Monday, September 9, 2019

Federer, Nadal and Djokovic Reconsidered--and Why Borg Still Stands Alone

Rafael Nadal's triumph in the 2019 U.S. Open is his 19th Grand Slam singles title, placing him just one behind Roger Federer on the all-time list. This is the closest Nadal has been to Federer on that list since 2004, when Federer led Nadal 1-0 in Grand Slam singles titles won. Federer had captured four Grand Slam singles titles by the time Nadal won his first, the 2005 French Open.

The thin reed upon which Federer fans prop their man over Nadal appears to be about to snap. Federer is 38 years old, while Nadal is 33 years old. Some may have assumed that Federer's much-praised finesse style would prove to be more enduring than Nadal's pounding, powerful style, but--despite Federer's five year lead in age--Nadal is now the first male to win five Grand Slam singles titles after the age of 30, and Nadal seems likely to add to that total no later than the 2020 French Open. If Nadal matches or breaks Federer's record, there will be no rational basis to rank Federer ahead of Nadal--but the reality is that a rational evaluation of these players has favored Nadal for quite some time.

The first time that I wrote about Nadal versus Federer was Federer's Fifth Wimbledon Final is One for the Ages, when I wondered if Nadal would soon surpass Federer: "Will the younger Nadal eclipse Federer on grass next year and become the sport's undisputed number one player or will Federer continue to hold him off as he marches toward Sampras' record of 14 Grand Slam titles? I think that Nadal is closer to beating Federer on grass than Federer is to beating Nadal on clay and that 2008 could very well be Nadal's opportunity to match another Borg feat: winning the French Open and Wimbledon in the same year."

That analysis proved to be prophetic, as Nadal not only routed Federer 6-1, 6-3, 6-0 in the 2008 French Open Final (tying Bjorn Borg's record by winning that Slam for the fourth straight time) but Nadal then defeated Federer in an epic five set Wimbledon Final, after which I wondered why anyone would rank Federer higher all-time than Nadal: 
Even when Federer was at the absolute peak of his powers Nadal still held the head to head advantage, a fact that some people dismissed by noting that the vast majority of Nadal's wins over Federer came on clay--but that is not relevant in a discussion about the greatest player of all-time, because the greatest player of all-time should be able to win on multiple surfaces and should not have a losing record against his main rival. Nadal is just entering his prime years but he already owns four more Grand Slam wins than Federer did at the same age. Just like I thought that it was too soon to call Federer the greatest of all-time two or three years ago, I think that it is too soon to call Nadal the greatest of all-time now--but in many ways Nadal seems to be making a more potent case to claim that title than Federer ever did. Who can say for sure that in four or five years Nadal won't own more career Grand Slam titles than Federer's 12? Nadal has more speed and hits with more power than Federer and Nadal is also in better physical condition; perhaps Federer has a more delicate touch on certain shots but that is not enough to cancel out Nadal's advantages.
Federer is a great and graceful player, but his public image and status have been boosted by the adoring fan letters disguised as analysis that many writers have penned on his behalf, as I noted in my 2013 article titled Why is Rafael Nadal Not Praised Now the Way that Roger Federer Was Praised in 2006?
When David Foster Wallace gushed over Roger Federer in an August 2006 essay, the 25 year old Federer had won eight Grand Slam singles titles in 29 appearances (.276 winning percentage) and had amassed six first round losses--yet Wallace and others openly and enthusiastically touted the notion that Federer had already established himself as the greatest tennis player of all-time. The first dubious aspect of such a wide-ranging declaration is that it is unfair--if not impossible--to compare Open Era players with players from earlier eras; the rules, conditions and overall context were just too different. If Rod Laver had been permitted to play in the Grand Slam events during his prime years then he likely would have set unbreakable records--but we cannot know for sure what he would have accomplished, so all that can be intelligently said is that Laver deserves to be prominently placed in any discussion of the greatest tennis players ever: he should not be punished for "only" winning 11 Grand Slams, nor can he be credited with all of the Grand Slams that he almost certainly would have won.

