Predicting sports is a tricky thing. We all do it, and it’s part of the fun, in my opinion. Some do it with their favourite teams or players, others for the strategy and love of the game, some for gambling and for any other combination. Tennis is a tricky sport to predict, as there are many things to take into consideration, particularly strategy. Moreover, it is an individual sport, and players can be prone to bad or good days.
The following is a beginners guide to predicting tennis matches. It is in no way meant to talk down to anyone, and I am in no way pretending to have all of the answers. I also believe that we as a tennis community are largely pretty accurate in our ideas of the game and predictions. However, I often find that people make predictions based off of only one or two of the following instead considering of all 10. The list is in a general rank of importance, but obviously varies from match to match.
1. Past Results – The most obvious of obvious. How a player has been playing recently has a large part to play in how they will play, both in the quality of their play and their confidence*. Duh. While this is something we all take into account, I find it is one that is often largely misused, for the reason to come in number 2. Regardless, success breeds success in tennis and more often than not a player who is playing well will continue to play well.
2. *Quality of Performances - In reality, this should be number 1. It is often over looked for the very sake of practicality – no one can watch every tennis match at every time. Regardless, it needs to be the most important thing in mind with your favourite player, or with a prediction. It goes both ways, too. Very good players can win a lot of matches, even tournaments, without playing very well (the joys of having a high ranking). Likewise, lesser players can play incredibly well and lose earlier or to greater players simply because of rankings/draws and the sheer lack of tools. The most recent result that comes to mind for me is Tipsarevic’s match against Djokovic in Toronto. He played incredibly well, but lost in straights. On paper, it is a predictable result. Regardless, Tipsy brought that quality into the USO and nearly made the semifinals.
Top players can be much harder to judge in this respect. They often try to play a more reserved game and win on the fact that they are simply a far superior player, and turn up the quality later in the tournament. Often warm up tournaments are a greater example of where a players game is at than early rounds of slams. Wins and losses, as well as how far a player went in a previous tournament only ever tell half of the story.
3. History - Obviously all sports are two way streets, and this is no more true than in tennis. There’s another player on the side of the net! Head to head records are always a nice place to start, particularly if you’re unfamiliar with a player. If a player owns another in a head to head, you already have a start. However, all head to head matches need to be taken with the nine other grains of salt outlined in this post (if not more).
4. Style of Play - I would argue that styles of play have a much larger role in the WTA than the ATP, where they are often much more obvious and easy to predict. How does your favourite player do against big hitters? Big servers? Scrappier players? In this sense, you can see how a certain player matched up against a player who plays a similar, if lesser style than the upcoming opponent. For example, Ana Ivanovic always loves to take on big hitters, outside of the very elite. She likes pace, yes, but she’s not a counter puncher. More than anything, she likes targets and enjoys when her opponent goes for it and opens up the court for her. She can struggle against players who have some pace but are scrappier, as it puts the onus on her to create chances from scratch.
The same thing is true for the ATP. There are big servers, there are scrappier players, players who rely on their forehands, etc. Knowing how one player copes with another particular style is always a good start.
5. Shot vs Shot, Strategy – This is always tricky. I’m very interested in tactics and strategy, but is something not often talked about in tennis circles in comparison to something like both European and North American footballs. Rallies tend to happen or develop out of cross court battles due to it being a higher percentage shot because it is 1) easier to do 2) the net is lower. This is a starting point. If it is a right/right or left/left matchup, backhands will go against each other, forehands against each other and opposite for left vs right.
Even though a player like Juan Monaco is ranked in the top 10, he would have an incredibly difficult time against Djokovic because he struggles to go down the line on the backhand side. This means he is always likely to lose points involving backhand rallies, as Djokovic can quickly open up the court. This is also true of Nadal, who used this very tactic, except on the forehand side because he is left handed, to open up Monaco at Roland Garros.
This is an extreme example, but an example none the less. If player A has a slightly better forehand but a far inferior backhand, they need to find a way to avoid that kind of rally, etc. Again, this can be a little bit more obvious in the WTA, but at the same time players tend to have their shots break down more easily.
