Armchair Statistician

by: Peter Bodo | July 04, 2008

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Venus Well, a match that few pundits might have predicted two weeks ago - a Venus and Serena Williams singles final at Wimbledon - is on deck for Saturday. I've posted some thoughts on that over at ESPN; the post should be live soon. I mention there that I'm pretty tired of what has by now become an institutionalized complaint - that the Williams sisters can't or won't produce a competitive final. But the use-by date on that idea has expired, and it's hard to defend it if you've been paying attention.

Venus and Serena have matured to the point where they understand each other - and themselves - suffficiently, and come to grips with the relative importance (or lack thereof) of the game as a source of identity and self-image. This hardly represents a sea change or seismic shift of attitude. Mostly, it represents growing up, recognizing what tennis can - and can't - do for you. But leaving the armchair psychology aside, I also took a quick look at their record to see what it suggests about the quality of the matches they play against each other.

Let's start with this: Expecting the Williams sisters to play epic matches against each other because they're top players as well sisters is just as futile as expecting them to produce lousy matches. I think a lot of the criticism of how the Williams sisters have performed against each other has not been driven entirely by cynical or nasty impulses, but by an underlying respect for their  games. The unconscious assumption is  that the girls are so good - so special - that they have not just the ability but perhaps the obligation to bring us a stream of 7-6 (18-16)-in-the-third results.

But leaving all armchair psychology aside, that's an unrealistic expectation based on the statistics. For the record, out of the 15 matches they've played, 5 have gone to three sets (a .333 percentage). I took a quick look at finals over the last 15 years, and found that over that time, the U.S. Open has produced just two three-set singles finals. the Australian Open has had only four. Roland Garros is 6 for 15 in three-set singles finals (just one better) and Wimbledon has produced the highest percentage of three-set finals (8 of 15) in that period. By the way, feel free to fact check me on this (I've always been lousy with numbers).

So, unless you believe that going three sets is some elaborate scheme by the Williamses to make some matches between them look more competitive than they are, the results are pretty much in the statistical mainstream. Yet some pundits and fans insist on cooking up conspiracy theories (or trying to goad players into doing their dirty work) as a prelude to Venus and Serena matches.  Yesterday, we had another episode, after Elena Dementieva phrased a reply curiously in this exchange:

Q: If it's an all-Willias final, how do you see it?

A: I mean, if they're going to play each other, I mean, I don't know what to say. I mean, I cannot imagine myself playing against someone from my family. It's really hard. For sure it's going to be a family decision.

When Venus Williams came to do press, Bill Simons of Inside Tennis asked a question in which he said that Dementieva said that the "outcome of the final would be a result of a family decision." To which Venus replied:

"Well, the main thing is that I find the question pretty offensive because I'm extremely professional in everything that I do on and off the court. I contribute my best in my sport, and I also have a ton of respect for myself and my family. So any mentnion of that is extremely disrespectful for who I am, what I stand for, and my family. That's pretty much how I feel about the whole subject."

At that point, Michelle Kaufman of the Miami Herald intervened to say that Simons "had it wrong", in terms of what Elena was trying to say - pointing out that her phrasing was a language issue. That pretty much nipped the controversy in the bud. A short while later, Dementieva issued this statement to the press:

English is not my first language and I apologize for not speaking it better. I do not think for one second that matches between Serena and Venus are "family decision" (my quotation marks). What i meant was it is a unique situation for a family to be in to be playing for a Grand Slam title. I cannot imagine what it must be like. I have a lot of respect for Serena and Venus, they are extremely professional in everyting they do and have done so much for the sport. if they do play each other in the final, i expect a very tough match as they are two of the biggest fighters in the game.

I wasn't present in the interview room, so all I have to go on is second-hand reports and the transcriptis. While Dementieva's phrasing was indeed curious, her remarks about the sisters were uniformly flattering. I debated whether or not I ought to even write this post, knowing the extent to which Venus and Serena - and particularly this issue - inflames passions. But i figured you ought to know, and probably want to know. However, I'm not accepting Comments at this post, and I'd prefer that everyone - including the Mod Squad - enjoy the men's semifinals. No need to chase our tails - or each others' - on this one.

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