Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Greatest Tennis Player of All Time – Part 2

In Part 1, I discussed a quantitative approach to determining the greatest tennis player of all time and counted down players 18 through 11. Here in Part 2 I want to complete the countdown from 10 through 1, the GOAT. But first, a brief recap of how the rankings were determined.

Players were awarded points for their Open Era accomplishments, focusing on time spent ranked number 1, grand slam tournament success, and overall match wins. Players were awarded bonus points for notable achievements like winning multiple grand slams in a single season or accomplishing the career grand slam. The specific formula is discussed in detail in Part 1.

Here’s how the players were ranked 18 through 11:1

18. Jim Courier – 211 total points,
17. Lleyton Hewitt – 211,
16. John Newcombe – 237,
15. Ilie Nastase – 287,
14. Mats Wilander – 288,
13. Novak Djokovic – 295,
12. Boris Becker – 306,
11. Guillermo Vilas – 316.

On to the rest of the list.

The Greatest Players of All Time (Numbers 10 through 1)

10. Stefan Edberg (1983-96)
When I think of Stefan Edberg I picture a suave, blond-haired Swede wearing a sweater vest on court and putting away an easy volley as cool as a cucumber, no sweat on his brow. This isn’t right of course because what Edberg really was was an assassin; perhaps the last of the great pure serve-and-volleyers,2 those players who put relentless pressure on their opponents with their net rushing and precise volleys. (It also wasn’t true that Edberg was a super cool Nordic sort, my memory of pretentious sweater vests may be entirely wrong and his penchant for ugly shirts and un-hiply tucking his shirt into his shorts is apparent, see the picture on the right for an example.) Edberg’s career closely shadowed his flashier rival Boris Becker, but by almost any measure, Edberg was more successful. He turned out to be the last in the lineage of dominant Swedish players that included Bjorn Borg and Mats Wilander before him.

Total Points: 327
Weeks Ranked Number 1: 72
Year-End Number 1: 2 (1990-91)
Grand Slams: 6 titles / 5 finals
Career Titles (all): 42
Career Wins (PCT): 806 (0.749)
Other Noteworthy Achievements: Edberg won the Australian Open, Wimbledon, and U.S. Open two times apiece. He made one French Open final in 1989 and lost a famous match to 17-year-old Michael Chang in five sets (after leading two sets to one). He was that close to being only the fifth man in the Open Era (and second at that time) to win the career grand slam.

Iconic Moment: 1992 U.S. Open Final. Edberg’s last grand slam victory came at the expense of a young Pete Sampras at the 1992 U.S. Open. I remember watching that match (when I was first getting into the sport) and being impressed by the tenacity and confidence that Edberg used to subdue his younger and more talented opponent. He came back to win the last three sets after dropping the first, and it seemed that by the end he had broken the spirit of the American. Edberg would remain in the top 10 for a couple of more years, but never again win a big tournament.

9. Rod Laver (1962-79)
Rod Laver is the epitome of a player whose accomplishments are obscured by playing before the Open Era. As an amateur in 1962 he won the calendar year grand slam. Having nothing left to prove among amateurs, he turned pro and didn’t compete in another grand slam until the French Open in 1968 (where he lost the final to Ken Rosewall). Then he promptly won the next five grand slams, including all four in 1969 – his second calendar year grand slam and the only one of the Open Era. All told he won 11 grand slams (6 as an amateur). How many would he have won had he played in them in the five seasons between 1963 and ’67, eight, ten, twelve more? In just the Open Era, less than half his career and only a fraction of his peak, he still gets enough points to rank ninth on this list. We can never know, but if the Open Era had started five years sooner, or Rod Laver come along five years later, he could very well be regarded by everyone as the clear greatest player of all time.

Total Points: 351
Weeks Ranked Number 1: 0
Year-End Number 1: 3 (1968-70)
Grand Slams: 5 titles / 1 final
Career Titles (all): 42
Career Wins (PCT): 392 (0.798)
Other Noteworthy Achievements: All told Rod Laver won 200 tournaments over the full length of his career. These are split between his amateur and professional days, and some are not officially counted as tour wins, but it’s the most tournament wins in history.

