6 March 2019

Who serves first in a tiebreak?


Speak for yourself, you might say, but why do we find it so difficult to remember who serves first in a tiebreak? We're on a mission to make sure we never forget again


Tiebreaks (or tiebreakers to give them their full name) have been with us since the mid Sixties - the invention of Cambridge-educated American, sometime player and all-round dilettante, Jimmy Van Alen. Van Alen was on a mission to simplify tennis, but it is for the tiebreak that he is best remembered.

According to the late, great historian of tennis, Bud Collins, it was missing the cocktail hour by sitting through a particularly long and tiresome final that convinced Van Alen that change was needed. Thanks to Van Alen, matches like the first-round contest between Pancho Gonzales and Charlie Pasarell at Wimbledon in 1969, which ended 22-24, 1-6, 16-14, 6-3, 11-9 in Gonzales's favour, are a thing of the past.

Stefan EdbergAs Stefan Edberg sportingly said after losing to Michael Stich 4-6 7-6 (7-5) 7-6 (7-5) 7-6 (7-2) in the Wimbledon final of 1991, "I guess if Mr Van Alen hadn't lived, Michael and I would still be out there playing."

But that doesn't answer the question: why do we find it so hard to remember who serves first in the tiebreak and come to that, who serves first in the set that follows?

Mostly, we suspect, the confusion is because it seems strange that the player who wins the toss and elects to serve in a set, also serves first in the tiebreak. Add to that the problem that from the second point of the tiebreak, players appear to be serving to the wrong side of the court and you a have the recipe for mini tennis breakdown.

So, here is how to remember what happens...


Explanation for rule takers

It couldn't be simpler, so long as you can remember the rules... Here's what the ITF says:

  • The player whose turn it is to serve, shall serve the first point of the tie-break game.
  • The player/team whose turn it was to serve first in the tie-break game shall be the receiver in the first game of the following set.

Explanation for logicians

Keep in mind that the rules of tennis are all about making sure neither player gets an unfair advantage AND that the tiebreak is actually the thirteenth game of the set. At six games all, the player due to serve next begins the next game - ie the tiebreak. To keep the tiebreak fair and prevent the server getting an advantage at the start of the breaker, he or she gets just one serve and sensibly enough, that serve is from the deuce side of the court - the side from which all games are begun. 

Once a tiebreak is started, to ensure players have a chance to serve to both sides of the court, each player has two serves.

OR, just remember these takeaways

Luckily it all boils down to a few simple immutable laws of tennis:

  • The player who serves first in the set, always and without exception, serves first in the tiebreak
  • The player who served in the twelfth game of the set, always receives first in the tiebreak
  • All games, including tiebreaks, are always begun with a serve to the deuce court

And what about doubles?

Doubles works in pretty much the same way.

Tiebreaks follow the sequence of play established in the set, so whoever is due to serve next at the end of game twelve, serves first in the tiebreak. The serving team cannot change the server and the similarly the receiving team has to stick with the same sides of the court (i.e. whoever was receiving on the deuce court during the set receives first in the tiebreak).

Note though, at the beginning of the next set, either team may swap their position on court, electing to play on the forehand or backhand (and you don't need to tell your opponents).

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 Inset pic, Stefan EdbergCreative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported