The life of a tennis punter has changed so much over recent years. Go back ten years and you'd be lucky to find more than a handful of bookmakers offering prices on daily matches. Most would stick to the Grand Slams, possibly just the later rounds, and WTA offerings were few and far between.
Being a professional tennis punter was purely a pipe dream, but there were a few arbers able to make a reasonable living by doing all the hard work themselves. With the internet still in its infancy, bookmakers still conducted all their business via shops or the phone. With UK bookies still under the punter's tax regime, all that business went offshore to Gibraltar or Australia as it made little sense to offer short prices with a 9% tax lobbed on top of it in Britain. The arber made the phone calls, quickly assessed which matches were overbroke, and place a pair of bets. Most bookmakers were none the wiser to the practice, and the small group of arbitragers could usually survive undetected unless they got greedy.
Only the big punters had ever thought of betting with firms on the other side of the world - Betbubbles or a few of the UK firms offered more than enough to satisfy their client base, but bookmakers in the Caribbean started to pick it up as well. Along came the internet and displaying prices for all and sundry to see. Live odds and being able to claim a price there and then were still a little while away. Tennis was a sport of international interest, particularly in Europe, and any bookmaker offering tennis prices online got a spattering of new accounts from Italy, Sweden and beyond. Bookies were betting first and foremost into their local market, so a big match such as Rafter vs Sampras would more often than not lead to an overbroke book across continents, only ever discovered by those choosing to do the hard work themselves.
Tennis gained more international TV coverage, and bookmakers felt more confident about pricing up run-of-the-mill events as punter interest developed. But still being a minor sport in terms of overall volume, the science of pricing up a match was undeveloped, and odds compilers marked it a fairly low priority. This all meant that anyone sharp enough to price up a match differently to a bookmaker was able to pick off the low-hanging fruit as there was very little strength or depth in the markets.
As prices became live online, along came the price comparison sites. BetBrain, OddsChecker and TipEx served the purpose of not only pointing out all the potential arbitrage opportunities for punters, but also let bookmakers know when they were about to get swamped. It also made it significantly easier for bookmakers to profile their clients and restrict or even close them down as the lazier bookies couldn't be bothered using them to their advantage.
Wider price coverage meant more confidence from bookmakers, but also the ability to post 'vanilla' prices - safely in the middle without taking a stance. When the money comes for a player in tennis, it's rare that it comes for both sides, so it's not too often the prices for a match stay static until the market closes, so even the lazy bookies see action as well. Punters certainly held the edge over bookmakers in the early years - the ability to pick off the matches they want to bet on makes it very tough to be a profitable layer. You can get 15 matches spot on out of 16, but if the punters come for just one match, you could almost guarantee it would ruin your day. Websites such as OnThePunt and the now-defunct ZoomTennis specialised in picking off the value outsiders and prices would be often snapped up within minutes of tips being published.
The advent of Betfair changed tennis betting forever. Bookmaker margins were removed, the traded price history was there for all to see, and best of all, TV matches were turned in-play.
A new trend of betting emerged. No longer was a punter bound to ride a bet until the match was over - he could change his position steadily throughout a match with the aim of locking in a profit no matter which way the game turned. Betfair didn't invent live betting, you could always back both players as the odds moved with the handful of bookies betting in-running; but it was the first company to provide punters with a live P&L on the market - something I'm yet to see any bookmaker do. A bookie will continually ask you to pay up for each bet, even though you might have a $200 profit locked in on both outcomes.
Betfair's active P&L system allows a punter with a relatively low balance to turn that over dozens of times during the match to improve his position, and then pay commission only on his net profit.
How does this affect pre-match prices? Two relatively common trading plans are lay the very short favourite, and back the outsider. Effectively they are the same thing. When Roger Federer lines up in a regular tournament against an unknown, traders will pile into laying the 1.01 or 1.02. They are hoping that the underdog holds his nerve and serves well in the first set, and gets to 5-5 or even a tie-breaker where usually Federer's class will shine through. At 5-5 in a best of three-set match (note Grand Slams are best-of-five sets and class tends to prevail more often), that 1.01 will have probably drifted to 1.07 and the early layers can now close out their position for a handy profit.
Lay 1000 @ 1.01.
Back 944 @ 1.07
NET POSITION +56 either way
What's the risk? If Federer breaks straight away, you can't get out of your bet and you've lost a tenner. If the set goes to 3-3 and then goes against you, you've probably elected to ignore the 1.03 and wait for a better price. If that worries you, then you could always take a bit of the 1.03 to reduce your risk.
Example - Federer v Kuwaiti wildcard M Al-Ghareeb in Dubai, March 1, 2006.
£460k was matched on Federer before the match, all bar 3% of it at the minimum price of 1.01. Al-Ghareeb took the Swiss maestro to a first-set tiebreaker, and one lucky bloke even got £95 on a 1.10. £370k was matched in-play on Federer at prices of 1.05 and above, and small bites were matched on the outsider down to 11 (which equates to taking Federer at 1.10).
In the long run, this will push the price of favourites out as so many traders become willing to take on the 'money-buyers'. This won't be unique to Betfair either - bookmakers around the world use Betfair as their guide. They aren't going to put up prices above the Betfair market - they'll just get smashed by arbitragers falling out of trees to get on.
If the favourites are pushed out, then it stands to reason that the 'dogs must shorten. Are the bookies going to leave the prices of the outsiders out in the breeze or trim them to fit with the Betfair market? If they do push the favourites out, does that then leave them ripe for the picking from the multis punters who want to couple up five 1.1 shots regularly?
Will the volatility stay in the live market? Trading to date seems to be all personal - will it become like soccer where a substantial percentage of trading is done by automated systems linked to databases of tens of thousands of matches?
Times change, markets evolve, punters and bookies must continue to get wiser. He who stands still will be covered in cobwebs in no time....