6 September 2019

The surprising secret of tie break success

Later this month, Local Tennis Leagues is teaming up with the Pavilion in north London, the LTA and Tie Break Tens to run a half day tournament playing nothing but tie breaks. It will be fast and furious and a lot of fun. But when it comes to tactics, what is the best way to play a tie break

Tie Break Tens London

UNFORTUNATELY, this event has been cancelled because of the weather

Local Tennis Leagues has teamed up with the LTA and the Pavilion tennis centre to offer you the chance to try Tie Break Tens, an exciting new concept in tennis. To book your place, sign up here

Every point counts in tennis. But in a tie break, it seems every point really counts. A tie break is a game stripped to its bare bones. No one can get into their serving rhythm and every point ratchets up the stakes.

But tie breaks are funny things. If you asked anyone in tennis last year who triumphed best in tie breaks, they would have said Roger Federer. He is the only player in history to win more than 400 tour level tie breaks. He has won 65.1% of those he played and you might have bet the house that he would win a tie break in the Wimbledon finals. But this year, agonisingly, he lost not one but two, just when it seemed the championship that had been his for the taking. What was going on?

At Tie Break Tens the tie break is seen as the great leveller. "Every point counts" is their slogan and upsets are a core part of the format. When Kyle Edmund beat Andy Murray in the finals of the Royal Albert Hall event in 2015, the suprise win proved to be a launchpad for his pro career.

It’s commonly assumed big serves rule the tie breaks. But serves are perhaps more important in whether not you get to tie break in the first place than they are during the breaker itself.  In this year's US Open, up to the quarter finals and per sets played, women have played far fewer tie breaks than the men (in 8.7% of the women’s sets, compared with 18.8% for the men). Presumably this is because women find it easier to break each other’s serve, and if you get one break, you’ve won the set. Men’s serves are so much harder to break, they are more likely to find themsleves at 6-6.

Having got here, can you assume a big serve will be superior? Not necessarily says Tennis blogger Jeff Sackmann. Having run extensive stats on the pro game, he concludes, on his site TennisAbstract.com,

“There is no consistent statistical relationship between big serving and outperforming tiebreak expectations."

Nor does a player’s history count for anything.  “Tiebreak performance one year doesn’t predict tiebreak performance the next," concludes Sackmann. 

So what does work? Clever tactics are worth considering.  As we have written prevoiusly in the Round up after Wimbledon, the ATP reckoned it was Djokovic’s ability to keep Federer pinned to the baseline during the tie breaks which won him the match, not his serve.

Practice also helps.

"The more match-court breakers you play, the better you become,”

says Sackmann. “Isner, Federer, Sampras–they spend more time at 6-6 than almost anyone, and their tiebreak records are among the best.”

But these are only a small part of the story. After pouring over the pros results, Sackmann is baffled.  Overall, tie break results are so random, no singletheory can explain the results. Maybe, concludes Sackmann, the results are down to that most elusive and random thing of all: luck.