Thursday, September 15, 2016

A response to Matt Zemek's take on media coverage of Novak Djokovic

I want to start off by saying that I am not writing a response because I disagree with Matt Zemek's article. On the contrary, I found it to be a wonderfully written article. I recommend that everyone reads it: 2016 At The Majors, ATP Edition: Media Coverage of Novak Djokovic

I've also have written on this topic and have tweeted frequently about it, so I was grateful to see someone else use their platform to bring attention to this topic. The reason I am writing this response, however, is Matt's assertion that a Calendar Grand Slam is a greater achievement than a non-calendar Grand Slam.

Matt isn't alone in this view. In fact, he is part of the majority. I have always argued that the difference is completely arbitrary. Four in a row is four in a row regardless of order is what I have been saying since before Djokovic won Roland Garros.

Matt certainly isn't the first to disagree with me on that point, and I've long considered addressing what I have always considered to be a misconception. However, Matt threw a wrinkle into this. His reasoning is far more complete than fans who think calendars matter. I hope I accurately represent his views here.

For Matt, not only is a non-calendar slam not as impressive as a calendar slam, but there is a hierarchy even among the different kinds of non-calendar slams. If the order includes winning Roland Garros and Wimbledon, it is greater than winning Wimbledon first and saving Roland Garros for last. Similarly, winning Roland Garros, Wimbledon and the US Open in order is more impressive than winning the US Open first and coming back for the other three afterwards.

The reason is that less time separates the majors. If someone wins Wimbledon first, they don't have more than a full month between each major en route to four in a row. The assumption being that more time between majors makes winning them consecutively easier. It's a widely accepted idea, but nobody has ever put it to the test mathematically. I want to do that in just a bit.

There are four different ways to win four in a row. You can win four in a row starting at the Australian Open, Roland Garros, Wimbledon, or the US Open. I have argued that it doesn't matter, many have said starting at the Australian Open is best and the rest are secondary because they are non-calendar, and Matt says that all four are unique. So who is right?

As I write this sentence, I don't yet have the answer to that question. Before I even begin researching, I want to tell you how I am going to determine who is right. That way everyone knows my methodology is objective. This way everyone knows that I didn't research first and then cherry pick what supports my arguement.

My methodology

Every run of four consecutive majors is comprised of three doubles and two triples. A double is winning two slams in a row and a triple is winning three in a row. If a player wins a Calendar Slam, they completed the AO-RG double, RG-W double, and W-USO double, but they did not achieve the AO-USO double. When Djokovic won four in a row, he won the W-USO double, USO-AO double, and AO-RG double. For triples, Djokovic won the W-USO-AO triple and the USO-AO-RG triple, but not the AO-RG-W triple or the RG-W-USO triple.

My plan is to rank the doubles from most difficult to least difficult and then do the same for the triples. Using that ranking, I will determine in which order it is hardest to win four in a row.

I am going to look at three stats from all men's tennis majors since 1988. I pick 1988 because that was when the Australian Open switched to hard courts and by then had already been scheduled for January. Data from before 1988 really isn't relevant in determining how difficult it is to win consecutive majors today.

These are the three stats
1. Number of times the double or triple has been achieved
2. Number of times a player has reached the final of all the majors in the double or triple
3. How well the winner fared at the following major (for triples I will look at the results only if the player won the previous two majors)
*Data does not include any of Djokovic's four most recent majors

AO-RG: This double was won twice (hadn't been done since 1992). Australian Open winners went on to go 119-18 with three withdrawals at Roland Garros. Finalists at the Australian Open reached the final at Roland Garros 11 times.
RG-W: This double was won three times (three consecutive years, 2008-10). Roland Garros winners went on to go 76-20 with five withdrawals at Wimbledon. Finalists at Roland Garros reached the Wimbledon final 13 times.
W-USO: This double was won nine times. Wimbledon winners went on to go 129-18 with one withdrawal at the US Open. Finalists at Wimbledon reached the finals at the US Open 17 times.
USO-AO: This double was won seven times. US Open winners went 119-18 with three withdrawals at the Australian Open. Finalists at the US Open reached the final at the Australian Open 23 times.

