Philip Barker

Earlier this week, a small niche in the annals of Wimbledon history was carved by Finland’s Henri Kontinen and Australian John Peers, who won the first final-set tiebreak to be played in the tournament.

They beat Joe Salisbury of Britain and American Rajeev Ram 7-6, 6-4, 3-6, 4-6, 13-12. The new ruling at Wimbledon is that tiebreaks are introduced at 12-12 and in a coincidence to delight the tennis statto, the first time it happened was on court 12.

The Rio 2016 Olympics was where the final set tiebreak was introduced and since then, the Australian Open has also brought them in but the regulations are slightly different to Wimbledon.

Tiebreaks have been part of tennis for the past half-century and came about because of an epic encounter in the early rounds of Wimbledon 50 years ago.

In 1969, Pancho Gonzales was drawn to play Charlie Pasarell. Their meeting is still fondly remembered by those who were lucky enough to be courtside and the millions who watched it on television.

It lasted over five hours and afterwards officials decided to introduce a tiebreak at 6-6… in every set apart from the final one. This was introduced at the 1970 US Open.

In those days, unlike today, none of the courts at Wimbledon were covered and the sport was hostage to bad light and poor weather.

Before 1968, Wimbledon and the other Grand Slam events were strictly amateur. Gonzales had plied his trade on the professional circuit and was therefore not allowed to play at Wimbledon. He had won just one US Championship – now the US Open – in 1948. 

By 1969, like all the other players who had been professionals, he was welcomed back. But he was already 41 years old and had become a grandfather.

"I am just glad Open tennis is here. It is great for the game," he once said.

Puerto Rico-born Charlie Pasarell was 16 years his junior and had been honing his game in Las Vegas. He had been the leading American amateur in 1967 and had taken the Australian Ken Rosewall to five sets in 1968. This was the first Wimbledon of the Open era.

Play began in their match at around 7pm British Summer Time. The name was a sad misnomer for an evening that was already gloomy.

John Peers of Australia played his part in winning the first final-set tiebreak at Wimbledon ©Getty Images
John Peers of Australia played his part in winning the first final-set tiebreak at Wimbledon ©Getty Images

Even so, the first set was extraordinary enough. Both players held serve with astonishing consistency before the first break came. Pasarell eventually moved into a one-set lead but the scoreboard showed it was 22-20.

Chair umpire Mike Gibson insisted the second set proceed. As play continued, Gonzales became more agitated and protested to the umpire.

"Basically, he said 'I can’t play, it's too dark, I can’t see'. He got into a huge row. He was livid," said Pasarell many years later.

The crowd was anxious to see as much tennis as possible and they began to boo Gonzales.

Pasarell closed out the set 6-1 to lead by two sets to love.

It was only then that play was suspended for the night. Gonzales was so angry that he stormed off, leaving his bag on court. 

It was said that Gonzales stayed up late into the night in a state of high dudgeon.

When they returned, most predicted only one winner and it was not Gonzales.

Play resumed the following day with Pasarell apparently certain of victory, but gradually Gonzales turned the tide.

At the crucial moment, Pasarell twice double faulted and Gonzales had the third set 16-14. As had happened the previous night, the next set was over relatively quickly. After a double fault from Pasarell, Gonzales won 6-3.

All rested on the fifth and final set. The booing of the night before now forgotten, the crowd took sides for Pasarell or Gonzales. At 8-7 Pasarell might have won it. He had had seven match points but he lobbed long and the chance was lost.

American John Isner has been involved in more than one epic encounter at Wimbledon ©Getty Images
American John Isner has been involved in more than one epic encounter at Wimbledon ©Getty Images

As Gonzales moved into the ascendancy, American television commentator Bud Collins observed that Pasarell had become"like someone run over by a geriatric in a wheelchair".

When the match ended, the clock showed they had been playing for five hours and 20 minutes. At the time, it was Wimbledon’s longest match. For the record, Gonzales won 22-24, 1-6, 16-14, 6-3, 11-9.

"It was not the kind of match you could describe in ordinary lawn tennis terms. It was the kind of match that took your breath away and moved you to tears at the same time," wrote David Gray in The Guardian. Gray later became a leading tennis official.

Gonzales lost to Arthur Ashe later in the tournament.

Rod Laver was Wimbledon men’s singles champion in 1969 but he admitted "Pancho always found a way to upstage you". That was certainly the case here.

With Rosewall, Laver had dubbed Gonzales, "Gorgo". It was short for Gorgonzola or the big cheese.

Gonzales died of cancer in 1995. He never won Wimbledon but he will forever be remembered for this match.

Since then of course, John Isner and Nicolas Mahut rewrote the record books on an outside court in 2010 with a match lasting more than 11 hours. Because of bad light and scheduling, it stretched over three days. Eventually, Isner won the final set 70-68. That set had taken more than eight hours to complete.

Yet many believe the last straw which finally convinced Wimbledon officials was another match involving Isner, this time in the semi-finals of the 2018 tournament. He lost to South Africa’s Kevin Anderson. By comparison with his previous efforts, this was a model of brevity at 26-24.

Unless the tennis authorities have a dramatic change of heart, such epic encounters will never be seen again and rather like replayed cup ties in football, many may feel the sport will be poorer as a result.