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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?

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:

Percentage of sets won when serving first
Set No.Men'sWomen's
1 55.4% 56.6%
2 44.3% 44%
3 43.5% 47.8%
4 51% -
5 48.8% -

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?).

Is There an Advantage To Serving First?

There’s no structural bias toward the player who serves first. If tennis players were robots, it wouldn’t matter who toed the line before the other.

But the conventional wisdom persists. Last year, I looked at the first-server advantage in very close matches, and found that depending on the scenario, the player who serves first in the final set may win more than 50% of matches–as high as 55%–but the evidence is cloudy. And that’s based on serving first at the tail end of the match. Winning the coin toss doesn’t guarantee you that position for the third or fifth set.

Logically, then, it’s hard to see how serving the first game of the match–and holding that possible slight advantage in the first set–would have much impact on the outcome of the match. There’s simply too much time, and too many events, between the first game and the pressure-packed crucial moments that decide the match.

Yet, the evidence points to a substantial first-serve advantage.

In ATP main-draw matches this year, the player who served first won 52% of the time. That edge is confirmed when we adjust for individual players.

39 players tallied at least 10 matches in which they served first and 10 in which they served second. Of those 39, 21 were more successful when serving first, against 17 who won more often when serving second. (Marcos Baghdatis didn’t show a preference.) Weigh their results by their number of matches, and the average tour-level regular was 11% more likely to win when serving first than when serving second. Converted to the same terms as the general finding, that’s 52.6% of matches in favor of the first server.

That’s not an airtight conclusion, but it is a suggestive one. One possible problem would arise if lesser players–the guys who play some ATP matches against that top 39, but not enough to show up in the 39 themselves–are more likely to choose returning first. Then, our top 39 would be winning 52.6% of matches against a lesser pool of opponents.

That doesn’t seem to be the case. I looked at the next 60 or so players, ranked by how many ATP matches they’ve played this year. That secondary group served first 51% of the time, indicating that the guys on the fringe of the tour don’t have any kind of consistent tendency when winning the coin toss.

For further confirmation, I ran the same algorithm for ATP Challenger matches this year. That returned another decent-sized set of players with at least 10 matches serving first and 10 matches serving second–38, in this case. The end result is almost identical. The Challenger regulars were 9% more likely to win when serving first, which translates to the first server winning 52.2% of the time.

This is a particularly interesting finding, because in the aggregate, these 38 Challenger regulars prefer to serve second. Of their 1110 matches so far this year, these guys served first only 503 times–about 45%. Despite such a strong preference, the match results tell the story. They are more likely to win when serving first.

When we turn our attention to the WTA tour, the results are so strong as to be head-scratching. Applying the same test to 2013 WTA matches (though lowering the minimum number of matches to eight each, to ensure a similar number of players), the 35 most active players on the WTA tour are 28% more likely to win when serving first than when serving second. In other words, when a top player is on the court, the first server wins about 56.3% of the time. 24 of the 35 players in this sample have better winning percentages when serving first than when serving second.

For something that cannot be attributed to a structural bias, a factor that can only be described as mental, I’m reluctant to put too much faith in these WTA results without further research. However, the simple fact that ATP, Challenger, and WTA results agreed in direction is encouraging. The first-server advantage may not be overwhelming, but it appears to be real.


This article was provided by Pinnacle Sports, the best and most professional online bookmaker.

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