Oct 8 2013

The Coman Tiebreak Demystified

Doubles | League Tennis | Rules | Singles | Team Captain | USTA       Clif Render      

If you have played USTA League Tennis at any point since the early 2000's, then you probably have some kind of experience with the Coman Tiebreak Procedure. Even though it has been the USTA standard tiebreak procedure for many years, there is still quite a bit of confusion over it. Finding official non section-specific rules can be a very difficult and frustrating experience. The best information that I could find on the USTA's website was in the Improve Your Game section on the Tiebreakers page. There are many other places online that offer information about the Coman tiebreak online, unfortunately, most of them just repeat the same information:

"The Coman Tiebreak Procedure is played out the same as the standard tiebreak except that court sides are changed after the first point, then after every four points (i.e., after the 5th, 9th, 13th, 17th points, etc...), and at the conclusion of the tiebreak."

Remarkably unhelpful.

Most league players (like myself) head into a tiebreak knowing in general how it should work but missing certain key details that we don't even realize we need to know like who serves next after a tiebreak or when to switch sides of the court before or after the tiebreak. We all secretly hope that one of the other people on the court with us (if you're playing singles, then your options are limited) will know what to do. At least we hope that one other person on the court will have a strong belief that one way is right or wrong so that we just do what they suggest. More than once, I've heard it said, "Well if we're wrong about doing it this way then at least we'll all be wrong together." I think that translates into something like "Okay, we'll do it your way because I really don't have a clue."

So, I'm going to try to lay this all out for you so that you will all have a clue. If you leave this post still unclear then please check out these two posts by Kim Selzman of TennisFixation.com: "The Coman Tennis Tiebreak – It's So Easy!" and "After The Tiebreaker, Who Serves?". She gives great (and concise) overviews that cover pretty much all the bases. As a matter of fact, you probably should just stop reading my post right now and flip on over to hers to save yourself some time. If, however, you are too lazy to click one of her links or you're on one of my teams and are finally getting around to the "Required Reading" portion of the team member agreement then please stick with me.

A tiebreak can occur at one of two times in a match:

1.) When the set score is tied at 6-6. This is a Set Tiebreak because the winner wins the set. The first person (or team) to make it to 7 points (and be ahead by 2) in a Set Tiebreak wins. People will also call this a 7 Point Tiebreak or a 7 Point Set tiebreak. I will use this convention, as well, because it just makes sense. The USTA, however, in some of their material such as the Tiebreakers page above and their Coman Tiebreak News release from 2010 refers to this as a 12 point tiebreak. Very confusing. The basic reason why they do this is because if you were to have a game played to 12 points then the first player/team to get to the 7 point mark would win. For more of the crazy history on this (and a much more thorough explanation of the USTA's "12 Point Tiebreak"), please see Michael Y's History of USTA 12-point Tiebreaker post for more information.

2.) When the match score is tied at 1 set apiece. This is a Match Tiebreak (for obvious reasons). The first person (or team) to make it to 10 points (and be ahead by 2) wins the Match Tiebreak. I assume that the USTA would like for us to call this an 18 Point Tiebreak to indicate that the first person to hit the 10 point mark will win but since that's ridiculous, I will not do it. Most people call it a 10 Point Tiebreak or a 10 point Super Tiebreak. My favorite is "10 Point Super Tiebreak" mainly because anything with the word super in it is just...well...super!

Because there are only minor differences between how these two types of tiebreaks are handled, I'm going to list the details for you side by side in order to make them a little easier to follow. Please let me know if this helps or hurts. Since we're about to play a tiebreak, you have either reached a set score of 6-6 or an overall match score of 1-1 either through the heroic efforts of yourself or your competition or the both of you. Now it's time for the rubber to meet the road and leave some serious black marks. Here's what to do and when to do it:

 7 Point Set Tiebreak10 Point Match Tiebreak
Do we switch sides to start? No. (because the overall set score is even at 6-6) Yes, if the previous set score was odd or it ended in a tiebreak
Who serves first? The player who would serve next in the rotation (remember who this person is!) The player or team who would serve next in the rotation. If the previous set ended in a tiebreak then the player/team that received first in the tiebreak will serve first in the new set. In a doubles match, either player on the team can serve first (the Super Match Tiebreak is treated like a new set)
How do we serve? On the first service point, the server serves just one point and serves from the Deuce side of the court. All successive servers serve two points serving their first point from the Ad side of the court and their second from the Deuce side. On the first service point, the server serves just one point and serves from the Deuce side of the court. All successive servers serve two points serving their first point from the Ad side of the court and their second from the Deuce side.
When do we switch sides? You switch sides after the first point and after every 4 points thereafter (1, 5, 9, 13, 17, 21, 25, 29, 33, etc...) You switch sides after the first point and after every 4 points thereafter (1, 5, 9, 13, 17, 21, 25, 29, 33, etc...)
Do we switch sides after the tiebreak? Yes. (the tiebreak counts as a single game for the first server which make the set score odd at 7-6) No, not usually since the match is over.
Who serves first to start the next set? The team (or person) that received first in the tiebreaker, serves first in the next set (the Set Tiebreaker counts as a service game for the first server). In doubles, either member of the team can serve first. Traditionally the winner buys the drinks. It's only fair.


