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French Open Blackout

June 7, 2013 Leave a comment
Rafael Nadal

Rafael Nadal

A historic tennis match is taking place right now at the French Open and I’m not watching it. It’s the men’s semifinal between Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, the two best players in the world. Nadal, the greatest clay court player ever, is going for his eighth French Open title, Djokovic his first in what would complete a career grand slam.

As I write, Nadal just broke Djokovic in a deuce game in the fifth set to even the set and match. Nadal served for the match twice in the fourth set, only to be broken twice and lose in a tiebreaker. It looked like Djokovic would go on to win the fifth set, but now the set is even at 4-4. All this I’m gleaning from watching the live scores.

Why am I not watching the match on TV? Because NBC are complete a–holes. They could leave ESPN to broadcast it, as ESPN broadcast the women’s semifinals yesterday. (Not that I’m capable of watching when Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka contest one of their shriek-a-thons, but that’s another matter.) Instead, as a warmup for weekend finals coverage, NBC grabs hold of the men’s semifinals and then delay it so as not to interfere with Today.

Look, if Today is so important to your financial model, fine, show it. Just let us watch the tennis on ESPN. Obviously you don’t care about it. You don’t expect people to watch it five hours later, in the middle of a workday. Tennis history is being made, and you’re content to make us watch it on our DVRs tonight. Thanks a lot.

Meanwhile, the score now is 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 6-7 (3), 6-6, with Nadal’s numbers first. No tiebreaker in fifth sets at Roland-Garros. This could go on a while.

Categories: Television, Tennis

A Match I’ll Miss

September 7, 2012 Leave a comment

I don’t watch a lot of tennis. I follow the four majors closely: study the draws, check the results, read stories, even keep track of the score of a match live on my browser (in the later rounds) while doing other things. But I don’t watch too many matches. Maybe the late stages of a semi-final or the finals.

Today is women’s semi-final day at the US Open. Big day. Especially considering that three different women have won the three majors played so far, and all three are in the semis. Victoria Azarenka (winner of the Australian) and Maria Sharapova (winner of the French Open) face off at 1:30k; Serena Williams (winner of Wimbledon) plays Sara Errani (runner-up at the French) at 3:45.

The post-tournament rankings are all but set, based on how far the players have gotten in this tournament. Azarenka will remain ranked #1, Sharapova will move up from #3 to #2. I haven’t read Williams fate, which may yet depend on the remaining play, but I imagine she can slide up from #4 to #3. No matter. Regardless of the rankings, whoever wins the Open will have had the best year (ruling Errani out as a possible winner). Which means we have some exciting tennis in store today and tomorrow.

But really, there’s no way I’m going to watch Azarenka play Sharapova. And probably no way I’ll watch the winner play Serena. The shrieker against the screamer. How can anyone watch them?

My loss, perhaps, because there’s much to admire about the pair, as people and as players. (Check out today’s NYT piece on Azarenka.) I just can’t listen to them. I’ll be content to check the score of their match online, if I’m free.

Categories: Tennis

A Match Play Puzzle

February 27, 2011 Leave a comment

Luke Donald, on the 9th hole today

[Andy Lyons/Getty Images]

The annual World Golf Championships match play tournament concluded this afternoon in Tucson, with Englishman Luke Donald defeating German Martin Kaymer in the final. There was an inch of snow overnight (in Tucson!), but it had melted by the time play began. The purpose of this post is to pose a question about the nature of golf that has long puzzled me, but first I will give some background.

Almost all golf tournaments are medal play, or stroke play, which means the winner is the player who takes the least strokes to get around the course. A professional men’s tournament almost always has four rounds, 18 holes each, played on successive days. In most tournaments, the field consists of 156 players, with about half of them cut at the end of the second day. (Only those who make the cut earn money.) Before the cut, they play in threesomes, the same threesome playing together on both the first and second days. After the cut, unless there are bad weather conditions or other reasons to shorten the playing time and play in threesomes, they play in pairs, with the leading pair going off last, the third and fourth best scorers, going off next to last, and so on.

