What is a tie break in tennis? The Types and Rules of Tiebreakers

In tennis, a tie break is a special point scoring system used to, you guessed it, break a tied score. This format occurs in two different scenarios and with varying rules for each. In this article, we will discuss the varying types of tiebreakers in the tennis scoring system, when to use them, and even some tips for how to win a tiebreak.

Twin boys playing tennis tie breaker

Why is a tiebreaker used?

Before the tiebreaker came on the scene in tennis, many tennis matches lasted much longer than tournament directors and television schedules could allow for. Set scores of 12-10 or 16-14 were not uncommon. John Newcombe beat Marty Riessen 25-23 in one of the longest sets ever at the US Open Grand Slam Tournament.

Did you know?

The longest match ever played lasted 11 hours and 5 minutes. A tiebreaker could definitely have helped shorten that match.

Temperatures at the Australian Open often get in the upper 90’s so a new rule in 2013 halts play when the temperature gets to 95 degrees. Keep in mind, these are “shade” temperatures so the court (when in the sun) can rise to 125 to 130 degrees. 

I remember as a junior player I was playing a tournament in Oklahoma and the temperature was 105 degrees in the shade. This was before the onset of “electrolyte drinks” and shaded on court awnings. This particular match was a 3-set match and the final set was 12-10. It lasted 3 ½ hours and was brutal! 

The Tiebreaker Scoring System in Tennis

There are 2 types of tiebreaks in tennis. The first is a “sudden death” 7-point tiebreak scoring system used at 6 games all. The second is a 10-point tiebreak instead of a 3rd set (or 5th set at a Grand Slam Tournament).

when to play a tennis tie breaker

The 7-Point Tie Break in Tennis

A 7-point tiebreak also known as a tiebreaker happens on a tie score of 6-6 (6 games all). At this point, the players will engage in a 7-point tiebreak to determine who wins the set. The first player or doubles team to reach 7 points wins the tiebreak and the set.

Keep in mind however, the tiebreak has 2 point margin to win. For example, if the score is 7 points to 6, they keep playing until one player or doubles team wins by 2 points. The tiebreak score could be 7-5, 8-6, 9-7, etc. There is no limit to the number of points that can happen until one player wins by 2.

Once the tiebreak is complete, it counts as one game. So, the set score is then 7 games to 6 games regardless of how many points played to determine the winner of the tiebreak.

Key Takeaway

A 7-point tiebreaker breaks a tied set while a 10-point tiebreaker replaces the 3rd set.

Who serves first and when do the players change ends?

Using the “original” tiebreak scoring, in a tiebreak game, the next person who was due to serve will start the tiebreak game, and serve one point to the deuce side of the court. The opponent serves the next two points starting on the ad side. This rotation of serving one to the ad side and serving one to the deuce side continues until the tiebreak is complete. The players change ends after every 6 points. 

The “Cowman” tiebreak format and history

The Coman tiebreak procedure plays out the same as the standard tiebreak except that court sides or ends change more often. In the Coman system, sides change after the first point, then after every four points (i.e., after the 5th, 9th, 13th, 17th points, etc.) and after the tiebreak.

Balboa Tennis Club players created the Coman Tiebreak when they realized it was unfair to wait for six points until sides change. In 1985, the USTA (United States Tennis Association) designated the Coman Tiebreak as an “experimental tiebreak”. In the early 2000s, it became standard for national league play.

In 2004, the name changed from the “Balboa” to the “Coman” tiebreak in memory of John Coman, a recently-deceased player who was a strong proponent of the tiebreak. 

What are the advantages of the Coman Tiebreak?

The first advantage is that it creates a fairer tiebreak. Using the original tiebreak, a player may have to serve looking into the sun for 6 points. Changing ends more frequently distributes the effects of the sun or wind more evenly. Also, in doubles, the server will always serve from the same end of the court, rather than serving from both ends. 

The 10-Point Tie Break (or Super Tiebreaker)

The USTA uses the 10-point tiebreak or “Super Tiebreak” instead of the 3rd set.  When the set scores are 1-1, the first player or doubles team to win 10 points by a 2-point margin shall win the tiebreak and the match.

In doubles, the individual team can decide which partner will serve first as it is the beginning of a new set. It plays like the 7-point tiebreak except the score goes to 10 points. Players change ends of the court after the first point and every four points thereafter (1, 5, 9, 13).

All four Grand Slam tennis tournaments will now use a 10-point tiebreaker when matches reach 6-6 in the final set. The Grand Slam Board announced the trial move on behalf of The Australian Open, The French Open, Wimbledon, and The US Open tennis tournaments.  

Tips for Beating Your Opponent in a Tiebreak

When you’re in a tie breaker in tennis, the key is to keep your opponent guessing. Here are a few tips to help you beat your opponent:

  1. Stay calm. It can be easy to get rattled in a tiebreak, but take some deep breaths, stay calm, and stay focused on what you need to do.
  2. Don’t reinvent the wheel. For example, if you haven’t hit a drop shot the entire match, trying to hit one during a tiebreak is Not the time to try it. 
  3. Use what strategy has proven successful. If you have been winning points by being steady and staying in the point, then continue with this strategy. A sudden change of tactics is not the best choice in a tiebreak.
  4. Focus on getting your first serve in. Trying to hit an “ace” could just lead to a double fault and give your opponent the edge up. Every point in a tiebreak is critical! 
  5. Don’t ever give up. If you get way behind in a tiebreak, the tendency is just to give up. Remember that it’s not over until it’s over. I was playing a doubles match in a USTA League recently and my partner and I were in a super tiebreak for the 3rd set. Somehow we got down 9-5, and my partner looked like a balloon that had just deflated, but I told him “Don’t Give Up”! Our opponents only need 1 point to win the tiebreak and the match. We won the next point, and the next point until we were tied 9-9. At that point, I knew the tide had shifted. My partner and I ended up winning the tiebreak 12-10 and the match! 
A man stuck in a tennis net after playing a difficult point

Tennis Tie Break FAQ

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