The second dubious aspect about declaring Federer to be the greatest player of all-time is that he has never established the simultaneous Wimbledon/French Open dominance displayed by Bjorn Borg. When Borg made his final Grand Slam appearance in 1981--at just 25 years old--he held the modern male record for both Wimbledon titles (five) and French Open titles (six) and he had won the "Channel Slam" (capturing Wimbledon and the French Open in the same calendar year) a still-unmatched three times in a row. Sampras and then Federer dominated Wimbledon during their primes and Nadal has dominated the French Open but no one has ever mastered grass and clay at the same time the way that Borg did...

While Borg-Nadal is difficult to call, it is very hard to understand how anyone who supported Federer's greatest player of all-time candidacy circa 2006 would not be even more strongly in favor of Nadal now: Nadal has achieved more at a younger age than Federer did, Nadal has a much better Grand Slam winning percentage, Nadal has consistently dominated Federer head to head and Nadal does not have a problematic individual matchup or surface. The only advantage that Federer has ever held over Nadal is that Federer has been healthier/more durable, which will make it even more remarkable if Nadal wins four more Grand Slams to tie Federer's mark.
Mary Carillo offered a very insightful and objective take on the Federer-Nadal rivalry:
I have said and argued with John McEnroe and Ted Robinson during our French Open telecasts for many years that you cannot anoint Roger Federer the greatest of all time if he isn't the greatest of his own time. And it's not just on red clay. Nadal has the edge on hard courts as well. Like in boxing, it's all about the matchup. When Roger is playing at his luminous best he has no need to worry about the other side of the net. But if he is playing Nadal, even his best is often not enough.

People conflate [Federer's] beauty with supremacy and blur the line between high art and [Nadal's] impossible-to-ignore domination. I think Roger Federer is the most stylish, elegant and gifted tennis player I've ever seen. Roger is all that is right in this tennis world. Rafa Nadal is his perfect rival--powerful, explosive, gritty and gutsy.

While Federer's fans struggled to accept the notion that Nadal is greater than Federer, another player showed up as a worthy challenger to both champions: Novak Djokovic. Djokovic won his first Grand Slam singles title at the 2008 Australian Open and on July 4, 2011 he became the first player in seven years other than Federer or Nadal to be ranked number one in the world. Except for a 10 month run at the top enjoyed by Andy Murray from November 2016 through August 2017, Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have been the only players ranked number one since 2004.

Djokovic has held the top spot since November 2018, but Nadal's U.S. Open win puts him in great position to be the year-end number one ranked player for the fifth time (which would tie him with Jimmy Connors, Federer and Djokovic for second most all-time behind Pete Sampras, who accomplished this feat six times). The ranking system has typically been weighted to reward activity and other factors that do not necessarily correlate with greatness, and thus the ranking statistics should just be considered a small part of evaluating the greatest players of all-time. It is doubtful that any reputable tennis evaluator would consider Sampras and Connors to be among the top five players of all-time or to be greater than Bjorn Borg, who was the year-end ranking leader just twice even though he had a four year stretch during which he made the Finals in 11 of the 12 Grand Slams that he entered, winning seven of them (he did not play in the Australian Open in any of those years, and he skipped other tour events as well, which negatively impacted his ranking). It is worth noting that from 1946-76, the Australian Open was won by a non-Australian just four times; the Australian Open has been a Major/Grand Slam event in name since 1924/25 but for most of its history non-Australian players did not treat it as such.

Federer holds the male singles record with 20 Grand Slam titles, but he has played in 78 events. His winning percentage of .256 is not dominant compared to the other players who are in the greatest player of all-time conversation. Federer achieved his peak career Grand Slam winning percentage (.366) in 2009 after he won Wimbledon, his 15th title in 41 Grand Slam events. Federer has won six times in 20 appearances (.300) at the Australian Open--the least important of the four Grand Slam events--and he has won 14 times in 58 appearances (.241) at the other three Grand Slam events. He has one win and five Finals appearances in 18 trips to the French Open, an event that he skipped three times. Federer has lost in the first round of the French Open four times and he has lost in the first round of Wimbledon three times.

Nadal has won 19 Grand Slam singles titles in 58 appearances (.328). His peak career Grand Slam winning percentage was .368, achieved after he won the 2014 French Open, his 14th Grand Slam singles title in 38 appearances. While Federer padded his career numbers by winning the Australian Open six times, Nadal is 1/14 in his Australian Open appearances (with five total Finals appearances) but 18/44 (.409) in the three most important Grand Slam events. He has lost in the first round of a Grand Slam event just twice, once at Wimbledon and once at the Australian Open.