And that's pretty much all there is to it. So, did that clear it up for you or make it worse? I hope that we made it better. That is my goal, after all. If not, just let me know and I'll see what I can do to clarify. I've also put together a Coman Tiebreak Rulecard that has all the important bits shrunk down into a handy 4x6 card format that you can stick in your tennis bag and use for easy reference. They're available now on ebay for $1.35 + shipping. If you're interested in ordering in bulk for a tournament or special event, just let me know and I'm sure we can work out a bulk discount.

I have also put together a rule card for the Standard Tiebreak and have written mobile apps for Android, iOS, and the Amaon Kindle/Fire that will display rules for both the Coman and Standard tiebreaks right on your phone or tablet. There's no better way to prove that you're right than to pull it up on demand. After all, if it's in an app, it must be true! If you're interested in the Standard Tiebreak Rule Card or any of our mobile apps, please check out my more recent post Help with the Coman Tiebreak for more information. Happy tiebreaking!

Comments (6) -

New 2.5 Player New 2.5 Player says:

This article made me realize my 2.5 team was doing something wrong.  Because you spoke about the tiebreak counting as a single game which would equal an odd score to indicate switching sides, I was confused.  My team always spins a racquet at the start of a new set to determine side/serve choice(not just as the start of the first set).  I googled this and realized we are not supposed to do that as it has to do with odd/even number of games and who served/received last just like in the tiebreaker.

Clif Render Clif Render says:

Awesome, glad it helped! Yeah, there are several common misconceptions out there that get us. Mine was always that we just continue the serve rotation after a tiebreak into the next set rather than treating the tiebreak as a single game for the first player to serve. Anyone else have a misconception to share?

Dianne Dianne says:

Are you allowed to drink/sit on the changeovers?  For the Coman? For the 7 point ?  For the 10point?

Clif Clif says:

Those are really great Questions, Dianne. Just about everyone I play with does this wrong. You should make sure to sit and grab a drink before you start a tiebreak because there is not supposed to be any sitting or drinking or doing anything change-over-y during the tiebreak other than changing sides. Since a tiebreak counts as a single game, you have to treat it like you would treat any other game in this respect. No sitting. The ITF's Rules of Tennis (www.itftennis.com/.../rules-of-tennis.aspx), Rule Number 29 "Continuous Play" states:

"...after the first game of each set and during a tie-break game, play shall be continuous and the players shall change ends without a rest."

Notice that you should not rest during a tiebreak OR after the first game of a set. Lot of people miss that one, too.

So, now that you know the rule, the logical followup question is, "Do you make sure that you and your opponent(s) follow this rule"? Personally, I don't typically force this kind of role on others unless it looks like their ability to rest is going to be a significant factor during play. Tiebreaks are so short that this is rarely the case so I usually let this rule slide. There are one or two people that I play with, however, that will enforce every rule they know on principle alone so this is a call that you'll have to make for yourself. If you are going to enforce this rule, though, make sure to be consistent and do it throughout the entire match. Don't just let it slide right up until it looks like it matters and call it then. Consistency is a part of Courtesy.

Thanks for the question, Dianne. I hope this helped!

kathleen kathleen says:

So I just finished a match where we played a tiebreaker. At the end of the tie breaker the opponent said we don't switch sides because we started the TB on the opposite side from where we ended up. I have always played that at the end of the TB you always switch sides as it is an odd score and where you started has not bearing on the decision. I'm a wrong. This is really bugging me. LOL!

Clif Render Clif Render says:

Nope, Kathleen, you were absolutely right. It sounds like your opponent just thinks they know how it should work and no one else has had either the knowledge or confidence to disagree with them. The tiebreak does, indeed, count as a single game so you switch sides based on the total game count which is always odd. The USTA agrees with us on this point: www.usta.com/.../. That link is not talking about the Coman tiebreak specifically but the type of tiebreak doesn't matter in this case because the rules are the same. You always switch sides after a set tiebreak - regardless of where you finished up or started. Stick to your guns! If you'll send me your address using my contact page, I'll send you one of my cards for free and maybe that will make it easier on you in the future. It helps to have it written down in an official looking format. I have also written mobile apps with the same information for Android, iOS, and Amazon Kindle/Fire if you think that would be helpful. You can find out more about those apps here: www.hifitennis.com/.../help-with-the-coman-tiebreak. And, actually, if you think you'll run into your opponent again, I'll be glad to send you two - one for you and one to share. There's nothing like a little vindication!

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