Saturday, January 28, 2012

Win or Lose?

I think at the top of the game tennis is fundamentally a winners game.  The outcome is determined by the actions of the winning player.  To win means to hit winning shots rather than waiting for your opponent to make unforced errors that hand the match to you.  At lower levels tennis is a losers game.  The losing player will have lost the match to the winning player via unforced errors.  The level where the game switches is fuzzy.  That's my theory.  Well, it wasn't originally mine, but I've come to believe it.  The idea of winners and losers games started in finance and was applied to tennis by a businessman and engineer.

So what happened over the last couple of days in the men's Australian Open?   Rafael Nadal beat Roger Federer.  Or did he?  Novak Djokovic beat Andy Murray.  Or did he?

Very, very crudely Federer lost to Nadal.  Rafa won 146 points to 130 for Roger.  Rafa made only 35 unforced errors to 68 for Roger. 

How about being a bit less crude?  If you look at which player "littered the stat sheet" the most, it was Roger.  He had more winners (57 to 40) and unforced errors (68 to 35) than Rafa.  So Roger dictated the action, racking up a total of 125 winners and errors to just 75 for Rafa.  So Roger littered the stat sheet with fifty more entries than Rafa had.

What about total winning shots?  If we credit Roger with hitting a winning shot when Rafa is forced into an error, Roger hit 95 winning shots to just 78 for Rafa.  Again, Roger looks like he was playing winning tennis while Rafa was waiting for Roger to lose.  Roger lost.  Despite way more winning shots, Roger's unforced errors differential cost him the match. 

Minimizing errors and letting the opponent litter the stat sheet with both winners and errors was the winning strategy in the first men's semifinal.  Looks like Rafa won a loser's game.  The actions of the loser, Roger, dictated the result.

Let's move to the second semifinal, the epic battle between Djokovic and Murray.  Both guys are phenomenal defenders.  Djokovic credits his more aggressive play for his outstanding results in 2011.  Andy Murray says he must be more aggressive to get over the hump and win a major title.

Very, very crudely, Murray lost to Djokovic.  Djokovic won 184 points to 161 for Murray. Murray committed 96 unforced errors to 75 for Djokovic.  Murray lost, Novak didn't win.

Let's again look at who littered the stat sheet.  Djokovic had 135 winners plus unforced errors while Murray had 162.  By that measure, Murray dictated the action and lost.

How about factoring in forcing the opponent into errors?  On this score, Djokovic won the match, narrowly.  Djokovic hit 88 winning shots 86 for Murray.  So by this metric, we could say that Djokovic did indeed win the match.  Since the final margin was 23 points, though, this 2-point gap isn't much.

Despite all the talk of needing to be aggressive, it looks to me like semi final number two also was lost, not won.  Djokovic won by letting his opponent dictate more of the action and ultimately lose the match.

Does this mean that you can win on the ATP Tour or win a major tennis title by pushing, by simply hitting the ball down the middle and letting a great player lose to you?  Hardly.  But it does say that even at the very top of the game, matches are still lost, rather than won.

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