4 minutes reading time (850 words)

How to Play a Tiebreaker in Tennis


Tiebreakers can be both confusing and intimidating. This guide is designed to provide you with answers and help increase your tie-break success rate. 

Q: When is a tiebreaker played?

A: A 7 point tie-break game is played when the set score is 6-6. 

During a tie-break game, points are scored "Zero", "1", "2", "3", etc. The first player/team to win seven points wins the "Game" and "Set", provided there is a margin of two points over the opponent(s). If necessary, the tie-break game shall continue until this margin is achieved.

You want to play patiently aggressive.

Roger Federer

Q: Who serves first?

A: The player whose turn it is to serve the 13th game shall serve the first point of the tie-break game.

The following two points shall be served by the opponent(s) (in doubles, the player of the opposing team due to serve next). After this, each player/team shall serve alternatively for two consecutive points until the end of the tie-break game (in doubles, the rotation of service within each team shall continue in the same order as during the set).

The player/team whose turn it was to serve first in the tie-break game shall be the receiver in the first game of the following set.

Q: When do the players change ends during a tie-break?

A: Players change ends after every six points and at the end of the tie-break. They shall change ends during the tie-break without a rest.

During a tie-break game, players shall change ends after every six points. 

Roger Federer has long been the most dominant tie-break competitor on the ATP World Tour. No other player in the history of tennis has won a higher rate of tie-breaks (65.1 percent) or a greater number of tie-breaks (432), according to the FedEx ATP Performance Zone. Arthur Ashe comes in second place with a 64.9% career tie-break win-rate, and standing in third place is Novak Djokovic with a 63.3% win-rate.

"Tie-breaks are huge," says Federer. "If you have a good serve, that's always helpful. You want to play patiently aggressive, I would think. You don't want to go for broke, don't want to do crazy things. But it does sometimes pay off as well. You have to balance it right." He goes on to say, " I think a very positive mindset is good."

The two active players directly behind Federer in number of tie-breaks won are arguably two of the biggest servers of all time in John Isner (387-244), 61.3%) and Ivo Karlovic (377-378, 49.9%). 

1. Roger Federer
2. Arthur Ashe
3. Novak Djokovic
4. Andres Gomez
5. Pete Sampras

Arthur Ashe on the Tiebreaker

  • ​ Get your first serve in. In a tense situation like a tie breaker, you are more liable to double fault if you miss the first serve.
  • At the beginning of the tie breaker, concentrate on consistency rather than winning points outright. Get the ball in the court and let the other guy make mistakes. Later on, if you're feeling confident, be a little bolder.
  • Be aware that the seventh point is vital. Just as the seventh game of a set is. If you're ahead 6-0 or behind 0-6 it's set point. If you're behind 1-5 or 2-4, winning the next point gives you a glimmer of hope (and can do the same thing for your opponent if you're ahead by those scores). If you're tied 3-3, you can gain the upper hand if you win it. 

Never think passive tennis in a tie-break.

Jim Loehr
Sports Psychologist

Jim Loehr, sports psychologist and former U.S.T.A. director of sports science gives the following tie-break advice:

"If you feel you have an edge when you go into a tie-break, you probably are going to win. Keep your cool. Tie-breaks are one time you cannot display any negative emotion, any vulnerability, any lack of self-confidence or negative self-talk. This is a time when you want to show supreme confidence, even when you're down."

Play aggressively, but not recklessly. "No drop shots, no fancy shots," Loehr warned. But avoid falling into a just-get-it-back mentality.

"Your goal should be to get a forced error out of your opponent rather than sitting back and hoping he makes an unforced error. Get a high percentage of solid first serves in, placing them well, and make the other guy come up with a great shot. Don't go for screaming aces and put yourself under second-serve pressure so your have to come up with a great shot after he approaches off your weak second serve." Most importantly, Loehr said, "Never think passive tennis in a tie-break."

Finally, play at a deliberate pace. When the score reaches 6-6 and all of a sudden you're into a tie breaker instead of conventional scoring, the tendency is to rush, to step up to the line and serve. Slow down!

"If ever there's a time you want to make sure you've recovered from the stress of the point and are really clear about what you're going to do on the next one, it's during a tie-break."​

​Click on the video below to watch one of the greatest tiebreakers ever played and get inspired to play your best. Roger Federer vs Rafael Nadal - Wimbledon 2008. 

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The Unwritten Rules of Tennis

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