AO-RG-W: This triple has been done 0 times since Rod Laver did it in 1969. The two players that won the first two legs combined to go 6-2 at Wimbledon. Players who reached the final of the first two legs reached the Wimbledon final 6 times.
RG-W-USO: This triple has been completed 1 time (Nadal 2010). The three players who won the first two legs combined to go 18-2 at the US Open. Players who reached the final of the first two legs reached the US Open final 7 times.
W-USO-AO: This triple has been completed 4 times.  The nine players who completed the first two legs of this triple combined to go 48-5 at the Australian Open. Players who reached the final of the first two legs reached the AO final times.
USO-AO-RG: This triple has been completed 0 times since Don Budge did it in 1938. The seven players that completed the first two parts combined to go 29-7 at Roland Garros. Players that reached the final of the first two legs reached the Roland Garros final 7 times.

Ranking the Difficulty
Doubles (hardest to easiest)
1. Australian Open-Roland Garros
2. Roland Garros-Wimbledon
3. US Open-Australian Open
4. Wimbledon-US Open

Triples (hardest to easiest)
1. Australian Open-Roland Garros-Wimbledon
2. US Open-Australian Open-Roland Garros
3. Roland Garrros-Wimbledon-US Open
4. Wimbledon-US Open-Australian Open

This is certainly up for debate. The top two spots on both lists are virtual ties. It just depends on what stat you think is the better indicator. One interesting note is that nobody who has won Roland Garros has lost at Wimbledon in the semifinals. A lot failed to reach the semifinals, but of the seven that reached the semifinals, they went 7-0 in the semifinals and 3-4 in the final.

It seems that winning Roland Garros does take a massive physical toll on the body, but if the player that won Roland Garros can survive the first few rounds at Wimbledon, they have a great chance to bring home the trophy.

Meanwhile, maintaining a high level of play from the Australian Open to Roland Garros appears to be one of the biggest tests in tennis. There are five Masters Series 1000's between the two majors, so the confidence of having won the Australian Open doesn't naturally flow over to the next major. That kind of confidence has to be maintained over a number of brutal tests. At Roland Garros, 17 of 28 Australian Open winners reached the second week, but failed to win the trophy. Of the remaining 11, two withdrew, seven lost in the first week, and only two won the trophy and both of those were over two decades ago within four years of each other.

Ranking of the four ways to win the Grand Slam (hardest to easiest)
1. Starting from the US Open
2. Starting from the Australian Open (Calendar Slam)
3. Starting at Wimbledon
4. Starting at Roland Garros

Starting from the US Open includes the three hardest doubles and the two hardest triples, so that is by far the hardest way to win a grand slam. Starting from Roland Garros includes the three easiest doubles and the two easiest triples, so that is clearly the easiest.

The two that are left are the Calendar Slam and the Nole Slam. The Nole Slam doesn't include the second hardest double or the hardest and third hardest triples. The Calendar Slam doesn't include the third hardest double or the second and fourth hardest triples. Therefore Calendar Slam is slightly harder than the Nole Slam.

My Thoughts

There definitely does seem to be a hierarchy as Matt claimed. However, less time between majors certainly is not the determining factor in which is hardest. Each of the four ways to complete the Grand Slam present unique challenges. None of the four is like another.

Also, elevating the Calendar Slam above the non-calendar slam is certainly an arbitrary difference as the data shows here. There is nothing more impressive about doing it before the calendar changes. The way Djokovic completed the Grand Slam was the third hardest way to do it, so that destroys the excuse that media used when they said only the Calendar Slam matters.

Final Thought

I want to echo Matt's main point, because at the end of the day, I agree with him. Tennis journalists missed a massive opportunity to help this sport reach the generic sports fans, who don't typically follow tennis. Instead of focusing on Djokovic's pursuit of history, they trotted out the old narratives of "the elusive Roland Garros trophy." They copied and pasted stories from the year before instead of realizing a new kind of history was about to be made.

