Lies, Damned Lies... And YC 2.28

by: Peter Bodo | February 28, 2009

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By Andrew Burton

Morning, all.

Disraeli1 We've had a couple of interesting red meat posts by Pete in the last couple of days.  In yesterday's Your Call, Pete described something he called the Statistical Fallacy:

"[I]t occurs when we forget that tennis is first and foremost a game of specific match-ups, and therefore each match comes with an entire palette of subtle technical/mental/emotional issues that help shape the outcome. That is, a player's conversion rate on break points, first-serve percentage, or winner-to-error ratio is shaped by the match-up to a degree that renders comparative statistics a highly dubious enterprise."

Well, Pete and I exchanged a few eMails after this post, and what follows is a full-throated roar in defence of my fellow statisticians ----

Or not.

Fact is, in our eMail conversation, I think we saw things more from the same direction than the opposite point-of-view.  Much as I'd love to call Pete out on behalf of the numerically inclined, I just can't get there. 

You see, in the end statistics can't "prove" anything.  The only statistic that counts in tennis is who won the final point.  Also, FWIW, I concur with Pete's view that it doesn't matter how prettily that point and the previous points were won (apart from outright cheating).  Keep the ball in play more than your opponent, you get the win.

That said, I genuinely do think that statistics can be a useful tool in helping us understand what happened in a match, or a set of matches, applied judiciously.  They're part of our toolkit.  Most of our memory of a match is emotional: it starts (and sometimes ends) with who won.  Then there are big points, reactions, turning points, runs, collapses, tense moments.

Nobody would want their memories of a tennis match to be purely quantitative.  Revisiting numbers from a match, or a season, though, can help us see the larger picture.  They can help us get beyond our emotional memories, which sometimes aren't truly fact based.

Now, some statistics are less helpful than others.  That old commentators' favorite, the first serve percentage, is a very flawed statistic - for one thing, you could have a 100% first serve percentage, and win 0% of your first serve points!  What counts is what you do with the serve, and what you prevent your opponent from doing with his or her return.

I've had some amused looks from people like Joel Drucker for writing about the total number of points won in a tennis match, but it is the case that even in close matches, the winner of the match tends to be the person who wins most points. Not always though - even at AO F 2009, Nadal actually won one point fewer than Federer. What counted, though, is that he won the fifth set decisively.

But if we think through what that means, it says that by the start of set five, Federer had established a significant points lead over Nadal in the first four sets (158-146). And that means that, to be in contention, Nadal had to be winning more of the "big points."

Well, one could say "duh" - particularly given the missed BPs and lost TB at the end of set 3.  But I think what this points to is a question that will likely haunt Federer fans as they reflect on his career against Nadal.  Both men have had easy wins, and there have been clean kills, but they've also played several tight matches. 

I count seven out of nineteen so far.  Federer has won two: Miami F 2005, and Wimbledon F 2007.  Nadal has won five: Dubai F 2006, Rome F 2006, Hamburg F 2008, Wimbledon F 2008, and AO F 2008.  When it comes down to it, Nadal has shown himself so far to be the better "big point, tight match" player than Federer.

The Miami final in 2005 was the first tight match, and it's proven a false omen.  In that match, Nadal was two points from a straight sets victory, but Federer pulled out the third set TB and the next two sets.  Given Federer's history of figuring out tough opponents, his fans may have believed that Nadal had been figured out. 

Their next five encounters ended that fantasy.  Over the years, Federer partisans have asked themselves "what does my guy have to do - what minor adjustment can he make - to beat this fellow consistently?"  Shore up the BH?  Serve better?  Attack the return?  Come to the net more?

It's a bit reminiscent of the old Tom Wolfe Right Stuff test pilot's lament - "I've tried A!  I've tried B!  I've tried C! " - then he crashes and is burned beyond recognition.  Three times in a row - RG F 2008, W F 2008, AO F 2009 - Federer has, metaphorically, crashed and burned beyond recognition.  "But that was clay - can't happen on grass."  "OK, but Nadal can't win a major on HC."  "OK, what now?"

The "what now" is that even Federer fans, like myself, have to acknowledge that Nadal may well go down, when the history of the time is written, as the better player.  Not because of numbers, or statistics, or titles won, or the mix of titles won, or weak eras or what not - but because, on whichever surface you chose to put them, when it came to the clutch, you'd rather put your money on Nadal to win that critical BP or tiebreak.

Still, their next encounter lies in the future.  Today we have Novak Djokovic, the only member of the Big 4 not to have withdrawn from Dubai (either before or during the tournament) against David Ferrer.  The H2H stands at 3-3, with the last encounter going to Djokovic convincingly last year in Melbourne.  In Acapulco, Almagro and Monfils face off in the ATP, while Venus WIlliams and Flavia Pennetta will contest the WTA final. 

This will be your Your Call post of the day.  The normal drill applies: please post on tennis related matters until the day's play is done, then it's OK to go mildly off topic.  Courtesy of Master Ace, here are some key match times:

ATP: Dubai 8 AM - Damm/Lindstedt vs DeVoest/Tursunov
ATP: Dubai 10 AM - Novak Djokovic vs David Ferrer
ATP: Delray Beach 2:30 PM - Evgeny Korolev vs Christophe Rochus
ATP: Delray Beach 7 PM - Mardy Fish vs Jeremy Chardy
WTA: Acapulco 7:30 PM - Venus Williams vs Flavia Pennetta
ATP: Acapulco 10 PM - Nicolas Almagro vs Gael Monfils

My own plans for next month include reporting from Indian Wells from March 14th, so I hope to see lots of the Tribe there.

And I can't resist mentioning this: it seems that statisticians are the new sex symbols....

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