The Emotions of Betting on Tennis

By Nick Carter

Gambling is a huge part of modern life. While it’s not something I’ve ever dabbled in myself, it is a big part of the sporting–and tennis–experience for a lot of people.

You only ever hear about the dark side of gambling in tennis, which is usually linked to some form of organised crime. There’s usually at least one low-ranked player who is suspended for match fixing, usually in an attempt to make some money as they struggle below tour level. (I’ll leave digging into this to professional investigators and journalists.) In addition, the amount of abuse players receive on social media has been linked to people who are lashing out having lost a bet on the outcome a tennis match. I probably don’t have the resources to really look into the second point much, but I did want to look at how gambling affects the fan experience of engaging with a tennis match. 

I’m going to jeopardise my amateur journalistic credentials even further by admitting something else. The obvious thing to do here would be to place a bet on the outcome of a match and see how it affected my own viewing experience. However, if I am honest, the idea fills me with genuine anxiety. I’ve never placed a bet before, so there’s that element of the unknown, but money is also something I am in a continuous sense of stress about. It takes a lot for me to spend on anything other than food and bills. Yes, there is the possibility I could make a profit, but it is always safest to assume you will lose rather than win when placing a bet (or so I have been advised). 

Gambling does not appear to be something most people I’m friends with on Tennis Twitter have much experience with either. I ran a poll on my account and of the 32 people who voted, 75% said they’d never bet on a tennis match. However, I still was able to talk to a few people over messages about their experience of betting on a tennis match. 

The first person I spoke to was Ryan Desper, someone I’ve had regular interactions with on Twitter. He is a part of Gambling Twitter, betting on several sports including tennis. He bets every single day, placing wagers on multiple matches. I spoke to him during the match between Taylor Fritz and Alexei Popyrin at the Washington Open, he having bet on his fellow American to win in straight sets. It was interesting to speak to a person who could be called a pro gambler, someone with a lot of experience and very different mindset to my own. “Depending on where they are located in the world, I will usually scour the slate the night before if matches start at like 4 am (I’m on USA east coast time) or like now while they are starting at noon, I’ll do it when I wake up in the morning,” Desper told me.

I asked him about his emotions during a match he has bet on, as he almost always finds time to watch. “My emotions typically go up and down as much as you would expect them to, if someone gets a break and closes out a set it elevates me and if someone gets broken or loses a set (especially if it’s a straight-sets bet and they lose the first) there’s the obvious frustration, but there’s nothing better than having good money on something and riding the roller coaster of a tie break, it’s really a high. Race to 7 is like the ultimate test of tennis.” He said this as he was very content in watching Fritz breaking to win the first set and being in control of a match that he didn’t face break points on until the final game, which did frustrate Ryan a little. However, when he reflected on the immediate aftermath, he was still pretty calm. “With him serving for match it was a little different ’cause if he loses it then it probably just goes to tie break where he wins it anyways due to his serving. Not to sound kinda odd, but I’ve been doing this for so long that it’s almost become expected and I have won some money betting the other side of service games too.” He then went on to explain that you can bet on the winner of specific service games, not just matches. This is something I would not consider in the moment, as I tend to focus on the larger narrative of a match. 

During our conversation, I asked Ryan about how he usually feels after a match where he has money at stake and he gave an interesting answer: “Regardless of the match outcome, I always look at it in a perspective of what did I pay for time of my entertainment. If I bet $25 on a match, and it goes 3 hours and was a good match; then win or lose I feel satisfied because 1) it’s just money I’ll make more of it and 2) I just look at it as you know I paid $8 an hour to be entertained for 3 hours. To me that’s a fair exchange in any form of market anywhere.” I wondered if for Ryan, gambling is almost like paying for a ticket, having money riding on something acting as part of the entertainment value. Ryan said it’s about how much your time is worth to you, and likened the experience to going to a casino.

Photo: tennisnerd.net

This brought us to a conversation around what it must be like being an in-person spectator at a match you have bet on. It is a challenge for Ryan to attend an event and keep up with all the matches he has an investment “all while being basically in awe of exactly what they are doing”. It’s clear he is still a massive fan of the sport, and the gambling aspect does not take away his respect for the players. He was one of the few fans to attend qualifying for the Washington Open, something only true die-hards can claim. And yes, he bet on all the matches happening on Stadium Court on that Saturday.

I then asked about how Ryan deals with the emotions after watching a match he’s had money riding on. “The emotions for gambling for me and for most people are always very short lived because there’s always something going on. If I hit a massive bet I’m elated and probably show it to some friends, maybe withdraw some winnings, but then it’s always something else to find to bet to keep the streak going if you’re hot or to try and resolve a cold streak. There are some losses that hurt more than others, for example I had a $50 bet to win $180 on Venus the other night, and she blew 6 of the last 8 games with 14 doubles to lose the 3rd set and that made me pretty salty, but at the end of the day there’s always another chance to make that huge bet payoff or do something that’s not expected and pick a huge underdog.” It is clear that in the moment he is frustrated, but then he quickly moves on to find a match where he can make some money. 

