3 January 2019

Heads or Tails - how to win the spin and other secrets of the coin toss!

The players are on court, their rackets are out but the match is not quite ready to begin... the all important coin toss needs to be done! So what do you choose and what could go wrong? We have your questions answered.

There must be more to this event than lots of photographs . . .

The coin toss as a decison-making process has been traced back to Roman times where the practice was known as "ship and head". In England it was originally called  "cross and pile", later becoming "heads and tails". It is is a simple and unbiased way of deciding between two or more arbitrary options and is therefore used in many sports today, including tennis where it takes place at the start of a match to determine which player serves first.  Practice however is required before tossing a coin for a major event: 


Interesting. I don’t always have a coin to hand though, will a racket spin do?

Yes. In non-umpired matches a racket is commonly spun to determine who serves first. The racket can be spun on its head so it falls to the ground, on the net or in your hand.  Depending on the type of racket, you could be asked to call left/right, up/down, happy/sad or rough/smooth.

More recently, on the professional tour, technology has occasionally replaced the traditional coin toss, for example, at the Wuhan Open in China in 2017 where a special app was used on a courtside tablet:


Makes sense, nearly! I'm confused by the term rough or smooth, could your explain what it means? 

Rough or smooth refers to the position of the small knot of strings on the edge of the racket head. If the protuding knot (specified by your opponent) is facing up then that's rough and if it is down that's smooth.

Sounds a bit complicated to me. I was never in the Guides so my knowledge of knots is pretty basic.

We hear you - and that's why players use all manner of other marks and their rackets. A logo on the handle could be "up or down" or facing "left or right". Your dampener could even have a smiley and a sad face to choose from. One of the team here has a Dalek sticker on one side of  the racket - I guess he asked "exterminate or live".

Daleks? We are not going to be playing on Ultima Thule! There has to be a better solution than that.

Agreed, which is why the Local Tennis Leagues boffins came up with their exclusive "up/down" racket dampener. Quite a lot of league players use them and we've had a few bulk orders from America! 

Enough of the sales pitch. So if I win the toss what exactly can I choose?

You can choose one of the following:

  1. To serve or receive in the first game of the match, in which case your opponent(s) chooses which end of the court they want to play from for the first game of the match;
  2. The end of the court you want to play from for the first game of the match, in which case your opponent(s) choose either to serve or receive in the first game
  3. To give your opponent(s) one of the above choices, i.e. your opponent(s) can choose to serve or to receive or to choose an end to start from

If my opponent wins the toss and chooses to serve can I ask them to choose ends?

Hmmm... I'm guessing you have problems making decicions. But no you can't. It's your job to choose ends!

Right you are, but if I win the toss what is the best thing to choose? I’ve heard it’s an advantage to serve first...

It is commonly thought that there is an advantage in serving first, with the belief that it gives you a chance to get easily ahead and put pressure on your opponent. However, IBM looked at data from all four of the Grand Slams and found that there was only a small advantage to be gained from serving first, and this disappeared completely when two players were evenly matched. In agreement with these findings, Alex Zverev beat Novak Dojokovic in the ATP World Tour Final after electing to receive first. 

In the amateur game it seems players take turns or randomly decide to initiate the racket spin or toss. How do they decide on the pro circuit who makes the call?

In professional matches, it is the umpire’s decision as to who calls the toss, and it is often the case that the lesser ranked player is asked. However when guests perform the coin toss and are given the choice of players, they often choose the most well known player, as the ball boy at the Hopman Cup did here.

And are there any other circumstances in a tennis match where a toss is used? 

In Fast4 tennis, if a tiebreak reaches 4-4 all, players will come to the net and the umpire will toss a coin (or a racket will be spun) to determine who serves the deciding point with the receiver choosing which on side the point is played.

Up Down DampenersHere at Local Tennis Leagues we have our own answer as to how you should decide who serves first - Up Down Vibration Dampeners (pictured). These have been specifically designed for us and are available to purchase for only £5 a pair in our shop