Head to Head Records in Tennis

Head-to-Head Records in Tennis

It’s easy to drown in a sea of information when you’re handicapping tennis matches. We often talk about looking at the playing surface, what kind of form each player is in, how much the match means to each player, injuries that might cause a player to withdraw, and a number of other factors that could tilt the odds one way or another.

But there’s a pretty simple measure that will sometimes give you more insight into how a match will play out than all of the other information we’ve mentioned combined: the head-to-head record between the two players.

In a way, all of the other factors helped to create that head-to-head record, so it’s a perfect summary of what should occur when the two players face each other again.

However, like any other metric, head-to-head records aren’t a guiding light that you should follow aimlessly. As with any other tool, you’ll need to know how to use head-to-head records in your handicapping, and when to downplay their importance.

Sample Size

If there’s one mistake that fells more bookmakers, commentators, and bettors alike, it’s overreacting to a small amount of data.

In professional sports, few things are certain. In the case of tennis, since even a “poor” tour pro is capable of winning some games off of a great player, there’s always the chance they can win a set; if they can win a set, it’s not impossible that they could win a match. It’s unlikely, of course, but these things happen.

When it comes to play between reasonably well-matched players, the fact that a player has won one or two matches against another one isn’t nearly enough to tell us anything about that matchup.

Since both players have a chance of winning on any given day, it’s possible that the result in the first match between those two players was an aberration, and we shouldn’t put too much emphasis on it. Even three or four matches probably aren’t enough to tell us anything for certain, unless one player has won every match in dominant fashion.

On the other hand, it would be silly to ignore a large sample of head-to-head matches, as that gives us a long body of work behind the numbers we see.

For instance, knowing that Rafael Nadal is 16-11 all time against Novak Djokovic at the time of this writing gives us a reliable baseline to work with.

Digging into the Numbers

Is knowing that Nadal has a 16-11 advantage enough for us to price him in as a slight favorite over Djokovic in any match they play? Definitely not! While head-to-head matches are important, not every match should carry the same weight. You’ll likely want to dig a little deeper and find out how the two players have done in matches similar to the one they’re about to play.

For instance, imagine that Nadal and Djokovic were scheduled to meet at Wimbledon. What subsets of their head-to-head history could we use to help pick a winner?

For starters, you’ll always want to look at their recent record; Djokovic has won the last four meetings between the two players. We could also look at their record against each other on grass; Nadal is 2-0, though their last match on grass came in 2008.

Since this is a Grand Slam event, you might also want to know that Nadal holds a 5-0 lead at Grand Slams against Djokovic. All of these numbers are relevant, and you’ll need to carefully weigh them in order to come to any firm conclusions.

The most important thing to realize is that head-to-head records are only one tool available to you as a handicapper – not a final judgment on how you should bet on a match.

The best way to use head-to-head records is to set a baseline on where the odds should typically be when two players face each other; from there, you can take other factors into account and adjust the odds accordingly.