Last dance

Growing up, Keats was on my Leaving Cert English. One of the poems I loved was Ode on a Grecian Urn. It’s a lovely poem and the last few words are “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,that is all you know on earth, and all you need to know.”
 
That’s what I mean. He epitomises physical beauty in the way he plays and for anything we see that is beautiful in life we always feel there is a certain truth in it. It is an exposing of truth and that’s why people love sport. 
 
In a world of greys where nothing is clear, sport is clear. Sport defines stuff. We get winners and losers, villains and heroes. We get beautiful and ugly. He is the closest definition to beautiful as you can imagine playing any sport. Ali in his prime would have been a beautiful way to watch boxing. Definitely.
 
Roger also reminds me of a super hero in comic books. Real super heroes like Superman; even when he is under extreme pressure he never looks fully extended. If there is an avalanche or he has to lift up a mountain, he never looks like he is straining. 
 
He lifts the mountain with one hand. He never sweats. That’s Federer: you never feel that he is fully, fully extended. You always feel there is something left in reserve.
 

That's Mario Rosenstock on Roger Federer ahead of last weekend's Australian Open showdown with Rafael Nadal.

I stayed up until 5:30am watching the match. I had not seen near peak Federer and Nadal play in ages, and I'd given up hope that it would ever happen again. It felt like a privilege, a one time entry pass to a time machine that would take me to see two greats clash in their prime. I had some caffeine, to which I'm very sensitive, and plopped down in front of my TV for the night.

Perhaps they are a step slower than before. No one would expect anything less given their ages and accumulated wear and tear. And yet, to my eye, they seemed as good as ever.

I agree with Rosenstock that Federer's chief appeal has always been the aesthetic elegance of his game. Every shot of his seems choreographed for slow motion in an art gallery, like a piece of Bill Viola video art. That he never seems rushed or over-exerted implies that when you master the physical action of something, it becomes easy, not just in practice but in form. 

I disagree that Federer has never been fully extended, though. While his physical movements have never seemed strained, it is Nadal above all who has pushed Federer past his redline. I'll never forget the time Federer cried, after losing the 2009 Australian Open to Nadal, another match I stayed up all night to watch. Nadal owns a 23-12 edge vs. Federer head to head, but more than that numeric edge it's the way he's beaten Roger, almost physically overpowering him, to the point where he's seemed to break Federer's will. Rarely do you see Federer concede sets or go on strategic tilt, except vs. Nadal.

It's such a stylistic contrast, Nadal with almost no strokes that seem as effortless as any shot in Federer's arsenal (watch the highlights from their match and note that Nadal grunts after each stroke while Federer never makes a sound except for the occasional squeak of his sneakers). Every shot Nadal hits seems to require his full exertion, none more so than his forehand, which he hits with more topspin than anyone has ever hit a forehand . His follow through is so severe, the racket whipping up over his head and then back down over his opposite shoulder like a priest trying to whip himself on the back, that even without seeing the RPM statistics it is easy to believe they are unmatched in history.

It is that forehand, aimed at Federer's backhand wing, that has been decisive in so many of their matches. The one handed backhand is beautiful, especially Federer's, but it's a stroke uniquely vulnerable to shots with extreme topspin. Because of the way the human body is engineered, it is difficult to handle high balls, but the alternative, to stand closer and try to take those shots earlier off the bounce, requires incredible timing, strength, and coordination.

That's what was so incredible about Federer's win last weekend. In the past, he'd often shank backhands trying to handle Nadal's forehand, but in this match, I've never seen him hit his backhand so cleanly and aggressively. He sometimes won exchanges in which Nadal hit forehands at his backhand repeatedly (see for example the exchange that starts at 5:37 in this video), something that seemed unimaginable in the past.

More importantly, Federer finally changed tactice. Watch the highlights and look at where Federer's feet are in each exchange. Right up against the baseline. Now go back and watch Federer play Nadal in the French Open in 2007, to take an earlier confrontation between the two, and stare at Federer's feet again. He's several feet behind the baseline. He was taking backhands on the rise off the court, and whether it was his new, larger racket, which he switched to in recent years, or just improved timing, he was hitting the backhand as clean and as hard as he's ever hit it.