One interesting thing came out of my research that even I, as a massive Djokovic fan, didn't know. Djokovic was the first player since Don Budge in 1938 to win the US Open, the Australian Open and Wimbledon in order. Why didn't I know that? Why didn't I care? Because Djokovic had won four in a row. I wasn't going to be excited about three in a certain order when four in a row just happened. The achievement of those three in a row, was secondary, so it got completely buried that even I didn't know.

That is how the media should have treated the Career Slam. Djokovic had just won all four in a 12-month span. How could any journalist think it is even noteworthy that he had won all four at some point or another in his career? That achievement would be overwhelmingly obvious given the fact that he had done it in a 12-month span. Ultimately, the media dropped the ball on this one and tennis as a sport (not just Djokovic fans) missed an opportunity.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

What is Sportsmanship?

Following a US Open tournament, where ESPN became the self-appointed sportsmanship police, there has been a lot of discussion about what is gamesmanship and what is sportsmanship. Unfortunately, opinions have been heavily influenced by ESPN and viral videos online.

Earlier this year, a Facebook friend who doesn't even know the rules of tennis shared a video to my feed of Jack Sock, supposedly showing good sportsmanship. The video, full of captions explaining what was happening to viewers who don't understand tennis, showed Sock tell Lleyton Hewitt to challenge a shot. Hewitt, looking surprised, decided to follow Sock's advice and as a result won the point. Seems like good sportsmanship, right?

What that video didn't say is that it was an exhibition match at the Hopman Cup, where players genuinely care very little whether or not they win. The reward for Sock's actions was the adoration of a pro-Hewitt Australian crowd, and it came at the cost of one point in an exhibition match.

While I was thinking through what I wanted to say in this article, I came across this tweet, which only strengthened my opinion:
The reason there is a misconception about sportsmanship today is that concession has earned a morally elevated status compared to competition. The reason we love sports, however, is that there is competition. That is what sports are - competition. So, while honesty is admirable, conceding any edge in sports is nothing like sportsmanship.

Many wanted Novak Djokovic to wait until after Stan Wawrinka served to take his medical timeout even though Djokovic would have had no chance in that game. In other words, they wanted Djokovic to concede instead of compete. Djokovic decided to compete. In the final of the last major of the year, Djokovic chose to compete. Make no mistake about it, that is the only crime of which he is guilty.

Now, there is also the issue of the so-called "unwritten rules." Most people don't seem to know what the term implies. They (mainly just Jon Wertheim) think that unwritten rules are rules of sportsmanship that everyone must follow.

On the contrary, unwritten rules is a term that comes from baseball, which refers to a special set of agreements to do something that would be illegal if spoken out loud. That's the reason they are "unwritten." For example, when your teammate gets hit by a fastball, you as a pitcher have the responsibility to now go hit someone on the opposing team with a fastball. Unwritten rules are not a moral standard that we should appeal to, but a form of revenge that is a necessary evil at best.

One of the best examples of sportsmanship in tennis is Rafael Nadal. Though it is one of the worst memories for me as a tennis fan, when Nadal pointed at the net in the 2013 Roland Garros semifinal, he was showing good sportsmanship. He knew the point was rightfully his. Instead of conceding the point, which he really did not deserve to win, he was going to make sure that the umpire made the right call. He was going to fight for that point and concede nothing. Is it not Nadal's fighting competitive attitude that he is loved for? That is what sportsmanship is.

Of course, breaking the rules for a competitive advantage is not good sportsmanship either. Athletes that use performance enhancing drugs show the worst kind of bad sportsmanship. Same with juniors who intentionally make bad calls. However, let's not confuse that with players lying about touching the net or a double bounce. If you can fool an umpire on a judgement call, that's a competitive advantage and it shouldn't be conceded. It's like a pitcher doing a balk-pick. If you can get away with it, great. But if you get caught, don't even try to argue it.

Yes, arguing when you know you are wrong is bad sportsmanship - especially when you threaten to shove a ball down a lines person's throat for calling a foot-fault.