6. Surface - Perhaps the most intriguing part about tennis are the changes in conditions and surfaces. While team sports will always have changes with home/away and different players coming in, tennis is alone in the fact that past match-ups can have major asterisks on them due to the surface.
Know your surfaces! Hard court was always intended to be the “neutral” surface between clay and grass, but in reality it is much faster than a mid way point. Hard courts play very different in different conditions, and play like a high bouncing grass court in side.
And just because grass plays fast does not mean that big servers automatically win. We’ve often been led to believe this, as past big servers would serve and volley their way to victory. The biggest serves in the game today come from much taller players who do not serve and volley, and have difficulty getting down to balls on the low bouncing grass.
Clay is far, far slower than anything else and rewards physically fit players as well as players who can move quickly. At times, however, we have seen it reward players who like time to set up shop, have the ball bounce up to them, and crank it (for example Soderling and Stosur). Likewise, power is neutralized less on the women’s side, perhaps most obviously with Sharapova winning the 2012 Roland Garros title.
7. Weather – I will forever have a press conference with Serena Williams at the 2011 Rogers Cup lodged in my mind. I believe it was after her win against Julia Goerges in which a reporter asked if she had to hit the ball more flat due to the conditions to push through the wind. “You don’t watch much tennis, do you?”. It was as if he was a six year old unsure about how science works. More wind = more spin, to cut through the wind and have it spin the ball and push it around. Some players can do well in the wind, others struggle.
Cooler days mean heavier air, slowing the ball down. Hotter days mean thinner air, speeding the ball up. Likewise, certain players deal with extreme heat better than others. Difficult to predict well ahead of time, but something to keep in mind.
8. Schedule – A pretty obvious, but often over looked factor. This works threefold. First, how much has the player played in the tournament itself. Have they played entirely long matches, with the other player having a smooth ride? Did they play late the last night and were forced to come out next afternoon? These are elite, world class athletes, but a large amount of tennis in a short amount of time, particularly starting and stopping twice, takes it’s toll. If for nothing else, it is taxing on concentration levels.
Secondly, how much has the player played recently. We tend not to forget this one. Petra Kvitova was always going to have a tough time in New York, having won Montreal and New Haven. That’s a lot of tennis.
Thirdly, how much have they played that year, relative to how much they usually play. Djokovic simply ran out of gas at 2011 Roland Garros due to all the tennis he had been playing that year. That is an extreme example, but a similar thing often happens to younger players on a smaller scale; they are not used to playing such demanding players and so much tennis in a week, and eventually run out of steam.
9. Mental Health – Confidence, intent, mental strength and the like are typically the thing thrown at number 1 or 2 of tennis commentators, or sports commentators buzz words. “He has the confidence after his win at…” “they’re a team of winners…” “you don’t know how to win until…”.
Being a fan of of baseball’s advanced metrics and European football’s strategy and analytics (see my post comparing tennis to football here) I am a firm believer that “chemistry” and team togetherness is often overplayed and other more important factors are left out. I also believe that is true for tennis.
Regardless, it is a massive factor in this sport. Tennis is a lonely sport, and you’re out there alone (usually) for the duration. You need to believe you will win, and you need to find a way to win. Agassi spoke in his book about the strange opposing forces, both pulling you and dragging you away from a win as you closed in on the conclusion of a match. An inner tension that all players have felt at some point. Likewise, performance in “big points” and “taking opportunities” IS important, because tennis is a circumstantial sport.
The hardest part of judging mental health is that it is impossible to get inside a player’s head. We try, sure, but we never really can, and most of the time are entirely speculating. Was Andy Murray really super confident after his win at the Olympics? I’m inclined to say no, even though he did follow it up with a US Open win.
10. Number of Sets - This rule only applies to half of the players (men) eight weeks a year, but it is important to keep in mind. Player X might have played Player Y in a warm up tournament a couple of weeks prior and beat them rather handedly. But does this result match up over five sets? Five sets often separates the great from the supremely great, as the best players not only have the best shots, but the best physical conditioning and mental strength. It can be a big advantage in the long run.