An Analysis of Scorelines at Tennis Majors from 2000-2016

Introduction

For more than 100 years, men have played best-of-five sets at the four professional tennis majors. There has been, however, much debate on social media and elsewhere about the merits of moving to a best-of-three format. Ben Rothenberg of The New York Times, a vocal proponent of shortening matches, wrote an article five years ago stating this case. But, for an issue that generates passionate opinions, it is rare to see actual statistics cited.

To satisfy my own curiosity, I analyzed the scoreline of every match at a major from 2000 through 2016, which encompasses 8,253 matches after walkovers and retirements are considered. The data is cross-referenced by year, venue, in which round the match occurred as well as its duration. What follows are the more interesting results that I found.

Global Results

The following charts are based on all completed matches at majors from 2000-2016 less retirements and walkovers. This totals 8,253 matches. Week One refers to the first three rounds of a major; Week Two is from the Round of 16 onward.

How many sets does the average match last?

The average men’s match lasts 3.69 sets
Three Sets Four Sets Five Sets Average
Match Length
All 50.16% 30.78% 19.06% 3.69 sets
Week One 50.45% 30.61% 18.94% 3.68 sets
Week Two 48.08% 31.98% 19.94% 3.72 sets

Note:

  • Overall, almost exactly half of all matches ended in a straight-sets victory.

  • The proportion of three-set matches drops in Week 2 when there are more four-set and five-set matches played.

What is the breakdown of these matches?

The ten possible scorelines are represented below:
Set 1
Set 2
Set 3
Set 4
Set 5
W
W
W


W
W
L
W

W
L
W
W

L
W
W
W

W
W
L
L
W
W
L
W
L
W
L
W
W
L
W
W
L
L
W
W
L
W
L
W
W
L
L
W
W
W
Percent 50.16% 9.12% 9.89% 11.77% 3.10% 2.39% 2.98% 3.43% 3.08% 4.08%
Raw 4,140 753 816 971 256 197 246 283 254 337

Note:

  • The winner of the first set goes on to win 78.09% of the matches.

  • The winner of the first two sets goes on to win 93.86% of the matches.

  • If the first two sets are split, the winner of the third set goes on to win 80.59% of the matches.

  • All other things equal, the winner of his best-of-five match would've lost 10.59% of the time if it had been played as a best-of-three match.

  • The most common four-set scoreline is when the winner loses the first set only to win the next three.

  • The most common five-set scoreline is when the winner loses the first two sets only to win the next three.

How long does the average match last?

The average duration of a match is 2 hours 28 minutes
Three Sets Four Sets Five Sets Average
All 1h 54m 2h 43m 3h 30m 2h 28m
Week One 1h 53m 2h 41m 3h 28m 2h 26m
Week Two 2h 02m 2h 53m 3h 41m 2h 38m

Note:

  • The average duration of a set is 39 minutes 58 seconds.

  • The average duration of a match increases by 12 minutes in Week Two as compared to Week One.

Results by Major

The following charts are for the seventeen years of results further broken down by the four majors. The majors are listed in the order of their appearance in the calendar year.

How Many Sets Does the Average Match Last?

Three Sets Four Sets Five Sets Average
Match Length
All 50.16% 30.78% 19.06% 3.69 sets
Australian Open 50.10% 30.18% 19.72% 3.70 sets
Roland Garros 51.09% 30.38% 18.53% 3.67 sets
Wimbledon 49.62% 30.67% 19.71% 3.70 sets
U.S. Open 49.85% 31.88% 18.27% 3.68 sets

Note:

  • Wimbledon has the lowest percentage of three-set matches; Roland Garros has the highest.

  • The U.S. Open has the highest percentage of four-set matches and the lowest percentage of five-set matches.

  • If the conventional wisdom of the relative speed of court surfaces is to be believed, then the percentage of matches that go three sets correlates to the speed of the court surface.

How long does the average match last?

Three Sets Four Sets Five Sets Average
All 1h 54m 2h 43m 3h 30m 2h 28m
Australian Open 1h 54m 2h 45m 3h 31m 2h 29m
Roland Garros 1h 58m 2h 47m 3h 36m 2h 31m
Wimbledon 1h 49m 2h 35m 3h 24m 2h 22m
U.S. Open 1h 55m 2h 45m 3h 30m 2h 28m

Note:

  • Despite the U.S. Open having a fifth-set tiebreak, its average fifth-set duration is 6 minutes longer than Wimbledon's.

  • Wimbledon has the fewest matches that go three sets yet, on average, its matches are the quickest.

How Many Matches End in a Walkover or Retirement?