Iconic Moment: 1969 U.S. Open Final. Laver rolled over countryman Tony Roche (the Australians really did dominate the sport in the 50s and 60s) winning the last three sets easily after dropping a long first set. In doing so he accomplished what Jimmy Connors, Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, Pete Sampras, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic never could, win four consecutive grand slams (let alone win them all in the same year).

8. Andre Agassi (1986-2006)
If Rod Laver is the epitome of a player who lost out by turning professional, then Andre Agassi is the epitome of a player who lost out by not being professional enough. Anybody who saw Agassi play knows he was one of the purest ball-strikers ever. He could stand right up on the baseline, take the ball on the rise, hit clean and very hard, all the while running his opponents into the ground. When he focused on his game and his talent, which was spotty, especially during the mid-90s, he was the best player in the world. He rededicated himself to tennis in his late 20s and played to a high level well into his mid-30s until injury forced him to retire after the 2006 U.S. Open. He remains the oldest player ever to be ranked number 1 (33 years old in 2003). His full career is undeniably impressive, but we’re left to wonder how much greater it could have been had he been as dedicated to his talent as, say, his rival Sampras.

Total Points: 482
Weeks Ranked Number 1: 101
Year-End Number 1: 1 (1999)
Grand Slams: 8 titles / 7 finals
Career Titles (all): 60
Career Wins (PCT): 870 (0.760)
Other Noteworthy Achievements: With his victory in the 1999 French Open, Agassi not only achieved the career grand slam, but also the career “golden slam” so named because he had also won the 1996 Olympics singles tournament. At that time the only other player to have accomplished the feat was his future wife Steffi Graf (who won a calendar year golden slam – all four grand slams and the Olympic gold – in 1988). Rafael Nadal joined this club after his U.S. Open victory in 2010.

Iconic Moment: 1999 French Open Final. Agassi’s rededication to tennis finally came to fruition when he won the 1999 French Open. He had lost the 1990 and 1991 finals to journeyman Andres Gomez and lower ranked American Jim Courier, respectively. The first, he later revealed in his autobiography, because he was afraid his weave was going to fall off during the match (that should tell you a lot about the style-over-substance flakiness of the young Agassi). Back then Agassi was seen as the next big thing. By 1999 he was seen as a has-been. But he surprised everyone and won the tournament (although he had to come from two sets down in the final against Andrei Medvedev), became the first man since Rod Laver to achieve a career grand slam, and reignited his career. He would finish 1999 ranked number 1, win four more majors, and become a paragon of fitness and focus.

Monday, November 26, 2012

The Greatest Tennis Player of All Time – Part 1

The tennis tour has entered its short end-of-year hiatus1. For the first season since 2003, the just completed (2012) tennis season was highly competitive throughout, with no dominant player. Four different men won the four grand slams2, and the remaining major tournaments were snatched up by the top five players. It says something that the man who won the most matches and tournaments (76 and 7), fifth ranked David Ferrer, was no one’s pick as the player of the year. In the end, Novak Djokovic was just a bit better than Roger Federer and Andy Murray and finished top ranked for the second consecutive year. Rafael Nadal, despite not playing for the last six months due to a career-threatening knee injury, still finished ranked fourth. It all sets up for an interesting 2013, a season that will kick-off in just five weeks.

I thought this “off-season” break would be a good time to debut my rankings of the Greatest (male) tennis players Of All Time; the proverbial GOATs. In tennis, perhaps more than any other sport, there is long and heated discussion among fans and commentators about who’s the best ever. The entire sport is based on rankings; tournaments are structured on a hierarchy that descends from number 1. And unlike team sports, the discussion of rankings, of greatness, can be focused on each man. Absent are the nuances that make ranking teams (and players in team sports) so difficult, subtleties of teamwork, synergies between players, the interplay of complex team-based tactics and collective talent. No, instead, in tennis it seems that the play of each man – his skill, his will, his mind – are all on display. It’s all there to be witnessed and all measured in his results. There aren't any ambiguities. Points are awarded for every result, and rankings listed. And so it follows that if we can rank tennis players at any given time then we should be able to rank them over all times. We should be able to identify the greatest of all time.