Overall, ultimate sportsmanship is shown by fighting tooth and nail for every advantage within the rule book to win your competition regardless of the sport. That kind of competitiveness is what every fan wants to see when they watch sports. Why was Hewitt so surprised by what Sock did? Because Hewitt is one of the most competitive tennis players in the world, and he would never do what Sock did.

Monday, September 12, 2016

A note to #NoleFam

Today I had a question on twitter for NoleFam: Given how high expectations were after 2015, are you happy with Djokovic's 2016 or a little disappointed?

I realize the question is a little premature, since we still have three elite events left this year. The tweet had 36 responses and many people had to use abbreviations to fit their answer in 140 characters. I'm not even going to try to fit my answer in 140 characters.

The answers ranged from "happy" to "can't complain" to "worried about injuries" to "disappointment" and for others a recognition of how spoiled we are to even consider that this season was somehow a disappointment.

It's true, we are spoiled. However, given the bar that Djokovic has set for himself and how high our expectations were for him this year, is this a disappointment. Considering that I'm answering this question right after a loss, it's easier to say yes. If I answered this question after Roland Garros, I would have said nothing else matters.

To answer the question though, I have to go back to what I expected in December 2015 for this season. Unfortunately, I didn't write it down anywhere, so it is hard to remember exactly what I expected. However, there was a "wish list" that I had in my head, so let's look at how Djokovic did relative to that list.

I put these in order of how badly I wanted them:

Win Roland Garros: A big yes to this one! There was so much pain built up from all the near misses the previous five years that finally winning Roland Garros let all that pain go away and it turned into sheer joy, because Djokovic also won the Grand Slam (all four majors in a row), which is the greatest accomplishment in tennis and it hadn't been done since 1969.

Reach the quarterfinals at every major: Didn't do it at Wimbledon. When Djokovic lost to Wawrinka in the Australian Open quarterfinals, that loss was especially tough to accept for me. Not because I wanted Djokovic to win the title so badly, but because it ended Djokovic's long streak of semifinals reached. Once that streak was over, I started to care a lot about his quarterfinal streak. I wanted Djokovic to break Federer's record of 36 consecutive quarterfinals reached, which many considered to be impossible to break. He was very close, but a bad day against Querrey ended it all. It shows how impressive Federer's streak was. That loss to Querrey was tougher than any other this year.

Remain No. 1 all year:  TBD. This has been my goal for Djokovic every year. He finally did it last year, so now I want to see how long he can keep this streak alive. It looks pretty likely that he will hold on until the end of the season, but Murray still is a threat, especially if Djokovic is injured.

Win Cincinnati: Not this year. To me, Cincinnati is almost as important as a major at this point. It's the only Masters Series 1000 event that he hasn't won. I'm of the opinion that having titles at more events is more impressive than lots of titles at the same event. So if you had won each major once, that is more impressive than winning the same major four times. The good news is that Djokovic can win this one next year. Having won all nine Masters Series events will likely be Djokovic's toughest record to break once his career is over... if he does it. That's why it's so important to me.

Win Gold: This one was a no. The Olympics has never mattered to me much. The Olympics is a swimming and gymnastics event. It's not a tennis event. Winning gold is worth zero ranking points, so it really doesn't matter. Still, it's better to have gold than to not have it, and this was Djokovic's last opportunity to win it.

Have a positive winning record against Federer and Nadal: Yes to this one. To have a winning record against two of the greatest players of all time is a massive achievement. When Djokovic retires, this will be one of the key points in his GOAT resume. Djokovic is younger than Federer and Nadal and lost to both of them a lot early in his careers. However, he turned the tables on them so drastically that he overcame huge deficits in the head to head records. This is a real testament to the degree of dominance Djokovic has had since 2011.

At this point, Djokovic already has two of those and will likely complete three of the six things on my wishlist. So is does that make me happy or am I disappointed?

