View from the Chair
Not So Super: The Third-Set Tie-Breaker
by Chuck Kriese, 10 August 2012
At junior tournaments throughout the country, it has become common to use so-called ‘Super Tie-Breakers’ (STBs) instead of playing out third sets. These tie-breakers are being used in spite of disapproval from players, coaches and parents.
Chuck Kriese, JTCC Senior Director of Competition and Coaching
“It teaches our players some very bad habits about competition,” says Frank Salazar, the 2009 USOC National coach of the year. “The biggest problem is that it does not instill the qualities of what competition is really all about – most importantly, perseverance! Perhaps this has contributed to why very few young Americans are surfacing in tennis on the world scene. We are the only country in the world that uses this system, and maybe that says something about us falling behind.”
Cris Robinson, a coach from Richmond, Va. states, “We might be self-sabotaging player development with its use. Players grow the most when they learn how fight through hard matches and win. The byproduct is learning to think through adverse situations – while developing strength of body and mind along the way. If the player always engages the heart, the pain of losing will have its upside as well.” “The third set is where all of that learning takes place.”
Vesa Ponnka, the 2011 USOC National Coach of the Year says, “On the outside, the abbreviated matches have been viewed by tournament directors as a solution for playing many matches in a short period, but they have had a negative effect on youngster’s development. It is through tough, close, three-set wins and close losses that players usually make breakthroughs to a new level. Easy matches seldom pave the way for growth.”
Winning and Losing are both tools for growth. A player who wins does not earn full credit by winning a third-set tie-breaker; likewise, losing a tie-breaker instead of a third set makes it easier to shrug off a loss. As Salazar states, “The losses are supposed to hurt and the wins are supposed to feel really, really good. Both of these emotions are critical incentives for player improvement.”
Players Agree with Coaches
Likewise, many players like recent graduate Collin Johns, have spoken out against third-set STBs. “I take a lot of pride in my fitness and in the program of training that I do,” said Johns as a 17-year-old. “The ten-point breaker allows players to get victories without paying the full price. The skill and toughness that I gain though hard work should be my advantage, and the STB system doesn’t allow the work I do to make a difference.”
ATP professional Ryan Young holds a similar opinion. “The ability to carry leads throughout a long, tough match – and ultimately to finish off an opponent – are incredibly hard skills to learn,” he says. “There is no substitute for having to learn how to do this over and over again. Our sport has no clock to do the dirty work, and it is unlike any other when it comes to learning how to win. The third-set STB system is unfair to the favored player when the underdog knows from the start that it is a smaller mountain to climb in order to win. Tennis is a lot like boxing. You often don’t really gain small advantages on the lesser player until 45 minutes or an hour into the match. It is unfair to stop at the point when you finally gain control of the match and have to play a tie-break.”
Where Did the Third-Set Super Tie-Breaker System Come From?
The third-set STB was first tried at the college level back in the early 1990s. It was during an experimental era when college tennis was attempting to find a way to shorten matches to increase the fan appeal. It quickly flopped. Many top-ranked teams suffered upsets to lesser teams. For example, under the STB system, the Lander University (then Lander College) team beat the heavily favored University of Georgia by winning three of these 10-point STBs. Though abandoned for college dual matches, the system has crept into youth tennis as a solution to bigger draws and multiple consolation rounds.
Lately there seems to be an agenda to use them as it is the easiest way to get more players into events and to conduct back-draw matches as well. A tournament can run multitudes of matches and finish on time; however, the down-side of this approach lies in stunted development of the player. “The advantages of the STB are notable for a tournament director when there is bad weather or when indoor court space is limited,” says Bonnie Vona, Manager of Competitive Tennis and Player Development for Middle Atlantic Tennis. But she conversely points out, “The training of high-performance players requires full matches for best growth. “We probably need to define more clearly the differences between developmental needs of competitive players and recreational events.”
Are Traditional 2 out of 3 matches Too Strenuous for Younger Players?
A junior tennis official recently stated that the long matches in hot conditions were often too taxing on our young players. Citing a recent study done he maintained that STBs should be used to prevent injuries and health problems stating, “Our kids are often being exposed to tougher conditions than Marine Boot Camp.” Although convenient, this may not be the best correlation. All coaches and players know that acclimatization is a big part of being good. If players have properly conditioned, there are very few situations in a tennis match where overexertion becomes dangerous. When tennis players get fatigued or too hot to play, they simply miss balls and lose.
For certain, safety should always be a consideration. Tennis is primarily an outdoor sport. Hot and humid conditions are often an element of the game. Thus, conditioning and heat acclimatization is an essential training fundamental. If safety is really a concern, a medical waiver at tournaments would seem to be sufficient. Multiple sports that are much more dangerous already do this.
Perhaps we should Re-evaluate Doubles
Many coaches feel that the whole problem might be solved by making doubles more important again. “The skills used for doubles really round out a player’s game,” says former US Davis Cup Chairman Roy Barth.
Tournament officials are stuck however. With so many tournaments playing back draw consolation matches, shortened doubles matches are now being played as well. Limiting back draws to one extra match for first round loser is a recommendation. Doubles should go back to two-out of three sets for the best player development.
Two rounds of doubles should start the tournament as well. The doubles matches could be held in conjunction with participant socials and organizational meetings on the first eve of the event. If two doubles were played first, 75% of the doubles matches would be completed before singles were started. This would provide breathing room for the directors and other options.
Honoring the Game
The traditional tennis scoring system is one of our most sacred heirlooms. It should be protected as such. This scoring system sets multiple problem-solving opportunities that makes it quite unique. Based on threes, tennis scoring constantly tests one’s ability to construct and win points in sequences that constantly change and vary in pressure. A player can only go forward in levels of achievement when he or she has mastered the ability to manage these fluctuating pressures. The third-set STB fails to measure this nor does it measure important aspects of momentum-control and understanding of the flow of the match.
A bad rule is like a bad law. They are easy to implement, but very hard to eliminate. Our traditional scoring system is fundamental. Modifications like no-ad scoring, pro-sets and super tie-breakers are devaluing our game. Such scoring schemes should be abandoned.
Chuck Kriese was the head coach at Clemson University for 33 years, where his record earned him four National Coach of the Year Awards and a place in the National Collegiate Hall of Fame. The author of five books, Kriese has been involved more recently in instructing elite juniors, where he has coached five junior Grand Slam titles. Today, Coach Kriese is the Senior Director Competition and Coaching at the Junior Tennis Champions Center in College Park, Md. Visit his website at ChuckKriese.net.