Tennis Time

tennis#

Most jr.-tennis coaches are basically technicians, hands-on practical straight-ahead problem-solving statistical-data wonks, with maybe added knacks for short-haul psychology and motivational speaking. The point about not crunching serious stats is that Schtitt . . . knew real tennis was really about not the blend of statistical order and expansive potential that the game’s technicians revered, but in fact the opposite — not-order, limit, the places where things broke down, fragmented into beauty. That real tennis was no more reducible to delimited factors or probability curves than chess or boxing, the two games of which it’s a hybrid. In short, Schtitt and [Incandenza] found themselves totally simpatico on tennis’s exemption from stats-tracking regression. Were he now still among the living, Dr. Incandenza would now describe tennis in the paradoxical terms of what’s now called “Extra-Linear Dynamics.” And Schtitt, whose knowledge of formal math is probably about equivalent to that of a Taiwanese kindergartner, nevertheless seemed to know what Hopman and van der Meer and Bollettieri seemed not to know: that locating beauty and art and magic and improvement and keys to excellence and victory in the prolix flux of match play is not a fractal matter of reducing chaos to pattern. Seemed perversely — of expansion, the aleatory flutter of uncontrolled, metastatic growth — each well-shot ball admitting of n possible responses, n^2 possible responses to those responses, and on into what Incandenza would articulate to anyone who shared both his backgrounds as a Cantorian continuum of infinities of possible move and response, Cantorian and beautiful because infoliating, contained, this diagnate infinity of infinities of choice and execution, mathematically uncontrolled but humanly contained, bounded by the talent and imagination of self and opponent, bent in on itself by the containing boundaries of skill and imagination that brought one player finally down, that kept both from winning, that made it, finally, a game, these boundaries of self.

David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest 81-82 (Back Bay Books, Nov. 2006) (1996).

In tennis, the better player doesn’t always win. Sometimes, she loses in straight sets.

Imagine if basketball, football or hockey games were decided by which team outscored the other in the most periods. Get outscored by 20 points in the first quarter, and it’s no problem, you just have to eke out the last three by a point each to take the game.

That’s sort of how tennis works. Win more sets than your opponent, and you win the match — even if your opponent played better throughout. These anomalous results happen rarely, but more often on grass, the surface of play at Wimbledon, which started this week.

Wacky outcomes like [Rajeev] Ram’s pair of lottery matches happen more often at Wimbledon than at the other Grand Slams. Since 1991, 8.8 percent of completed Wimbledon men’s matches have been lottery matches, won by the player who was less successful at protecting his serve than his opponent. At the other three Grand Slam tournaments, that proportion ranged between 6.4 percent and 6.6 percent, according to data provided by Jeff Sackmann of Tennis Abstract.

The sport’s time-tested scoring system has many virtues, even if total fairness isn’t one of them. Its symmetry makes players alternate the deuce and advantage sides, switch sides of the net, rotate serving and returning. It guarantees that a player trailing by a big margin gets all the time it takes to stage a comeback, provided she performs well enough to earn that time. It keeps matches that are lopsided short, and lets close matches take all the time they need.

Carl Bialik, “An Oddity of Tennis Scoring Makes Its Annual Appearance at Wimbledon,” FiveThirtyEight.com (June 25, 2014, 7:31 a.m.).

Part of the reason baseball is so susceptible to statistical analysis is that the season is long enough for players’ and teams’ statistical averages to settle out and meaningfully describe their performance. Another reason is that the game itself is comprised of isolated interactions. No other sport is so susceptible, but the reasons appear to be different in each case. Basketball may be next up, held back only by our (diminishing, thanks to technology) inability to track and store data. Hockey statistics are thought to be less meaningful because the season isn’t long enough for the random bounces of the puck to settle out from the averages.

To my poorly informed knowledge, advanced statistical analysis has made few inroads into tennis. Part of the reason for this may be that tennis’ scoring structure, alluded to in the second passage above, does not as easily allow for the clean, direct reflection of averaged rates of good things or bad things in individual (and therefore aggregated) match outcomes. On the other hand, maybe looking to a statistical rationale for an explanation of statistics’ inability to aid in the understanding of tennis is futile. Or at least I think that’s what the first passage means.    Continue reading

Let’s see action! Tennis > Baseball > Football?

Entering that time of year when baseball and football overlap, I was reminded of the mostly uninteresting sports superiority debate, one football usually wins because of its media popularity and perception that it offers a lot more action than the other sports. It’s pointless to swim against the tide of football supremacy, but is it really true that a football game offers more action than a baseball game?

