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With the first Grand Slam tournament of 2014 just completed, professors Franc Klaassen of the University of Amsterdam (UvA) and Jan Magnus of the University of Tilburg (UvT) and VU University Amsterdam (VU) present their book 'Analyzing Wimbledon', in which they subject the sport of tennis to a thorough statistical analysis. The book presents many ideas, including a method for updating each player's odds of winning a match after every point scored.

Tennis court

Does the player who serves first in a set hold an advantage, as tennis commentators often claim? Is there any advantage to serve with new balls? Is the seventh game in a set especially crucial? Are top-ranked players more stable than other players? In their book Analyzing Wimbledon: The Power of Statistics, published by Oxford University Press, Klaassen and Magnus use these and many other questions to formulate hypotheses which they then analyse statistically with the help of a dataset of almost 100,000 points played at Wimbledon and a wealth of data from other Grand Slam tournaments.

Server's advantage?

Why might it be an advantage to serve first in a set? Perhaps because the player who started to serve is always one game ahead and therefore under less pressure when serving. Using data from more than 1,000 sets played at Wimbledon, Klaassen and Magnus calculated how often a player actually won the set when he or she served first. The statistics show that there is a slight advantage in the first set, but no advantage in the following sets. In fact, in all the other sets it actually seemed disadvantageous to serve first. 

Apparently, the player serving first in a set (except in the first set) tends to be the weaker player. Why? Because the stronger player is more likely to have won the previous set by holding serve as opposed to breaking the opponent’s serve, implying that the weaker player serves first in the current set. 'So it's logical that the player who starts to serve most probably loses the set’, says Klaassen. 'You have to keep that in mind, which is possible using statistical analysis. Once you do that, you realise that it doesn't matter who serves first.'

Broader implications

In their book, the researchers also discuss which points are most crucial, how an optimal service strategy can be chosen and whether there is such thing as a winning mood in tennis (it transpires that there is, but it is a much less significant factor than one would expect). 

The findings in the book are not only of interest to tennis aficionados: they also hold insights for anyone interested in human behaviour. One example provided by tennis answers the question of whether people become more cautious when the pressure mounts. In a tennis match, some points are more important than others and players (except the top players) tend to play more safely when it comes to decisive points. This tells us something about human behaviour and is relevant to other disciplines too, such as economics.

Publication details

Franc Klaassen and Jan R. Magnus, Analyzing Wimbledon: The Power of Statistics (Oxford University Press). ISBN 9780199355969.

Franc Klaassen is professor of International Economics at the University of Amsterdam. Jan R. Magnus is emeritus professor of Econometrics at Tilburg University and visiting professor at VU University Amsterdam.