Commentators have long remarked that they'd love to see him switch up his strategy to challenge Nadal, his nemesis. Attack more second serves, approach net more, anything but trade with Nadal from the baseline. He did some of that in the Aussie Open final, but quite he was the aggressor while staying at the baseline. It was a surprise. The faster courts in Melbourne helped, but to switch things up at age 35 required, most of all, a fluidity of mind. What is it they say about old dogs and new tricks?

The chief obstacle to seeing them meet like this again is probably their health, and so I hope they start taking more extended breaks between the majors to rest rather than work themselves to death in practice or in other tourneys on the circuit. They've done the grind in the past. What we want now are just the peaks.

The aesthetics of tennis

While the graphically inclined would no doubt find the layouts of other athletic playing courts and fields intriguing, there is something special about the tennis court: pleasingly symmetrical, relatively small in size, and, since they contain at most four contestants, never so crowded that the design can be smothered by action. One does not play atop a tennis court so much as inside it. The same basic design is utilized by women and men, young children and the elderly, ball-chasing buoyant players and hard faced, serious drillers.

"It's set up with particular parameters in mind—like there's a doubles alley; it's a very functional grid, and it's a grid that I connect with," Fletcher said.

"It's a geometry that has a story to it."

B. David Zarley on why artists love tennis.

The path traced by a tennis ball during a rally conjures triangles and arcs and other geometric patterns that really tickle that union of math and art.

And don't even get me started on Roger Federer. I suspect the reason he's so many people's favorite player is not because he's one of the greatest players of all time but instead for the sheer aesthetic perfection of all his strokes. There are dozens of YouTube videos of Federer hitting tennis balls in slow motion, and watching them triggers such strange pleasure sensations in the brain that they can't be called anything but pornographic.

[Since Federer is out of this Australian Open, the most beautiful stroke left in the men's draw is his countrymen Stanislav Wawrinka's one-handed backhand. Here are 70 backhand winners of his in HD. When he keeps his front shoulder closed and wings the ball down the line from the backhand side...lord have mercy.]

Miscellany

  1. High frequency trading, betting on tennis edition. Given that in tennis the gap in the number of points won between the winner and the loser is often quite low, the difference of knowing who one a particular game can often swing the result expectations from one side to the other, opening up quick and short-lived arbitrage windows.
  2. Lance Stephenson, basketball buffoon. “Back when he was in high school, Stephenson appeared in a documentary directed by Adam Yauch, of the Beastie Boys, which centered on a pickup game between eight young basketball phenoms at Rucker Park, in Harlem. Joshua Hersh wrote about Stephenson’s role in the film for The New Yorker: “Stephenson appears to be having a lot of fun, throwing down slam dunks, and even, at one point, dancing a little jig. In the fourth quarter, muscling his way to a rebound, he smacks Love”—Kevin Love, then a player for U.C.L.A.—“in the face with his forearm, busting open his lip.”” This was prescient given Stephenson's slap of Norris Cole in the Heat's series-clinching victory the other day. I like the term “basketball buffoon.”
  3. The ideological Turing Test. “The Ideological Turing Test is a concept invented by American economist Bryan Caplan to test whether a political or ideological partisan correctly understands the arguments of his or her intellectual adversaries: the partisan is invited to answer questions or write an essay posing as his opposite number. If neutral judges cannot tell the difference between the partisan’s answers and the answers of the opposite number, the candidate is judged to correctly understand the opposing side.”
  4. Is it time to abolish the 7-day week? It is somewhat arbitrary, but I think the author minimizes the value of coordination in the knowledge economy. The tech world has already hacked the 7-day work week quite a bit. Many developers are nocturnal and work on a different cycle than other job functions.
  5. Selfish Play Increases during High-Stakes NBA Games and Is Rewarded with More Lucrative Contracts. This isn't meant to be another veiled reference to Lance Stephenson, though I wouldn't blame you for thinking it was. There's no “I” in “team,” but there is in “raise.” One of the reasons basketball is one of the hardest sports to quantitatively assess player value in is that an individual's statistical performance doesn't always correlate to the team's performance. That's much less true in a sport like baseball which is much more of a series of discrete individual confrontations.
  6. Virgin Atlantic reaches deal with US FAA on launching flights into space from New Mexico; first flight expected by end of 2014. Let's hope the Virgin Atlantic website is better than the Virgin America website. I'm not sure I can deal with the first world privilege that will be tweets from gazillionaires complaining they couldn't log on to purchase a space flight.

