The Aresan Clan is published four times a week (Tue, Wed, Fri, Sun). You can see what's been written so far collected here. All posts will be posted under the Aresan Clan label. For summaries of the events so far, visit here. See my previous serial Vampire Wares collected here.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Tennis is better at distinguishing the better from the lesser

The French Open just finished up yesterday with perhaps the two best men's singles players duking it out for the final: Rafael Nadal (ranked #1 right now) and Roger Federer (ranked #3 right now). Unsurprisingly, victory went to Nadal, who's now won 6 of the last 7 French opens and overall dominates on clay courts, winning 227 out of 244 matches played on clay, an astounding 93%. These are two very closely matched top players, but its quite clear that Nadal was the champion, winning 7-5, 7-6, 5-7, 6-1. In fact, one of the nice things about tennis is its ability to really sort out even small differences in player ability.

It does this because a full tennis match includes a lot of points. At the bare minimum, a five-set match will include 72 points, but most games include more than twice that many and last usually 2-3 hours. And that's not to mention that these individual points involve, on average several passes over the next and several strokes by both players. What this means is that the probability that one or other player will edge ahead simply from luck alone is very small. Lucky points do happen: player might hit a ball barely in or barely out or catch the net just right to catch his opponent off guard, or translate a wild, reaching shot into a winner or benefit from a bad call. But over the course of a match, involving over a hundred points and 100s of strokes, the probability that one player will significantly get more lucky points than the other is vanishingly small. The only time it's likely to happen is if the game is so close that the players are practically neck and neck. In such cases, a little bit of luck can be just enough to push one player ahead. But in most cases, that little bit of luck is not enough to make any difference. It would take a whole lot of lucky point for a weaker player to be able to edge ahead. It's reminiscent of that quote from Woody Allen's Match Point, when Tom told Chris, the former pro tennis player that he'd seen him play against top players and he held his own for a while. Chris responds: "But as the game goes on, you see how really good they are." In other words, luck or momentum might be on side for a little while, but in the end, their superior skill wins out.

Such is the case with all high-scoring games. In basketball, for example, the typical game involves over 150 points and involves a lot of changes of possession and attempted shots, leading to games that are also seldom decided by luck. When you look at the final score of a basketball game, or especially of a tennis match, you can pretty clearly see how close and how hard fought the game is. A tennis match that is won in straight sets 6-1, 6-3, 6-2 is a decisive victory, whereas a hard fought 7-5, 6-7, 6-4, 4-6, 7-6 is obviously a close match.

This is in stark contrast to low scoring games like hockey or, even worse, soccer. As much as I enjoy watching soccer, it can be frustrating to watch games turn on lucky goals or bad calls. I remember watching in frustration during the first round of the 2010 World Cup when the US was prevented from winning their game against Slovenia after a ref disallowed a clear goal. The call was so poor that the ref was actually sent home and didn't officiate any more World Cup games, but that one call was enough to transform an American victory into a tie. On the other hand, it might have been karma after the previous game against England when the US was handed a tie after the English keeper so poorly handled an easy save that it resulted in a goal for the US. This one mistake changed a loss into a tie for the US. Though better teams do tend to win in soccer (the World Cup was won by Spain, who was the favorite going in), luck plays a much bigger factor. Consider that 2 out of the 16 games of the knockout stage in that World Cup were decided by penalty shoot outs. Since FIFA started using penalty shootouts in 1966 there have been 12 world cups, two of which (1994 and 2006) included penalty shootouts in the final game, with an additional three that were decided in added extra time. Such games are close enough that they can go either way, and they occur a large percentage of the time.

The difference between tennis and soccer on this issue is one of degree: in both games better teams tend to win, but in soccer luck plays a larger role. I enjoy watching both games, but I really like the feature of tennis that players fight for many small incremental gains which add up to victory. It results in a better measure of relative ability and means that you can be assured that when a player wins, they really deserve it.

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