Hot heads, cool heads, and tacticians: Measuring the mental game in tennis

Stephanie Kovalchik, Tennis Data Scientist, Tennis Australia and Victoria University

Martin Ingram, Quantitative Researcher, Stratagem Technologies

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Abstract: It is often said that winning in tennis is as much a mental game as a physical one, yet there has been little quantitative study into the mental side of tennis. We present an approach to identify mentalities in tennis with dynamic response patterns that quantify how a player’s probability of winning a point varies in response to the changing situations of a match. Using 3 million points played by professional male and female tennis players between 2011 and 2015, we found that, on average, players were affected by the state of the score and a variety of pressure situations: exhibiting hot hand effects when ahead, defeatist effects when down, and performing less effectively in clutch situations. Player-specific performance patterns suggested a diversity of player mentalities at the elite level, with subgroups of players responding more or less effectively to pressure, score history, and other match situations. One of the patterns found on the men’s tour included four of the most decorated players in the current game, the `Big Four’, suggesting a champion’s mentality that was characterized by cool-headedness on serve and adaptability on return. Accounting for player mentalities improved predicted outcomes of matches, substantiating the importance of the mental game for success in tennis.

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