Tennis Betting Tips and Strategies: Side Markets

Professional tennis punter Jack Houghton explains why he focuses on tennis side markets instead of trying to identity value in the major markets.

I’ve previously described ways for punters to utilise various qualitative and quantitative approaches to assess the relative “true” odds of a tennis player prior to a match.

For many tennis punters, though, the drawback of this approach is that it can often mean a lot of work goes in to finding out that the odds available in the market are so similar to your “true” odds that there is no value bet available.  Reducing the number of betting opportunities in this way does not suit many punters – me included – which is where the match side markets for tennis come into their own.

Tennis Side Markets

Depending on the tournament and round the match is played in, the range of side markets available can vary dramatically; however, popular ones include betting on who wins the most games (usually with a handicap), the total games played, who will serve the most aces, and whether a tie break will be played. I’ll deal with each of these types of market below.

Before then, though, it’s worth saying that the best approach to making predictions on what is likely to happen in any match in these side markets is to compare the head-to-head record of the two players historically. Whilst looking at a tennis player’s overall statistics might give you an indication of their ability to serve aces or force opponents to close matches, it is only by looking at how they fare against the opponent in question that you can come to any insightful conclusions.

For example: Novak Djokovic only plays a tie break in around a quarter of his matches, but against Roger Federer that figure rises to around half.

For many years I painstakingly kept my own records of the head-to-head performances of the top tennis players in various areas, and I still update these periodically prior to big matches; however, for the most part, the head-to-head metrics available on websites like ATP and Tennis Abstract are just as good and will save you a lot of time. They take a bit of investigation, but once you get to know what information is available, you’ll be able to assess the likelihood of various outcomes with relative ease.

Most Games Handicap Markets

The idea in these markets is that you are not Backing or Laying on who will win the matchbut on who will win the most games. As a way of evening-up lopsided matches, a handicap is often applied, giving a player a head-start of, say, 2.5 games.  The half is important, because it means the market cannot end in a dead-heat.

Often, these handicaps are applied fairly arbitrarily, using the outright match odds as a starting point, and the odds available on both players will be close to 2.0. The thing to look out for, then, is where players may seem closely matched in terms of their head-to-head record, but where one player has tended to lose some sets by a large margin of games.

For example: Although Andy Murray may appear to be one of the few players who can trouble Novak Djokovic, he also has a habit of gifting him sets: in recent encounters, in over half of the sets lost by Murray to Djokovic, the Brit has won three games or fewer.

Total Games Played Markets

A variation on the market above, really. Punters can Back or Lay on whether the total number of games will be over or under a certain number, say 19.5 for a three-set tennis match.

These markets are best assessed in one of two ways.  First, it is worth knowing how likely the match-up is to go the distance. I like to come up with a simple percentage which divides the number of sets they have played by the number of sets they could have played.  If I have a pairing that have used upwards of 80% of the sets available to them, I can be relatively confident that they will do so again.

Second, I like to total up the number of games played and divide this by the number of sets available in all of their matches. This gives you an idea of how many games they tend to play in the average set. Combining this statistic with the first can give a great indication of the likely number of tennis games they will produce.

For example: Looking at the pairing of Djokovic and Federer, they have used around 82% of the sets available to them, which tells you that they are quite likely to produce longer matches, and in the average set play around 11 games. Combining these two measures gives you an indication that a high game count is very likely.

Most Aces Markets

A simple market which asks punters to make predictions on who will serve the most aces. Again, I look at two statistics/measures. First, I total up all the aces each player has ever served against each other. Dividing each player’s total by their combined ace total gives me a percentage. Dividing 1 by that percentage then gives me the “true” odds of that player serving most aces in the match.

Second, I count the number of times a player has served the most aces in a match. I then perform the same calculation as above to give me another version of those “true” odds.  By comparing these odds to those available in the market I can usually assess if there is a value bet to be had.

The reason for the second measure is to prevent a single match – where one player perhaps scored a disproportionate number of aces, for example – unnaturally skewing the results.

For example: If we take a matchup between Nadal and Wawrinka and perform the calculations above, it tells us that Wawrinka should be somewhere between 1.2 and 1.42 to serve most aces: an excellent guide with which to look at the market.

Tie Break Played Markets

A simple yes/no affair which I assess by counting the number of tie breaks any pairing has played and divide this by the number of sets they have played. This tells me how many sets the pairing typically has to play for there to be a tie-break. When combining this with the data above about the likelihood of the match going the distance, I can make a call as to how likely a tie-break will be in the upcoming match.

For example: Nishikori and Cilic have a very high tie-break rate, playing one about every five sets that they contest, and also use around 84% of the sets available to them to play.  If they are to contest a five-setter, then, you can assume that four sets are likely, which means there is around an 80% chance of seeing a tie-break, which translates to “true” odds of 1.25.

Some Caveats

All of this seems very straightforward, but it is worth noting a few things.

First: Past performances in tennis give no guarantee of a repeat; however, it will mean you can make more informed decisions in these side markets.

Second: It is really important to think about the time-frame over which you are assessing the players: whilst it is relevant how they compared two years’ ago, it is perhaps less relevant how they did so when tour rookies in 2004.  What I tend to do is look at their career head-to-head record, but then look at more recent cuts of the data to see how the match-up has changed over time.

Third: It is crucial to consider other factors. Most important among these is the playing surface: if all of a pairings’ tie breaks have occurred on clay, and not on any other surface, then this clearly affects the odds of them producing a tie break on grass.  It’s also important to think about match length: do the overall statistics agree with those for five-set matches alone?

Fourth: If you’re not already comfortable using spreadsheets, then a bit of time becoming familiar with some of the basic functionality they offer will save you a lot of time.  Most of the information freely available on the internet can be cut-and-pasted to your own document, where it is easy to manipulate it as you want.

Fifth: If the tennis side markets are a new area of punting for you, keep your stakes small to start with. There are 48 weeks in the year when tennis betting is available – usually across multiple tournaments at any one time – so there is plenty of time to increase your exposure as you become more confident in the methods that work for you.

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