I found myself reevaluating this question while flipping between baseball and football games on college football’s opening weekend, simultaneously enticed by shiny football and entranced by the playoff potential of my favorite and local baseball teams. Baseball seems slow, of course, and there’s no clock. Most of the time, though, a televised baseball game takes as much time to complete as a televised football game. As a comparison of these two random articles indicates, MLB games actually tend to consume less time than NFL games. The nature of the gameplay is what it is, but a fan is going to spend the same amount of time– roughly three hours– watching a game of one or the other.

We can go deeper and wider, though. Fewer Americans watch tennis than either the official or unofficial national pastimes, but even men’s tennis matches (played as the best of five sets, rather than the women’s best of three) tend to take less time than baseball or football. Moreover, as a set of recent Wall Street Journal studies conclude, it’s tennis– not baseball or football– that packs the most action per match or game.

Read the full article here.

New season Monday

Football is underway at all levels, which means that this weekly roundup/preview post is back.

College football’s second week portended less excitement than its opening week, and yet there seemed to be more surprising results this week than last. In particular, two teams with a lot of preseason promise took big hits on Saturday. The Wisconsin Badgers fell out of the Top 25 and fired their offensive line coach after a loss to Oregon State in which the traditional running power generated only thirty-five yards on the ground. Arkansas’ drop from the rankings was even more precipitous, as the Razorbacks lost to Louisiana-Monroe. Michigan, fresh off a no-show against Alabama, nearly lost their home-opener to Air Force, while Clemson nearly doubled up Ball State to stay undefeated, a status they’re likely to carry into their meeting with #5 Florida State in two weeks after facing in-state lightweight Furman this weekend. Michigan State also stayed undefeated with an easy win over Central Michigan, while Vanderbilt fell to 0-2 at Northwestern in a game I attended and more about which I will writehave written.

Robert Griffin III was the star of the NFL’s first Sunday of 2012, while Andrew Luck found himself grouped with more pedestrian rookie QB starters Brandon Weeden and Ryan Tannehill. The always-overhyped Jets turned in the surprise team performance of the day, a 48-28 win over Buffalo. The Lions, who have an official drum line, came from behind to beat the Rams in the last ten seconds of the game, and Peyton Manning returned to form in an ultimately convincing win over Pittsburgh.

Outside of the football world, Serena Williams gutted out a win at the U.S. Open, her fifteenth Grand Slam title, and Jeff Gordon announced that his “absurdly comical mustache” for the NASCAR Chase (i.e., playoffs), which begins this weekend in Chicago.

The Death’s-head of Wimbledon, Part 5 (via Grantland)

But it’s so fragile, tennis! I mean, it’s so silly, basically. I have been a completely inadequate Wimbledon correspondent, and even I noticed when the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club’s P.A. announcer came on to say, “Ladies and gentlemen, your attention, please. There is a 30 percent chance that it is now raining.” The kidnapped hawk, the Centre Court roof, and Roger Federer all have fake Twitter accounts that are only intermittently as funny as the actual Wimbledon Twitter account, @Wimbledon, which I suspect has a better sense of humor about Wimbledon than does Jeremy Piven. I’ve hardly understood a single thing that’s happened since I’ve been here. Why, the other night I wandered into the actual English pub next to my hotel for a burger and a drink, and there was some sort of American-themed costume party going on — all sorts of Marilyns and Duff Men and Top Gun jet aces, that sort of thing — and I was wearing a shirt with the name of an obscure Italian soccer club on it, and I got pitying looks for not being comically American enough! … Read More

(via Grantland)

Breaking down the slowest sports day of the year

Things have been pretty slow around here lately. There are plenty of reasons for that, and one of the biggest is that there just isn’t a heck of a lot happening right now. In fact, SB Nation says today is “the slowest sports day of the entire year.” Sometimes they’re jokers, so my initial reaction was a pretty un-Seth & Amy “really?”, but after popping over to ESPN.com, it looks like they’re right. Of course, we’re saturated enough that there won’t be a day without sports, but today comes pretty close. Here’s an overview of the day’s offerings:

In case you didn’t click to expand the image, that’s thirty-four total events: 22 tennis matches, 9 soccer matches, and 3 WNBA games.

The tennis matches are what look to be the opening rounds of three ATP (men’s professional tour) and two WTA (women’s professional tour) tournaments. Number one seeds in action include John Isner, Janko Tipsarevic (that’s a man), Serena Williams, and Sara Errani. In other words, something less than grand slam caliber competition on display.

