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US Open tennis: Unprecedented service returns

With the US Open around the corner, conventional wisdom seems to suggest Novak Djokovic will walk to his 18th major title. Cloudbet takes a look at how the dynamics of the tennis tour have changed since lockdown.

Unprecedented times

The suspension of the main tennis tours from the start of March until the start of August was an unprecedented move in the sport - making it extremely difficult to anticipate how the sport would play out when it resumed, particularly as it was impossible to assess the physical condition and training motivation of most players during lockdown.

With four WTA tournaments either in-running or having taken place in the last few weeks, and the Western & Southern Open currently taking place in New York - the first men’s event since the restart of professional tennis - we at least now have some data which we can compare to historical numbers ahead of the Flushing Meadows major.

To start with, there perhaps was a perception among some that lockdown would be a great leveller - allowing not only lower-ranked players to close the gap with their more illustrious counterparts, but also for lower-profile, younger players to come out of lockdown in better shape than some of their older rivals.

The veteran Serena Williams has struggled after lockdown, unable to win any of her five matches in straight sets so far - and going out to Maria Sakkari in the last 16 of the Cincinnati - while some more unheralded names in the WTA Tour such as Ons Jabeur and Jill Teichmann have come out of lockdown strongly - the latter in particular looking like a different player on hard court following the enforced absence.

As it happens, the markets have been pretty accurate in the five main tour events so far. In the four women’s tournaments to date, blind-backing favourites at market best prices (as gleaned from oddsportal.com) would have yielded a 0.23% ROI. Given this, underdogs have performed worse, but not disastrously so, and the market appears to have grasped player level surprisingly well.

Favourites still coming out on top

In the men’s event at the Western & Southern Open this week, there has been more success for the favourites, with just over a 5% ROI yielded from blind-backing favourites at market best prices. With there being a slight bias towards favourites in the women’s events so far as well - particularly in the hard-court tournaments - it would appear that the ‘better’ players haven’t seen the gap between them and the lower-ranked players on tour close much during lockdown.

This analysis is interesting ahead of the US Open, where the best-of-five-set format also favours the ‘better’ player in men’s Grand Slam events, making it difficult to anticipate an abundance of shocks (and who might be able to pull them off).

Despite big names like Rafa Nadal (schedule concerns) and Roger Federer (injury), among others, missing the men’s event, and therefore the non-Djokovic field potentially having less ability differential than would normally be the case, we still expect to see a lot of the bigger names starting at prohibitively short prices.

While it’s often tempting to look at big prices to try and earn a quick pay-day, blindly backing underdogs in men’s Grand Slams is unlikely to yield rewards, and the fact that favourites have performed a little better than underdogs post-lockdown is also a further negative for long-shot backers. Cloudbet's first-round markets are available for the men's singles and the women's singles events.

The sound of silence

It will also be fascinating to see the impact of no crowds on players, with some crowd-favourites usually enjoying a lot of support in the biggest tournament on US soil. American players, for example, can no longer rely on a partisan home crowd, while it might also be an issue for some of the bigger players, such as the traditional elite players on both tours, such as Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray in the men’s event, and Serena Williams, for example in the women’s. These players tend to be supported much more than the lower-ranked players, and of course, they won’t get that benefit this year. It will be very interesting to see the effects of this (if any) as the tournament progresses.

Service stats - going hard early

The break in action has also seen a marked change in service numbers. While service points won in both the men’s and women’s tournaments haven’t deviated hugely from three-year mean numbers, the way in which the players have approached serving has changed hugely.

In the tournaments so far since the tour resumed, the aces per game figure has been higher in all but one, compared to the three-year relevant-surface mean, and in the three hard-court events - the men’s and women’s in New York this week and the women’s in Lexington last week - particularly so.

Not only this, but there has been a large rise in double faults per game in all tournaments, suggesting that players are trying to be much more aggressive with their first serve in particular, compared to before lockdown. Given this extra aggression on first serve, it would be logical to assume that the first serve percentage for players has dropped notably as well, and this is indeed the case - particularly in the three hard court tournaments so far which have seen an average drop in first serves landing in play by over 3%.

Essentially, players are looking to try to gain early dominance in a point by landing an attacking first serve in, and are happy to trade off the risk with having to use a second serve and therefore, the higher chance of double-faulting. Maybe this is also due to fitness levels being lower, and a desire to end points quicker. Considering that service points won percentages are generally higher, this strategy - either found by accident or design - has, in general, worked.

It is interesting to wonder how many players may have engaged the services of an analyst during lockdown who has given them insight into this different approach.

In theory, this could benefit some big-servers, such as John Isner, Kevin Anderson, Reilly Opelka and Stefanos Tsitsipas in the men’s tournament - but it is difficult to pinpoint individuals who this has benefited since the resumption of play due to a lack of sample size.

It’s also worth noting that the arduous best of five set nature of men’s Grand Slam tournaments tends not to suit big-servers who generally play more longer sets, tiebreaks and more sets overall due to the narrow nature of their play, with few breaks and many holds of serve for both players - the knock-on effect being greater accumulated fatigue as the tournament develops.

Bearing all of this in mind may give bettors something to think about, but right now Cloudbet’s outright market has Novak Djokovic at 1.82 and Daniil Medvedev next at 7.28, while in the women's competition the gap at the top is tighter with Naomi Osaka at 6.04 and Serena Williams at 6.13 at the time of writing.

You can find the Cloudbet sportsbook’s Men’s single's outright odds and Women’s single's outright odds here.

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