Do players choke serving for sets and matches?

Skype: @TennisRatings

22nd April 2016:-

It's a common accusation on social media.  'Player x choked when serving for it'.  

But did they?  What if - instead of choking - losing their serve when serving for sets/matches was at least partially down to variance (tennis is a sport with small margins) or just that the player who was leading was lucky to get there to start with (they were playing above their level/opponent was poor/they got the benefit of some dodgy calls or net cords)? 

What if thinking that players fail to serve out a set was merely Gambler's Fallacy?  This in effect is a situation whereby gamblers remember notable events (player they have backed broken serving for set/match) as opposed to run of the mill events (player that they have backed holds when serving for the set/match) which are frequently passed over as 'standard'.

I went through all the available point by point data for 2015 (around 90% of matches) with a view to seeing the break-back percentage per scoreline.  This was then filtered into the break-back success percentage for immediate lays following a player breaking to lead the set, and also the break-back success percentage for waiting for the losing player to hold after they were broken.  

Across the ATP Tour in 2015, 79.9% of service games were held across all scorelines on all surfaces.  By definition, this means that 20.1% of service games were broken. 

However, we can see that looking at my 2015 scoreline data, this was actually more than the break percentage at either 5-3, 5-4 or 6-5 (the scoreline when players were serving for sets/matches with a one break lead):-

Serving for Set Combined



Break Back Yes

Break Back No





The individual set data (available via the ATP/WTA scoreline data spreadsheets) also showed that not across one set did players get broken more when serving for the set with a one break lead than the ATP service break average of 20.1%.  

Overall, 18.26% - just under 2% below the ATP mean for service breaks - of games where a player had a one break lead resulted in break-backs.   So we can conclusively say that on the ATP Tour in 2015, more players successfully served out sets than they served out an average game.

However, this wasn't the case in the WTA.  

Across 2015, in the WTA, players held serve 64.6% of the time across all surfaces and scorelines.  Therefore 35.4% of service games were broken.

The 2015 scoreline data actually showed a slightly bigger figure than this was broken serving for sets and matches:-

Serving for Set Combined



Break Back Yes

Break Back No





It can be seen that in 2015, 35.83% of overall games where a player tried to serve out a set with a one break lead were broken (around 0.4% more than average).  

Previous dominance was less of an issue than in the ATP, with the set and break position actually broken 36.04% - slightly above average, and there being a slight upscale of break back success as matches got longer (individual set data available via the ATP/WTA scoreline data spreadsheets).

It is clear from this data that there are two likely reasons why set one achieved the fewest breaks.  One, it is the only stage of the three analysed that a player is not serving for the match, and therefore the stage where pressure is lowest.  Also, with the break percentage going up as the match gets longer, it is reasonable to assume that fatigue has some impact as well.  

Following these figures we can draw a number of conclusions:-

1) ATP players are broken less than average when serving for sets/matches.  Traders will need to have very strong reasons to want to lay players serving for sets/matches, particularly when leading by a set and break in set two.
2) WTA players are broken slightly more than average when serving for sets/matches.  Traders can be more liberal when looking for entry points to lay players serving for sets/matches.
3) WTA players serving for sets are affected more than their ATP counterparts by pressure and tiredness.  This is something well worth considering in the in-play markets.

Full data for each scoreline is now available for both the ATP and WTA.  It shows the break back percentage for each scoreline when a break lead is generated, for both an immediate lay of the player a break up as well as a lay for the player leading after the losing player has held serve following being broken.  Also included is the immediate break back percentage, as well as the percentage that the losing player went a double break down following their next service game.

The example below illustrates the scoreline at *1-0 in the first set in the ATP:-

ATP 2015 Season

* Denotes Player to serve

Set 1

Scoreline when Break Lead generated

Break Back Yes

Break Back No


Waiting for hold break back Yes

Waiting for hold break back No


Immediate Break Back

Immediate DB Down

IB %

DB %












Here we can see that there were 48.43% break backs throughout the set when players were immediately laid at *1-0 when they broke in the first game of the match.  However, when waiting for a hold from the losing player this figure fell to 41.05% at *2-1.  22.3% of service games were immediately broken back, whilst 18.1% of scenarios resulted in a double break lead being generated (e.g. leading player held and then losing player was broken again, to generate a scoreline of *3-0).

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