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French Open tennis trading strategy

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No other sport has the variety that tennis’s different court surfaces bring. Ahead of the French Open, tennis traders should consider what effect the clay court has, and how this can help your French Open tennis trading strategy.

No tennis court plays the same

There are three main tennis surfaces - hard, grass and clay. If you’re betting on tennis you should be aware that all court surfaces - and even their environment - have a variety of characteristics. Some courts are faster, while others cause the ball to bounce higher.

Court surface, altitude and weather can all impact the outcome of a tennis tournament and the likelihood of a player's success. Understanding these intricacies more accurately than other users can present a number of betting opportunities.

What we know about the clay court

We know that clay courts have very distinct make-up when compared to grass and hard surfaces. The rough nature of the surface means the clay generates a lot more friction when the ball bounces off the ground, resulting in the tennis ball:

  • Slowing off the surface
  • Bouncing higher

How does this increased bounce and decrease in speed impact the players and your tennis betting strategy?

Relationship between tennis aces and court surface

Logic would suggest that the faster a surface is, the more favourable to the server, which would be evident in the number of aces and breaks of serve. First, let's look at the men's singles.

The three-year (2015, ‘16 and ‘17) data set below illustrates a significant difference in aces per game, service hold percentage and return games won between clay courts and other surfaces:

Surface Aces per game Service hold % Return games won %
Hard 0.53 78% 21%
Clay 0.35 76% 23%
Grass 0.61 84% 16%

The three-year aces per game ATP average is 0.5 - just one ace served every two games. However, the court type has a big impact on the number of aces served.

As the table shows, the server is much less effective on clay – one ace is sent down on average just over once every three service games.

So in a five-set marathon (6-3, 6-4, 4-6, 4-6, 6-3 for example) at the French Open, the average number of aces would be 17, compared to 29 if the same score occurred on the grass courts of Wimbledon.

The service hold percentage is also down for games on clay, meaning more breaks of serve occur which is backed up by the number of games won by returners - higher than the other two surfaces.

The significance is that it’s easier to score points when returning on clay - the stats show the returner gets on average an extra 1.5% chance of breaking serve on clay compared to hard courts and 7% against grass.

This may not sound a huge difference, but that’s per service game and when you consider how many potential games there are in a Grand Slam match, the numbers really add up.

This data highlights that clay events often produce extremely different circumstances, with fewer service holds, aces and more break-point opportunities when compared to other surfaces. While this benefits anyone returning serve, it also means the surface is ideal for consistent, powerful baseline players – like the king of clay Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic.

How does the switch from hard to clay court affect the top players

ATP players move from hard court to clay tournaments in March each year. For a betting perspective it would be good to know how players’ games are affected by the transition.

The table below compares hard and clay court career mean averages for the current ATP top 15 (minus Roger Federer, who has opted to miss the clay court swing for the second year in a row):

Less aces

Unsurprisingly, each player has hit significantly fewer aces per game on a clay court than hard. On average, the ATP top 15 has hit 29.30% fewer aces on clay than on hard courts.

Frenchman Lucas Pouille has 38% fewer aces on clay compared to hard, while ace machine John Isner still hits on average, one ace per game. However, this is a drop of 13.6%.

More breaks of serve

Fourteen of the top 15 hold their serve less often on clay acknowledging the fact that clay courts offer receivers more opportunity to return the ball.

American Jack Sock has almost the exact same service hold percentage on both surfaces.

Based on the data above, and taking into consideration further research, this could present a betting opportunity as few people would expect a player to hold their serve equally as well on clay as they do on a hard court.

Higher return of service games won

All 15 players improved their return games won percentage on clay by more than 10%. This indicates that the opportunity for breaks of serve increase significantly from hard to clay, but also sheds light on the reason behind Rafael Nadal’s dominance at the French Open - he wins a phenomenal 43% of games served at him, which is an increase of 46.42% compared to hard surfaces.

This clearly demonstrates that understanding a player’s style is particularly important for betting on the French Open and other clay tournaments. Clay tennis can be labelled as one-dimensional, favouring hard graft and consistency rather than flair and technical ability.

