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Probability distributions in tennis

Roger Federer may never have heard about "black swans", but, according to Pablo Triana, it's likely for the best

By Pablo Triana 01 December 2007

Probability distributions in tennis 974x296

Roger Federer may never have heard about "black swans", and Pablo Triana says that, unless Federer takes up a career in finance, it's just as well that he forget the concept. But what about you?


In tennis, unlike financial markets, there are no incentives to bet on the unlikely rare event. I am playing quite a lot of tennis these days. Thanks to a flexible (yet still hard-working) lifestyle, I have managed to hit quite a few backhands lately.


I am now playing better than ever, thanks in part to more habitual practice, but mostly thanks to my new coach (“pro” would be the posher term). Not only is he a great guy to swap volleys with, he has taught me a completely new perspective about the game. For tennis, you see, is basically all about probability distributions.


Am I implying that you need a PhD in statistics to shine on the grass (or clay or hardcourt)? No, not really. What I am saying (or, more precisely, what my coach tells me) is that “real” players (read Roger Federer and his peers) are constantly calculating probabilities in their heads prior to hitting the ball.


These calculations are done at record speed, in an almost intuitive manner. Tennis pros choose each particular stroke to the ball depending on the assumed probability of hitting a successful return.

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