Break Points - Are They Really That Important?

Truths, Lies and Tennis Statistics RSS / / 20 March 2008 / Leave a Comment

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"Magical" Matthew Walton tells us why McEnroe once said that tennis, when all is said and done, it boils down to break points. But which players best handle the pressure of having and facing break points?

Mac The Mouth' aka John McEnroe once said that tennis, when all is said and done, it boils down to break points. And whilst not the most profund of statements, it's clear to see what he was trying to say.

After all, a player's fate is ultimately determined by his ability to force such situations on their opponent's serve ... whilst at the same time avoiding them when they themselves are serving.

Furthermore, when faced with this situation (whether on serve or on return) he needs to do exactly what McEnroe was alluding to - i.e. have the poise, aggression, control, nerve or luck to win these crucial points.

Here's the scenario, and we've all been there, we back Player A. He forces 12 break points in a match as opposed to his opponent, Player B, who manages just 5 break points. However, our man, Player A, converts just 2 of his break points whilst Player B takes 3 of his opportunities and wins the match.

That's the fine line between success and failure for the players themselves, that's also the fine line between betting success and failure for us backers! On such small matters is our fate decided.

And we see this preoccupation with break points all the time when we're betting. As one player moves to 0-15 and then 15-30 the odds start to move and then, come 15-40 or 30-40, they go into meltdown as backers (or layers) pretty much give up on the game. Some even throw in the towel on the whole match on the basis of a single break point!

This prompted a look into the subject. Does a break point really signal the end of a game? Are they the pre-cursor to the end of the match? Or are they less important than Mac would have us believe?

The first table shows the percentage of break points won by players this year on tour. With a minimum requirement of 4 matches per month (as per the ATP website) some of the big names don't qualify - e.g. Roger Federer - but it's worth noting Andy Roddick (38%), Ivan Ljubicic (36%), Mario Ancic (33%), Ivo Karlovic (29%) and Marcos Baghdatis (29%) as being distinctly mediocre for top ranked players. None makes the top fifty.

The mean average is around 40% or so. That's a win ratio of two out of every five break points they force. Should such a percentage automatically suggest they'll win the game once they reach 30-40? Not really.

The second table highlights the saving of break points. Those players who can handle the pressure and serve themselves out of trouble. No surprise to see some of the big-hitters at the top of the list but a little strange to see some leading players quite far down the order like Rafael Nadal (58%), Nikolay Davydenko (58%) and David Nalbandian (56%).

Of more interest are players such as Novak Djokovic, Mikhail Youzhny and Robin Soderling, the only players who are top 10 on both lists, and somebody like Janko Tipsarevic - the under-rated Serb is top 20 on both lists.

What these tables show is that when it comes to the conversion of break points, the statistics are lower than you might first think. This would suggest an over-reaction on the exchange as too many backers and layers jump to premature conclusions (now there's a first!) as soon as a break point is encountered. For sure, if the average conversion rate was 50%-60% then it's more understandable but the norm is more like 35%-40%. It's only the very top guys who are winning more than they lose.

On the flipside, the saving of break points is around the 60% mark. That means players will lose 2 of every 5 break points they face. Quite high it seems, bearing in mind they have the advantage of serving.

Also, please note, most of these statistics are based around hard courts and carpet, it will be interesting to see how they change once the clay takes precedence in a few weeks time.

Hence, break points are important and McEnroe is absolutely right with his assertion (and in pre-tie break days they were even more important). However, the tables lead us to conclude that as liable as a player is to win the break points he creates, he's almost a guilty of losing the ones he faces. Like the example above, a player will happily lose two break points in a match so long as he wins three himself.

This all goes to make for fluid matches, volatile betting markets and plenty of opportunities for trades - just what we want!

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