A lot of people said when Djokovic lost to Querrey that it was okay because he had won Roland Garros. Then Djokovic lost to Del Potro, but that was okay, because he had won Roland Garros. Then Djokovic pulled out of Cincinnati, but that was okay for the same reason. Then the loss to Wawrinka happened, and I felt that all the joy of having won Roland Garros had been erased by all these losses.

However, as I look back on it, nothing can take away from the joy of the day Djokovic won Roland Garros, but that doesn't mean that the losses to Querrey, Del Potro and Wawrinka aren't disappointing. They are separate events that produce separate emotions that don't simply cancel out.

There is one other factor, and many people hit on this in their answers. Djokovic started the year great, but has since dropped off a tad in his degree of dominance. Now he has the toe issue, which could hamper him for the rest of the season. The first half of the year was amazing, but the second half of the year was relatively disappointing for Djokovic.

I personally would rather start weak and finish strong. Because Djokovic started strong but finished weak, he has a lot of points to defend in the next eight months with not as many points in the bank, meaning the No. 1 ranking is at risk.

Also, this doesn't exactly inspire hope that Djokovic will dominate in 2017. Djokovic has finished the last few years very strong, so I have gone into the off season very optimistic. Unless something crazy happens in the next two months, I won't be nearly as optimistic this off season.

Conclusion: I'm both disappointed and happy. I realize this is a total cop out, but if you told me this is what was going to happen nine months ago, that's what I would have felt. It's like being kissed by your crush while sitting on a cactus. It's both beautiful and wonderful, while at the same time being painful. That's the best way I can describe how I feel about 2016. I also fully recognized that I have been totally spoiled by Djokovic, but I truly hope that he can one day be considered the GOAT. He's not there yet, but he is getting closer with every win.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Is Andy Murray the Real No. 1?

World No. 2 Andy Murray has had an excellent summer winning Wimbledon, the Rio Olympics, and finishing runner-up at Cincinnati. Meanwhile, world No. 1 Novak Djokovic has had a far less impressive summer aside from a title in Canada, bringing up a meaningless and factless debate about who is the "de facto No. 1."

Charlie Eccleshare said it this way, "The Scot is the reigning Wimbledon, Olympics and Davis Cup champion, and if he wins the US Open he would surely be the de facto world No 1."

*I'm tempted to spend this whole post crushing that argument with head-to-head record stats and non-ITF results, but I'll resist for now.

Eccleshare coined this phrase "de facto No. 1," but what does it mean? In the way Eccleshare uses it, the term simply means that Murray is the British No. 1.

However, Eccleshare's fact-free claim that Murray is unofficial No. 1, regardless of what the computer rankings say, is actually a common mistake. Other people call it the unofficial Player of the Year. Whatever you call it, it's a mistake that is a result of misunderstanding rankings.

Computer rankings are the ultimate authority on who is better, period.

Tennis is a sport, and in sports you do not get to move the goal. The goal is set in place and everyone shoots for that goal. The goal is the same size and height for every player.

In tennis, rankings are the goal. Every single tennis player is competing for a higher ranking. Rankings don't measure success in the sport. Rankings are success in the sport.

The same way a goal in soccer gets you a point, a win in a tennis match is worth points. The player or team with the most points is the winner. The objective of tennis on the ATP World Tour is to get points. Therefore, the player with more ranking points is always the better player.

Claiming that a player with less points is currently better than a player with more points is equally outrageous as saying that the team that lost was the better team that day. Impossible! They did not complete the objective. Sports are driven by objectives, and the player or team that completes the objective is the winner.

Style counts for nothing in sports (which is why cheerleading, ice skating, diving and gymnastics cannot be sports despite being extremely athletic competitions). The losing soccer team could be far better at passing and controlling possession of the ball, but if they put the ball into the goal less times than their opponents, they are not better than their opponents.

In tennis, winning Wimbledon and winning the Australian Open are equal achievements both worth 2000 points. Winning Wimbledon is not worth extra style points.

Therefore computer rankings are absolutely perfect and authoritative, because rankings are the goal. And in tennis, like in any other sport, the goal cannot be moved, widened, lowered or ignored, regardless of how much the British press tries.