” Arthur Ashe said at the 1970 U.S. Open. “Those red flags are out and the crowd is absolutely silent.”
In 1970s, when the VASSS was used as a part of the US Open, a prominent feature was the hurling of scarlet banner. The banner bore the letters “V-A-S-S.” When the spectators saw the banner, they knew the set score was 6-6 and it was time for the tiebreak. The crowd would go silent and sit still in anticipation of nail-biting rallies. Such was the effect of the Sudden Death, that the players came under great pressure. The gravity surrounding them increased by ten folds. No, these are not mere exaggerations. They were justified when the players signed a petition to scrap off the sudden death.
“I feel like I’m getting a heart attack playing the tiebreaker,” Gonzalez said.
“Extraordinarily nerve-wracking,” echoed Drysdale.
“Never been in anything like that before,” said a bewildered Rosewall.
But, Bill Talbert, who was the director of the US Open then, went against the players and allowed the continuation of the tiebreak. He only said one thing,
“Players don’t buy tickets.”
TOURNAMENTS WELCOME THE VASSS
1971- 13 point tiebreak was introduced in Wimbledon. It was played when the set score reached 8-8.
1979 – Tiebreak at Wimbledon was played when the set score was 6-6. Tiebreaks were not played in the final set.
1989 – Tiebreak introduced the tiebreak in all sets except the final set. From 2016, it was used even in final sets.
2001 – 10 point tiebreak system introduced at Australian Open in Mixed doubles.
2016- Final set tiebreaks introduced in Olympics.
Tiebreaks are played in both singles and doubles at US Open. It is the only grand slam tournament to use a final set tiebreak in singles. The Australian Open and the French Open now allow final set tiebreaks in doubles.
“Sports do not build character. They reveal it.”