Some of tennis’s conventional wisdom manages to be both blindingly self-evident and obviously wrong. Give pundits a basic fact (winning more points is good), add a dash of perceived momentum, and the results can be toxic.
A great example is the tiebreak change of ends. The typical scenario goes something like this: Serving at 2-3 in a tiebreak, a player loses a point on serve, going down a minibreak to 2-4. As the players change sides, a commentator says, “You really don’t want to go into this change of ends without at least keeping the score even.”
While the full rationale is rarely spelled out, the implication is that losing that one point–going from 2-3 to 2-4–is somehow worse than usual because the point precedes the changeover. Like the belief that the seventh game of the set is particularly important, this has passed, untested, into the canon.
Let’s start with the “blindingly self-evident” part. Yes, it’s better to head into the change of ends at 3-3 than it is at 2-4. In a tiebreak, every point is crucial. Based on a theoretical model and using sample players who each win 65% of service points, here are the odds of winning a tiebreak from various scores at the changeover:
Score p(Win) 1*-5 5.4% 2*-4 21.5% 3*-3 50.0% 4*-2 78.5% 5*-1 94.6%
It’s easy to sum that up: You really want to win that sixth point. (Or, at least, several of the points before the sixth.) On the other hand, compare that to the scenarios after eight points:
Score p(Win) 2*-6 2.6% 3*-5 17.6% 4*-4 50.0% 5*-3 82.4% 6*-2 97.4%
At the risk of belaboring the obvious, when the score is close, points become more important later in the tiebreak. The outcome at 4-4 matters more than at 3-3, which matters more than at 2-2, and so on. If players changed ends after eight points, we’d probably bestow some magical power on that score instead.
So far, I’ve only discussed what the model tells us about win probabilities at various tiebreak scores. If the pundits are right, we should see a gap between the theoretical likelihood of winning a tiebreak from 2-4 and the number of times that players really do win tiebreaks from those scores. The model says that players should win 21.5% of tiebreaks from 2*-4; if the conventional wisdom is correct, we would find that players win even fewer tiebreaks when trying to come back from that deficit.
By analyzing the 20,000-plus tiebreaks in this dataset, we find that the opposite is true. Falling to 2-4 is hugely worse than reaching the change of ends at 3-3, but it isn’t worse than the model predicts–it’s a bit better.
To quantify the effect, I determined the likelihood that the player serving immediately after the changeover would win the tiebreak, based on each player’s service points won throughout the match and the model I’ve referred to above. By aggregating all of those predictions, together with the observed result of each tiebreak, we can see how real life compares to the model.
In this set of tiebreaks, a player serving at 2-4 would be expected to win 20.9% of the time. In fact, these players go to win the tiebreak 22.0% of the time–a small but meaningful difference. We see an even bigger gap for players returning at 2-4. The model predicts that they would win 19.9% of the time, but they end up winning 22.1% of these tiebreaks.
In other words, after six points, the player with more points is heavily favored, but if there’s any momentum–that is, if either player has more of an advantage than the mere score would suggest–the edge belongs the player trailing in the tiebreak.
Sure enough, we see the same effect after eight points. Serving at 3-5, players in this dataset have a 16.3% (theoretical) probability of winning the tiebreak, but they win 19.0% of the time. Returning at 3-5, their paper chance is 17.2%, and they win 19.5%.
There’s nothing special about the first change of ends, and there probably isn’t any other point in a tiebreak that is more crucial than the model suggests. Instead, we’ve discovered that underdogs have a slightly better chance of coming back than their paper probabilities indicate. I suspect we’re seeing the effect of front-runners getting tight and underdogs swinging more freely–an aspect of tennis’s conventional wisdom that has much more to recommend itself than the idea of a magic score after the first six points of a tiebreak.