Round Robin In Tennis: How Does It Work?

There are a few different ways to set up tournament-style play, and different sports feature different set-ups. One of the common tournament styles that we see in tennis is the round-robin tournament, but this setup can be a bit confusing to fans. 

Like any style of play, there are pros and cons of this arrangement, and round-robin tournaments have been adapted to work at a variety of levels from small tournaments at local tennis clubs all the way to elite professional tournaments.

What is a round-robin tournament? A round-robin tournament is a style of tournament where every player plays against every other player over the course of the tournament, and the winner is determined by calculating which player has won the most matches overall.

Breaking It Down

Since a round-robin tournament technically only needs three players to work, consider this simplistic example of round-robin style play.

Round Robin Example:

  • Three tennis players: Aisha, Benjamin, and Crystal, are participating in our round-robin.

Aisha will play both Benjamin and Crystal, which means that by default that Benjamin and Crystal will also both play Aisha. Then to finish the tournament, Benjamin and Crystal will play each other, and the winner is crowned by counting up the wins.

So for example, if Aisha beats both Benjamin and Crystal, she will have a record of two wins, zero losses. After those matches, Benjamin and Crystal will both have one loss on their record.

When Benjamin and Crystal play each other, let’s suppose that Benjamin wins. He will then have one win (against Crystal) and one loss (against Aisha). Crystal will have two losses.

Player Win/Loss
1. Aisha 2 – 0
2. Benjamin 1 – 1
3. Crystal 0 – 2

Thus, the winner of the tournament will be Aisha, with two wins, and second place is Benjamin, with one win, and in third place is Crystal with zero wins.

What About a Tie?

Even with the example above with three players, there could be a tie. If Aisha lost to Crystal and the other examples remain the same, all three players would have one win and one loss.

This is known as the circle of death, and it is a major disadvantage in smaller round-robin tournaments. A famous example of this occurred in 1994 when the four teams of E group of the FIFA World Cup were locked in one win, one loss, one draw tie.

While this isn’t as mathematically likely in larger tournaments, ties can happen once the tournament reaches the final stage, and according to the US Tennis Association’s rules, the two tied players will play a final match to determine first and second place.

If there are more than two players with the same win-loss record, the top two are determined by breaking down the number of games won within each match wins, and further sets won within game wins, if needed.

Then the matches would be structured so that the top two play for first and second place, the next two compete for third and fourth place, and so on.

What Pro Tournaments Uses The Round Robin Format?

The only pro tournaments that are played with a round-robin format, are the ATP World Tour Finals and the Next Gen ATP Finals. The ATP World Tour Finals are played at the end of the year with the 8th highest ranked players in the world.

It’s played with a round-robin format with 2 groups of 4 players, and the 2 players with the most points advance to the semi-finals.

Next-Gen ATP Finals uses the same format as the ATP World Tour Finals but is played with the 8 highest ranked players under 21.

These tournaments are not 100% using the round-robin format as all players won’t actually compete against each other. However, it’s a dual-play between the round-robin and elimination format. ATP, however, calls the formats in these tournaments for round-robin.

Pros of Round-Robin Tournaments

These types of tournaments require a lot of coordination and can seem confusing, but they offer quite a few benefits to players. This is an incredibly fair style of play when broken down on paper, as each player matches with those of similar skill level as well as players of higher or lower skill level.

In an elimination-style tournament, luck of the draw may mean that a much more experienced player can easily pick off their first opponent, who then would get no additional opportunity to play. 

While there are sometimes unexpected upsets in elimination matches that allow the players who weren’t favored to win to advance further, a round-robin tournament means that all players are on the courts or pitch for the same amount of time whether they win or lose.

Cons of Round-Robin Tournaments

Of course, there is another side to the coin: round robins tend to take much longer because there are simply more games to be played. If 16 players are in an elimination bracket, there are eight initial games, then four in the quarter-finals, two in the semi-finals, and one final game, for a total of 15 games.

If those same 16 players were in a round-robin tournament, a whopping 120 matches would need to be completed in order to ensure that each player competed against every other player in order to determine the winner.

From a logistical standpoint, that is a lot more effort to coordinate than an elimination tournament, with various scheduling algorithms used to determine how to create the matchups.

Additionally, although fair in theory, the practicality of the fairness of events like this doesn’t always play out. Teams or players who performed poorly in earlier rounds know that they have no statistical chance of success, and they have to keep playing, which can lead to lackluster games.

There can also be mismatches in facing higher-quality opponents in quick succession. One player may face a series of strong competitors back to back, which will no doubt cause fatigue and strain. Another player could face those same competitors over a longer time period, with easier matches in between, thus allowing more opportunity for rest and recovery.

From an excitement standpoint, there isn’t a “final match” in a round-robin tournament that fans can turn up to in order to see their team or player take it all home.

Best of Both Worlds

In an effort to address the pros and cons of both round-robin and elimination tournaments, there are some very famous dual-style tournaments. In these tournaments, the first part of the tournament is a round-robin and then the winners of the round-robin continue onto an elimination tournament bracket. 

Soccer fans may be familiar with the “group stage” in the FIFA World Cup, where all participating teams are broken into groups of four teams each, where they play a round-robin to determine the top two teams in that group who will then move onto the elimination round.

These four-team groups result in six games in the round-robin (Game 1: A plays B; Game 2: C plays D; Game 3: A plays C; Game 4: B plays D; Game 5: B plays C; Game 6: A plays D.) Each team will therefore play in a minimum of three games, which means that teams won’t have traveled thousands of miles to play in a tournament where they’re simply struck out after one loss.

A round-robin tournament does have the added benefit of creating a ranking for every player who participates, and as such, some round-robin tournaments are used as qualifying tournaments for other elimination tournaments, so the two tournaments together function in a similar manner to the combination tournament.

Playing in or watching a round-robin tournament can seem daunting at first, but for most players or viewers, the basic concept is really all you need to know. If you are playing in a round-robin with 16 players, then you would need to play 60 games over the course of the tournament (120 total games divided by two).

You’ll face each player and keep a record of your wins, losses, and draws, and then the winner of the tournament is determined by which player has the most wins after everyone has played everyone else.

There are tiebreaker protocols in place, so if you’re at the top of the table, you could potentially play even more games than originally anticipated, so be prepared to play a lot if you enter a round-robin tournament.

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