To win, you must beat all 156 players. Obviously. The point of this observation, though, is that it leads to the golf truism that it’s hard to win tournaments — you have to beat not just the top 10 or 20 players in the field, but also the lesser-known player near the bottom who has a crazy good week. And that’s why the greatest players in the world generally don’t win that often. There are countless famous examples of this, perhaps none more famous than Jack Fleck‘s victory over Ben Hogan in the 1955 US Open. At the end of four rounds, Hogan had beaten everyone else. But he managed only to tie Fleck, who would beat him the next day by three strokes in an 18-hole playoff.

The alternative to medal play is match play. In match play, you are trying to beat the player paired with you, over 18 or sometimes 36 holes. You don’t count strokes. You count holes won. Thus, each hole that the two players play in the same number of strokes is considered “halved”, while each hole that one player in fewer strokes than the other is won by the first player. If you and I are playing and after 15 holes of 18, I have won 2 more holes than you, I’m “up 2”. Let’s say I win the next hole. I’m now up 3 holes, with 2 to go. Not much point playing the last two, and in fact they aren’t played. The match is over, with me winning by 3 holes with 2 to go, or “3 and 2”. Should we be “all square” after 18, we keep playing until one of us wins a hole and the match.

In a match play tournament, a single elimination draw is set up just like in tennis. Let’s say there are 64 competitors. Then they are seeded, or at least the top ones are, so that the top ones won’t play each other in the early rounds. In the first round of play, 32 match play matches are played, with 32 winners and 32 losers. Then the 32 winners play in 16 pairs, producing 16 winners, followed by the 16 winners playing in 8 pairs to produce 8 winners, and so on. Just like in tennis.

The PGA championship, one of golf’s four annual major tournaments, was run as match play through 1957, then converted to medal play, a great loss to golf tradition. For years, there was no match play tournament of consequence. But with the advent of the World Golf Championships, a match play tournament with a large purse and an international field of stature returned to the tour in 1999. This is the tournament that was played this week.

The oft-cited problem with match play tournaments is that the very best players may lose on day one, or day two, and then not be around on the weekend. This has two disadvantages: (1) top players may be less motivated to take the trip to the tournament, only to be bounced after one round; and (2) networks may not want to pay for the broadcast rights, only to be saddled on the weekend with just 8 players, few of whom may be widely known to the viewing public. By Sunday, they are down to showing two players, and let’s hope one of them is Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson.

Speaking of Woods, he was runner up in 2000, and winner in 2003, 2004, and 2008. He’s done his share. But this year, not entirely surprisingly, he lost in round one. Mickelson lost in round two. Many famous players lost early. There is a certain inevitability to this. In medal play, a golfer can have a bad day and come back. In match play, after that bad day, you’re gone. And even if you have a good day, it only takes one golfer having a better day — your opponent — and you’re gone.

You may be aware that European golfers have moved well up in the world rankings lately. Entering the tournament, Europeans were ranked 1, 2, 4, 6, 7, and 9 (Lee Westwood of England, Martin Kaymer of Germany, Graeme McDowell of Northern Ireland, Paul Casey of England, Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland, and Luke Donald of England). Interspersed among them were three Americans: Tiger at 3, Mickelson at 5, and Stricker at 8. It is therefore no great surprise that the two finalists — Martin Kaymer and Luke Donald — were among these top Europeans. And, in fact, in the aftermath of the event, Kaymer will take over the #1 spot, with Donald jumping to #3.

So, what is it that puzzles me? Yes, two of the top players in the world made the finals, but if one examines who made the round of 16, or the quarterfinals, few of the top seeds survived this far. Everyone in the late rounds was among the better players in the world, recognizable to anyone who follows golf at all closely. Yet, the tournament, like the other match play championships over the past 13 years, didn’t have the same feel that a major tennis tournament does. You don’t find high seeds filling the bulk of the late round slots. You don’t expect to see the golf equivalents of Federer and Nadal surviving to the end. When they lose, it doesn’t really feel like a major upset. If #45 in the world beats #3, ho hum. In tennis, that’s almost unimaginable.

My question is, what is it about golf that makes it different from tennis? Match play tournaments are rare, but when they come around, no one who follows golf finds the early round losses by the stars to be genuine upsets. That’s golf. It happens. No one plays at the top of his game every day. And when you don’t, you are likely to lose. No big deal. In tennis, on the other hand, the top 5 or 6 players should always beat the players ranked below 20, and usually do, even on off days.