The data, however, shows that while other court surfaces are a simple clash of serves and groundstrokes, when playing on clay a more rounded game is needed.

Other French Open betting factors

Another aspect to consider when betting on the French Open is that Grand Slam matches are played over the best of five sets, with the finalists needing to play seven matches in a fortnight - understand how by playing best of five-set Grand Slam matches instead of three-set ATP tournaments increases the favourite’s chances of winning the tennis match.

Couple this with previous research by the ATP, which showed that the average length of a point on grass was just 2.7 seconds compared to 8.2 on clay - meaning games generally have much longer rallies.

This means that while fitness is a crucial aspect of success for players in Grand Slam events, and getting through the early matches without playing long, five-set matches can be critical, clay contests are arguably a stronger test of a player’s fitness level than other surfaces.

Women's Singles

Relationship between tennis aces and court surface

The three-year (2015, ‘16 and ‘17) data set below shows the difference in aces per game, service hold percentage and return games won between clay courts and other surfaces:

Surface Aces per game Service hold % Return games won %
Hard 0.24 63% 37%
Clay 0.21 62% 38%
Grass 0.29 69% 31%

The three-year aces per game WTA average is 0.25 - just one ace served every four games. The court has an impact, but it is not nearly as significant as in the men’s game.

As the table shows, the server is less effective on clay – one ace is sent down on average just once in every five games.

So, in a three-set match (6-3, 4-6, 6-3 for example) at the French Open, the average number of aces would be just 5, compared to 8 if the same score occurred on the grass courts of Wimbledon.

The service hold percentage is also down for games on clay, meaning more breaks of serve occur which is backed up by the number of games won by returners - higher than the other two surfaces.

The significance is that it’s easier to score points when returning on clay - the stats show the returner gets on average an extra 1% chance of breaking serve on clay compared to hard courts and 7% against grass.

Much like the ATP data it doesn’t sound like a huge difference, but that’s per service game and when you consider how competitive women’s tennis now is, then it really opens up the possibility for multiple breaks of serve, price swings and ultimately trading opportunities.

How does the switch from hard to clay court affect the top players

Again, like the ATP, the WTA players move from hard court to clay tournaments in March each year. Looking at the top 15 ranked players going into the French Open to see how they compare against the WTA averages.

The table below compares hard and clay court career mean averages for the current WTA top 15:

Although the overall stats in the first data set suggested fewer service holds, aces and more break-point opportunities, further study of the data for the current top 15 in the WTA rankings tells something slightly different.

In stark contrast to the ATP, three of the top 15 in the WTA actually hit a higher percentage of aces on clay, unsurprisingly world number 1 Simona Halep features; she has been to two French Open finals, and is extremely consistent on all clay courts.  And Jelena Ostapenko, the reigning French Open champion.

Servers to be aware of

Again, Halep and Ostapenko feature positively here, as well as former French Open champion Garbine Muguruza.

The most interesting ones that stand out are Daria Kasatkina and Petra Kvitova. The latter has won two Grand Slams, both at Wimbledon, where her powerful baseline game and leftie serve are seen to best effect. But, she has been to one French open semi-final and has already won four titles this year, two of which were on clay.

Kasatkina, on the other hand, has only won one WTA singles title, but she is still only 21 and ranked 14th in the world.

These players could present plenty of trading opportunities in their matches throughout the tournament when weighed up with other relevant data.

Higher return of service games won

Much like the servers’ data, not all the top 15 players improve for the switch to clay from hard courts.

Indeed, eight of them drop serve more often on clay than on hard. When you consider that these players are ranked the best in the world and the market usually builds that into the price, this should again present trading opportunities in their respective matches when combined with further research for each match.

The data shows that unlike the men’s where everyone drops their serve and hold percentage – Nadal excepted – a lot of the top-ranked women excel for the switch to clay, whereas just as many of them struggle with the demands of the surface or to make the impact that they do on other surfaces.

Apply this to betting

Sport rarely has the diversity and intricacies that tennis’s differing court surfaces present. This article highlights that serious tennis traders should understand the significance that each court type brings, and treat each individually when incorporating into your betting analysis.

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