The tie-break turns half a century in Barcelona
In 1971, the emergence in the Trofeo Conde de Godó of the professional tennis players of the World Tennis Championships (WCT), brought to Barcelona the most revolutionary novelty in the century-old way of counting the points played in a tennis match: the tie-break .
Since 1875, when the London Marylebone Cricket Club regulated the rules of tennis, rules that were adopted two years later by the All England Lawn Tennis Club of Wimbledon in its first edition of the tournament, the strange arithmetic of 15, 30 and 40 to decide the games it had remained unchanged. Breaking with that tradition, and adopting a new system to decide the sets, was a challenge for the technical direction of the Trofeo Conde de Godó.
Neither Roland Garros, nor Wimbledon, nor the Davis Cup qualifiers, the most followed events in our country, used the tie-break in 1971. Aware of this reality, Miguel Lerín, director of the Trofeo Conde de Godó, and Jaime Bartrolí, sports director of the RCTB-1899, organized a special session with the press to explain the details of the tie-break, and ask them to publish them in their papers to enlighten the fans. Lerín and Bartrolí indicated that “it will be easier to call the formula a tiebreaker than a tie-break, because that way it will be better understood that it has nothing to do with the classic formula.
Tennis player, musician, poet, editor, collector, civic leader and visionary, Jimmy van Alen was the inventor of the tie-break. The motto of his life was: “If you don’t risk deep, you can never reach the maximum.” His invention dates back to 1965, when in a study titled Van Alen Streamlined Scoring System (VASSS), he introduced the concept of sudden death, to break a set. In 1970, the US Open was the first Grand Slam to accept it, not without detractors, the so-called tie breaker.
James van Halen was born on September 19, 1902 in Newport, Rhode Island, into one of the most important families on the American scene. His grandfather, James John van Alen, known as ‘The American Prince of Wales’ was one of the leaders of New York society. His mother, Margaret Louise Post, was familiarly connected to the Vanderbilt and Astor families. Daisy, as she was colloquially known, was the most influential woman in Newport’s social life. There was no more luxurious and distinguished party in Newport than the Christmas Party that Daisy organized.
The Wakehurst Mansion in Newport, an exact replica of the British Wakehurst Palace, was the place where James van Alen grew up. The mansion had a multitude of servants, luxurious rooms decorated with armours and, at all times, a Rolls Royce parked in the entrance. Logically, the Van Alen were members of the Newport Casino, the fabulous club built by James Gordon Bennet, and the headquarters where the US National Championship, the current US Open, began to be played. The family owned luxurious mansions in New York, Paris, and London, an apartment in Madrid, and a condo in the Virgin Islands.
Van Alen began playing tennis on the courts of the Newport Casino. During his stay in Europe during university, he participated in tournaments on the Côte d’Azur (Nice, Monte Carlo and Cannes), at Wimbledon and at Roland Garros. Back in Newport, he married Eleanor Langley, daughter of one of the New York stock market magnates, in 1929. With the start of World War II, he enlisted in the US Navy, and collaborated on various editorial issues in the armed forces.
A collector of all things related to tennis, in 1954 he founded the International Tennis Hall of Fame. After the inauguration, he despaired watching the final of the tournament in which Richardson defeated Clarke 6-3, 9-7, 12-14, 6-8 and 10-8. “These games where you do not control the time are a Chinese torture for players, referees and public,” he told his friends who were impatient because they wanted to see Lew Hoad and Ken Rosewall, who played doubles, and whose game had to be changed .of court Eleven years later, he introduced VASSS.
The system consisted of playing leagues instead of direct elimination with the ‘system 31’. The following regulations were drawn up: “The game will be played to the best of 31 points with a difference of two. The service would be changed every five games, with change of side in the preceding games at 5, 15, 25, 35 points. The new server will serve his first service on the opposite side to the one that his rival served the last service, since in this way the same number of occasions will be served to the left and to the right. In the event of a tie at 30, another eight points will be played, with service change every two games, to determine the winner, and so on in the event of a tie at 34 or successive“.
The idea appealed to almost no one, and James was dubbed the ‘Newport Bolshevik’ for his proposed revolution. But Van Alen did not give up, he put $ 10,000 at stake among 10 professionals (Laver, Rosewall, Gonzales, Drysdale and Segura between them) to play a tournament with their system. His detractors dubbed it ‘The Guinea Pig Derby’. The arguments were that the formula benefited the big servers. Laver won the tournament, pocketing about $ 2,000, but what worked best about System 31 was the tiebreaker: sudden death.
Bill Talbert, director of the US Open, showed his interest in the idea of Van Halen, who put system 31 in a drawer, and focused on improving the tiebreaker formula. When Talbert announced that the tournament would be played with sudden death when it was tied at 6 in a set, many tennis players openly criticized him. “Players don’t buy tickets,” was the phrase with which Talbert replied.
The most curious thing was the reaction of the public, most of whom had no idea how it worked. To do this, Van Alen and Bill Talbert came up with something very curious. When the tie was reached at six games, the referee raised a scarlet red flag with the letters S and D (sudden death) clearly visible and stamped in white. Also, although much smaller in size, the flag had a logo formed by a V crossed with an A (Van Alen).
“Although they did not know the rules, the spectators recognized that it was the decisive moment, and there was an eerie silence. The tension seemed to multiply“, Arthur Ashe explained of that first experience. Rod Laver was the one who commented that the formula had been liked, but that an 8-point tiebreaker was too short to close an intense set. Van Alen found Laver’s assessment to be correct. A few days later, at the indoor tournament in Philadelphia, he went from sudden death to tie breaker, the formula that still exists today.
In his debut in Barcelona, the tie-break was applied in 21 matches, 10 singles and 11 doubles. The first was played between Luis Bruguera and Australian Phil Dent in the first round, and was won by the father of the current captain of the Spanish Davis Cup team. Only one match was resolved only in tie-breaks, the quarterfinal of the doubles event in which Marty Riessen and Tom Okker beat Arthur Ashe and Bob Lutz by a double 7-6. Just three singles matches saw a tie-break outcome. A total of six doubles were decided with a final tie break, including the final in which Zeljko Franulovic and Juan Gisbert beat Andrés Gimeno and Cliff Drysdale 7-6, 6-2 and 7-6.