Nadal has a 24-16 career head to head record versus Federer, including a 10-4 record in Grand Slam matches. Nadal is the only player who has beaten Federer in a Grand Slam Final on grass, clay and hard court; if you believe that Nadal is a one surface wonder then you have been reading too much propaganda and not enough objective analysis.

Djokovic has a 16/59 record in Grand Slam singles events (.271) and this is essentially his peak career winning percentage (he stood at 16/58 prior to the 2019 U.S. Open, .275). Even more than Federer, Djokovic's Grand Slam singles record is boosted by his performance in the Australian Open, where Djokovic has won seven titles in 15 appearances. He is 9/44 (.205) in the other three Grand Slam events, including just 1/15 (with four total Finals appearances) in the French Open. Djokovic has lost in the first round of a Grand Slam event twice, both times in the Australian Open.

Djokovic owns the advantage in his career head to head matchups with both Federer and Nadal. Djokovic leads Federer 26-22, including 10-6 in Grand Slam events and 4-1 in Grand Slam event Finals. Djokovic leads Nadal 28-26 overall, though Nadal is up 9-6 in Grand Slam events and they are tied 4-4 in Grand Slam event Finals.

The mainstream media narrative is apparently etched in stone that everyone is chasing Federer, but when you look at the numbers and the percentages without considering subjective propaganda, it is difficult to see how anyone would rank Federer first among these three players, let alone as the greatest player of all-time across eras that operated under vastly different conditions and circumstances. Nadal is the all-time career leader with 18 victories in Wimbledon/the French Open/the U.S. Open, ahead of Federer (14), Sampras (12), Borg (11) and Bill Tilden (10). Nadal has a decisive head to head advantage over Federer, has played Djokovic essentially to a standstill overall (and with an edge in the Grand Slam events) and Nadal has a significant edge in overall Grand Slam event winning percentage. While Djokovic enjoys the head to head advantage over both of his rivals, his overall accomplishments do not quite measure up: fewer Grand Slam titles, a worse Grand Slam event winning percentage than Nadal, and nearly half of his Grand Slam event wins coming in the Australian Open. Djokovic is perhaps the greatest Australian Open player of all-time, though!

Anyone who sees the larger historical perspective is amused by all of the Federer/Nadal/Djokovic talk, because none of those guys measure up to Bjorn Borg, who I described as the "Sandy Koufax of tennis." Borg outdistanced his contemporaries by a greater margin than any player in the Open Era. Consider these statistics:

* Borg was the youngest player to win the Italian Open, the French Open and Wimbledon. Borg's records for the French Open and Wimbledon have been broken but he is the only player who was simultaneously the youngest ever champion of all three events.

* Until the age of 21, Borg never lost to a player younger than he was.

* Borg achieved the French Open/Wimbledon double each year from 1978-80. No player before or since has accomplished this feat in three straight years, or even two straight years.

* Borg tied the all-time record by winning three Grand Slam titles without losing a set (1976 Wimbledon, 1978 French Open and 1980 French Open).

* Borg simultaneously held the record for most career French Open singles titles (six) and most career Wimbledon titles (five). While both records have since been broken, no other player in the Open Era has simultaneously held both marks. For half a decade, Borg was the best grass court player in the world and the best clay court player in the world. In other words, he was Nadal and Federer rolled into one, while competing against at least two players who should still be listed among the 10 greatest of all-time (Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe).

* Borg won five straight Wimbledon titles from 1976-80, a feat that had not been accomplished since the 1880s, when the defending champion was automatically seeded into the next year's Finals.

* When Borg retired from Grand Slam competition at the age of 25 he ranked second all-time with 11 Grand Slam singles titles, trailing only Roy Emerson. Emerson won 12 Grand Slam singles titles, but six of his were in his native Australian Open; until the 1980s, non-Australian players regularly skipped the Australian Open, and Borg only played the event once, as a teenager.

* Borg remains the youngest player to ever win 11 Grand Slam singles titles (25 years old).

* Borg still holds the highest career Grand Slam tournament winning percentage (.407; 11/27).

* Borg still holds the highest career Grand Slam match winning percentage (.898; 141-16).

