Statisticians Cut The Tennis Commentators Down To Size

June 24, 1998

The strawberries are overpriced and the British players are destined always to be gallant losers. But that's where the truth ends as far as Wimbledon clichés are concerned, say Dutch academics who have analysed scoring patterns from four successive years' play at the world's most prestigious tennis tournament.

Jan Magnus and Franc Klaassen, experts in economic statistical analysis at Tilburg University, have analysed nearly 90,000 points from 481 matches played at Wimbledon between 1992 and 1995. Their work has given the truisms of tennis a real pounding, and should give the television pundits covering this year's tournament pause for thought.

Magnus and Klaassen have found that players are not more likely to fluff a point immediately after serving a double fault. And though new balls may be faster, they don't offer the server a clear advantage. Nor is it true that the player who serves first is more likely to win a set.

"The inspiration came from my irritation at the outpourings of the so-called experts on TV," says Magnus, a keen fan and player as well as a statistician.

One of the most frequently expressed maxims says players are more likely to lose a service game straight after breaking an opponent's serve--perhaps because they relax a little or rest on their laurels after breaking. The figures dispel this idea. If anything, players are slightly more likely to hold their own service game after breaking their opponent.

"In the game following a break, it is not true that the winner takes it a bit easier and the loser tries a bit harder. Apparently what happens is just the opposite," says Magnus.

Author: Michael Day


New Scientist

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