Are top tennis players aging more gracefully?

It was once a truism in pro tennis that you were over the hill at age 30. Consider, though, Roger Federer (32) and Serena Williams (33), to take two recent pro tennis players still competing at the highest levels.

Analysis indicates they are not anomalies.

In this paper, I investigate aging patterns among top ATP singles players between 1991 and 2012 and consider how surface effects, career length, and age at peak performance have influenced aging trends. Following a decade and a half of little change, the average age of top singles players has increased at a pace of 0.34 years per season since the mid-2000s, reaching an all-time high of 27.9 years in 2012. Underlying this age shift was a coincident rise in the proportion of 30-and-overs (29% in 2012) and the virtual elimination of teenagers from the top 100 (0% in 2012). Because the typical age players begin competing professionally has varied little from 18 years in the past two decades, career length has increased in step with player age. Demographics among top players on each of today’s major surfaces indicate that parallel aging trends have occurred on clay, grass, and hard court from the late 2000s forward. As a result of the changing age demographic over the past decade, the age of tennis’s highest-ranked singles players is now comparable to the age of elite long-distance runners. This evolution likely reflects changes in tennis play that have made endurance and fitness increasingly essential for winning success.

Will Federer adapt?

In the past six months, Federer has beaten Juan Martin del Potro and taken sets from Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic. But he's also had some shocking results. He's not only losing now to guys who are younger and stronger. Hewitt, after all, is 32, the same age as Federer — in fact, a few months older than Federer. Tommy Robredo, who beat Federer at the U.S. Open in September, is 31. The problem isn't just that Federer has more days now where he wakes up with a stiff back or in need of an extra cup of coffee. The problem isn't just that his movement is a microsecond slower, or that he doesn't quite have the flexibility he once did, or that he doesn't anticipate as well as he did when he was dominant. It's not just his body. It's his head. The shanks are what you notice; that whiff is what you remember. But the shanks aren't why he lost that first set to Hewitt — nor why, after settling down, playing decently, and winning the second set, he went on to lose the match. He has lost because he bunted his returns and tried to rip his groundstrokes, and it was hard to see any purpose, any plan. The standard advice, almost always, for almost anyone, is to be aggressive, but the way he tried to be aggressive was bizarre. He took big risks at strange moments, unloading on forehands that should have been defensive shots. He mistook pace for boldness, ran through standard forehands, and seemed to have no clue what he wanted to do with the ball next. He lined up a rally ball and hit it two feet long and five feet wide. He hesitated before charging the net and then hit approach shots that turned him into a sitting duck. I'm being unfair — sort of. In the second set he found his range. But it wasn't enough. And when the pressure was on most, when he had break points on Hewitt's serve, his shots once again broke down.

 

Louisa Thomas in Grantland on Roger Federer.

Federer is old for a tennis player, and he also plays in one of the most competitive ages for men's tennis. What's difficult for an athlete, I imagine, because I am not one, must be facing up to the fact that one must change one's strategy because of the a decline in physical skills. Federer is not the tennis god he once was, and yet the memory of those days must still be so vivid. He's only 32, after all, he's not that many years removed from making the semifinals of every Grand Slam with frightening regularity.

