© Ella Ling

Miami 2012 - Federer forehand

Why Federer is No 1 at playing tiebreaks


The quarter-finals of the Davis Cup take place this weekend with four ties that all contain good talking points. As discussed recently, the possibility of changing the format of the competition is an on-going topic, with three-set matches being mooted as a way to get the top players to play instead of exhausting them with the prospect of five-set thrillers.

Recently I was watching a re-run of the epic Davis Cup clash between John McEnroe and Boris Becker, when the USA played Germany in 1987. In a match lasting more than six and a half hours (eat your hearts out Rafa and Novak), Becker prevailed in five sets. But of course, that was when the Davis Cup still hadn’t decided to bring in tiebreaks. It was 1989 before the ITF did that, so apart from in the final sets, we’ll never see the likes of the 15-13 second set any more.

It’s hard to say what would have happened in matches like that if tiebreaks were in use – both men were hugely attacking players – but all this is a way into me looking at the most successful tiebreak players of all time.

Before looking this up, I guessed someone like a Goran Ivanisevic or a Richard Krajicek would have been high up, or more recently a John Isner. Well, Isner is No 4 in the all-time list, but you might be surprised (or perhaps not) to learn that Roger Federer sits at No 1. For me, the Swiss’s serve is the most under-rated shot in tennis over the past 20 years and the stats show he’s won almost twice as many tiebreaks as he’s lost, which is a phenomenal achievement.

Pete Sampras, the man with “the best second-serve in history” is No 2, followed, in another surprise, by Novak Djokovic. After Isner at No 4, the rest of the top 10 reads Andy Roddick, Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, David Nalbandian and Michael Stich.

I doubt anyone would have picked Nalbandian as a potential member of this particular top 10 but it just shows you that it’s about who handles the pressure the best and who takes their chances, rather than those who serve the best. For the record, Ivanisevic is No 18, Becker himself is 30 and Krajicek does not make the top 30 at all.

With the Masters starting today, it reminded me of the similarities between tennis and golf. Though golfers have caddies and tennis players occasionally have on-court coaches, they are both lonely sports, as a rule, with a massive emphasis on the mental side. There’s no one else responsible for losing points or winning them, it’s just down to the player.

It’s no wonder that so many tennis players enjoy golf, and are good at it. A generation ago, Wayne Ferreira and Tim Henman were among the best – Henman now plays off scratch – and of today’s players, apparently Mardy Fish is right up there with the best. I’m feeling a celebrity tennis-golf game at some stage.

Recently, I mentioned that something seemed to have gone strangely awry with Fish’s equilibrium, that he was more grumpy than usual. In withdrawing from Davis Cup duty this week, the American revealed that he needed a little time off after suffering a “minor health scare” in Miami. Whether the two things were connected, maybe only he knows, but fingers crossed he recovers quickly and fully.