© Peter Staples/ATP Tour

Diego Schwartzman elected to receive both times he won the toss at 2020 Roland Garros.

Electing To Receive: Is The Risk Worth The Reward?

If your goal is to secure an early break, choose to receive if you win the toss. But be prepared to shoulder the downside.

You just won the toss. Should you choose to serve or receive?

The answer to that question is directly connected to your immediate goal at the beginning of the match. Is it more important for you to take care of your own serve in the early stages, or are you focused on being the first to break? It is widely recognised that the serve is the most dominant shot in our sport, so why would players defer first use of it?

An Infosys ATP Insights deep dive into 127 main draw matches at Roland Garros this year uncovered that the player who won the toss chose to receive an overwhelming 62 per cent (79), and serve 38 per cent (48) of the time. The tournament champion, Rafael Nadal, and finalist, Novak Djokovic, both won the toss three times out of seven matches and chose to serve on each occasion.

It’s also interesting to note that Djokovic won the toss in the final and elected to serve. Semi-finalist Stefanos Tsitsipas won the toss four out of six times and elected to serve every time, while the other semi-finalist, Diego Schwartzman, won the toss twice out of six times and chose to receive both times.

This analysis is only focused on the first four games of the opening set to uncover hidden trends early in the match that may be influenced by winning the coin toss. The data set was also divided into three outcomes from the first four games for whomever won the toss.

1. AHEAD - Was the coin-toss winner ahead after four games? (Game score = 3-1 or 4-0)
2. EVEN - Was the game score tied at 2-2?
3. BEHIND - Was the coin-toss winner trailing after four games? (Game score 1-3 or 0-4).

Winning The Toss & Receiving
The obvious reason for winning the toss and not electing to serve first is to gain an immediate break of serve while your opponent is not yet firing on all cylinders. It turns out that is exactly what happened. There were more breaks of serve in the first game of the match when the coin-toss winner chose to receive than any other game, at 30.4 per cent (24/79). All other return scenarios broke serve in the 27 per cent range.

So, if being the first to break serve and forge ahead early in the match is key to your strategy, the match metrics fully support winning the toss and electing to receive. The most likely outcome is that the game score will be even after four games at 2-2, but the percentages also state you will be ahead more than you will be behind (32% to 30%).

Outcome After Four Games - Winning The Toss & Receiving / Serving

Game Score Won Toss & Received Won Toss & Served
Even 38% 44%
Ahead 32% 31%
Behind 30% 25%

Part 2: Winning The Toss & Serving
Winning the toss and serving makes sense for a lot of players as they want to start the match strongly with a hold and then continue to serve from ahead for the rest of the set. When a player won the toss and elected to serve, he held 77.1 per cent (37/48) of the time in his opening service game, which was the highest of the four possible serve scenarios.

You are more likely to be even in the game score at 2-2 when you elect to serve than when you receive. What’s interesting is that players who won the toss and served were less likely to be behind after four games. When choosing to serve first, players were trailing 1-3 or 0-4 only 25% of the time. When electing to return first, that number jumped up to 30 per cent. Overall, being ahead was almost identical, only separated by one percentage point (32% to 31%).

The analysis uncovers the risk versus reward for winning the toss and electing to serve or receive. If you choose to receive, the chances are comparatively higher you will break first, but you also take on more risk that you will be trailing after four games. When you choose to serve, you are less likely to be trailing after four games which avoids potential scoreboard damage to kick off the match.