* Borg still holds the highest career Grand Slam five set match winning percentage (.889; 24-3).

* Borg remains the only player who posted five straight years with a Grand Slam match winning percentage above .900 (1977-81).

* Borg still holds the highest career Wimbledon match winning percentage (.927; 51-4).

* Borg still holds the record for consecutive Wimbledon matches won (41).

The main knocks against Borg are his lack of longevity and the fact that he never won the U.S. Open. The funny thing about Borg's longevity is that he won at least one Grand Slam title in eight straight years (1974-81), a record that stood alone until Sampras matched it in 2000. Federer achieved the feat from 2003-10, and Nadal now holds the record with 10 (2005-14). In terms of Grand Slam dominance--as opposed to mere Grand Slam participation--Borg enjoyed enviable and nearly unmatched longevity. Regarding the U.S. Open, Borg reached the Finals four times in nine appearances, and his Finals losses all came at the hands of Connors or McEnroe, two of the most decorated U.S. Open champions ever. The lack of at least one U.S. Open title is the only legitimate mark against Borg, and in terms of ranking the greatest players of all-time that one negative mark does not outweigh all of the positive marks listed above.

Borg remained solidly in second place with 11 Grand Slam singles titles from 1981 until 1998, when Sampras tied him. Sampras passed him in 1999 and retired in 2002 as the all-time leader with 14 Grand Slam singles titles. Sampras won 14 of the 52 Grand Slam singles events that he entered (.269). He never made it to the French Open Finals, and he only made it to the French Open semifinals once in 13 tries. Sampras was not nearly as dominant as Borg. While Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have each subsequently passed both Borg and Sampras in terms of total Grand Slam event wins, no one has approached Borg's .407 Grand Slam event winning percentage or his astonishing 16 Finals trips in 27 appearances (.593). Borg on his best day could beat anyone from any era on grass or clay. That is clearly not true of Sampras, Federer or Djokovic, particularly regarding clay. Borg versus Nadal on clay would be an incredible spectacle but Nadal at his best is not beating Borg at his best on grass.

It will be interesting to see if Nadal surpasses Federer in term of total Grand Slam events won. I suspect that if this happens, the Federer acolytes in the media will shift the goalposts (apologies for mixing sports metaphors) and find some other reason/excuse to still rank Federer ahead of Nadal--and no one will seriously talk about why Borg should still be listed ahead of both. Borg is the victim of a phenomenon brilliantly described by William Goldman in the wonderful book that Goldman co-authored with Mike Lupica, Wait Till Next Year. Goldman wrote, "The greatest struggle an athlete undergoes is the battle for our memories. It's gradual. It begins before you're aware it's begun and it ends with a terrible fall from grace. Stripped of medals, sent to Siberia...It really is a battle to the death." He noted that Wilt Chamberlain's accomplishments were so outlandish that he is the exception to this rule, but that most athletes are downgraded--if not forgotten--as time passes.

Think about how even Michael Jordan has seen his status decline in the less than 20 years since his final retirement. Many commentators say, with a straight face, that LeBron James is greater than Jordan--never mind that James has won fewer championships, fewer regular season MVPs, fewer Finals MVPs, fewer scoring titles and fewer of just about anything else that matters. Another aspect of this that was true when Goldman wrote those words over 30 years ago and is even truer now is that the sports/entertainment business makes its money by promoting today's games and today's players. If ESPN states that LeBron James is not as great as Michael Jordan or--gasp--Julius Erving then ESPN is essentially devaluing the product that it paid billions of dollars to broadcast. The same is true to a lesser but still significant extent for other media outlets. You are not going to make much of a living as a writer, commentator or analyst talking about how great Bjorn Borg, Julius Erving and Michael Jordan were; maybe you can write a retrospective about them to commemorate the 20th or 30th anniversary of one of their accomplishments, but on a day to day basis your bread is buttered and your paycheck is signed based on praising Federer and LeBron James. How/why the media picks favorites among athletes who are/were contemporaries--why Federer over Nadal, or James over Kobe Bryant when they were both active and Bryant was winning championships--is an entirely different discussion that extends beyond the scope of this article.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

When Did Sports Journalism Lose its Way?

