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Williams Sisters: 1-2

May 24, 2010 Leave a comment

Venus Williams, French Open opening match, May 23, 2010

This is week-old news, I know. I meant to get to it before. And if I wait much longer, as the French Opentennis championships roll onward, it may stop being true. So I better get to it now.

Eight days ago, Venus Williams was upset by Arazane Rezai in straight sets in the final of the Madrid Open. By reaching the finals, Venus ascended to #2 in the rankings behind her sister Serena, who has been #1 all year.

The Williams sisters first occupied the top two slots in the rankings in 2002, and haven’t done so since 2003. Between injuries to or lack of interest in tennis by one or the other over the years, I would never have imagined that they would return to the top. But here they are. It’s astonishing.

Venus turns 30 in just over 3 weeks. Serena is 28. I recall reading an article about them when they were 14 and 13, focusing on their father Richard’s non-traditional training methods and his bold prediction that some day they would be the top two players in the world. It was difficult to know how seriously to take him. They didn’t play in the standard youth tournaments. Mostly they played each other. Were they that good? No way to know.

In 1997, Venus burst on the scene. She lost in the 2nd round at the French Open, the first round at Wimbledon, but made the finals at the US Open, where she lost, at age 17, to the still-younger Martina Hingis. She would not return to a grand slam final for three years, having to watch her younger sister win the US Open in 1999 over Hingis (who had beaten her in the semi-final, thereby averting an all-Williams final). In 2000 and 2001, she won both Wimbledon and the US Open, reaching as high as #2 in the rankings. She didn’t get to #1 until 2002, which turned out to be not her year but Serena’s. Serena did not play in the Australian that year, but won the French, Wimbledon, and the US championships, going on to win the Australian Open in 2003. Venus, as you may recall, was the losing finalist in all four! There was no question who was #1 in the world. Serena. Or who was #2. Venus. And that’s where they were ranked once Serena won Wimbledon in July.

Venus was never the same player after that, largely due to injuries. Since the 2003 Australian, she has not gotten past the quarterfinals there or at the French, and has reached the semifinals of the US Open only once. In contrast, she has continued to shine at Wimbledon when healthy, with three more wins and two more runner-up finishes. Serena has had her own woes outside the Australian, which she has won four times since 2003. At the French, she reached the semi-finals in 2003, but hasn’t been that far since. Her win at the US Open in 2008 after several years of not getting past the quarter-finals signaled her recent return to top form. She followed it by victories at the Australian Open and Wimbledon in 2009, the shocking loss to Kim Clijsters in the US semi-finals last September, and the latest Australian victory in January, securing the #1 ranking along the way.

With consistent play this season, Venus is back to #2. Based on their recent records in Paris, I won’t be surprised if neither of them reaches the finals next week. That could end their 1-2 reign, depending on how deep they go in the tournament and on how the other highly-ranked players do. (Caroline Wozniacki is #3, Jelena Jankovic #4, Elena Dementieva #5, Svetlana Kuznetsova #6.) There’s even a chance that Venus can overtake Serena at #1.

Meanwhile, a tip of my hat to Richard Williams. He was doubly right. They got to be 1-2, then fell quite low at times, but now they’re back. Whatever happens in Paris this week and next, I look forward to Wimbledon.

Categories: Sports

Martin Gardner, RIP

May 24, 2010 Leave a comment

Martin Gardner died Saturday. I wrote about him just last month, at which time I noted that although “not himself a mathematician, Gardner is one of history’s great popularizers of mathematics, through his long-running “Mathematical Games” column in Scientific American. He is as well one of the great debunkers of pseudo-science.” I own several compilations of his Scientific American columns, plus his one novel, The Flight of Peter Fromm, an odd book about religion and theology.

You can read more about Gardner in the NYT obituary, or by clicking on various links at the Scientific American website. For instance, several people pay tribute here and a 1995 Scientific American profile is republished here.

I have little I can add to what others have said. Here are some of the thoughts of Douglas Hofstadter, famed polymath in his own right:

. . . so few people today are really aware of what a giant he was in so many fields—to name some of them: the propagation of truly deep and beautiful mathematical ideas (not just “mathematical games,” far from it!); the intense battling of pseudoscience and related ideas; the invention of superb magic tricks; the love for beautiful poetry; the fascination with profound philosophical ideas (Newcomb’s paradox, free will, etcetera etcetera); the elusive border between nonsense and sense; the idea of intellectual hoaxes done in order to make serious points (for example, one time, at my instigation, he wrote a scathing review of his own book The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener in The New York Review of Books, and the idea was to talk about the ideas seriously even though he was attacking the ideas that he himself believed in); and on and on and on and on. Martin Gardner was so profoundly influential on so many top-notch thinkers in so many disciplines—just a remarkable human being—and at the same time he was so unbelievably modest and unassuming.

