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How to Play a Tennis Twelve-point Tiebreaker

If you’re unfamiliar with tennis’ scoring system, sets are won when a player reaches six games before his opponent — so long as there’s a margin of two games. So if the set score is 6-5, the player with five games still has one last chance to tie the score. If both players fail to break serve, or each player breaks an even amount of serves, the set score will eventually reach 6-6. In this scenario, the set is normally determined by a final game, called a “twelve-point tiebreaker.” This guide explains how to play this final, decisive game.

Tiebreak Rules

Tiebreakers are scored similar to regular games, but there are some unique twists. The following sections provide a step-by-step breakdown of the tiebreak game:

Service Rules

Mental Edge

Keep in mind that alternative tiebreaking systems exist, so check with your club or league before your match. The twelve-point tiebreaker is by far the most common tiebreaking method, but there are exceptions. In professional men’s major events (except for the US Open), for example, the fifth set cannot be decided by a tiebreaker. Instead, one of the players has to win by a margin of two games, which can lead to an extremely grueling end to an already hard-fought battle.

The player that would have started service after the 6-6 game begins the tiebreak on serve. Like a normal service game, the server begins from the deuce court. He gets one service point, and then the serve changes to the other player who begins in the ad court. From this point on, each player gets two service points until the end of the tiebreak.

Scoring

In order to win a tiebreaker, one player has to win at least seven points, and also have two more points than his opponent. For example, if the score is 6-5 and the player with five points ties the score at 6-6, the game continues until one of the players leads by two. Tiebreaks can end 7-1, 7-5, 8-6, 9-7, and so on. Similar to winning a set, this win-by-two scoring system requires one of the players to break serve.

Even though the game is technically played to seven, it’s called a “twelve-point tiebreaker” because it’s the best of twelve points. Once one of the players wins seven points, it’s impossible for the other player to come back.

Switch Sides

The players have to change sides after every six total points. For example, if the score is 3-3, the players rotate sides and continue the game from the deuce court. Side changes always occur in the middle of one players’ two-serve cycle. Wind, glare, and lighting can drastically change depending on the side of the court you’re playing on, so switching sides ensures a fair tiebreak game. The players cannot rest during this changeover.

Submitting the Score

In general, the winning player submits the final score. No matter what league you play in, though, you always state the winner’s score first, and it appears first on the scorecard. Here’s a properly formatted hypothetical score: 6-4, 5-7, 6-1. Even though this imaginary winner dropped the second set, his score (5) still goes first because he won the match.

When submitting a match score with a tiebreak, however, you need to include a few additional pieces of information:

  • The set score is always 7-6 or 6-7, depending on who wins the match.
  • You include the tiebreak score, which appears in parentheses next to the set score.

Here’s a properly formatted match score, including a third set tiebreaker: 6-4, 5-7, 7-6 (7). The “seven” indicates the loser’s score in the tiebreaker game, meaning that the final score was 9-7. If the scorecard reads, 7-6 (1), you know that the tiebreak score was 7-1. Some leagues display the entire tiebreak score, i.e. 7-6 (7-1), but most do not.

Make or Break

Although not every league uses twelve-point tiebreakers, the vast majority of them do, so it’s essential that you understand this scoring system. If you’re still confused, though, refer to iSport’s Tennis Rules & Regulations for more information on how to score a tennis match. It’s hard to win a tennis match when you’re confused about basic scoring rules, so study up before you start swinging away.

Scorekeeping can be confusing in tennis, especially when the set's tied at 6-6. This guide explains when and how to play a twelve-point tiebreaker.
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