In an ideal world, reporters would report facts/news, commentators would offer their opinions about the facts/news and entertainers would not pretend to be reporters or commentators. That ideal world never existed in reality, but there were times and places where it came closer to existing than it does in our current time and place.

The issue is much broader than sports, but here we will focus on the decline of sports journalism. Anyone under 45 years old probably does not remember that there was a time when Tony Kornheiser, Mike Wilbon and other television personalities were first-rate sportswriters/commentators.

Here is an example of an excellent Wilbon column: Lacy Leaves Towering Legacy.

Here is an example of an excellent Kornheiser column: Astros' Ryan Going Out In Glory, if Not a Blaze.

Wilbon, Kornheiser and other talented reporters and columnists traded in their newspaper bylines for the fame and riches they could acquire by screaming at each other on television. Maybe most people who were offered fame and riches would have made the same Faustian bargain, but the deal comes with a price--for them, and for us. I discussed this with Woody Paige more than a decade ago and he readily acknowledged that he did not derive the same satisfaction or meaning from appearing on television that he did from writing a great article or column.

T.J. Simers, a long-time co-panelist with Paige on ESPN's "Around the Horn," once said that he hated the show but "I hear a cash register going off in my head when I do it. TV makes us do this. They want us to be stupid, to try to top ourselves. On 'Around the Horn,' if you're low-key and sensible, you aren't going to be on the show anymore. You have to be over the top. ESPN will hire you for your credibility, but after a minute they've had enough of that...The producer is yelling 'Conflict! Conflict!' in your ear. TV wants conflict. TV wants outrageous opinions."

It does not have to be that way, though I do not have much hope that things will substantially change any time in the near future. ESPN and its imitators have dumbed down sports discourse, and there is no clear path out of the murky swamp back to dry, sane land. Many of the top sportswriters traded in their credibility for TV's cash, and as a result we are now cursed with both low quality TV and with a large amount of low quality sportswriting. There are very few great all-around sports writers now, as the few who know sports often lack writing chops and the few who have writing chops often do not know sports. Someone who has a deep understanding of sports--the strategy, the personalities, the psychology of competition--and the capacity to tell a coherent and compelling story is rare indeed. That combination has always been uncommon, but if you look at an old copy of Sport--particularly when it was edited by Dick Schaap--or Sports Illustrated you will find many articles and columns that are thoughtful and thought-provoking. Sadly, there is no publication or online site that has that cachet now, or that deserves it.

Speaking of Schaap, he was perhaps the first great sportswriter to transition successfully to television, but Schaap found a way to conform to the limitations of that medium while also retaining his intelligence and wit. When he hosted the Sports Reporters there was more light than heat--more substance than hot air, more intelligent debating as opposed to mindless screaming and bickering.

It is too much to expect anyone to be another Dick Schaap, but it should not be too much to expect writers to get their facts straight, commentators to provide intelligent opinions about those facts and TV personalities to scream less and think more. I hope that the general public is not as dumb as ESPN and its imitators think but I fear otherwise.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Tiger Woods Experiences the Full Career Arc of A Champion

Tiger Woods, who just became the second oldest winner of The Masters, is experiencing the full career arc of a champion. That arc begins with the wonder years, when the prodigy becomes the youngest to accomplish certain feats or win specific events. It would be wrong to say that at this stage championships are inevitable--nothing about competition involving skill is inevitable--but there is an expectation that the prodigy will achieve and sustain greatness. Because of that expectation, the first championships may come more with a feeling of relief than of joy, and there may be an accompanying feeling of pressure to maintain a high standard of play.

After those first titles, the champion goes through his prime, when winning titles appears to be effortless. That perception is incorrect, of course; championships are only achieved after much hard work is put in, and the margin between winning and losing is rarely large, even if the final score suggests otherwise.

Father Time is undefeated, so at some point the champion ages and new contenders enter their own wonder years. Each title won by the champion at this point may be his last, and thus these latter titles may feel more meaningful or precious; the hard work that must be put in to win these titles is apparent to everyone: Tiger Woods has to get up in the middle of the night to loosen up his back before playing the final round at Augusta.

Winning a first title is great but winning a title in your 40s--when there is much doubt (including, perhaps, even at least a little self-doubt--is very satisfying.

