Marcus Willis and the curious case of Philip Kohlschreiber
Andy Murray’s Wimbledon triumph was certainly responsible for a mass exodus from armchairs to tennis courts nationwide combined with a sharp rise in the share price of Pimms, but perhaps the greatest story to emerge from the 2016 Championships was that of world number 772 Marcus Willis. Coming through 3 pre-qualifying matches and then a further 3 qualifying matches against players head and shoulders above him in the rankings, the fairytale continued as he advanced passed world number 54 Ricardas Berankis to set up a David and Goliath 2nd round encounter against the legendary Roger Federer on Centre Court. Unlike most of his homegrown peers in the main draw, he hadn’t been handed the golden ticket that is a wildcard, but made it the hard way. Cheered on by his loyal ‘Berkshire Bulldogs’, his effervescent displays captured the imagination of the public, but can we attribute home advantage as a factor in his success, or that of anyone else in Tennis?
Home advantage is ubiquitous in sports throughout the world. It is a phenomenon we associate with team sports such as Football, Basketball and Ice Hockey. The atmosphere created by the crowd can encourage the home team, intimidate the opposition, and subconsciously influence the officials. But while home advantage seems consistent in team sports, do any of these principles transfer to individual sports such as Tennis?
Being an individual sport, we need to look at just that, the individual. If we take a look at Australia’s Sammy Stosur, arguably the finest female tennis player to hail from down under since Margaret Court, you will see she has had a torrid time on home turf. She has failed to make the final of a tournament since the Gold Coast in 2005, in fact she hasn’t even come close. In both the Hopman and Fed Cup representing her country, she has a string of disappointing losses to, on paper at least, inferior opposition. In Australia’s marquee tennis event, the Australian Open, she has never even reached the quarter-finals stage, despite being a top 10 ranked player in 3 of those. In the same period, Stosur has experienced far greater success in slams across the pond, including a final appearance at Roland Garros and her victory in Flushing Meadows the following year.
Flip that on its head and you have the curious case of Germany’s Philip Kohlschreiber. The German has enjoyed his most successful spells on home turf with 5 titles in his homeland, one in neighboring Austria, and inevitably an anomaly of sorts with his title in Auckland.
In the case of Stosur, who exudes the traits of an introverted individual, one might assume that the pressure to succeed on home soil has a detrimental effect on her performance. But Kohlschreiber is no Gael Monfils or Jo Wilfried Tsonga, extroverts who seemingly feed off the enthusiasm of the crowd and perform well on domestic soil, much like Willis at the All-England Tennis Club. Interestingly though, an empirical study into this very topic by R.H Koning in 2009 found the following;
”We found in men’s tennis a significant and quantitatively important home advantage effect. This effect is strongest in matches between highly skilled opponents, and absent when we consider a match between two weak players. No such home advantage effect in individual matches is found for women”
Another argument to home advantage is that the player has had less distance to travel to the event so might be fresher going into the match. However, all top tier tennis players lead a fairly nomadic lifestyle, staying in hotels close to tournaments, so there is little strength to this argument.
Perhaps a more obvious factor is the playing surface. Certain countries and regions favour differing playing surfaces. Nadal grew up on the clay courts of Mallorca, and while he has achieved an impressive amount of titles in Spain, his most notable achievements are his 9 titles in the Monte Carlo Masters and of course, his 9 Grand Slam triumphs at Roland Garros. These victories don’t occur because he is in France, it’s because Nadal is the ‘King of Clay’.
It is difficult to quantify the effect of home advantage in Tennis. Popular players like Federer and Nadal will often feel like they are playing in front of a home crowd given the rousing support they receive overseas. Indeed it was questioned in 2015 who would receive the greater support should Murray and Federer reach the final given Roger’s reputation as the darling of Wimbledon. Masters tournaments and Grand Slams in particular tend to have fairly cosmopolitan crowds. If Ivo Karlovic faces Viktor Troicki on an outside court in the Australian Open, you can bet your bottom dollar there will be ferocious support for both, you could be mistaken for thinking you were watching it in Zagreb or Belgrade. Similarly in Miami, its diverse Hispanic communities mean South American players are always spurred on by the local crowd.
So in conclusion, home advantage as a factor in tennis isn’t black and white. There is no doubt that Marcus Willis at Wimbledon 2016 and Heather Watson in 2015 vs Serena Williams (despite eventually losing) both raised their level in front of the home crowds, but we just as often see home players fall at the wayside. Tennis consistently stirs up surprise victories, epic comebacks and unbearable chokes, it is the very nature of this Sport and its unique scoring system that makes it so exciting to watch and attractive to bet on. While there are no guarantees, some things are for certain, I’ll be backing Stosur to lose in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne next January, getting behind Kohlschreiber in his motherland, and finishing off with a long-odds punt on some little unknown Brit to qualify for SW19, because you just never know!