But tennis is a game of slim margins. Winners of matches usually win by the slightest of margins on total points. In last year's U.S. Open, for example, in which Nadal beat Djokovic in four sets, Nadal won 121 points, Djokovic 102, and it was one of the more decisive Nadal wins versus the Djoker. Often just a few points separate the winner from the loser.

Federer's declining hand-eye coordination, stamina, and foot speed all mean that he can't beat other top players just by trying to outplay them in long rallies. The longer the rally, the more his physical deficits are likely to factor into the point's outcome. He has to be more clever, take more smart risks, try to shorten points.

In the past I've been skeptical that Federer would be willing to shift his strategy significantly, but he's at least said some of the right things following the worst year of his career since he ascended to the tennis elite. He's promised to serve and volley more this year. He hired serve and volley great Stefan Edberg as his coach. He's committed to using a larger 98-inch racket from Wilson this season.

I'm skeptical that attacking the net in the modern game is a winning strategy. With modern racket and string technology, it's much easier to pass than in previous ages of tennis, and Djokovic in particular has a devastating return. However, I'm glad to hear Federer acknowledge that he has to try something. I'd love to see him run around more backhands on his return and try to seize the advantage on points using his forehand which remains his most dangerous stroke, albeit not as reliable as in years past.

Changing one's strategy after achieving some level of success, to speak nothing of the historic greatness Federer put on his resume, is so difficult. Perhaps embracing his role as the underdog now will loosen him up to be a more dangerous opponent.

Key different between men's and women's tennis

The key distinction between men's and women's professional tennis? The impact of the first serve

With so much else so similar around the court between men and women, the raw serving power to begin the point is the dominant theme. Only 20 women reached double figures in aces for the tournament, although it must be factored in that they were playing best-of-three-sets matches instead of best-of-five. Still, 10 aces are not a lot, and 67 men were able to pull that off.

Because the serve is not quite as venomous on the women’s tour, it makes sense that the return games would flourish. The women’s tour always gets heat because its players can’t hold serve as much, but that holds little weight because they don’t have an Isner or a Raonic fireball to rely on. Imagine giving players on the ATP Tour only one serve, which would automatically drop serve speeds, and you would start to see the men having substantial difficulty holding serve as well.

The game of tennis has changed overall in lots of ways in my lifetime. The advances in racket technology (synthetic gut strings, carbon fiber wide-body frames) has radically increased the power and spin of groundstrokes, meaning a huge spike in winners from the backcourt. Simultaneously, very few players come to the net anymore, it's just too easy to get passed unless you hit a near decisive approach shot. 

The other major shift is the convergence of the playing characteristics of playing surfaces, most notably the grass courts of Wimbledon which offer a much truer bounce than they once did, allowing Wimbledon to be won with great groundstrokes. Clay is the one court that has remained the most unique of the surfaces in pro tennis, and I'd say the biggest challenge in tennis is beating Nadal at the French Open on the terre battue.

 

Federer and the paradox of skill

[CORRECTION: I originally titled this Federer and the paradox of luck, but it's actually more correctly termed the paradox of skill, so I've amended the title of this post. It's a term I first read in Michael Mauboussin's The Success Equation: Untangling Skill and Luck in Business, Sports, and Investing, a book I highly recommend.]

I was curious about a moment in the Federer-Murray Australian Open semifinal when the commentators and cameras caught Federer saying something to Murray and giving him a brief menacing stare after a long rally at 6-5 in the fourth set.

Without microphones on court, the commentators weren't sure what he said or why, but they briefly showed Murray responding with a exaggerated nod and smirk. The commentators did detect and remark on that brief moment of tension, and given how rarely we see tennis antagonism manifest itself in a visible way on court, it stuck in my brain as curious mystery.

My buddy Ken sent me this article which clarifies the incident a bit.

Murray prevailed in 15-stroke rally with a forehand winner, with both players finishing the point near the net. But Federer, on the brink of defeat, appeared to have taken issue with a slight mid-rally [hesitation] by Murray, and shouted “you [expletive]-ing stopped!” across the net. Murray appeared at first surprised, then amused, twisting his face into an exaggeratedly satisfied smirk, laughing and nodding toward his player’s box.

