Monday, January 30, 2012

too dumb to play with themselves 6-0 6-0 6-0

Okay, just a quickie from the land of tennis.

The Wall Street Journal's underrated online sports section has twice in two days made the following case:

Federer’s historical struggles against Nadal have been somewhat exaggerated

The detailed argument is long, and well worth reading, but seems to hinge on the argument:

[note] Federer’s greater propensity to dominate sets when they play. He’s taken seven 6-0 or 6-1 matches against Nadal, while Nadal has taken five such sets against Federer. Five of those dominant sets of Federer’s have come in the final set of the match, a sign that Nadal was fading, mentally or physically. Just two of Nadal’s wins against Federer have ended with such lopsided sets; the 9-7 classic in the fifth set of Nadal’s 2008 triumph against Federer was more the norm. Outside of their head-to-head results, Nadal has been dominated more often than Federer by other opponents,

The elephant is, of course, a head-to-head record that was 9-17 when the first article was published and 9-18 after. A winning percentage of .333 seems an unlikely candidate for an overrated struggle. While the extended stats are interesting and provocative, you play to win the game, and none of this nuance negates the fact that Nadal is winning two matches against Federer for every one he loses.

I'm all for looking deeply into history and finding subtleties that final scores miss; I'll go to my grave believing Wilt was a better player than Bill Russell; I'll never understand why Mike Sweeney has been forgotten; but if David Foster Wallace is right, and if tennis is chess plus boxing, then looking past the head-to-head record is nothing less than missing the point entire.

There is in philosophy the principle of "saving the appearances". Put simply, this means that if you're elaborating a theory of oranges, you'd better account for things like "is orange", "round" and "fucking delicious"--and you'd better be prepared to show your work if your theory holds that oranges are purply-green, pyramidal, and primarily salty.

In our dipshit, deluded age, we're dominated by a-analytical approaches like the "To intuit, or to counter-intuit" tendency of Malcom Gladwell and the craven easy-answer-proffering of your pundit of choice. These guys tend to save appearances pretty well. (To put it another, more accurate, way, these guys serve mainly to reinforce existing prejudice and reassure the reader that we're all in Pangloss' party pad.)

Which is at least better than the putative insights ginned up by the Freakonomics posse--"several years into a recession is a great time to give up your job!"--or the results of David Berri's years-long quest to use the awesome power of double-entry bookkeeping to prove that Carmelo Anthony is bad at basketball. So the Wall Street Journal is perfectly right to contextualize Nadal's 18-9 record against Federer--that record emphatically does not prove Nadal is the better player--but they're wrong to try to context it away. You play to win the games; when Federer plays against Nadal, he loses twice as often as he wins. Loose talk about other matchups and who wins how many of what points how can illuminate that fact; it can't overshadow it.

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