Apr 23, 2015
Apr 23, 2015

Tennis betting: big servers vs. strong returners

Tennis betting: big servers vs. strong returners

This tennis betting strategy article looks at trends when 'big servers' and 'strong returners' go head-to-head, with a view to generating tennis handicap betting opportunities.

In this previous article we found that:

  • ATP Top 10 'big servers' won best of three matches in straight sets more often than the top 10 most return orientated players (38.3% compared to 30.9%).
  • 'Big server' matches went to a deciding set less than 'strong returners' (35.1% compared to 40.0%).
  • 'Big server' matches covered the over 22.5 game line significantly more (52.1% compared to 46.4%).

This highlighted that backing strong returners to win at -1.5 sets was generally a worse bet than backing big servers to win in straight sets.

Isner vs. Nadal

At Monte Carlo in 2015, John Isner (starting price 8.260) took on the greatest clay-courter of all time, Rafael Nadal. The big-serving American came close to an upset, eventually losing 6-7 6-4 3-6 - which covered the over 2.5 sets and the average over 22.5 game lines.

In the 12 months prior to the match, Nadal held 83.1% and broke 45.4% on clay, with Isners strong serve propelling him to a higher hold percentage - 93.2% - but his limited return game meant he only broke opponents 6.9% on the dirt.

These statistics generated a projected hold (on a relatively slow clay court) of 70.1% on Isner, which is almost certainly his lowest projected hold percentage for a considerable time. 

Serve dominated the match, with Nadal conceding just three break points in 16 service games (being broken once) and these figures wouldnt be hugely dissimilar to pre-match expectations. 

However, in Isners 15 service games, he was broken just once. Therefore, compared to pre-match expectations, Isners serve over-performed, and in this one-off match, negated Nadals magnificent return game. 

On this basis, it would be beneficial for tennis bettors to see if big servers were generally able to do the same across a bigger sample, or whether this one match was an outlier. 

The following table illustrates the results of the top 15 big servers (Nick Kyrgios was omitted due to lack of matches), in best of three set head-to-head matches against the 15 most return orientated players from 2013 onwards:

PlayerMatchesWin %3 set match %Over 22.5 games%
Karlovic 12 75 33.3 58.3
Isner 11 54.5 36.4 63.6
Groth 1 0 100 100
De Schepper 4 50 0 50
Raonic 7 71.4 14.3 14.3
Lopez 7 42.9 0 0
Johnson 4 50 75 100
Tomic 9 66.7 22.2 22.2
Querrey 7 71.4 57.1 57.1
Tsonga 5 60 60 60
Bolelli 2 100 0 0
Anderson 7 57.1 71.4 71.4
Pospisil V 10 20 60 60
Sock 8 62.5 25 25
Del Potro 3 100 66.7 66.7
Overall 97 58.8 38.1 47.4


We can see that big servers had the edge, winning 58.8% of head-to-head matches sampled, despite only having one top ten player (Milos Raonic) in their group, compared to two (David Ferrer and Andy Murray) in the strong returner list.

In addition 38.1% of sampled matches reached a deciding set. This is 2.9% above the 2014 ATP average of 35.2%, so the head-to-head matches between big servers and strong returners covered over 2.5 sets more frequently than average.

Previously we discovered that the top ten big server matches went to a deciding set 35.1% of the time, and strong returners did so 40.0%. 

The head-to-head sample result of 38.1% is between these two figures, indicating that both genres contribute to weighting this figure.

However, the over 22.5 game lines were skewed strongly towards the strong returner data, with just 47.4% of head-to-head matches covering this line.

This is very similar to the 46.4% generated from the top 10 return orientated players from the previous article, and significantly below the top 10 biggest servers, which was 52.1%.

On this basis, we can start to draw several conclusions:

  • Backing over on the game handicap in these matches should be carefully considered.
  • 'Big servers' went over 22.5 games 46.4% of the time, but covered 52.1% on the handicap, meaning when big servers' go head-to-head, they could be expected to cover around 60% of the time.
  • Nothing can be read into the one-off match between Isner and Nadal, and is more to do with the current frailties in the Spaniards game.

This article should give tennis bettors a good guide of how to approach head-to-head matches between 'big servers' and 'strong returners', and contribute to research for betting handicap opportunities.

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