The images of Tiger embracing his children--who are too young to remember prodigy Tiger or dominant Tiger--are priceless, and it is an added blessing that his mother was able to witness Tiger's triumph as well; Tiger's father is no longer with us but he is surely smiling down on his son.

Watching Tiger win a major as an older player who is no longer consistently dominant brings to mind Bill Russell's last title run with the Boston Celtics and Pete Sampras' final U.S.Open title. The difference, though, is that Russell had already announced his pending retirement and Sampras never played again on Tour (though he did not formally announce his retirement until shortly before the next year's U.S. Open), but Tiger iso regaining his mental and physical strength; it is doubtful that he will ever dominate to the extent that he did during his prime, but he could conceivably be a credible contender in majors for the next several years, and--with his 15th major win under his belt--possibly even renew his quest to break Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 wins in majors.

Monday, February 4, 2019

Patriots' Sustained Greatness Demands Respect

In a defensive struggle during which the teams set the record for the fewest points scored in a Super Bowl, the New England Patriots prevailed 13-3 over the Los Angeles Rams. The tandem of coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady has advanced to nine Super Bowls and won six of them. Brady has won more Super Bowls than any other quarterback has played in and he has won more Super Bowls than any other player has won, breaking Charles Haley's more than two decades old record of five. Brady has won a record four Super Bowl MVPs (breaking Joe Montana's record of three) but this year Brady's trusted slot receiver Julian Edelman won the Super Bowl MVP after compiling 10 catches for 141 yards.

Brady is now the oldest quarterback to win a Super Bowl and Belichick is now the oldest coach to win a Super Bowl. Belichick tied George Halas and Curly Lambeau for most NFL titles won by a coach. The unprecedented run for Belichick and Brady has lasted for nearly two decades, a dynasty of unparalleled length and success in NFL history; other NFL dynasties include the 1990s Dallas Cowboys (three Super Bowl wins), the 1980s San Francisco 49ers (four Super Bowl wins), the 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers (four Super Bowl wins) and the 1960s Green Bay Packers (five NFL titles, plus two Super Bowl wins against the AFL champions). The only football dynasty that compares with New England's is the 1940s/1950s Cleveland Browns, who won four All-American Football Conference titles in four seasons and then captured three NFL titles in the first six seasons after that league merged with the NFL. The Browns are the only North American professional sports team that has appeared in the championship game or championship series in each of its first 10 seasons of existence.

The 2018 NFL regular season was marked by a record setting scoring explosion, and two of the highest scoring teams were the Rams and the Kansas City Chiefs. The Patriots not only defeated both teams but they shut out both teams in the first halves of their respective playoff encounters. Belichick has an uncanny ability to dissect game film and devise a strategy that enables his players to maximize their strengths, minimize their weaknesses and take away whatever the other team does best.

Casual fans may have found Super Bowl LIII to be boring but football purists understand that they witnessed a strategic masterpiece, a theme that ESPN's Steve Young expounded upon right after the game. Young called this game Bill Belichick's "Sistine Chapel," a masterpiece capping Belichick's tremendous career (or at least capping it thus far, as Belichick and his Patriots show no signs of slowing down and could very well win more championships). Young added that there are many "haters" in this era of social media and hot takes but that we "are fools" if we don't step back and appreciate the greatness being displayed by the Patriots in general and Belichick in particular. Belichick modestly insists that it is all about the players but Young said to Belichick that he is going to "push back" a bit against that notion because Belichick is doing things with his players that no other coach could do.

Think about it. While Brady is arguably the greatest quarterback ever, this Patriots team is not brimming with Pro Bowl or Hall of Fame level talent. The Rams almost certainly have a more talented roster from top to bottom--but Belichick has an unparalleled ability to put his players in position to succeed while also making the other team's best players look and feel confused. The Rams' young quarterback Jared Goff appears to have a bright future but against the Patriots he looked hesitant, uncertain and largely ineffective.

When Young and the NFL Primetime crew interviewed Patriots' owner Robert Kraft, Kraft noted that the league's structure is designed ensure parity: teams that don't do well get higher draft picks and an easier schedule than teams that do well, in order to maximize the chances that in a given season one of several teams could emerge as the champion. The Patriots have defied that structural obstacle to be perennial contenders and multiple-time champions.

