Deakin research reveals gender gap among pro tennis risk-takers

25 January 2018

Research from Deakin Business School has found gender plays a big role in the on-court risk-taking behaviour of professional tennis players, with men shown to be more reckless and overconfident.

Deakin Business School lecturer Dr Aydogan Ulker teamed up with Chair in Economics Professor Nejat Anbarci and a researcher from South Korea's Sogang University to analyse almost 1500 line-call challenges from 480 ATP and WTA tier 1 professional tennis matches.

Dr Ulker said the high stakes of the player line-call challenge system, which was introduced to tournaments in 2006, made it a strong indicator of risk-taking behaviour.

The research team's analysis showed the actions of men and women diverged at crucial points during professional tournaments such as the Australian Open, with men becoming more reckless and overconfident as a result.

"The main point of difference came during a tiebreak, when the outcome of the game was in the balance," Dr Ulker said.

"At tiebreaks, women players are more likely to reverse the umpire's unfavourable call with a correct challenge, while men are more likely to make an unsuccessful challenge.

"Men are also a lot more likely to make 'embarrassing' line-call challenges at tiebreaks – which we defined as challenges that are out by 50mm or more – and are more likely to be provoked into doing so if their opponent is leading the match."

Dr Ulker said risk-taking individuals often incurred some reputational costs and shame, especially when the consequences of their behaviour turned out to be negative.

"In tennis, players are allowed to appeal the line judges' calls that are upheld by the umpire, and if the challenge is successful a player can reverse the umpire's line call; if not the player loses one of their limited number of challenges, losing the option of a future challenge when they might need it most," he said.

The researchers found men and women made a similar number of challenges, but with major discrepancies in their rates of success.

While both men and women had the same overall ratio of decisions that were considered embarrassing (17 per cent of failed challenges), 34 per cent of men's failed tie-break challenges resulted in an embarrassing rebuke, compared with just nine per cent of those made by women.

Dr Ulker said factors such as risk aversion, overconfidence, pride, shame, and strategic signalling behaviour could explain the findings.

"At tiebreaks, men try to win at all costs, while women appear to accept losing more gracefully when they are behind in the match, rather than making embarrassing line-call challenges," he said.

"The overconfidence of men players leads them to make more risky challenges, while women players make fewer risky and embarrassing challenges in similar situations."

The researchers also found differences within the behaviour of players depending on their skill ranking.

"The higher a man's play ranking, the more likely he is to make an embarrassingly wrong challenge during a tie break," Dr Ulker said.

"The opposite is true for women – women of a higher rank are less likely to challenge, and more likely to reverse an umpire's unfavourable tiebreak call when they do."

Dr Ulker said neither men nor women shied away from competition, with both groups making more line-call challenges as more games were played in a set, and those challenges increasing significantly as they became desperate and more games were won by their opponent.

"Overall, it seems that men's and women's matches are comparable, though we found men's matches were more likely to go to the third and deciding set, more likely to be an upset, and tend to have more tiebreaks," he said.

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Media release Deakin Business School, Faculty of Business and Law

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