Of course this assertion presumes a lot, or stated differently, it ignores a lot of complicating and uncomfortable factors. Factors like changes in racket and string technology over time; varying court surfaces, qualities, and speeds; the regularly changing structure of the tennis tour and the tournaments that make up the yearly calendar; and of course improving fitness and athleticism, and a general broadening and deepening of the professional tennis field. All these things make it problematic to compare, say, the circa 1969 wood-racket-wielding Rod Laver, charging the net on a fast and dodgy grass court, on the one hand, with the 2006 version of Roger Federer and his hi-tech composite racket whacking heavily top-spinned groundstrokes from the baseline of a slow hard court, one the other. This comparison is at minimum a challenge and perhaps impossible. Laver and Federer will never play one another, so we’ll never really know who the better of the two is. So we should just get this out front and center: determining the greatest player of all time, the real GOAT, is a fan’s fantasy. We can make arguments, but we’ll never have a final answer.

But it’s still fun to have the discussion and to make a case, so in that spirit I’ve developed a quantifiable approach to determine the greatest player of all time.

A Quantitative Approach
Just this past year the Tennis Channel presented a list of the 100 greatest players of all time (men and women), based on career achievements and the perspectives and opinions of tennis players, journalists, and historians. Similar lists have been compiled in the past by Tennis magazine other tennis- and sports-related websites and publications. These lists are always qualitative in nature. They attempt to rank players and identify the best based on a range of factors from day-in-day-out results to stylistic innovations, and influence on the sport, which is all fine by me. If we concede that identifying a GOAT is by nature difficult to impossible, then trying to balance all the factors in a qualitative measure is a reasonable approach. But for a numbers oriented person like me, it’s a whole lot less fun, and well, imprecise.3 So I’ve come up with an approach that considers results and rankings over a full career to rank players and identify the one and only GOAT.

Before I lay out the factors that go into my formula, a few ground rules:
  • The list is restricted to the Open Era only, the period that started at the 1968 French Open when professional players were permitted to play in the grand slam tournaments. It’s during the Open Era when all the best players, amateur and professional alike, played in the sport’s biggest tournaments. Before then grand slam results were skewed because many of the best (read: professional) players weren’t there to compete for the titles. I don’t want to gloss over this point, some great players (e.g., Bill Tilden, Don Budge, Poncho Gonzalez) played entirely or mostly before the Open Era and they are completely excluded from my rankings. For players whose careers spanned the Open Era, only the Open Era accomplishments are counted. This is in effect a list of the greatest players of the Open Era.
  • The list includes if and for how long a player was ranked number 1, but the rankings didn’t start until 1973, so for the period from 1968 until 1973, the top ranked player (whoever that was at any time) loses out in my system. There’s nothing that can be done about that, though I have identified who would qualify as the year-end number 1 based on the season long results.
  • This list is of the top men players. A similar list, using the same approach could be made for women (I should probably dedicate a post to the greatest women players at some point).

The Formula
We’re discussing the very best players, so three broad categories of achievement capture, I think, who’s should be considered as among the best. These are (in no particular order) the time spent ranked number 1, success in grand slam tournaments, and “winning” in the general sense. Number 1 ranking is important because a player can hardly be considered the best if he isn't the best at any given time. Grand slam success is important because the best players win the most prestigious, coveted titles, and overall winning is important because that’s what champions do.