One possible answer is that there isn’t the same depth in tennis. There’s a big dropoff in quality after the top few, whereas the top 100 players in golf are much closer in quality. Maybe, but if so, what would be the reason? And how would we know? How could we measure it?

My guess is that this isn’t what’s going on. I think the explanation lies in some fundamental difference between the two sports, a difference that might make consistent excellence in golf harder to achieve than in tennis, or might make an only slightly better player beat a slightly weaker player a much higher percentage of the time in a tennis match than in a round of match play golf.

One difference is that the stakes are lower each time a tennis player hits a ball during a match than they are each time a golfer hits a ball. One bad golf shot and you’ve lost a couple of strokes, or a hole. One bad tennis shot and maybe you have a fault on a serve, with a second serve still to come. Put another way, a golfer is likely to hit the ball only 70 times or so in a match; a tennis player will have hundreds of shots.

I can think of other differences between the sports, such as the fact that tennis is played on a court of fixed dimensions whereas golf is played on a continuously varying course, but I don’t know how that would help to answer my question. It might be part of an argument one would make in support of the statement that excellence is harder to achieve in golf than in tennis — excellence in the sense of approaching an ideal of the perfect player. One might then argue that tennis players who are near the ideal, such as Federer and Nadal in recent years, are therefore more likely to dominate matches against other players.

Woods, of course, achieved the same level of success for much of the last decade. Would he have if more tournaments were run as match play rather than medal play? Probably not. He wouldn’t have the cushion of that one so-so round.

Well, I don’t have the answers. I’m just using this post to raise the question.

Categories: Golf, Tennis

Forty Years of Tiebreakers

August 30, 2010 Leave a comment

Björn Borg and John McEnroe

The WSJ sports section today includes a short piece by Tom Perrotta celebrating the 40th anniversary of the tennis tiebreaker, which was first used at the 1970 US Open. Perrotta opens, “As this year’s U.S. Open begins, please raise a glass to America’s most significant contribution to the sport of tennis: the tiebreaker.”

The article caught my eye, since I spent a good five or six days at that Open (as I did every year in those days), and I well remember the tiebreaker’s introduction. I was as much surprised by what Perrotta didn’t say as by what he did. If we’re going to reflect on the inaugural tiebreaker, I would have thought that two of its features in particular should be mentioned:

1. Whenever a set reached the score of 6-6, mandating a set-ending tiebreaker game, a red flag would be put up by the umpire’s seat to draw fan attention to the tiebreaker in progress.

2. The tiebreaker initially employed consisted of a nine-point (or fewer) game, with the first player to five points winning the game and thereby the set.

Perhaps a few more words would be appropriate in order to explain the significance of these features.

In case you haven’t been to a major tennis tournament read much about them, you need to understand that the early rounds are played on some two dozen courts spread on grounds surrounding the main stadium or stadia. The US championship was played for decades at the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills, an area of Queens. There was a concrete stadium, built in 1923, that seated around 14,000 people and, by the time I was a regular attendee, seemed in a state of near collapse. It was, in effect, a dump, but a warm and friendly one. The tournament, as you may know, used to be referred to simply as “Forest Hills,” just as that other tournament, in London, is called “Wimbledon.” Of course, it was for amateurs only for most of its history, pros arriving on the scene only in 1968. On the men’s side that year, Arthur Ashe beat the Dutchman Tom Okker, but Okker received the winner’s prize money since Ashe was still an amateur.

Plus, the courts at Forest Hills were grass in those days. The move from grass to clay was made in 1975, with the tournament moving a few miles north to Flushing and its hard courts in 1978. That I think the tournament lost its character along the way no doubt brands me as a desiccated old man. I can live with that.

By the way, the Forest Hills Stadium was also used for concerts, most notably the first Beatles concerts in New York City. Looking it up, I see that we’re celebrating their anniversary too. They were on August 28 and 29, 1964. I was there, but for which one I don’t remember. What I do remember is waiting forever for the helicopter to appear overhead with them inside.

