Behavioural Economics - The Longest Match and Loss Aversion

Geoff Riley

30th June 2010

Jamie Lindsay argues that loss aversion can help to explain the dramatic events at Wimbledon this year when two unheralded players made sporting history in 2010 with an eleven hour tennis match.Wimbledon 2010 will be remembered for the longest tennis match in history. A staggering 183 games played between Mahut and Isner over a period of 11 hours – some marriages don't last as long as this! Record books were torn up and the world's media rushed to Court 18 to capture a scarcely believable drama unfolding between two relatively unheralded players.

Although Isner was seeded 23rd at Wimbledon, while Mahut Is barely in the top 100, the men's professional tennis at the highest level is extremely competitive, any two in the top 100 is extremely talented and well-matched and this line-up was a perfect example of this. The two players 'served like champions ' and were so superior in their service games that the fifth set contained over 136 games before anybody had their serve broken.

What explains the gargantuan length of this match? Firstly, these two players were evenly matched and both possess strong services that are difficult to break. But perhaps another factor became key to understanding a match that lasted over three days – namely a principal drawn from behavioural economics known as 'loss aversion'.

Loss aversion is the principal that people prefer to avoid any given loss, than to gain an equivalent amount. This is an idea that many marketing firms now use to great effect by offering trial periods and free testers for goods. By allowing consumers to trial the good, e.g. a new car or piece of software without incurring any cost to themselves, the consumer is brought in by the seller. Once the consumer has trialled the good, more often than not they will buy it

In reference to this match, dubbed 'the greatest match ever' by Mahut, loss aversion was probably the factor that meant that the fifth set lasted such a long time. Wimbledon is arguably the best grass-court tournament in the world, and so neither player would have wanted to take any unnecessary risks that may have lead to them losing the match. They were both aware that to drop the all important fifth set they would have to be broken while serving. As a result they would both have been making a conscious decision to put extra efforts into their serves.

After the first few dozen games in the fifth set I would argue that the effects of their willingness not to lose their service games would increase. Both players were tiring, and so felt more vulnerable and more likely to concede the advantage. As a result they focused even more on their service games, and so would have inadvertently been easing off while their opponent was serving. As a result the games were becoming progressively harder to win, and the match was looking like it may go on for even longer - the fifth set alone was over an hour longer than the longest ever entire tennis match before this one.

Eventually Isner won 70-68 in the fifth set but not before many more service games were held. The favourite won through (but was knocked out with indecent haste in the next round). But not before two players had made an indelible mark in sporting history.

Geoff Riley

Geoff Riley FRSA has been teaching Economics for over thirty years. He has over twenty years experience as Head of Economics at leading schools. He writes extensively and is a contributor and presenter on CPD conferences in the UK and overseas.

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