Home advantage: the true secret to winning the US Open?

American tennis fans can expect big things in next week's US Open. History allows it: An American player has made the final round nearly every year since the tournament began in 1881.

So how much weight should we place on a home advantage? We ask psychologist Francis McAndrew how a familiar setting, roaring home crowds, and hormones (yes, hormones) affect US players in Flushing Meadows.

RG: What does a home advantage mean in sports and how it might affect tennis players?

Francis McAndrew: Multiple studies across multiple sports indicate that athletes competing on their "home field" have an advantage over visiting teams. Part of it is related to a psychological sense of familiarity. The athletes compete at a certain place on a regular basis and feels like home to them - they have an attachment to it, in a way. It can offer a calming effect, help them manage stress, and give them more confidence. Animals have a similar situation: it’s called the prior residence effect. An animal in its own territory is going to win a fight and scare off intruders more often than an animal in foreign territory.

RG: An American has been in the US Open final every year since the competition started in 1881, bar six years. From a psychological perspective, what factors might influence this achievement? 

FM: Confidence and dominance comes with being in a familiar place, so it helps to feel at ease with the actual setting and the idiosyncrasies of different surfaces, for example. In saying that, professional tennis players have one important difference: few players are on their home court during tournaments. In high school and college sports, tennis players compete regularly on their "home courts" and so the home court advantage should be operating.  However, the courts that professional tennis players practice and compete on a regular basis is rarely where the professional tournament is taking place.

It is a fascinating question as to whether competing in one's home country bestows any sort of home advantage. The familiarity of the surrounding culture, and the lack of jet lag and stress from travel might play a part in creating more comfort for athletes at home. The crowd also plays a part in it – the American players will be more likely to have supportive friends and relatives in attendance – but the crowd plays a more complex role in home advantage.

RG: One study analyzing match statistics found a home advantage is evident for highly-skilled male tennis players, but not for female tennis players. Why do you think this is?

FM: Competing at home provides a testosterone boost for men. One theory that attempts to explain it is the challenge hypothesis. It’s thought males may have evolved to have this biological response when there’s a challenge to their status and they have to compete with another male in some way. They get a testosterone spike to help them be successful in that situation. Women don’t have this spike in testosterone so they’ll get some of the advantages of a home match, but not to the same extent as men.

Day 9 action at the 2015 BNP Paribas Open.


RG: Testosterone levels are shown to be higher in men before a sports match at home. What effect could this have on their game, behavior, and success?

FM: It’s a good question. You’d expect it to be higher before any match, and so the fact it’s higher before a home match is really interesting. I think that might help explain the prior residence effect in animals. The fact that you’re defending a home territory, or showing off your skills in front of a home crowd you’re trying to impress, might raise the testosterone levels even higher than they’d ordinarily be.

RG: With the above studies in mind, Serena Williams has single-handedly maintained these US Open statistics over the past four years because the Big Four (Federer, Djokovic, Nadal, and Murray, none of whom are American) dominate the men’sdraw. What factors help in her success?

FM: We associate cues and behaviors in situations with success and failure. When we walk into a place where we’ve had a lot of success in the past, then the same sights, smells, colors, and feelings will automatically trigger a sense of confidence.  That helps you go to the match feeling confident and successful because everything reminds you that that’s the way it works there.

It can also have the opposite effect if you haven’t had a good experience in that environment. Then, you’re surrounded by things that say, “You can’t win here, you never do well here,” and that’s going to undermine your performance.

RG: You mentioned earlier that the home crowd plays a complex role – why’s that?

FM: It’s to do with a controversial theory called “championship choke.” About 20 years ago people were convinced the home team had an advantage – except when everything relied on one game. In that case, having too many people counting on an athlete’s performance might actually raise arousal levels to a point where it hurts their performance level rather than help it. Some researchers contend this. But in terms of consistency, home teams certainly don’t do as well in championship games as they do during the regular season.

Featured image by Tom Mascardo and image of Serena Williams by mirsasha.