How Important is the First Point of Each Game?

A common belief among players, coaches, and commentators is that the first point of each game is of particular importance. It’s often suggested that the first point sets the tone for the entire game.

Of course, winning the first point is better than losing it, but that’s not what I’m talking about.  Winning any point is better than losing it. If the first point is more important than the others, winning it would have to give a player even more of an advantage than the simple fact of having reached 15-0 instead of 0-15.

The difference between 15-0 and 0-15–apart from any momentum it generates–is a substantial one. Using a theoretical model that treats each point as independent, a player who typically wins 60% of service points will hold about 74% of the time, meaning that at love-all, they have a 74% of winning the game. At 15-0, that probability jumps to 84%. At 0-15, it’s only 58%.

To say that the first point is particularly important, then, is to say that the gap between winning and losing it is even greater than that. On the evidence of over 20,000 recent ATP and WTA matches, covering nearly half a million games, though, the first point is no more important than it should be. Except for, possibly, a few players and a few in-match situations, it gives no momentum to either player.

The basics

The broadest finding is perhaps the most surprising. Winning the first point fails to give the server any extra advantage, but losing the first point does. The results for ATP matches and WTA matches are the same. If the server loses the first point, he or she is then about one percent more likely to win the game than if points were truly independent of each other.

Naturally, this is not a recommendation that a server should lose the first point of any game! For our 60% server, winning the first point still improves her odds of a hold to 84%. But instead of the 58% chance at 0-15 that the theoretical model predicts, it’s really between 58.5% and 59%.

An effect of this size is not something that one would ever notice simply watching tennis matches. It probably doesn’t have any practical import, either. But over multiple very large samples of recent professional matches, the effect demonstrates that winning the first point of a game does not endow a player with any additional benefits.

Situations where it matters

In general, the first point is only as valuable as its immediate effect on the score. However, there are certain situations where winning it seems to give the server a bit more of an edge, or where losing it isn’t the disadvantage that it should be.

The latter situation is most pronounced. In both men’s and women’s tennis, servers outperform the theoretical model when serving down two breaks, at scores such as 0-4, 0-5, and 1-5. They beat the model to a much lesser, but still real, extent when serving down one break. This could be due to their acknowledgement that these games are “must wins,” or in the double-break situations, to a lack of effort on the part of the returner.

Regardless of the reason, with a double-break disadvantage, the effect of going down 0-15 is much less than in the model. Our 60% server, instead of facing a choice between an 84% chance of winning at 15-0 or 58% at 0-15, is looking at a 91% chance of winning at 15-0 or a 71% chance of winning at 0-15.

When serving with the break advantage, the situation is reversed, but it is much less pronounced. At scores such as 6-5 and 3-2, the model is a good predictor of win probability from 15-0, but servers underperform against the model from 0-15. The difference, though only a few percentage points, could be due to more aggression or focus on the part of the returner, or to the server feeling nerves.

At the majority of the most common scores, though, the effect of the first point is no different than the aggregate numbers, with the first point having almost no effect beyond the score.

Susceptible servers

There are a few players for whom the first point does seem to have an extra effect. These fall into two categories: players who fit the conventional wisdom, doing much better (compared to the model) from 15-0 than from 0-15, and those who are the opposite, reducing the gap between the likely outcomes from 15-0 and 0-15.

Among the 38 ATPers for whom I have more than 2,000 recorded service games, the player in the first category who sees the greatest first-point effect is Richard Gasquet. From 15-0, he beats the model by about one percent, but from 0-15, he underperforms by five percent. He’s the only male player whose gap between these two figures is more than five percent.

At the other end of the spectrum is Santiago Giraldo, who from 15-0 underperforms against the model by two percent, but from 0-15, beats the model by seven percent.

The rest of Giraldo’s category is where things get interesting. The other four players with a gap of four percent or greater are Feliciano Lopez, John Isner, Juan Martin del Potro, and Rafael Nadal. It’s no surprise to see two lefties here, as left-handers typically win more points in the ad court. Every other lefty in the dataset fits the same pattern, though their gaps are smaller.

The presence of big servers at this end of the list is a bit tougher to explain. Because they are so likely to hold in any given service game, perhaps they are sometimes unfocused on the first point of a game and become more serious after falling to 0-15.

Among WTA players, the distribution is about the same. The most extreme effect is on the serve of Sorana Cirstea, who, like Giraldo, is much more effective (compared to the model) from 0-15 than from 15-0. The other women in this category with more than a five percent gap are Flavia Pennetta, Ekaterina Makarova, and Ana Ivanovic.

At the other extreme, in Gasquet’s category, are Francesca Schiavone, Li Na, Julia Goerges, and Eugenie Bouchard, all of whom are about two percent more effective than expected from 15-0, and four percent less effective than expected from 0-15.

Conventional overstatement

As is so often the case, the conventional wisdom proves to have a grain of truth in it … sometimes, maybe, and to a much lesser extent than is generally claimed. Even the most extreme effect on tour, like that of Gasquet or Cirstea, doesn’t change the result of a game more than once every two or three matches.

The first point of a game is quite meaningful, because 15-0 is so much better than 0-15. But except for a few players and a few situations–some of which actually shrink the gap between 15-0 and 0-15–there’s little truth to the common claim that the first point is more important than its mere effect on the scoreline.