The Pointlessness of Playing the Lets

Some people always want tennis matches to be shorter. Among the many recurring proposals to accomplish that, one that has been implemented in some places is eliminating service lets. In other words, serves are treated the same way as any other shot: If the serve clips the net and lands in the box, it’s in play.

“No-let” rules have been adopted by World Team Tennis and American university tennis. In the latter case, eliminating lets has more to do with ensuring fair play in the absence of an umpire. In 2013, the ATP experimented with no lets on the Challenger tour for the first three months of the year.

With an umpire on every professional court and machines that detect service lets at tour-level events, fairness (or avoiding cheating) is not the issue here. The reason we’re talking about this is that service lets take time, and apparently time is the enemy.

How much time?

The Match Charting Project has tracked lets in most of the 2,500-plus matches it has logged. Thus, we have some real-life data on the frequency of service lets. For today, I’ve limited our view to matches since 2010, which still gives us more than 2,000 matches to work with.

The average men’s match in the database, which consists of 151 total points, had six first-serve lets and fewer than one (0.875) second-serve let. Women’s matches are similar: Of the typical 139 points, there were 4.5 first-serve lets and 0.8 second-serve lets.

Let’s estimate the extra time all those lets are taking. After a first-serve let, most players restart their preparations, so let’s say a first-serve let is an extra 20 seconds. When the second serve is a let, most players are quicker to try again, so call that 10 seconds.

For the average men’s match in the database, that’s an extra 128 seconds–just over two minutes. For women, that’s 99 extra seconds per match. In both cases, the time consumed by service lets is less than one second per point.  Just about any other rule change aimed at speeding up the game would be more effective than that.

Even at the extremes, it’s tough to argue that service lets are taking too much time. Of all the matches in the charting database, none had more than 24 service lets, and that was in the 2012 London Olympics marathon between Roger Federer and Juan Martin Del Potro. Using the estimates I gave above, those 20 first-serve and four second-serve lets accounted for just over seven minutes of the total match time of 4:26.

Only one of the 1,000 women’s matches in the database featured more than 17 service lets or more than five let-attributable minutes: Petra Cetkovska‘s three-set upset of Angelique Kerber at the 2014 Italian Open. That outlier included 22 lets, which we would estimate at a cost of just under seven minutes.

Playing service lets wouldn’t destroy the very fabric of tennis as we know it, but it also wouldn’t substantially shorten matches. By changing the let rule, tennis executives would needlessly annoy players and fans for no noticeable benefit.

What Would Happen If the WTA Switched to Super-Tiebreaks?

It’s in the news again: Some tennis execs think that matches are too long, fans’ attention spans are too short, and the traditional format of tennis matches needs to change. Since ATP and WTA doubles have already swapped a full third set for a 10-point super-tiebreak, something similar would make for a logical proposal to cap singles match length.

Let’s dig into the numbers and see just how much time would be saved if the WTA switched from a third set to a super-tiebreak. It is tempting to use match times from doubles, but there are two problems. First, match data on doubles is woefully sparse. Second, the factors that influence match length, such as average point length and time between points, are different in doubles and singles.

Using only WTA singles data, here’s what we need to do:

  1. Determine how many matches would be affected by the switch
  2. Figure out how much time is consumed by existed third sets
  3. Estimate the length of singles super-tiebreaks
  4. Calculate the impact (measured in time saved) of the change

The issue: three-setters

Through last week’s tournaments on the WTA tour this year, I have length (in minutes) for 1,915 completed singles matches.  I’ve excluded Grand Slam events, since third sets at three of the four Slams can extend beyond 6-6, skewing the length of a “typical” third set.

The average length of a WTA singles match is about 97 minutes, with a range from 40 minutes up to 225 minutes. Here is a look at the distribution of match times this year:


The most common lengths are between 70 and 90 minutes. Some executives may wish to shorten all matches–switching to no-ad games (which I’ve considered here) or a more radically different format such as Fast4–but for now, I think it’s fair to assume that those 90-minute matches are safe from tinkering.

If there is a “problem” with long matches–both for fan engagement and scheduling–it arises mostly with three-setters. About one-third of WTA matches go to a third set, and these account for nearly all of the contests that last longer than two hours. 460 matches have passed the two-hour mark this season. Of those, all but 24 required a third set.

Here is the distribution of match lengths for WTA three-setters this season:


If we simply removed all third sets, nearly all matches would finish within two hours. Of course, if we did that, we’d be left with an awful lot of ties. Instead, we’re talking about replacing third sets with something shorter.

Goodbye, third set

Third sets are a tiny bit shorter than the first and second sets in three-setters. If we count sets that go to tiebreaks as 14 games, the average number of games in a third set is 9.5, while the typical number of games in the first and second sets of a three-setter is 9.7.

Those counts are close enough that we can estimate the length of each set very simply, as one-third the length of the match. There are other considerations, such as the frequency of toilet breaks before third sets and the number of medical timeouts in different sets, but even if we did want to explore those minor issues, there is very little available data to guide us in those areas.

The length of a super-tiebreak

The typical WTA three-setter involves about 189 individual points, so we can roughly estimate that foregoing the third set saves about 63 points. How many points are added back by playing a super-tiebreak?

