Monthly Archives: January 2014

Pernell Whitaker, boxing great

I saw a reference in a BBC article to a boxer I know little about, Pernell Whitaker:

But even in the brutal world of boxing, there are some who are able to look both sweet and scientific. The beauty of Floyd Mayweather is that he manages to make the almost impossible – hitting without being hit – look simple. But perhaps boxing’s greatest beauty was Mayweather’s fellow American Pernell Whitaker, who won world titles at four different weights in the 1980s and 90s.

“Whitaker’s moves,” wrote boxing historian Bert Sugar, “were pure poetry in motion. Or, more correctly, pure poetry in many motions. Whitaker did for boxing what Edgar Degas did for ballerinas and Vincent van Gogh for sunflowers.” In truth, what Whitaker did defied description. Get on YouTube and see for yourself.

Whitaker was able to appear weightless in the most oppressive situations. He made fellow legends – Oscar de la Hoya and Julio Cesar Chavez among them – look like they were plodding after him in diver’s boots.

So I looked the guy up, and he’s remarkable. Shades of Ali & Sugar Ray Leonard in the way he ducks and sways and makes the other guy look a fool.

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Nadal – tennis GOAT?

The guy makes a strong case for Nadal as tennis GOAT.

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Rafael Nadal Might Just Be the Best Ever
Bryan Tarmen Graham
10/09/13

Monday’s [2013 US Open] final [where Nadal beat Djokovic] was the 37th meeting between Nadal and Djokovic, surpassing John McEnroe-Ivan Lendl as the Open era’s most prolific—if not romantic—rivalry. Unlike McEnroe and Lendl, however, their familiarity has bred not disdain but a mutual respect. Both employ similar pugilistic, power-baseline styles, stripping their matches of the stylistic and poetic contrasts that made the Nadal’s meetings with Federer such attractive (and accessible) theater. Both have forced each other to improve and innovate, each one retooling his game in an effort to best the other. They have spent most of the past few years dragging each other into deep waters at the end of tennis’s biggest tournaments, Djokovic winning seven straight meetings in 2011 and 2012, Nadal taking six of the past seven. The struggle was no different Monday, even if this one didn’t extend five sets. “Between Novak and me, every point is fighting, every point is long rally, every point is more strategy,” Nadal said last night. “This is very tough.”

All the strongest arguments for Nadal as the best to ever do it were on full display throughout Monday’s final.

It started with his superior physicality. One hundred eighty-eight pounds of fast-twitch muscles and bravado, Nadal generates enough spin on his groundstrokes to cheat space-time, like the Euclid-defying overhead he struck from 10 feet behind the baseline in his first-round win over Ryan Harrison. He broke Djokovic twice in the opening set as the shadows grew long over Ashe, curling shots drizzled with topspin into the corners while making just four unforced errors.

It continued with his mental and tactical agility, his refined gift for making adjustments on the fly—sometimes in the middle of a point. Consider the run of play near the end of the second set, when Djokovic had warmed to the moment and was striking his forehand with loose, fluid abandon. When he broke Nadal to take the set and broke at love to open the third, Djokovic began dictating the baseline points and pushing his opponent around. One hundred forty points had been played midway through the third set. Nadal had won 70. Djokovic had won 70. But just as the Serb had wrested the momentum, it was Nadal who began mixing in the slice brilliantly, changing pace and keeping Djokovic off balance. No small feat for a player once derided for smashing the ball pell-mell at every opportunity with little taste for variety.

And then, of course, there was ample evidence of Nadal’s legendary between-the-ears fortitude. Late in the third, Djokovic had triple-break point to serve for a two-sets-to-one lead. Nadal saved all three break points, held serve, and broke the Serb for the set. He never looked back.

Nadal was once a bit of a curiosity: a clay-court specialist known as much for his innumerable tics and quirky rituals as his terre battue mastery. Even Monday, he was a slave to his routines, touching his crotch and shirt then fingering his hair before every serve—while obsessively making sure everything remained feng shui around his chair during changeovers. (And then making sure again.)

