The Prevalence of Lefties in Men’s Tennis
Many people, in and out of tennis, believe that left-handed players have an advantage of some kind. The perceived advantage may just be one of unfamiliarity; a junior or club-level player doesn’t see many lefties, so he is unaccustomed to the angles and spins that come of a left-hander’s racquet.
In any event, we need some hard data. Are lefties overrepresented in the top ranks of professional men’s tennis?
The short answer: Not really.
There’s no universal consensus on the prevalence of left-hand dominance in the general population. You’ll frequently see the figure 10 percent, or a range between 8 and 15 percent. How does that compare to the number of lefties in the ATP rankings?
Here is a breakdown of lefties in the ATP rankings of 7 Feb 2011:
- Top 10: 2 (20%)
- Top 20: 3 (15%)
- Top 50: 6 (12%)
- Top 100: 12 (12%)
- Top 200: 29 (14.5%)
- Top 300: 40 (13.3%)
An interesting case is Rafael Nadal, who was born right-hand dominant, but was taught to play left-handed. So if we are looking at the success rates of left-hand dominant players, we could subtract one from each of the raw totals above. Of course, there may be other players who were taught to play with their non-dominant hand.
(An odder case is that of Guillermo Olaso, who is listed on the ATP site as ambidextrous. Other resources show him as right-handed. I saw him play a couple of years ago and don’t remember anything unique about his game, so I left him in the righty category.)
The advantage, if any
A perspective that I’ve heard (I have no idea from where) is that lefties can take advantage of the unfamiliarity advantage early in their careers, giving them a foundation of success that earns them more matches, more support, more coaching, and the like. The left-handedness doesn’t make them a better player, exactly, but it causes other things that lead to an improvement in their play.
Depending on how long that advantage persists, we might expect to see a “bulge” in the number of lefties somewhere in the rankings. There’s a bit of a blip in the 101-200 range, and there’s a bigger one if we narrow our focus to 151-200, where 10 of the 50 men play left-handed. Perhaps unfamiliarity helps them get to some level, but when they start meeting opponents at higher levels, the unfamiliarity advantage is not enough.
The blip between 101 and 200 might not mean anything; perhaps if we went further down the rankings, or even into the national or junior rankings, we’d see something more pronounced. Alas, it was hard enough to get handedness for the top 300 players, so any larger project will have to wait for another day.