Professional tennis punter Jack Houghton explains the golden rule of tennis wagering and explores ways to determine value through qualitative and quantitative approaches.
In terms of how easy it is to get your fix, tennis enthusiasts are spoilt. The ATP and WTA alone provide multiple, televised tournaments each week, 48 weeks of the year.
At the time of writing, not including the long-term markets for the Grand Slams, Betfair is providing markets on 11 different tournaments.
This presents an opportunity, but also a potential problem. With so much tennis betting available, and a vast array of data to work with, a savvy punter can apply a successful strategy throughout the year, without the long, off-season hiatus that betting on things like EPL or AFL inevitably brings. But, it can also be overwhelming. The question is often, “Where to start?”
Golden Rule of Tennis Betting
Specialise. Unless you plan to make punting on tennis your full-time job, you have to focus your efforts.
As an example, I only bet on the men’s game. That’s no criticism of the women’s game; it’s just that I’ve found that my particular brand of statistical analysis works better for men’s tennis: it seems more predictable. For the same reason I only bet seriously on hard-court tournaments. I’ve never managed to get to grips with the clay-court game and the grass season is too short to warrant the effort.
For you, though, it might be that it’s all about women and clay. Like Demi Moore in Ghost.
An acquaintance of mine specialises in betting on the lower-end tournaments of the men’s tour: anything that brings with it more than 250 ATP ranking points and he’s not interested. His rationale is that everybody knows everything about the elite players, so it’s hard to have an edge when betting in the big competitions. When it comes to an early-round match in a smaller tournament between relatively unknown players, though, he can have a huge advantage provided he’s done a bit of research beforehand.
Personally I think there is still an advantage to be had at the bigger competitions too, but I agree that finding your niche will help improve your profitability.
The Other Golden Rule of Tennis Betting
Okay, I know you can’t really have two Golden Rules, but this one is so important I couldn’t resist. Come to think of it, it’s not specific to tennis; it’s the Golden Rule of all betting.
Don’t think about finding winning bets, think about finding value.
Value is where you get better odds on an outcome than chance suggests you should. If you do this consistently, you can make a profit in the long run; if you don’t, you won’t. As an early betting mentor always used to say to me, “Betting’s simple. Back a coin toss at 2.20. Lay it at 1.80.” Okay, as far as sayings go, it’s not the catchiest, but the logic is rock solid.
Over the years, working with a number of professional gamblers, it became clear that most of them do not think in terms of whether something will win. They don’t even think in terms of odds. Their prime focus is always about working out the likelihood of an outcome occurring and then, once they have done this, looking at the odds that are being offered. If they can get a better price than they should, they bet; if they can’t, they don’t.
Let’s take a real example to make this concept clearer. Prior to the US Open final in 2015, an acquaintance of mine estimated that Novak Djokovic had a 65% chance of beating Roger Federer. (I will later outline some of the ways that you can more accurately work out these percentages yourself). By dividing 1 by this figure, before multiplying it by 100, he was able to determine the odds that Djokovic should have been. ((1 ÷ 65) x 100 = 1.54).
The market disagreed, offering a much more generous 1.82, and my acquaintance therefore had a large bet, with a happy outcome.
Without wanting to do this point to death, it’s important to note that, although he thought Djokovic was by far the most likely winner of that match, he would not have had the bet if the odds had not been significantly higher than his “true” odds of 1.54, and would have happily laid Djokovic had they been significantly shorter.
Identifying Tennis Value Bets – A Qualitative Approach
There are a number of valid ways of doing this, and I’ll identify a few below, but your first decision is whether or not you are going to adopt a primarily qualitative or quantitative approach.
A qualitative approach is where you attempt to assess all the information you know about an upcoming event and work out percentage chances on the back of this.