There will always be a passionate argument for Roger Federer as tennis’s greatest ever. Yet many have wondered how a player can be regarded as the best of all time if he’s not conclusively the best of his time.

Yet these days he’s evolved into nothing less than an all-court phenomenon. This season, he’s 22-0 on hard courts, traditionally his weakest surface. He’s just the second man to win multiple titles on three different surfaces. His lifetime winning percentage, currently an absurd 83.7 percent, is better than anyone in the sport today. Incredibly, he entered the U.S. Open with a winning record against each of the other 127 players in the field.

There will always be a passionate argument for Roger Federer—a man whose game has been described as porn for aesthetes—as tennis’s greatest, certainly as long as the Swiss maestro remains atop the all-time Grand Slam leaderboard with 17 trophies. Yet consider that Nadal has beaten Federer in 21 of their 31 meetings—and eight of their 10 matches at Grand Slams. Or that Nadal has won Olympic gold in singles and Federer hasn’t. Or that Nadal has won four more Davis Cups than Federer’s zero. Many have wondered aloud how a player can be regarded as the best of all time if he’s not conclusively the best of his time.

Nadal, Federer, Djokovic, and Great Britain’s Andy Murray together account for 34 of the past 35 Grand Slam championships. Such hegemony is unprecedented. (Consider that, over the same span, 24 different golfers have won majors.) The Big Four have turned the sport into their own crash test laboratory, challenging one another and raising the bar to heights previously thought impossible.

Could Nadal’s progression from raw athletic specimen to adaptable, intelligent all-around player be the finest product of his era? Barring injury, he should win at least a few more French Opens, where he’s lost exactly once in 60 career matches. (He’s already the odds-on favorite for next year’s tourney.) Five more majors overall is a tall order, but you’d be mad to bet against him.

“I’m gonna keep working hard, I’m gonna keep doing my things to have more chances in the future to be competitive and win tournaments,” he said, with a wry grin, after last night’s match. “But let me enjoy today.”

Tennis stats engine

Just found a tennis stats engine – TennisAbstract.com. You can search for a player, or it has reports like:

  • ATP Stats Leaderboard: And they say tennis has an analytics problem.
  • ATP H2H Matrix: Head-to-head records of the ATP top 15.
  • ATP Rankings reports: Age groups | Countries | Lefties
  • ATP Rankings: All 2000+ players with at least one ranking point.
  • ATP Player Consistency: Who has surprised us the most, and the most often.
  • The Best ATP Players Who…:  haven’t won titles, reached main draws, and more.

Am looking forward to having a play!

Federer’s statistical weakness – Simpson’s Paradox

Federer doesn’t come out too badly in most statistical analyses, but it turns out he’s awful in “Simpson’s Paradox” matches. These are games where the winner actually accumulates fewer points overall than the loser, which happens in nearly five percent of men’s matches. And in this type of match, some players have an excellent record (Nadal wins 70% of them), while Federer is terrible – just 14%.

In the Metro article there’s some interesting speculation as to why that might be, and some cool infographics. There’s also the original article by Ryan Roderberg.

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Roger Federer is statistically rubbish at tennis – because he tries too hard
Metro
17 Jan 2014

The reasons for Federer’s record are two-fold, according to Dr Rodenberg. On one hand, he fights to win every point. The other factor is his opponent, who typically adopts a high-risk strategy in an attempt to beat Federer, often dropping a few cheap points along the way if needs be. If that gamble pays off, Federer will end up winning more points, but not the match.

‘There is a possibility that other players, especially during his heyday from 2003 to 2007, just knew that he was so good that if they were just to play their normal tennis game, they would lose,’ said Dr Rodenberg.

‘So they adopted a high-risk, high-reward strategy. So they might be more aggressive on their serves, they might go for broke on returns or if they get down in certain games, they might say, “Okay, I need a rest now to get ready for the next game”, and take a few games off. Federer would still be winning more than half the points, but they would be winning the key games.’