So I’m breaking these three broad categories into 12 specific measures, with points assigned for the discrete accomplishments within each measure. They are:
  • Number 1 Ranking – was the player ever ranked number 1 (10 points),
  • Weeks Ranked Number 1 – the longer a player was ranked number 1, the longer they could stay above the rest of the field, the more credit they deserve (2 points for every five weeks a player is ranked number 1),
  • Year End Number 1 – there is special recognition for being the year-end number 1 because that player was by definition the best player of the season (10 points for each year ending number 1),
  • Grand Slam Titles – winning one of the four grand slam tournaments is the highest accomplishment for a tennis player. Each one is highly coveted and very hard to win (seven, best-of-five set matches). These tournaments are also the only tennis achievements that resonate in the larger sports culture. Further, it's only the grand slams that can be compared over time, as most other tournaments come in and out of existence over relatively short periods of time, especially in the pre-ATP Tour era (15 points for each title),
  • Grand Slam Finals – just making a grand slam final is noteworthy, and I think it’s fair to say that appearing in a grand slam final is a greater achievement than winning a lesser tournament (5 points for each grand slam final loss),
  • Calendar Year Grand Slam – winning all four grand slams in one year is the greatest accomplishment in tennis and deserves bonus points for the difficulty of the feat and the historic nature of the accomplishment (50 points for each calendar year grand slam),
  • 3 Grand Slams in One Year – winning three of the four grand slams in one year is a rare feat (at least until recently) and demonstrates clear dominance over the rest of the tennis field. It deserves bonus points for the difficulty of the feat (25 points for each year winning three grand slams),
  • 2 Grand Slams in One Year – winning two of the four grand slams in one year is a clear indication of superior play and deserves bonus points for the difficulty of the feat (10 points for each year winning two grand slams),
  • Career Grand Slam – winning all four grand slams at least once is a very rare feet (almost as rare as winning a calendar year grand slam) and deserves bonus points for the difficulty and historic nature of the accomplishment (50 points for a career grand slam),
  • Titles – winning tournaments (other than the grand slams) is what the best players do (3 points for each (non-grand slam) title),
  • Career Match Wins – winning matches is the core of being a great player (1 point for every 20 match wins),
  • Career Winning Percentage – the best players should win a high percentage of their matches (1 point for a 0.700 winning percentage, with one additional point for each 0.010 increment over 0.700).

Add all the points up and you get a player’s total; the higher the score, the better. I make no claims that this is a definitive inventory of the elements that should go into determining the best of all time, or that the points allocated for each measure are appropriate. The old axiom of garbage in, garbage out should be heeded with any formulation like this; it has to pass the sniff test. I think this approach is at least a reasonable start, but let’s see how it computes for an individual player, and I’ll go ahead and pick the current number 1 player, Novak Djokovic.

Novak Djokovic’s GOAT Points:
  • No. 1 Ranking: 10 points (he’s currently ranked No. 1),
  • Weeks Ranked No. 1: 24.8 points (he’ll have been ranked No. 1 for 62 weeks through the end of this year),
  • Year End No. 1: 20 points (he’s been year-end No. 1 twice, 2011 and 2012),
  • Grand Slam Titles: 75 points (he’s won five grand slams),
  • Grand Slam Finals: 20 points (he’s appeared in four other grand slam finals),
  • Calendar Year Grand Slam: 0 points (no calendar year grand slam),
  • 3 Grand Slams in One Year: 25 points (he won three grand slams in 2011),
  • 2 Grand Slams in One Year: 0 points (he’s never won as many as two grand slams in any other year),
  • Career Grand Slam: 0 points (Novak has never won French Open),
  • Titles: 87 points (he has won 29 non-grand slam tournaments),
  • Career Match Wins: 23 points (he has won 469 matches over his career so far),
  • Career Winning Percentage: 10 points (he has a career 0.792 match winning percentage).

You add all of those points up and you get a total of 295 points (rounding to the nearest point). At the risk of taking some suspense out of this list, the total of 295 points put Djokovic thirteenth among Open Era players. That seems reasonable to me. Certainly Djokovic has put himself into the discussion as one of the best ever, but he hasn’t done enough just yet to be among the top 5 or even 10. (It’s safe to say that baring major injury or some hard to imagine loss of form, he’ll be climbing this list in the coming years.)

So, the formula passes the basic test of reasonability, I applied it to every player who was ranked number 1 or won a grand slam in the Open Era. The results make sense to me, but judge for yourself. Eighteen players amassed at least 200 points (arbitrary number), so that’s where I’ll start the countdown of the greatest players of all time.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Republicans Are Losing the Electoral College

Will the GOP be able to compete in the Electoral College?
Conventional political wisdom holds that incumbent Presidents are hard to beat. But this year, Mitt Romney and the Republican Party thought they had a good chance. In their view, President Obama’s first term had been a failure: he was presiding over a stagnant economy, high unemployment, and a looming fiscal crisis. The President seemed vulnerable, and indeed, pre-election polls showed a dead heat. But to the chagrin of the American Right, instead of a victory their candidate was roundly defeated – at least in Electoral terms. What many thought would be an election decided in the wee hours of Wednesday morning (or even later), was over by the time the polls closed on the West Coast. In the end, Obama won a second term by a lopsided Electoral Count of 332 to 206, not much less than his landslide four years ago.