An internal monologue of someone adopting this approach might go something like this… “Nadal has played Murray eight times on clay and has won seven times. However, the last time they played on clay, Murray beat him. Also, Nadal has been less consistent of late, whereas Murray has seemed to get better, especially on the red stuff. Having said that, Nadal is the better player on top form and has been more impressive in his last two tournaments on the way back from an injury. I believe Nadal has a 60% chance of winning… 1 ÷ 60 x 100 is 1.66…”
This approach is far better than the average tennis punter who will simply consider which player they think will win and bet accordingly; or, worse still, will back whichever player they like most (or hate the least).
However, I’m increasingly convinced that even rational tennis punters like this would do better still if they adopted – at least partly – a more quantitative approach.
Identifying Tennis Value Bets – A Quantitative Approach
A quantitative approach is where you try to assign numbers to past performances and use them to create percentage chances for future events happening. For example, you note that the last 1,000 times a coin has been tossed it’s been an even-split between heads and tails, meaning the “true” odds on the next toss should be 2.00.
For many people betting on tennis, this means creating and maintaining ratings for every tennis player – a number that represents their ability at any point in time. The professional tennis bodies do this for us in their rankings, but unfortunately their methods are not statistically rigorous when it comes to using them to predict the outcome of future matches.
I keep my own ratings, using an Elo ranking system. It would take a fair few articles of this length to fully explore the various ways this can be done, and you need to be able to give the time, and be a bit of a spreadsheet nerd as well, to get yourself up-and-running. Thankfully, there are a few kind souls on the web that offer their own Elo ratings for general use, such as at http://tenniseloranking.blogspot.co.uk.
I don’t necessarily recommend anyone else’s ratings (methodologies used to create them differ and some are better than others), but taking an example from the site mentioned will demonstrate how ratings can better inform your punting.
Let’s say Stan Wawrinka is going to play Nick Kyrgios at the Australian Open. On the site, at the time of writing, their ratings are 1777 and 1590 respectively. To convert these ratings into a percentage chance of either player winning you divide their rating by the total of both ratings and then multiply the answer by 100. So, for Wawrinka, (1777 ÷ (1777 + 1590)) x 100 = 52.7%.
Now, you convert this to odds as outlined above to be given the “true” odds on Wawrinka of 1.90.
Identifying Value Bets – A Mixed Approach
The reality is that very few profitable punters take a purely qualitative or quantitative approach.
Taking the Wawrinka and Kyrgios example above, even a number-lover like me would also consider qualitative factors such as the head-to-head record of the two players, particularly focusing on recent encounters, hard court matches and five-set encounters and the like.
There are also a number of player performance indicators that I know to be significant. I would look at recent matches and see whether these indicators were solid or dubious. I would also want to know any significant news about the players, such as recent injuries or changes to coaching staff.
Lastly, I might also consider playing conditions and other more nuanced factors. Not every hard court is the same and not every tournament uses the same balls. For example, Cincinnati is a heavier court and uses slower balls than other venues, a factor that Federer was able to use to his advantage in 2015.
Having reviewed the more qualitative information available, I might adjust the odds I was looking for, adjust my stake, or simply refuse the bet altogether.
How to Find the Information
www.tennisexplorer.com allows for a quick assessment of player form and also lists injuries a player has had. The general news section is a good way of keeping up to date with other goings-on.
www.atpworldtour.com and its counterpart www.wtatennis.com provide a wealth of statistics on key performance indicators for players such as serving and returning numbers. Frustratingly, they’ve updated their website in recent years which means it’s now more difficult to easily cut and paste information to your own spreadsheets for analysis.
That’s why I tend to use www.tennisscores-stats.com, which provides a much easier interface for finding head-to-head player data, or www.tennisabstract.com, which is a statistical treasure trove if you have the time to trawl through it.
About The Author – Jack Houghton
As a passionate sports’ fan and punter, Jack has written about sports and betting for over a decade, winning the Martin Wills Award for racing journalism in 2002 and writing Winning on Betfair for Dummies, first published in 2006 and now in its second edition, having sold over 35,000 copies in two languages.