Men's tennis more competitive

Since 2008, four players have dominated Men’s tennis, occupying the top four ranking spots each year, while women’s tennis has seemingly been more interesting and competitive.

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Tiago Fernandes of Brazil. Photo: Flickr/Singapore 2010 Youth Olympic Games.

Results from the 2013 Australian Open are in keeping with this observation – but does this anecdotal evidence at the very top of tennis hold overall for the entire Men’s and Women’s Tours?

Recent analysis by a La Trobe University sports economist answers this question resoundingly to the negative.

Dr Liam Lenten from the School of Economics has built a database of more than 30,000 matches from the ATP and WTA professional tours from 2007 to 2012, and modelled careful sample selections to examine four specific measures of tennis competitiveness as a way of comparing the genders.

Dr Lenten says “The current prevailing wisdom among occasional observers of the sport is that men’s tennis is highly predictable – at least until the semi-finals where the ‘fab four’ seem to meet each other more often than not, and that these days, it is women’s tennis that offers a far more balanced and interesting proposition to watch.

“I was motivated by finding whether or not this prevailing wisdom, while arguably obvious for the very top players, is true when we look at the entire tours – after all, professional tennis is about much more than merely four individuals,” Dr Lenten says.

One of the metrics calculated by Dr Lenten is the percentage of matches that go to a third set. For this, he excluded best-of-five set men’s matches (mostly grand slam) to circumvent an unclean comparison.

He finds that more men’s matches are competitive under this definition, with 33.8% going to a deciding set compared with 31.2% of women’s matches (31.6% if grand slam matches are excluded for even closer comparability).

A second measure is the percentage of matches where the favourite (according to betting odds) was beaten, as a measure of likelihood of upsets. Here, slightly more women’s matches were upsets (26.8% to 26.6%), but when grand slam matches were again excluded so as not to bias the results, once more the scales tip in favour of the men (28.1 to 27.7%).

The story was similar with two other metrics he investigated, specifically the median of the log-ratio of the betting odds and the average number of games won by the loser.

While he says that this result should not be taken as an endorsement of Men’s tennis over Women’s, he warns of the dangers of various stakeholder groups in sport making false inferences due to extrapolating on a small number of matches to make crude generalisations without looking at the data in its entirety.

Dr Lenten acknowledges that these differences are not statistically significant, but asserts nonetheless that the results categorically dispel the prevailing wisdom referred to earlier.

Dr Liam Lenten

Phone: + 61 3 9479 3607,