The percentage of matches that end in a walkover or retirement is 4.43%
Walkovers/
Retirements
Total Matches
Scheduled
Percentage
All 383 8,636 4.43%
Australian Open 95 2,159 4.40%
Roland Garros 92 2,159 4.26%
Wimbledon 79 2,159 3.66%
U.S. Open 117 2,159 5.42%

Significant Trends

The following charts analyze how the data has changed over time. A moving average of three-years is used in order to smooth out short-term fluctuations and highlight any longer-term trends.

How many sets does the average match last?





How long does the average match last?


Three Sets Four Sets Five Sets Average
Match Length
Average
Match Duration
2000 48.6%34.3%17.1% 3.68 sets 2h 20m
2001 47.3%31.4%21.3% 3.74 sets 2h 23m
2002 43.5%34.6%21.9% 3.78 sets 2h 28m
2003 46.2%34.8%19.0% 3.73 sets 2h 24m
2004 48.7%31.8%19.5% 3.71 sets 2h 23m
2005 51.3%30.1%18.6% 3.67 sets 2h 24m
2006 49.8%30.0%20.2% 3.70 sets 2h 28m
2007 54.1%28.5%17.5% 3.63 sets 2h 24m
2008 50.5%31.8%17.7% 3.67 sets 2h 29m
2009 52.2%29.0%18.9% 3.67 sets 2h 31m
2010 50.3%29.0%20.7% 3.70 sets 2h 33m
2011 55.2%29.8%15.1% 3.60 sets 2h 30m
2012 47.0%31.3%21.6% 3.75 sets 2h 41m
2013 53.7%26.6%19.7% 3.66 sets 2h 28m
2014 53.9%29.3%16.8% 3.63 sets 2h 27m
2015 51.0%29.3%19.6% 3.69 sets 2h 26m
2016 49.6%31.7%18.7% 3.69 sets 2h 29m

Note:

  • Over time, the percentage of three-set matches has increased while the percentage of four-set matches has decreased by almost the same amount.

  • Even though there has been a slight decline in the average number of sets played per match, the duration of matches has increased.

Acknowledgments

Most of the raw data used for analysis was gathered from the glorious repository of ATP match results compiled by Jeff Sackmann. Additional data from the ATP Web site filled in any gaps. A Microsoft Excel file is available for download if you wish to view the raw data that I compiled.

© 2017 Adam Coti
Breakdown by Number of Sets Played
Sets Total
Three Sets 4140
Four Sets 2540
Five Sets 1573
Average Duration of Match by Number of Sets Played
Sets Minutes
Three Sets 114.17
Four Sets 162.89
Five Sets 209.94
Breakdown by Number of Sets Played by Major
Sets Australian Open Roland Garros Wimbledon U.S. Open
Three Sets 50.10 51.09 49.62 49.85
Four Sets 30.18 30.38 30.67 31.88
Five Sets 19.72 18.53 19.71 18.27
Average Duration of Match by Major
Major Australian Open Roland Garros Wimbledon U.S. Open
Average Duration 148.55 151.14 141.81 148.22
Percentage of Walkovers/Retirements by Major
Walkovers/Retirements Australian Open Roland Garros Wimbledon U.S. Open
Major 4.40% 4.26% 3.66% 5.42%
Breakdown by Number of Sets Played
Year Three Sets Four Sets Five Sets
2002 46.5% 33.4% 20.1%
2003 45.7% 33.6% 20.8%
2004 46.1% 33.7% 20.2%
2005 48.7% 32.2% 19.1%
2006 49.9% 30.6% 19.4%
2007 51.7% 29.5% 18.8%
2008 51.5% 30.1% 18.4%
2009 52.2% 29.8% 18.0%
2010 51.0% 29.9% 19.1%
2011 52.5% 29.2% 18.2%
2012 50.8% 30.0% 19.1%
2013 52.0% 29.2% 18.8%
2014 51.6% 29.0% 19.4%
2015 52.9% 28.4% 18.7%
2016 51.5% 30.1% 18.4%
Average Number of Sets Played per Match
Year Average Number of Sets
2002 3.74
2003 3.75
2004 3.74
2005 3.70
2006 3.70
2007 3.67
2008 3.67
2009 3.66
2010 3.68
2011 3.66
2012 3.68
2013 3.67
2014 3.68
2015 3.66
2016 3.67
Average Duration of Match
Year Average Duration of Match
2002143.64
2003145.14
2004145.10
2005143.78
2006144.85
2007145.23
2008146.76
2009147.86
2010150.91
2011151.19
2012154.53
2013152.78
2014151.70
2015146.64
2016147.20