An important component of tennis betting is understanding the difference between the three-set matches that are played in the regular ATP Tour and the five-set matches that are played in the Grand Slam tournaments. We will analyze the differences between the two and how this can affect player performance and therefore tennis betting.
Structural differences between Grand Slam and ATP tournaments
The apparent discrepancy between five-set Grand Slam and three-set ATP is the standard of opposition in the opening rounds, and the Grand Slam seeding system is a major contributor to this. The top 32 ranked players cannot face each other in the first round and therefore all play against tennis players outside the top 32.
While there are still strong tennis players among the latter group, such as top players returning from injury and future stars on the rise, overall the top 32 players will enjoy a significant lead over their rivals in the first round. Even after the end of the first round, the seeding system is built in such a way that the best players cannot face each other until the last rounds of the Grand Slam.
This does not apply to ATP events. In Masters 1000 tournaments, the best players are often automatically promoted to the second round, where they have to face an opponent who has already won their first match, while level 500 tournaments often do not have such a seed. In level 250 tournaments, the top four seeded usually get a free first round.
Basically, this means that the first round matches in Grand Slam tournaments are likely to have significant differences in quality and ability, while this happens less often in the Masters (where the best players also get an automatic ticket to the second round. ) and 250 level tournaments. These early tournament mismatches are exacerbated by the fact that they compete to win in five sets rather than three – generally, in most sports, shorter formats provide fewer benefits for strong players.
How does this affect the top ten ATP?
Comparison of the average implied win percentage for the current top ten ATP players in the first round of Grand Slam matches and other tournaments since early 2019 seems to support this argument ( Table 1 ):
As you can see above, all ten players in the current ATP Top Ten had a higher implied win line average in their first round of Grand Slam tournaments than they did in other tournaments they competed in during that time. Daniil Medvedev and David Goffin even got over 15% of the difference on this front.
These numbers appear to indicate that the Grand Slam format is shaping up in favor of higher ranked players. They are unlikely to face players close to their level in the early rounds, and the five-set format means less turmoil. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that the top ten players have higher implied odds of winning first-round grand slams than lower-level ATP tournaments.
Impact of Inconsistencies in Grand Slam Tournaments
This is also confirmed by the discrepancy in statistics between the matches of the fourth round (with 16 players remaining) at the Grand Slam tournaments and the matches prior to this stage.
In Grand Slam tournaments from 2017 to 2019, matches from the fourth round onward had 3.69 sets per match, up from 3.61 before this stage. The sets themselves were also tighter, averaging 0.21 tie-breaks per set and 0.77 per match, up from 0.18 and 0.64 respectively before.
All of this suggests that the first few rounds of Grand Slam tournaments have absurd inconsistencies and could possibly be considered a 100% pass option for such players as Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer.
In contrast, three-set ATP tournaments are more competitive and have fewer early-round inconsistencies, resulting in tougher results. This is indicated by the fact that they have a higher number of tie-breaks per set (on average 0.20 for all rounds), compared to just 0.18 at the Grand Slam tournaments.
How do the best players play against strong opponents in Grand Slam tournaments?
It is important to assess the differences in player data between the two tournament formats. Analyzing the results of the current top ten ATP in matches against the next in the top 20 from the beginning of 2019 and beyond, we can highlight some interesting conclusions.
Across the sample, playing against the top 20 opponents, the top ten ATP held their serve 79.7% of the time and took the opponent’s serve 20.7% (cumulative 100.4% return) at Grand Slam tournaments.
However, this combined retention / break rate rose to 103.2% ( 82.4% retention and 20.8% break) in other ATP competitions. While the percentage of breaks for opponents was almost the same in both formats, the top ten were able to take their serve almost 3% more often against the top 20 opponents in regular three-set matches of the ATP tour than in Grand Slam tournaments.
These statistics can probably be assessed as surprising given the perception that the best players are trying to peak their shape for Grand Slam tournaments. The idea of reaching the peak in Grand Slam tournaments is logical, thanks in large part to the financial rewards and rating points available at these prestigious tournaments. However, as highlighted, collectively the top players do not appear to be following this trend.
Analysis of the top ten ATP at Grand Slam and ATP tournaments
Percentage of hold and break for the top ten ATP at the ATP tour and Grand Slam tournaments:
The chart above shows the hold / break data for each of the top 10 players against the top 20 opponents over the same period, split between three-set ATP events by five-set Grand Slam events.
Again, many interesting observations come to light. First, it seems that several top ten players often have tough matches against the top 20, with David Goffin’s serving looking particularly vulnerable.
In addition to Goffin, players such as Alexander Zverev, Gael Monfils, Matteo Berrettini and Stefanos Tsitsipas also frequently played five-set matches to break the resistance of top 20 players (more than 20% of the time). This is likely to pose a huge barrier to any potential success potential for top-20 tennis players at Grand Slam tournaments.
The persistent ability to outplay even the best opponents is a factor that has historically indicated the success of the Grand Slam, while it is likely that if a player fails to outplay a strong opponent, he will be drawn into tougher sets and matches.
As a result, they will need to score many key points in order to be successful in multiple matches in a short amount of time. The challenge is compounded by the fact that tougher sets and matches are often longer and therefore contribute more to accumulated fatigue – something that all players should strive to avoid given the prospect of playing seven matches of five sets in two weeks.
Do the best players perform better at Grand Slam tournaments?
Another (and perhaps more important) observation is that both World No. 1 Novak Djokovic and No. 2 Rafael Nadal – the most dominant players in the world in recent years – are the only players who can boast the best overall data than their isolated ATP data.
By definition, this would mean they performed better in Grand Slam tournaments against top 20 opponents than in regular ATP tournaments against players from the same rating bracket.
It is not easy to ascertain why this is so, although one theory worth considering is that they are more efficient at managing their schedules than most other top 10 players.
With the exception of Roger Federer, both Djokovic and Nadal play far fewer sub-Masters 1000 tournaments than the rest of the top ten and are therefore probably better suited to be in fresher physical condition ahead of the next tournament Grand Slam. If any of the players in this group are actively looking for the peak of form for the Grand Slam competition, then it will be them.
Federer also presents an interesting case as his ATP performances and totals show similar numbers and he is also very pragmatic about the number of tournaments he participates in. However, his retention and break rates are still slightly lower against the top 20 Grand Slam opponents compared to the ATP, and perhaps the physically challenging five-set Grand Slam format will prove difficult for the 38-year-old.
Now that this entire elite trio has reached their thirties, it should soon be possible for other players in the top ten to take advantage of any decline in their performance level. It would be reasonable to argue that one lesson the other top ten players can learn from this analysis is that they should perhaps try to replicate the timeline of these three tennis legends.
From a betting standpoint, until there is an obvious statistical downturn from any of these three players, looking for value bets on them against the other top ten Grand Slam players will seem like a smart approach. With the exception of Dominik Thiem, the other top 10 ATP players simply can’t match their performance data to a high-level opposition.