The math gets rather involved here, so I’ll spare you most of the details. Using the typical rate of service and return points won by each player in three-setters (58% on serve and 46% on return for the better player that day), we can use my tiebreak probability model to determine the distribution of possible outcomes, such as a final score 10-7 or 12-10.

Long story short, the average super-tiebreak would require about 19 points, less than one-third the number needed by the average third-set.

That still doesn’t quite answer our question, though. We’re interested in time savings, not point reduction. The typical WTA third set takes about 44 minutes, or about 42 seconds per point. Would a super-tiebreak be played at the same pace?

Tiebreak speed

While 10-point breakers are largely uncharted territory in singles, 7-point tiebreaks are not, and we have plenty of data on the latter. It seems reasonable to extend conclusions about 7-pointers to their 10-point cousins, and they are played with similar rules–switch servers every two points, switch points every six–and under comparable levels of increased pressure.

Using IBM’s point-by-point data from this year’s Grand Slam women’s draws, we have timestamps on about 700 points from tiebreaks. Even though the 42-seconds-per-point estimate for full sets includes changeovers, tiebreaks are played even more slowly. Including mini-changeovers within tiebreaks, points take about 54 seconds each, almost 30% longer than the traditional-set average.

The bottom line impact of third-set super-tiebreaks

As we’ve seen, the average third-set takes about 44 minutes. A 19-point super-tiebreak, at 54 seconds per point, comes in at about 17 minutes, chopping off more than 60% off the length of the typical third set, or about 20% from the length of the entire match.

If we alter this year’s WTA singles match times accordingly, reducing the length of all three-setters by one-fifth, we get some results that certain tennis executives will love. The average match time falls from 97 minutes to 89 minutes, and more importantly, far fewer matches cross the two-hour threshold.

Of the 460 matches this season over two hours in length, we would expect third-set super-tiebreaks to eliminate more than two-thirds of them, knocking the total down to 147. Here is the revised match length distribution, based on the assumptions I’ve laid out in this post:


The biggest benefit to switching to a third-set super-tiebreak is probably related to scheduling. By massively cutting down the number of marathon matches, it’s less likely that players and fans will have to wait around for an 11:00 PM start.

Of the various proposals floating around to shorten matches–third-set super-tiebreaks, no-ad scoring, playing service lets, and Fast4–changing the third-set format strikes the best balance of shortening the longest matches without massively changing the nature of the sport.

Personally, I hope none of these changes are ever seen on a WTA or ATP singles court. After all, I like tennis and tend to rankle at proposals that result in less tennis. If something must be done, I’d prefer it involve finding new executives to replace the ones who can’t stop tinkering with the sport. But if some rule needs to be changed to shorten matches and make scheduling more TV-friendly, this is likely the easiest one to stomach.

At Slams, Do Shorter Matches Lead to Later Success?

Over the weekend, Tom Perrotta made the claim that grand slam champions such as Roger Federer and Serena Williams got that way, in part, by keeping early matches short.  In his words: “They’re great at not being exhausted.”

This is intuitively appealing, especially after a third round in which Federer and Novak Djokovic barely broke a sweat, while Andy Murray, David Ferrer, and Tomas Berdych each dropped a set.  (Even Juan Martin Del Potro was forced to a tiebreak by Leonardo Mayer.)

Before we get carried away, let’s find out what the numbers tell us.  As we’ll see, slam champions usually are the men who spent fewer minutes on court getting to the final.  It’s less clear, though, whether there is a causal link: After all, a better player should have an easier time of it in the early going.

The ATP has complete match-length numbers for our purposes going back to 2001.  That gives us enough data to look at the last 47 slams.

In the last 47 grand slam finals, the favorite (defined simply as the guy with the better ATP ranking) won 33 times.  In 6 of the 14 slam finals in which the underdog won, the underdog had spent less time on court in his previous six matches than the favorite did in his.  Pretty good, huh?

One problem: Six other times, the favorite won the final despite having spent more time on court.  So if you have to pick between the favorite and the better-rested player, there’s nothing in this sample to differentiate your choices.

A more positive takeaway occurs when the favorite has spent less time on court.  There have been 35 such finals since 2001, and the better-rested favorite has gone 27-8.  Most of the time, the favorite has reached the final expending less effort than his challenger did, and perhaps we can view that as a confirmation of his status as favorite.

(If you prefer games played to minutes on court, perhaps in deference to the Nadal and Djokovic speed of play, rest assured the numbers come out almost identical.  There are a few cases where players spent less time on court but played more games–or vice versa–but if the analysis above replaced minutes with games, the results would be the same.)

All else equal, we’d bet on the finalist who has spent less time on court.  But that doesn’t necessary imply that the better-rested player is more likely to win the final because he hasn’t spent as much time on court.  That seems particularly true at slams, where players almost always get a day of rest between matches, and where top contenders almost never play doubles.

More likely is that one player spent less time on court because he is the favorite.  Surely no one was surprised when Federer breezed past Verdasco, and few were surprised that Murray needed more time to put away Feliciano Lopez.  Time on court is a clue that one man is playing better tennis, regardless of whether the extra rest aids him in later matches.

We can probably all agree on a safer claim: All else equal, the world’s best would certainly prefer to spend less time on court, even if it doesn’t boost his odds of winning the final.  It might be gratifying to fight off an early challenge, but surely it’s more enjoyable to remind the rest of the field why you’re the favorite.