Advantage Who? The Quandary of the Advantage Set.
At the conclusion of Wimbledon, Roger Federer had successfully won the title for the eighth time. Yet, the story of the tournament was not just about Federer's incredible recovery from knee surgery in winning his second grand slam this year. It was a story of several top players withdrawing due to injury. These injuries called attention to the aspects of a grand slam match that cause particular wear and tear on the players. One of the more hotly debated aspects was the advantage set. The many issues associated with that format make it seem like a natural choice to be changed. However, the tradition and historic matches associated with it would make such a choice painful and perhaps unnecessary.
The advantage set is a particular format of set that is only seen during the deciding set (5th for men, 3rd for women) of a grand slam singles match. The US open does not use this format, but the remaining three grand slams do. The way this format works is that the set can not be decided by a tiebreak at 6 all, a player must instead be ahead by at least two games to win. As a result of this format, sets can reach a number of games that would be insane in any other context.
An example of an exceptionally large score occurred when John Isner defeated Nicolas Mahut 70-68 at Wimbledon during an advantage set. While this match no doubt left fans entertained if exhausted, it made it impossible for Isner to recover in time for his next match which he lost 6-0, 6-3, 6-2 to a challenger who's ranking was significantly worse than his. Exhaustion had left him incapable of even posing a challenge to his opponent, despite being the superior player. In fact, grand slam champion John McEnroe believes that the match might have shortened the players' careers by six months due to the mental and physical exhaustion inflicted on them. However, this issue is larger than one match. This Wimbledon, Gilles Muller defeated Rafael Nadal 15-13 in the fifth set. While he was still able to play a competitive match in the next round, Muller faded in the final set, losing it 6-1.
The issues with the advantage set goes beyond the players competing, however. Since the match ends much later than expected, the next match must be pushed back. This delay can result in the competitors in the following match losing a day of rest. In the case of Novak Djokovic, this lack of rest turned out to be particularly devastating as he had been dealing with pre-existing injuries and was forced to retire during his next match. That example reveals the issue with the advantage set. A champion like Djokovic should never lose because his match wasn't able to begin at the right time. The fans also faced the consequences, as their competitive quarterfinal match turned into a short easy victory at the hands of Djokovic's opponent, Tomas Berdych. Given these flaws, the smartest action would seem to be a tiebreak set regardless of circumstance. However, there is another side to the advantage set.
The advantage set has resulted in some of the iconic moments in tennis. The 2008 Wimbledon final is widely regarded as the greatest match of all time. The match is so iconic that it has a book written about it. It ended at 9-7 in the fifth set. Nadal vs Muller produced some incredible points and captivated audiences wondering if the match would ever end. Even the Isner vs Mahut match, despite its consequences, was an instant classic. A first round match between two players with little chance to actually win the tournament became an iconic match that will be remembered for years to come. Without the advantage set amazing points like this one will never be played when the stakes are the highest.
The advantage set has many negatives associated with it. However, it is iconic moments like this that make those negatives worth it.