The nine soccer matches break down as one MLS game (played between two Canadian teams), one Futebol Brasileiro game, one Fútbol Profesional Colombiano game, and six Primera Profesional de Perú games. I’ll let Brendan and Chris translate this paragraph for you, but I’m guessing you’ll be underwhelmed.

As for the three WNBA games, what’s there to say about early season WNBA that hasn’t already been said, except that by the time I actually post this, one of the three games already will be over?

Pro-style Monday

At some point in the middle of the American night, Novak Djokovic beat Rafael Nadal to win the Australian Open in a five-set match that nearly ran six hours, the longest ever Grand Slam singles final. With the win, Djokovic became only the fifth man to win three consecutive Grand Slams (the others being Nadal, Sampras, Federer, and Rod Laver). Nadal, on the other hand, became the first to lose three consecutive Slam finals.

The Sunday before the Super Bowl is reserved for the Pro Bowl, reviled as the worst all-star game of any professional sport. I heard that the AFC “won.” I also heard that this was the worst playing of the non-game yet, even drawing fan booing early on. In a related story, national commentators continued to praise the NHL all-star game apparently without realizing it too was played on Sunday.

Finally, the Winter X Games came to a close last night, and snowboarder Shaun White scored a perfect 100 on the superpipe to win his fifth-consecutive gold medal in that event.

Special teams Monday

On Friday night, the Minnesota Timberwolves hung around long enough and took advantage of a Los Angeles Clippers’ offense that, despite dominating most of the game even without Chris Paul, stagnated after Mo Williams, who couldn’t miss, got himself ejected. Minnesota won the game on a Kevin Love 3-pointer off an in-bounds play with 1.5 seconds remaining. The 101-98 game-winning margin was the T-Wolves only lead of the night after going up 2-0 to start the game.

In college action, Michigan State was all over Purdue in East Lansing, 83-58, the Boilermakers being a much better team in West Lafayette than on the road. Vanderbilt, meanwhile, hasn’t quite been able to right its ship, dropping a tough one in overtime to #15 Mississippi State, 78-77. Other notable games included Virginia Tech upsetting UVA in a low-scoring affair (47-45), Notre Dame upsetting previously undefeated #1 Syracuse, and Florida State salvaging its season with an upset of Duke in Durham just a week after it blew out free falling North Carolina. There also was this neat fact:

Sometime Saturday night or Sunday morning, former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno died after a battle with lung cancer.  Beyond the longevity of his tenure, recent information about his handling of the Jerry Sandusky situation has obscured and clouded Paterno’s legacy. One has to wonder, though, whether Paterno would be alive today if he had been allowed to remain in his post. It isn’t a sensational suggestion: he and others addressed this very question in years past (in an article, probably in Sports Illustrated, for which I spent a good amount of time unsuccessfully searching on Sunday). The other footnote on this story right now is the mishandling of the death announcement by the media– particularly CBS Sports, which lifted a premature story without attribution from Onward State, a PSU student site, and then attempted to blame that site when the error was revealed.

Sunday featured the NFL playoffs’ final four and saw New England and New York advancing to the Super Bowl. In each game, the losing team appeared to be in control at the end, only to commit crippling special teams errors that delivered the victory to their opponent. When the teams meet in the Super Bowl, Eli Manning will have the opportunity to double his brother’s championship total, while Tom Brady could join Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana as the only quarterbacks to win four Super Bowls. Super Bowl XLVI will be a rematch of Super Bowl XLII, which the Giants won 17-14, thanks in large part to a fourth-quarter catch by WR David Tyree.

In the Australian Open, Serena Williams lost 6-2, 6-3 to Ekaterina Makarova. Williams was the last American alive in the tournament.

Heat, light, and passion: An Australian Open preview primer

Because my schedule doesn’t allow me to watch tennis happening in any Australian timezone or even try to navigate ESPN’s website to figure out when it’s playing (it is remarkable how difficult it is to find TV listings on TV network websites), here are some previews and updates from the Grand Slam Down Under and new tennis in the new year:

Traditionally, this tournament is thought of as the lesser of the four Slams, and in its early years, many pros skipped it. If you’re not paying attention because you think today’s players don’t care though, Marcos Baghdatis politely requests that you reconsider that position:

He does not like those rackets.

Was linking to those tournament previews late on day three of the event just an excuse to post that video and write Australian-related words? Koala dingo joey fosters wombat outback platypus melbourne dodo crocodile hunter opera house kangaroo.