Friday Fun: Tennis Serves and New Balls

As a tennis fan I notice lots of nuances in the games, especially the ones that matter more to the pros than me. An example? This whole business about new tennis balls.

Every nine games in a pro match the serving player gets to use new balls, which are bouncier than the ones used for the previous nine games. Players think — as John McEnroe said during last weekend’s French Open — that this is an advantage for the server as your serve gets a little more oompf and zip, leading to aces and thus points and thus games won.

The funny thing is, that seemingly isn’t true. According to Wimbledon data analyzed by a pair of economists with a fondness for tennis arcana, first serve points are no more likely with new tennis balls than old ones. If anything, double-faults are more likely, implying it may be better to serve using older balls than newer ones. Take that Big Mac.

Here is the key table from the paper:



Magnus J. & Flaasen F. "Myths in Tennis." Statistical Thinking in Sports, Ed. Albert, J. & Koning, R.H.  (Chapman & Hall/CRC: 2007).