Break points are some of the most exciting moments of tennis matches, but does the added pressure of a game-winning point affect the players as much as the viewers?
Break points play an important role in every tennis competition. In fact, it’s only a tiny minority of Grand Slam matches that finish without a break point being played. A study of 528 men’s singles matches over eight Grand Slam competitions (by Gareth Knight and Peter O’Donoghue of the Cardiff School of Sport) showed that an incredible 97.2% of performances involved a break point.
The most important observation from their study, however, was in comparing the winners of break points with the winners of other points. Players receiving a serve performed better than average when they were attacking a break point.
Their research showed that a player receiving a serve won on average 38% of points fired against him. When those same receivers were attempting to win a break point, however, their success rate rose to 42%.
Break points more influential than surface type?
A difference in scoring success between being at break point and facing a regular point at 4% could actually have a greater impact on receiving than courts’ surfaces – a much more popular discussion point for fans and commentators alike.
It’s widely accepted that a tennis court’s surface affects play. The grass of Wimbledon favours big serves, as the ball is harder to return when bouncing off the low-friction grass, while at the other end of the spectrum, Roland Garros’ clay slows the ball and launches it higher into the air, giving receivers more time to return the serve. The hard courts of the US and Australian Opens fall somewhere in between. A break point could be more important than whatever is under the player’s feet.
However, the impact of these is actually less than the difference between break points/normal points. Receivers on Wimbledon’s grass courts achieved a win rate of 41% on break points in 2008 and 2009, while normal points were successfully returned on just 35% of occasions. This means the server was – on average – winning 65% of normal points and 59.5% of break points.
Compare this to the other end of the spectrum – the return-friendly clay of the French Open. This competition saw 41.5% of break points won and 38.5% of normal points. This means 61.5% of normal points were won by the server, and 58.5% of break points.
Therefore the French Open service success rates are just 3.5% and 1% worse for the server than on the traditionally serve-friendly grass court. Compare them to the difference between serving on a normal or a break point – 5.5% and 3% – and we can see that the difference between normal points and break points is potentially more important than the difference of surface in terms of affecting who wins the point.
The US Open and Australian Opens – both on hard courts – are 42% (break point) 37.5% (normal) and 43% (break point) and 38.5% (normal) respectively.
Of course, the surface type plays an important role in every point, not just break points, and therefore it would be naïve to claim that the difference between break points and normal points is more significant than the surface over a whole match.
For the outcome of break points, however, merely the fact that it is a break point could be more important than whatever is under the player’s feet.
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