Most tennis commentators will tell you that players always want to serve first in a set. The theory is that it’s easier to play from a game up than it is to be trailing a game behind. But do statistics actually show that players who serve first win more often? Can you use this information as part of a tennis betting strategy? Read this article to find out.
At the most basic statistical level, this conception is shown to be incorrect. Data from four consecutive Wimbledon tournaments – the most server-friendly competition – show that only 48.2% of sets in the men’s singles are won by the player serving first. In the WTA? Just 50.1%.
When Prof. Jan Magnus of Tilburg University and Prof. Franc Klassen of the University of Amsterdam looked at sets won when serving first on a set-by-set basis, however, they noticed the strange pattern displayed in the table below:
Why does opening the serving in the first set provide an advantage, but a disadvantage on most other occasions? The reason for this drop-off is because of how the server is decided for sets other than the first one.
The player who serves first in the second, third, fourth or fifth set is always the player who received in the final game of the previous set. And because the better player in a match typically wins the first set – and on his serve – it’s usually the worse player who receives in the final game of the set, and therefore serves first in sets other than the first one.
Focusing on the winners for live tennis betting
We can look more objectively at whether serving first in tennis is a benefit by analysing how they perform after winning the previous set. Using this information helps eliminate the set-by-set bias that unbalanced matches (good players vs. bad) provides.
In the ATP, the result is that there isn’t much of a difference between serving and receiving win percentages after winning the previous set. When serving in the second set after winning the first, the win percentage was 72.5%. For receiving: 68%. In the third set it was even closer 73.9% to 72.1%.
Therefore it’s fair to conclude that serving first – except in the first set – has no impact on who will win the set
In the fifth set, it was actually 48.3% to 51% in the receivers favour, but these occurrences happened so rarely that the data should be considered unreliable.
Therefore it’s fair to conclude that serving first – except in the very first set – has no impact on who will win the set, and should probably be excluded from live tennis betting calculations.
The female factor in live tennis betting
In a similar fashion to the ATP, the women’s singles first set also provides an advantage for the player who servers first, with a winning difference of 13.2% over receivers.
Interestingly, after winning the first set, WTA players who receive have a higher win rate (75.2%) than those who win and then serve again (72%) – although this reverses back to a more typical 60.1% vs. 63.5% for the third.
Why the first set?
Sometimes critics suggest it’s better to receive in the first set, as the server hasn’t warmed up and is more prone to making mistakes. While the number of mistakes in the opening service game of the match might be higher than average, the chance of winning that first game is also increased compared to a normal service game.
In the ATP, the probability that the server wins their first game is 87.7% compared with 80.8% for a normal service game. For the WTA, it’s 74.3% vs. 63.4%. Therefore if you’re interested in live tennis betting, it’s actually more likely that a server will win the very first game of a match, rather than lose it due to not being warmed up (perhaps the receiver is even less prepared?).
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