Another person I spoke to is Popcorn Tennis writer and the host of the excellent On The Line podcast, Jack Edward. Jack bets semi-regularly on tennis. At the time of writing, Jack had most recently put an accumulator on Tuesday’s play in Washington and Los Cabos, putting his hopes on the combined efforts of Benjamin Bonzi, David Goffin, Facundo Bagnis and Thanasi Kokkinakis. However, the last match he watched having placed a bet on it was a second-round match in Hamburg between Lorenzo Musetti and Emil Ruusuvuori. He described his experience to me:

“I had convinced a friend to put the same bet on and we were WhatsApp-ing back and forth as Musetti reached the finish line… At 5-3 40-15, my friend told me his cash-out option – he would lose 8p of his overall £23 profit if he cashed out now to which I jokingly replied “Well that would be 8p wasted wouldn’t it?”. Musetti went on to lose the next two points. “That’s £2 lost now.”… to which I replied “I guess that would be £2 wasted?” Musetti went on to get broken. “… £5.” … to which I replied “Flop-enzo Washed-etti.” 0-30 5-5 and I finally snapped. “I FUCKING HATE THIS SPORT.” Several games and break points saved later without either of us cashing out, it went to a tiebreak. I told my friend I was cashing out on Musetti’s first match point. I lost £1 and made a profit of £20. My friend stuck it out until the end and got his 8p + £23 winnings.”

Jack then declared: “I’m never watching Lorenzo Musetti if I’ve bet on him again.”

This sounded like a massive roller coaster of emotions, but with stress at the core. I feel that way when I want a player to win because I like them, or I’ve put my pride on the line and declared they’d win the tournament. “To say watching a match you’ve bet on is stressful is an understatement. Sure, there are smarter ways to follow a match you’ve bet on but if it’s a bit of fun with a friend, it’s easy to let logic slip out the window,” Jack added. “And honestly the stress is all part of the fun. I rarely watch the matches I’ve bet on for this reason alone – matches can turn on a dime and missing the boat on making the right decision can be incredibly disheartening…Bottom line – I try not to watch the matches I bet on!”

There clearly are ways betting on a tennis match can enhance the fan experience, which is certainly the case for both Jack and Ryan. If I think about when I watch a tennis match, either it has to be super dramatic or high quality to hold my attention all the way through or one of the players involved is someone I’m rooting for. The latter is far more common, and there is a tremendous high in seeing someone I like win and of course a tremendous low if they lose. I imagine emotions are even higher if money is on the line, where there is a benefit or loss for yourself depending on the outcome of the match. If you win, not only are you right but you made some money. If you lose, you look like an idiot and you are out of pocket. For Ryan and Jack, it seems this added adrenaline rush adds something to the overall experience of following the sport. By betting, there is now something in it for you from the outcome of the match, not just the winners and losers on court. However, for someone like Jack on a bad day, and myself, it could also negatively impact your ability to enjoy the match. You could find yourself thinking about money more than the dramatic story unfolding on the court, which would hold most fans’ attention. I’m not convinced I would enjoy that, but it’s fine for anyone reading this to do so. 

Something Ryan mentioned which I hadn’t thought of before is that gambling can also help someone who is saturated in sport more invested. “Sports became sort of boring during my mid 20s due to college baseball basically being a job, and having some stake in the game really made me grow to watch sports again.” I can sympathise with this, if I watch tennis non-stop for weeks, I can lose some sense of enjoyment from feeling like I have to have a match on. It’s why I regularly take time away to make sure I get the emotional benefit from watching my favourite sport. Coming back to it this week has been like a breath of fresh air. Neither way of ensuring continued investment in the sport is better than the other per se, but it is interesting to see other ways around this almost burnout.

I noticed that both Ryan and Jack got frustrated with players personally, even if it was briefly. Ryan was highly critical of Venus Williams during her loss whilst Jack called Musetti a flop as he struggled to close out that match. It makes sense, after all the result is in their hands to an extent. However, gamblers need to remember that if a result goes against them, it is not solely the fault of the player they backed. The performance of the opponent will always be a factor, especially if they have such a good day the loser wasn’t allowed to play their best. In the end, the gambler is the one who chose to wager their money on this player; they were not under any obligation to do so. Holding someone else solely accountable for your own mistakes is often recognised as a toxic trait. As we’ve seen on social media, it gets really nasty if someone decides to take it out on the player directly. Fortunately, Jack and Ryan are good sports and quickly shrug these feelings off, accepting whatever happens and moving on. If only more people followed that example. 

This is meant to be an honest portrait of the gambling experience in our favourite sport, and how I feel looking at it. So I’m not going to encourage you to bet on a tennis match. I will not be doing so myself as I feel I already get a really good experience engaging with a match. Plus, I want to enjoy what I’m watching and not be (overly) stressed about it the whole time. However, I won’t discourage gambling either. Betting on a sporting contest is not a bad thing in itself. There is no right or wrong way to enjoy watching tennis, it will vary from person to person. Betting may make you enjoy it more, it may make you enjoy it less. It’s up to you.

If you do, I will encourage you to gamble responsibly. Even a seasoned gambler like Ryan expects to lose money at some point due to the sheer volume of bets he places and has a limit of how much money he puts on the line. Please make sure you have a limit (of both time and money), you stop when it stops being fun and if you lose, please don’t take it out on ‘your’ player. They didn’t know you bet on them, they tried their best, and they don’t owe you anything. If you choose to gamble, you must take responsibility for your decisions, win or lose. Ryan had this to say: “My advice to anyone gambling is don’t bet money you’re afraid to lose, and don’t bet money to try and make money to get yourself out of a hole. There’s an old gambling adage that if you use bill money to try and make bill money you’ll just wind up deeper in the hole”.

To all those who watch tennis, regardless of whether you bet or not, I hope you continue to enjoy this wonderful sport.

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