Federer was known for being a hothead early in his career, but I never saw much of it firsthand. Since his ascension into tennis immortality, he's largely been seen as a very level-headed sportsman.

One thing I have noticed a few times that seems to bother Federer is that when he plays one of the other Big Four (Djokovic, Murray, Nadal), he is particularly sensitive to any points they win by luck. The article above mentions that BBC commentators had to apologize on air for audible obscenities from Federer during the semi against Murray.

Federer’s first clearly audible obscenity in his semifinal loss to Andy Murray came with Murray serving at 4-5, 15-30. Murray fired a body serve which Federer could just get his backhand in front of and sent him into mostly indistinguishable muttering, punctuated with a loud, hard expletive in the middle.

Federer’s second audible offense came with Murray serving at 3-4, 40-40, in the fourth set. Murray won a 17-shot rally, and Federer exclaimed that his opponent had been “lucky,” preceding that word with a choice adverb.

I suspect most of you are thinking of the same adverb I am, so if I don't write it out I hope you don't see it as "ducking" the question [rimshot].

But a more memorable example is that extraordinary forehand return Djokovic hit against Federer in the 2011 U.S. Open semifinal. Down match point and 5-3 in the fifth set, Djokovic crushed a sideline-grazing crosscourt winner off of a Federer first serve (you can see it at 8:12 of this video).

In the press conference after that match, which Federer eventually lost , he was unusually testy when asked about that Djokovic shot.

"It's awkward having to explain this loss," a tetchy Federer said, "because I feel like I should be doing the other press conference."

There followed a string of excuses and justifications which not only were barely sustainable given the evidence but seriously disrespected the winner.

Asked about the quite remarkable forehand winner Djokovic hit to save match point, Federer reckoned the Serb did not look at that point like someone "who believes much anymore in winning. To lose against someone like that, it's very disappointing, because you feel like he was mentally out of it already. Just gets the lucky shot at the end, and off you go."

Djokovic was honest enough to admit the shot was a gamble – but Federer was reluctant to give him credit even for that courage in a crisis, preferring to regard it as desperate.

"Confidence? Are you kidding me?" he said when it was put to him the cross-court forehand off his first serve – described by John McEnroe as "one of the all-time great shots" – was either a function of luck or confidence.

"I mean, please. Some players grow up and play like that – being down 5-2 in the third, and they all just start slapping shots. I never played that way. I believe hard work's going to pay off, because early on maybe I didn't always work at my hardest. For me, this is very hard to understand. How can you play a shot like that on match point? Maybe he's been doing it for 20 years, so for him it was very normal. You've got to ask him."

Translated, Federer hates that tennis might be decided in any way by luck rather than skill. It makes sense, that someone who might be the most skilled tennis player of all time might be disgusted that luck plays any part in outcomes of majors.

It will be fascinating to see if Federer alters his game in any way this next year or two given his age and the competition from his three chief rivals. I suspect deep down Federer has always believed he is more skilled than any of his opponents, and that might explain one of his chief weaknesses, an unwillingness to be more aggressive on service returns. If you believe you are better than your opponent in every aspect of the game, it's sufficient to put the ball back in play on the return because you believe you'll win the subsequent point more often than not.

But the paradox of skill is that the more evenly matched opponents are in skill, the more of a role luck plays in determining the final outcome. As beautiful as Federer's game remains (in a sense, the continued aesthetic beauty of his shots makes it hard to measure his decline), in today's power baseline game, his rivals are a close match to him in both movement and groundstrokes. You can make a strong case that one or more of them are superior to him in areas like serve, return, footspeed, and the backhand.

Given that he no longer has that discernible skills gap to his chief rivals, a healthier acceptance of the role of luck might shift his strategy in ways that help him capture that next major. For example, it wouldn't hurt him to be more aggressive on return, to take some chances to go for the big winner and shorten some points. Can someone who is still so good and who can still recall with vivid detail the time when he had no rival be self-aware enough to change?