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Tennis betting. First-serve edge: myth or reality?

[ 31.08.16 ]

Tennis betting. First-serve edge: myth or reality?

Most die-hard tennis fans are convinced that any tennis player wishes to make the first serve. The reason is that it’s easier to lead the game instead of catching up with your opponent. But what are the statistics saying? Do players who serve first win more often?

From statistical perspective, this theory seems false. According to the data on the last four Wimbledons, only in 48.2% of ‘Gentlemen’s Singles’ sets the winners were the first to serve. According to WTA (Women's Tennis Association), this value is only 50.1% among females.

In their research, professors Yan Magnus of Tilburg University and Franc Klaassen of University of Amsterdam analyzed sets won by players who made the first serve. The findings are displayed in the table below:

Set Gentlemen Ladies
1 55.4% 56.6%
2 44.3% 44,00%
3 43.5% 47.8%
4 51,00%
5 48.8%

Why does the first serve only give an edge in the first set and none during the rest of the game? The most probable reason is the method used to identify a player to serve first in all sets, except for the first one.

A player who serves first in the second, third, forth or fifth set is the one who returned a serve in the last game of the previous set. A stronger player tends to win the first set with their serve, and a weaker player returns a serve in the last game of the 1st set and makes the first serve in all further sets, except for the 1st one.

Focus on winners in live tennis betting

To decide whether the first serve gives any edge to a player, we should analyze how players perform after winning the previous set. This useful information will allow us to eliminate deviations resulting from unequal matches (i.e. when strong players are competing against weak ones).

According to ATP (Association of Tennis Professionals), there is no big difference between percentage of winning serves and percentage of winning returns following a victory in the previous set. In the second set, a player who served first won in 72.5% of cases (note that they also won the first set). Players who returned a serve won in 68% of cases. In the third set, percentages were closer: 73.9% against 72.1%.

In the fifth set, it was 48.3% to 51% in favor of those returning a serve. But due to infrequency of such situations, such data may be considered unreliable.

What is the takeaway? In all sets except for the 1st one, the first serve does not give any edge to an athlete. It does not affect who will win the match. So this factor should be probably ignored in live tennis betting.

Why the 1st set?

According to some experts, in the 1st set it’s better to return a serve because a server has not yet warmed up and may make a mistake. At the same time, although a serving player is prone to mistakes in the 1st set, their winning chances are higher than in the following sets.

According to ATP, in the 1st game a serving player has a 87.7% chance to win the game. For the following games, this value is only 80.8%. For WTA, it’s 74.3% against 63.4%. Here is a valuable tip for tennis betting lovers: a serving player will most probably win the 1st set because their rival has not had the time to warm up, which makes them more prone to mistakes.

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