In these days after the election, the Republican Party and American Right probably feel like the Democrats and American Left felt eight years ago after George W. Bush won a second term. Confused about losing an election they thought they could win. They are left wondering what went wrong and what do they have to do to stand a better chance in 2016? But from this writer’s perspective, Republicans face a far stiffer challenge today than Democrats did in 2004.

This is not a political blog, and I’m not going to write in any detail about what Republicans should do to win on the national stage, but (looking from the Center) some things appear obvious. It would seem vital to attract a larger share of the Latino vote. This is a large and growing cohort of the electorate and the Republicans can’t afford to get less than 30 percent of their vote like they did this year. A more coherent and less xenophobic stance on immigration would likely go a long way. America, as is often said, is a country of immigrants. This is true and people across the globe have always wanted to come to this country. Immigration is a complex issue, and a blanket open door is almost certainly not the right answer, but neither is a closed door, and Republicans will have to embrace a more welcoming and workable position. Moderating their positions on social issues would be good as well. Abortion may be abhorrent to many on the Right, but an immediate prohibition will never happen, and stridently preaching for one doesn’t help with the larger mass of voters, especially women voters. Neither does, say, stigmatizing homosexuals, or the poor, or painting the government (and by extension government employees) as a parasite feeding on the productive private sector. And Republicans have to do better in articulating their message. If President Obama was vulnerable in this election, especially on economic issues, this argument, as presented by the GOP, clearly didn’t win over the voters. Mid-term elections are supposed to be a referendum on the incumbent, but much of the national discourse in the months leading up to October seemed to be focused not on the President’s first four years, but on the Democratic message that Mitt Romney was an out-of-touch elitist. Republicans clearly lost the rhetorical battle.Romney and his Party didn't do what they needed to do: convince Americans why they were the better choice to lead and not the President and his Party.

All of these are important, but none directly address the largest problem for Republicans, their increasing narrow path to an Electoral majority.

A Growing Electoral Reality
The President won about 50.6% of the national vote to Romney’s 47.9%. This is hardly a landslide, actually down noticeably from 2008, but the 332 to 206 Electoral count, as noted above, was lopsided by any measure. This just continues a trend that’s been evident for a generation. The last Republican Electoral landslide occurred in 1988, when Vice President George H. W. Bush defeated Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis. The Electoral count in that year was 426 to 111, the popular vote 53.4% to 45.7%. Bush 41 (41st President) had been the eight-year Vice President under a very popular President in Ronald Reagan, the last Republican who was truly able to attract Democratic voters. And Dukakis ran a poor campaign. Since then, these have been the Presidential election results:

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Geographic Oddities: A Sea or Not a Sea?

About five hours after the launch of Apollo 17, in the early morning hours of December 7, 1972, the astronauts of man’s final lunar mission turned their gazes back to Earth. Their capsule was positioned between the Earth and the sun, and from their God’s-eye view 28,000 miles overhead they saw a full hemisphere bathed in light and shining spectacular blue against the black void of space. The photograph they took of the scene is one of the most iconic views of our planet and has become famously know as the “blue marble”.1 Take a look at a globe or a world map and you see mostly blue, and as we all learned as school kids, about 70 percent of the Earth’s surface is covered by water. There’s even a term for all this water, the hydrosphere. Virtually all of the hydrosphere is part a vast connected world ocean; the oceans, seas, bays, gulfs, bights, channels, estuaries, firths, fjords, sounds, and straits, which despite the many names we give them, comprise a single body of water.2 There is, however, one conspicuously massive body of water that isn’t part of this world ocean, the landlocked Caspian Sea.

For all you amateur geographers out there, the Caspian Sea presents a riddle of geography and definition. Is it a real sea, or is it just a big lake? What does the word “sea” actually mean, and speaking geographically, what is a sea really? I ask these questions because we humans love to classify, to put a blanket of order on the world. But let’s come back to this.

