Irrational Sports Strategies – Tennis Edition

The New York Times has piece examining one of the numerous irrational strategies prevalent in professional sports — soft 2nd serves in tennis.

The question persists: would players have a better chance of winning the point, even after factoring in the sure rise in double faults, by going for it again on the second serve — in essence, hitting two first serves? The answer is yes, over time, for many of the top players.

Generally, the top men’s players make about 65 percent of their first serves and 90 percent of their second serves. But when the first serve goes in, most win about three-quarters of the points, often on aces. On second serves, the win-or-lose proposition is about 50-50.

The quickie math has player winning 45% of points on conventional 2nd serves but nearly 49% of  points on “first serve” second serves.    The article quotes Daniel Kahneman who explains the poor strategy as an application of his findings that  “people prefer losing late to losing early.”

Another potential explanation is the sports mantra of  “don’t beat yourself” or “make the other guy beat you.” From a young age kids are essentially taught that it’s better for the other player to win than it is for you to lose.  This is why pitchers are taught to always throw a strike on 3-2 counts. It’s also why in the 4th quarter NFL coaches conservatively play for game-tying field goals when all the numbers tell them it’s better to try for a winning touchdown. (The preference for losing late also applies here.)

This philosophy even extends to other parts of society. I would wager that 90% of job applicants play it safe in the interview to make sure they don’t accidentally disqualify themselves.  Better to have a more qualified applicant “beat” you than to “lose” the job by saying something non-standard.  Unfortunately, even this NYT article is lunikely to encourage more rational behavior in tennis, or society as a whole.

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