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FedEx Reliability Zone: Tie-Break Titans

Career Tie-Break Records

Safin, Federer 2004 Tennis Masters Cup© Getty ImagesRoger Federer beat Marat Safin 6-3 7-6(18) at the 2004 Tennis Masters Cup in Houston.

The US Open is the only Grand Slam championship that features a fifth-set tie-break. This month we take an in-depth look at tie-break records using the FedEx ATP Reliability Index, with exclusive analysis from former ATP World Tour players.

Ever since the tie-breaker, conceived by Jimmy Van Alen, was sanctioned by the United States Tennis Association in 1970, partly to accommodate television at that year's US Open, the need to win by two games after the score reached 6-6 in each set was eliminated. It has been one of the only significant departures from the sport's rules.

For tournament directors, tie-breaks come as a schedule-making relief; for fans, the sudden-death method provides instant theatre. But for the players, it is a nerve-frazzling lottery - no matter how often they have played tie-breaks in practice.

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In the 42 tennis seasons since the inception of the tie-break, there have been six instances of 20-18 scores in singles matches - including 1973-Wimbledon, Bjorn Borg beat Premjit Lall; 1993-US Open, Goran Ivanisevic beat Daniel Nestor; 1997-Queen's Club, Ivanisevic beat Greg Rusedski; 2004-Tennis Masters Cup Houston, Roger Federer beat Marat Safin; 2006-Rogers Cup Toronto, Jose Acasuso beat Bjorn Phau; and 2007 Australian Open, Andy Roddick beat Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.

Former World No. 1 Pete Sampras, third overall in tie-breaks since 1973 with a 274-156 mark, recalls, "I was a little more conservative going into them, but my approach was always to just play a controlled aggressive style of play."

Patrick Rafter, the 1997-98 US Open champion, with a 137-111 tie-break record, remembers, "Tie-breaks were interesting. I found it was a lottery and I didn't like that feeling very much. I found you were either on a roll with winning breakers or not. It was quite psychological."

Ivan Lendl admits, "In tie-breaks you have to do what got you there and go with your best plays. Fitness is important at the end of any match - tie-break or no tie-break - but I don't think tie-breaks favour anybody."

So do big servers have an advantage in tie-breaks? "It helps," says baseliner Sebastien Grosjean, "but the key is to be a little more aggressive. Don't wait too much. Take your game to your opponent."

Agassi, Sampras 2001 New York quarter-finalsSampras never felt his big serve gave him an advantage. "If I felt I was a better player I felt more confident." said Sampras, who once beat his great rival, Andre Agassi, 6-7(7), 7-6(2), 7-6(2), 7-6(5) in the 2001 US Open quarter-finals.

Serve-volleyer Rafter admits, "Playing big servers was always tough and you felt a little extra pressure playing them in tie-breaks as you felt if they got up then it was hard to crawl back into it. I preferred playing the lighter servers when it came to tie-breakers.

"I always focused on trying to get a high percentage of first serves in, but sometimes in breakers you have to take a chance, as you were either on a good or bad run. There were different tactics when it came to breakers for me. I may of tried to get to the net as soon as I could to create a little more pressure."

Going into the 2011 US Open, Roger Federer leads the all-time tie-break titans list with a 301-156 record (.659), followed by Novak Djokovic at 117-63 (.650), Sampras (.637), Andy Roddick with a 289-174 mark (.624) and John Isner at 113-68 (.624).

There have been 137 fifth-set tie-breaks at the US Open since 1970, with Brian Gottfried and Chuck McKinley contesting the first "sudden death" tie-break in that first year. Marat Safin (3-1 overall), Tommy Haas (3-0) and Jimmy Connors (2-1) have all been involved in three or more at Flushing Meadows.

Neither Lendl nor Rod Laver like such an ending. "The US Open with sudden death in the fifth set, to me is a mistake," said Laver, the 1962 and 1969 Grand Slam champion. "Four hours of competition battling your opponent's tennis and you come down to one point to decide the winner."

But the US Open is the only major championship to implement a fifth-set tie-break. The Australian Open adopted the tie-breaker in 1971, Wimbledon in 1972 and Roland Garros in 1973. Yet - unlike the US Open - they all maintain long fifth sets as witnessed in June 2010 at the All England Club when John Isner defeated Nicholas Mahut 6-4, 3-6, 6-7(7), 7-6(3), 70-68 over 11 hours and five minutes.

Brad Gilbert, who won back-to-back fifth-set nail-biters 7-6(0) against Tommy Ho and Michael Stich at the 1992 US Open, says, "You're tired, but the end is in sight. You trust all the physical conditioning you have undertaken will help you through.  It is difficult to stay relaxed, but I remember thinking that I must stay positive, because a lot of the time people get nervous, and serve well.

"If you're playing against somebody that is giving you a lot of heat, it is difficult. I feel, in a situation like that, it is important to keep a lot of balls in play and make the other guy win it."

At times, though, a player can lose a match without dropping his serve. On the day Van Alen died, aged 88 in 1991, Stefan Edberg lost his Wimbledon title to eventual champion Michael Stich 4-6, 7-6(5), 7-6(5), 7-6(2) in a semi-final. Edberg had not been broken. Afterwards, learning of Van Alen's death, Edberg said, not disrespectfully, "If he hadn't lived, Michael and I might still be out there playing." Tie-breaks are a lottery.

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January: Fifth Set Career Records
February: 52-Week Clay-Court Records
March: Current ATP World Tour Masters 1000 Records
April: Career Clay-Court Records
June: Career Grass-Court Records
July: Career Hard-Court Records

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FedEx ATP Win/Loss Index

Performance Tie-breakers

Current* Index Career Index
1. Roger Federer .667 .652
2. John Isner .677 .650
3. Pete Sampras .000 .637
4. Novak Djokovic .556 .633
5. Rafael Nadal .538 .623

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