Is the Caspian a Sea or a Lake?
The Caspian Sea lies a few hundred miles east of the Black Sea along borders of Europe, central Asia, and the Middle East. Territorially it’s divided between Russia in the northwest, Azerbaijan to the west, Iran in the south, Turkmenistan in the southeast, and Kazakhstan in the northeast. It’s famous as the fishing grounds for much of the world’s sturgeon, the major source of caviar. Lately its oil-rich shores and seabed have become the crucial economic engine of the region (and a source of political tension among the surrounding countries). And it is a one-of-a-kind body of water.

You look in most atlases or encyclopedias and the Caspian Sea is listed as the world’s largest lake. Its maximum length (north to south) is 640 miles and its max width (east to west) is 270 miles. It covers an area of 143,000 square miles (371,000 square km),3 which makes it about the same size as Montana or all the islands of Japan, and bigger than Germany; it could easily accommodate all of the British Isles. It’s also really deep. The southern third of the Caspian is oceanic with a maximum depth greater than 3,300 feet. The total volume of water is about 18,800 cubic miles (78,000 cubic km).4 These dimensions dwarf all other lakes. By area the next biggest lake is Lake Superior (the greatest of the Great Lakes), which itself is huge with an area of a little under 32,000 square miles. But this is four and a half times smaller than the Caspian. In fact, the Caspian in larger in area than the next seven largest lakes combined.5 Just to emphasize the point, the Caspian is 50 percent larger than the combined area all of the North American Great Lakes. A comparison of volume tells the same story. The Caspian holds more than three times the water of the mile-deep Lake Baikal (the world’s most voluminous fresh water lake) and more than the next seven lakes combined.6


Before we go further, a quick aside for definitions:

  • Sea: (1) the salt waters that cover the greater part of the Earth’s surface; (2) a division of these waters, of considerable extent, more or less definitely marked off by land boundaries; (3) a large lake or landlocked body of water.
  • Lake: a body of fresh or salt water of considerable size, surrounded by land.

These are dictionary definitions but they jive pretty well with wordier geographic definitions. And they don’t help us answer the question of whether the Caspian is a sea or a lake.


The Caspian is so large that its shores touch on radically different climates. There’s the cold deserts of Kazakhstan the Turkmenistan, the arid Russian steppes, the high mountains of the Caucasus, the dry subtropical plains of Azerbaijan, and the lush, verdant subtropical forests of northern Iran. Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan is the largest city situated on the Caspian, but Iran’s capital Tehran and Russian Astrakhan7 aren’t too far removed from its shores.

Oil tanker on the Caspian Sea
The Caspian is an endorheic basin. That means it doesn’t have any outflows. Water comes in via rivers and streams but can only leave through seepage or evaporation. And like most other endorheic bodies of water (e.g., the Great Salt Lake and the Dead Sea) it is salty. The saline concentration varies greatly, but on average it’s about as third as salty as typical ocean water. The Caspian is fed by the longest river in Europe, the Volga, which supplies 80 percent of the inflow. This is unusual because all of the world’s great rivers – except the Volga – flow into the world ocean. Many large rivers have their source in lakes, like the Nile at Lake Victoria and the Congo at Lake Tanganyika, but no others empty into one. The Caspian’s level is independent of the world ocean, and it’s the center of a large basin that sits below global sea level (presently the surface sits about 92 feet below sea level). In fact the geology of the southern part of the Caspian is oceanic as the seabed is oceanic crust and not continental crust.

Caspian Sea and Lake
So given all these facts, I’m going to argue that the Caspian is both a lake and a sea, a mini ocean. It’s a lake for the simple reason that it is landlocked; it’s distinct from the world ocean. It’s a sea because it’s huge relative to other lakes, salty like the sea (just not as salty), deep like an ocean, geologically oceanic (at least in part), ancient (it’s been there for 5.5 million years), and the outflow for one of the world’s largest rivers. If you compare the Caspian to many mediterranean seas (a sea mostly enclosed by land within distinct circulation patterns, hence the lower case “m”), it is about the same size (a little smaller) than the Black Sea and Red Sea, the same size and saltier than the Baltic Sea8, and much bigger than the Persian Gulf.

All of this is to say that the Caspian is two things at once, a sea and a lake, a sea-lake; it defies easy classification. And the more you look at our world’s geography, the more of these classification conundrums you find.