Anyway, one point I wanted to make was that a spectator during the first week at Forest Hills would ordinarily wander the grounds much of the time, watching part of a match here, another one there, occasionally wandering into the stadium to see whatever match was featured there. This was the context for putting up those red flags when a tiebreaker broke out. You’d see the flag go up across the way and maybe leave the match you were watching to catch it. The flags were a gimmick, but occasionally a useful one.

As for the tiebreaker scoring system, the essential point to keep in mind is the huge advantage the serving player has on a given point. (Too many “points”, I know.) Tennis scoring evolved to take this into account, but the weakness of the initial tiebreaker system is that it didn’t. Let’s review.

The idea for a tiebreaker was introduced by James Van Alen, whose primary motivation was to shorten matches. He had a much more radical idea. As I recall, he wanted to do away with the “win by two” rule at all levels. Ordinarily, a game is scored as follows. One of the two players — player A say — serves throughout, with player B receiving. Each point is won by A or B. Putting aside the standard scoring terminology, we can say that one counts the number of points each wins, and the first one to reach 4 or more points with a 2-point margin over the other wins the game. Thus, a game doesn’t end at 4-3. Another point must be played, and if the player at 4 wins it, he wins the game. If the player doesn’t, they are deadlocked at 4-4 and at least two more points will be required. This continues on perhaps indefinitely. (Of course, we don’t say 4-4 or 5-5 or 6-6, or whatever; we say “deuce”. And we don’t say 5-4 or 4-5. We say “Advantage A” or “Advantage B”. No matter.)

Van Alen wanted to dispense with this. His idea: first to 4 wins the game. End of discussion. No deuces. No extended games.

Next let’s move to the set level. Players A and B alternate serve with each game. The first player to win 6 games with a 2-game margin wins the set. (And the first to win 2 sets out of 3, or at major events, for the men, 3 sets out of 5, wins the match. No 2-set margin is required.) Here came Van Alen’s next idea. We can’t dispose of the 2-game margin, because to do so gives unfair advantage to the player who serves the first game of a set. That player — A say — could win every game he or she serves and win the set at 6-5, with player B also winning every game he or she serves but losing the set nonetheless. Van Alen’s idea was to maintain the required 2-game advantage for winning a set, but if a set did reach a score of 6-6 in games, then the set would be decided by a single, final game: the tiebreaker. In this game, serves would alternate, rather than a single player serving throughout. I have to admit that I don’t remember the precise alternating scheme. Whatever it was, the first player to 5 points would win the tiebreaker game, as noted above, and the set.

When one combines both of Van Alen’s innovations, one ensures that no match can run too long. the number of points in a game is capped; the number of games in a set is capped. Well, sure, two players could play a single point forever, but that doesn’t happen. They could, however, play an unlimited number of points in a game or games in a set. We saw the damage this lack of a cap does just this past June at Wimbledon, where John Isner and Nicolas Mahut played a fifth set that went to a game score of 70-68. The first four sets were played one day, the fifth set the next, but even then they couldn’t finish, with play called on day two at 59-59 in the fifth set and finished on a third day. That this was possible, I should explain, is because at the three majors besides the US Open, tiebreaker games are used to end other sets, but not the fifth set (for men) or third set (for women) of a match. The old rules apply for final sets.

The problem with Van Alen’s tiebreaker system, as adopted at Forest Hills 40 years ago, is that in a 9-point game, one of the players has a serving advantage. Other tournaments adopted modified versions, until everyone settled on the current system, which brings back the need for a two-point margin before a game can end. Not at all what Van Alen had in mind, but it does ensure in a game that produces alternately ties and one-point margins with each point played that neither player wins on the basis of having served one more time than the other. Explicitly, the first to win 6 or more points with a 2-point margin wins the tiebreaker game. Serving alternates as follows: Player A serves once, then B twice, A twice, B twice, and so on to conclusion. This way, each player has served at most one more time than the other, and the two-point margin rule does indeed ensure, in an even tiebreaker, that neither player can win by merely holding all his or her service points.

This revised tiebreaker rule is what made possible the famous fourth set tiebreaker game between Björn Borg and John McEnroe in the Wimbledon finals of 1980. McEnroe won 18-16 to force a fifth set, saving five match points. (He would succumb 8-6 in the fifth.)

Have I said enough yet in service of celebrating this 40th anniversary? I suppose I have.

Categories: Tennis