The headline is a bit unwieldy, but it refers to one of the most common nuggets of conventional wisdom in tennis. When a player has the opportunity to break and doesn’t do so, this viewpoint holds that they are more likely to get broken in their following service game.
Like so much conventional wisdom, this assumes that momentum plays a role. Break points are crucial moments, and if a player doesn’t capitalize, the momentum will turn against him. That momentum then carries into the following game, and the player who failed to convert gets broken himself.
Or so the story goes.
However, data from almost 3,000 2013 tour-level and qualifying-round matches suggests the opposite. The likelihood that a player holds serve has almost nothing to do with what happened in the previous game.
Let’s start with some general numbers. To make sure we’re comparing apples to apples, I’ve ignored the first game of every set. This way, we compare “games after missed break point chances” to “games after breaks” to “games after holds.” In other words, we’re only concerned with “games after something.” I’ve also limited our view to sequences of games within the same set, since the long break between sets (not to mention other psychological factors) seem to put those multi-set sequences of games in a different category altogether.
Once those exclusions are made, this set of several thousand ATP matches showed that players got broken in 21.7% of their service games. Compare that to break rates after various events:
- after a hold of serve: 22.6%
- after a break of serve: 19.3%
- after a hold including a missed break point chance: 21.2%
- after a hold including three missed bp chances: 20.9%
- after a hold including four or more missed bp chances: 19.4%
These are aggregate numbers, not adjusted for specific players, so they don’t tell the whole story. But they already suggest that the conventional wisdom is overstating its case. After failing to convert a break point, players hold serve almost exactly as often as they do in general. In fact, they get broken a bit less frequently in those situations (21.2%) than they do following a more conventional hold without any break points (22.6%).
Let’s see what happens when we adjust these numbers on a match-by-match basis. For example, if Tomas Berdych gets broken by Novak Djokovic 6 times in 15 tries, we can use that 40% break rate as a benchmark by which to measure more specific scenarios. If Berdych fails to convert break point twice, we would “expect” that he gets broken in 40% of his following service games, or 0.8 times in the two games. Of course, no one can get broken a fractional amount of a game, but by summing those “expected” breaks, we can see what the aggregate numbers look like with a much lesser chance of particular players or matchups biasing the numbers.
Once that cumbersome step is out of the way, we discover that–again, but more confidently–there is virtually no difference between average service games and service games that follow unconverted break points.
In my sample of 2013 ATP matches, there were 5,701 service games that followed missed break point opportunities. Players held 4,493 of those games (78.8%). That’s almost precisely the rate at which they held in other games. Had those specific players performed at their usual level within those matches, they would’ve held 4,488 times (78.7%).
We see the same findings when we focus on the most high-pressure games, ones with three or more break points. This sample contained 722 games in which the server held despite three break points. Servers held the following game 571 times. Had they performed at their usual, average-momentum rate, they would’ve held 570 times. After holds with four or more break points (206 in all), servers held 166 times instead of an “expected” 162.
There’s no evidence here that these particular service games have different results than other service games do.
Momentum, the basis for so many of the beliefs that make up tennis’s conventional wisdom, is surely a factor in the game, but my research has shown, over and over again, that it isn’t nearly as influential as fans and pundits tend to think.
Once we hear a claim like this one, we tend to notice when events confirm it, reinforcing our mostly-baseless belief. When we see something that doesn’t match the belief, we’re surprised, often leading to a discussion that takes for granted the truth of the original claim. Our brains are wired to understand and tell stories, not to recognize the difference between something that happens 77% of the time and 79% of the time.
It may turn out that some players are unusually likely or unlikely to get broken after failing to convert a break point. Or perhaps this particular sequence of events is more common at certain junctures in a match. But barring research that establishes that sort of thing, there is simply no evidence that momentum plays any role in the service game following unconverted break points.