Categories: Math, Obituary

Ethel’s Unexpected Appearance

May 24, 2010 Leave a comment

When I’m in my car, thanks to its satellite radio, I’m able to listen to Sirius XM’s On Broadway station. This is a curious experience. Most of the time, the station provides an education in the mediocrity of so much Broadway music. I know this is an unfair judgment; much of the mediocrity surely arises from the lack of context.

Who wants to hear music from South Pacific or Guys and Dolls over and over again? Why ruin the best of Broadway by over-playing it? Sirius XM doesn’t do this, fortunately, but as a result, I frequently tune in to songs from shows I don’t know. Thus, I am the one to blame for the lack of context, for not seeing enough musical theater, and I should be grateful, which I am, that the station exposes me to so much with which I would otherwise be unfamiliar.

And then there are the times when I tune in to the sublime. Like last Wednesday morning, as I drove home from an early morning errand. I know that song! It’s from Gypsy. Another great Stephen Sondheim song.* But wait. I know that voice! Why, it’s Ethel Merman! And so it was.

I was transported to my childhood. First I thought it was the song’s doing. Small World. I do love that song. Then I realized that no, it wasn’t the song, it was Ethel. I had forgotten how much her voice had permeated my childhood years. My parents would attend Broadway musicals and bring home the cast albums, which my father would proceed to play all weekend on our living room’s monaural hi-fi. And of course there was the radio. Ethel was everywhere.

I can’t find a link on the internet to her singing the song. For a snippet, go to the Amazon listing of the 1959 cast album (pictured above), scroll down to the song samples, and click on #4. That’s her, in a duet with Jack Klugman — yes, that Jack Klugman, better known to a later generation for his TV roles in The Odd Couple and Quincy, who doesn’t actually appear on the snippet. For a full version of the song, but with Bernadette Peters rather than Merman, you can listen below:

I went to several musicals on Broadway in the ’60s, but none in the ’50s. In particular, I didn’t see the original Gypsy. Worse, I didn’t see any of the Gypsy revivals, each of which featured a great actress as Rose: Angela Lansbury in 1974, the surprising Tyne Daly in 1989, Bernadette Peters in 2003, and Patti LuPone in 2008. I need to make it a point to see the next one.

*I should be more precise. Stephen Sondheim was responsible for the lyrics. The music was composed by Jule Styne. I wrote here two months ago about my love for Sondheim, on the occasion of his 80th birthday, and here, a year ago, about seeing a production of Sunday in the Park with George. Gypsy was Sondheim’s second musical, following West Side Story by two years. How’s that for the start of a career? (Next came A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, the first musical for which he wrote both the songs’ words and music.)

Categories: Music, Theater

61 Hours

May 24, 2010 Leave a comment

It’s been a while since I posted. One reason is that Lee Child’s new Jack Reacher thriller, 61 Hours, which I wrote about* ten days ago after reading Janet Maslin’s pre-publication rave review in the NYT, came last Tuesday, publication day.

I started it immediately, but read in small doses only, since I had other obligations last week and knew that if I went far enough, the obligations would end up pushed aside in favor of the book. Once an important event concluded Friday evening, I was free to lose myself in the book, but by the time I got home and caught up on sports and news, it was 10:30 and I was way too tired. Saturday was the day. I was finished by 1:00.

What should I say? I dare not say too much, in case you might read it at some point. Anyway, we’re not talking about great literature. Just a thriller. But a thriller by one of the genre’s masters, a thriller whose principal character is as brainy as he is brawny. What I most enjoy are the opportunities to watch him display deductive reasoning at its best. He could have been a mathematician, or at least a logician. 61 Hours supplies many such opportunities. As usual, Reacher stumbles into a wildly implausible, though imaginative, plot, laced with a few wonderful characters and many faceless ones.

I’m happy I read it. As always, I can’t wait for the next one, which will be out soon. (Ordinarily, Jack Reacher returns early each summer, but this time Child has produced two books at once, to be published in quick succession.) While I wait, I’m sure I’ll read one or two of the earlier ones as part of my remedial Reacher research.

I’ll conclude by noting two unusual features of the book, each frustrating in its own way. [Alert: You may not to read beyond this point.] First, Reacher takes an extraordinarily long time to figure out who the mystery bad person is, even though the person’s identity is evident early on to any reader. There is no reasonable explanation for his denseness. Second, the book’s conclusion leaves several ends untied, in anticipation of the next Jack Reacher novel. One can pretty well guess what may have happened, but I’d rather know now than wait five months.

*The book cover pictured in my first post is the wrong one. I chose it from the book’s website, but what I chose is the UK cover, not the US one. The US one is pictured above.

Categories: Books