AO has been a showcase for the high-pressure genius of the 10-point tiebreaker

January 21, 2024

It culminated with Anna Blinkova beating Elena Rybakina in a 42-point spine-tingler in Melbourne last Thursday

Anna Blinkova
Anna Blinkova

“What in the living world is this match?” an incredulous Andrea Petkovic asked from her seat in the Rod Laver Arena commentary booth last Thursday night. “I don’t know if I want to cry or throw up.”

In reality, by that point in the evening, Petkovic and her broadcast partners, hearts pounding and adrenaline pumping, were standing up. The fans around them in the stadium had inched closer to the edges of their seats. Those on the grounds outside had gathered in front of the first TV sets they could find. Together, the tennis world shook its collective head as the third-set match tiebreaker between Anna Blinkova and Elena Rybakina went on...and on...and on, and the tension in the building ratcheted up and up and up.

10-10, 12-12, 15-15 (!) 18-18 (!!), 20-20 (!!!). Rybakina saved nine match points, some with cold-blooded ripcord forehands into the corners. Blinkova, who was fulfilling a lifelong dream by playing her first match in Laver, saved seven of them, one with a forehand she somehow whipped from below net level and curled just inside the sideline for a winner, another with a crosscourt backhand that dropped an inch inside the sideline.

The chair umpire had to tell the players, who may never have reached 15-15 or 18-18 in a tiebreaker before, when to change ends. As the numbers rose higher, there was an air of amazement in his voice when he called out the scores. By the time it was over, after 42 points and more than 30 minutes, Blinkova and Rybakina had played the longest match tiebreaker yet at a Grand Slam event.

While Blinkova had more match points, it was Rybakina who came the closest to winning it before the end. Up 18-17, she took control of a rally and forced Blinkova to sprint forward to track down a forehand. Blinkova made it there and snapped a passing shot crosscourt. Rybakina reached out with her long right arm and blocked the ball toward a wide-open court, for what seemed to be a match-ending winner. Instead, the ball went straight into the net.

Given new life, Blinkova made the most of it. At 19-19, with the match nearly three hours old, the Russian found a surge of energy. She hit a backhand winner to go up 20-19, a smash to go up 21-20, and then, on her 10th match point, she watched as Rybakina’s last backhand flew long. Blinkova, hands to face, walked over to celebrate with her team, the way players do when they win a Slam title.

“I was doing a lot of mental work, a lot of self-talk to just stay positive and telling myself that I still can win the match until the very end,” the 25-year-old, 57th-ranked Blinkova said.

“When I had opportunities, when I had match points, I was rushing. My hand was shaking. I tried to be aggressive, but I was making a lot of mistakes. Finally I was able to stay solid. In the last match point...I think I hit two backhands very short but very tough backhands. I’m super happy that I put them in the court.”

“I heard that this is the longest tiebreak ever. It’s crazy.”

Those words are likely music to the ears of Australian Open tournament director Craig Tiley. For decades, there was no agreement about how to end matches at the Slams. Should the final set be played out, with no tiebreaker? Should there be one at 6-6? How about 12-12? Each major went its own way, and there seemed to be no ideal answer. Playing it out often led to marathon final sets that left players and fans more exhausted than excited. But a seven-point tiebreaker seemed too truncated and anticlimactic - a crapshoot.

In 2019, the AO instituted a 10-point match tiebreaker at 6-6 of a final set, which was widely seen as a success. Matches no longer went to debilitating lengths, but at the same time the 10-pointer was a proper and fair finale. Since then, the other three majors have thrown out their own traditions and installed match tiebreakers at 6-6.

The wisdom of the move was in evidence all around Melbourne Park on Thursday. At one stage, two men’s matches were in simultaneous 10-point tiebreakers - Alexander Zverev and Casper Ruud, the sixth and 11th seeds, both survived, 10-7, over their game and unseeded opponents. But another seed, Jan-Lennard Struff, was caught at the finish line by Miomir Kecmanovic, 11-9.

And then there was Blinkova-Rybakina. Their tiebreaker showcased the compressed, pressurized genius of Jimmy Van Alen’s invention. Unlike in the rest of a tennis match, every point counts equally in a tiebreaker, and neither player has the advantage of the serve for more than two points at a time. In the extended 10-point version, it’s harder to win on momentum alone. Even if you go down by four or five points early, you’re not out of it.

Best, of course, are the spine-tingling stretches when every other point is a match point for one player or the other. In those moments, it can feel as if the competitors are way out on a tightrope together, trying to be the one who doesn’t fall off.

How did Blinkova stay there for two points longer than the No. 3 seed?

“If I have to say one word, I would say ‘courage,” she said. “It took me a lot of courage. I was going for it. I was trying to find the balance between being aggressive and being solid, not rushing, but trying to make her play one more shot, one more shot.”

It took courage to play, and, as Andrea Petkovic told us, it took almost as much courage to watch. Every tennis match should be that way. –

AO has been a showcase for the high-pressure genius of the 10-point tiebreaker