South Africa’s superstars of ’76

Great article by Mark Nicholas about how a 1976 South African cricket team might have looked. Would it have been better than their 1970 team, already a strong contender for Greatest Of All Time? Imagine this ’76 team playing a Lillian Thomson Australia, or (we can pretend there was no apartheid in this sporting fantasy) a Roberts/Holding West Indies… wow.

I didn’t know that much about Van der Bijl, but someone was talking about him on TMS the other day, and said he was basically “Joel Garner plus outswing”. And here’s a fantastic description of how good Pollock was, from the Nicholas article:

In 1983, I watched the rebel West Indians play South Africa in a one-day game in Port Elizabeth. Richards made a hundred but Graeme Pollock stole the headlines with a vignette of startling bravura. Hit in the head by Sylvester Clarke, he returned to the wicket an hour or so later, well stitched above the eyebrow, to face the remaining five balls of another Clarke over. Needless to say, Clarke went at him hard. Pollock hit all five balls for four or six. If Sir Garry Sobers or Brian Lara is not the greatest left-hander of all time, Pollock is.

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South Africa’s superstars of ’76
CricInfo
by Mark Nicholas
August 23, 2012
If you think the world’s current No. 1 side takes some beating, take a look at their compatriots from 35 years ago

Watching Graeme Smith’s fine South African side has taken me back to Newlands in 1977, when a group of English schoolboys were taken to see the New Year Currie Cup match between Western Province and Transvaal. The cricket was unflinching and the thrill of seeing such fantastic cricketers up close and in a place of such beauty has lived with me to this day.

The seventies were a golden age. Australia gaves us Lillee and Thomson, Marsh and the Chappells. India had three spinners who captured hearts, and a little opening batsman, Sunil Gavaskar, who resisted the most ferocious bowlers on behalf of hundreds of millions of fanatics who accorded him divine status. There is not much left to say about West Indies, a team that began the decade with Sobers and Kanhai and finished it with Richards, Greenidge, Kallicharran and four extraordinary fast bowlers firing as one. Pakistan had their greatest cricketer, Imran Khan, roaring for his people alongside Majid Khan and Zaheer Abbas. Javed Miandad knocked on the door of the seventies too, an inimitable figure who knew no defeat. Tony Greig led England on a famously successful tour to India, and Mike Brearley won back the Ashes. Ian Botham arrived as Greig left – two allrounders who carried the team with courage and flair – and David Gower began his charming tale.

But the South Africans were in isolation. Apartheid broke hearts in ways that can never be fully understood. If Basil D’Oliveira were still with us, he could explain better than I. The white man’s game still managed to forge exceptional cricketers from the sporting culture in which they lived. Club cricket thrived in a competitive environment, with eskies of cold beer and camaraderie at its weekend conclusion. The Currie Cup was played with the ferocity of Test cricket, because that is what it was, South Africa’s ultimate test of cricket.

Some of the best players – Barry Richards and Graeme Pollock, Eddie Barlow and Hylton Ackerman, Mike Procter and Peter Pollock – made appearances in World XIs who toured in place of South Africa. Their deeds caught the eye and continued to remind sceptics of the rare talent denied a global stage. Genius might not be the right word when applied to sport but let us say it is for a moment and suggest that South African cricket had its share.

The 1969-70 side that beat Australia 4-0 has become the stuff of legend but by the mid-seventies, say the season of 1976-77, South Africa would have been even better. Better than anyone. The years in isolation pushed the standard of first class cricket off the chart, producing cricketers who vied for top dog with one another as if they were playing for opposing nations, not provinces. Western Province against Transvaal was one such match – no quarter given, none asked. New South Wales and Victoria used to go at each on Boxing Day in a contest that might have matched it. And Barbados against Jamaica had a frisson given to few other Caribbean face-offs. But there was something raw and needy about the Currie Cup. It was a statement to the world and a parade ground for exposure elsewhere.

article continues… – Nicholas’ proposed XI is below:

1. Barry Richards
2. Eddie Barlow
3. Peter Kirsten
4. Graeme Pollock
5. Allan Lamb
6. Lee Irvine
7. Clive Rice
8. Mike Procter
9. Garth le Roux
10. Vintcent Van der Bijl
11. Denys Hobson