You don't have to like the Patriots or root for them, but if you love football and/or if you love competitive greatness then you have to respect what they have accomplished and how they have accomplished it. Young said that the Patriots have perfected turning football into an "intellectual, academic" exercise.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

William Nack's Kentucky Derby Memories

William Nack, who passed away earlier this year, is considered one of the greatest horse racing writers of all-time. I am not a huge fan of the sport, nor am I particularly knowledgeable about it, but I respect greatness in any endeavor, so I read with interest an article by Nack in the December 31, 2018 issue of Sports Illustrated. The article is an excerpt from a memoir that Nack was working on before he died and it tells the story of the race that, as the article's subtitle puts it, "inspired his lifelong love of the sport--the 1958 Kentucky Derby."

Nack recalls his uncle Ed Feeney, then a sports photographer for the Chicago Tribune, inviting him to go to the 1958 Kentucky Derby. Nack was just 17 at the time, a horse racing fanatic who had not yet attended the race of his dreams. Nack soaked up every minute of the experience.

A few years earlier, he had memorized the names of every Kentucky Derby winner since the initial 1875 race. In 1971, as Nack describes it, his journalism career was "plodding along as a political writer at Newsday" when that memorized list helped change his life forever. At the newspaper's Christmas party, Nack recited the list and the newspaper's editor, David Laventhol, asked Nack, "Why do you know that?" Nack told him about his love for the Kentucky Derby and his trip to the 1958 event, and within minutes Laventhol tapped Nack to be the newspaper's new thoroughbread racing writer.

The rest is history.

In 2008, Nack returned to the Kentucky Derby and posed for a picture right by the spot where he had stood 50 years earlier to watch Tim Tam beat Lincoln Road by half a length.

Nack's article concludes on a note that could bring a wistful tear even to the most cynical eye:
Alas, all of them from those good old days are turned to fading shadows now and gone--Ed and Dave, Mom and Dad, Ben and Jimmy, Tim Tim and Gen. Duke, Charlie and the Shoe, Lincoln Road and Silky Sullivan, all those pretty horses.

Long gone, so long.

All these years later, I can still see them all. And I cannot shake, not in my dreams, not in my sleepless hammock reveries, that haunting line from William Faulkner set to the poignant rhythms of his poetry: "The past is never dead. It's not even past."

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Magnus Carlsen Retains World Chess Champion Title After Sweeping Fabiano Caruana 3-0 in Rapid Tiebreak

After the first World Chess Championship match that did not have a single decisive game, Magnus Carlsen won three straight games against Fabiano Caruana in the Rapid Tiebreak to retain his title. Carlsen squeezed Caruana in the first game and then almost let Caruana escape with a draw before relentlessly punishing Caruana's endgame mistake in time pressure. Carlsen won game two convincingly and then took game three as well after Caruana went for broke, as a draw would have produced the same match outcome as a loss.

Carlsen was heavily criticized for offering a draw in a winning position in game 12 of the classical portion of the match and there was much speculation about why Carlsen failed to push for a win but it seems that the simple answer is that--based on the skill sets of the players and the match format--he decided that his best strategy was to steer the match toward the Rapid Tiebreak. While these two players are evenly matched at slow time controls, Carlsen enjoys a clear and significant advantage over Caruana in faster time controls. Carlsen's game 12 draw offer is therefore understandable--his job is to win the match/retain his title, not satisfy the expectations of others--but perhaps reveals that the match format is flawed. One thing that can be said in favor of the current format is that the faster time controls to some extent deemphasize the importance of computer preparation and thus reintroduce human elements of natural talent, calm nerves and fighting spirit that are not as evident during slower time controls in this computer-dominated era.

Former World Champion Vladimir Kramnik did not like Carlsen's game 12 draw offer. Kramnik declared after game 12 and before the Rapid Tiebreak that in order to prevail Carlsen must get over his fear of losing the title. This is reminiscent of the Bene Gesserit Litany Against Fear from Frank Herbert's Dune, which states "I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain." The ability to control one's fear/nerves plays a huge role in championship level play, as I noted in "It's Just a Question of Nerves": Anand Defeats Topalov 6.5-5.5 to Retain World Chess Championship (my recap of the 2010 World Chess Championship match in which Viswanathan Anand defeated Veselin Topalov, 6.5-5.5), but the Litany Against Fear can be meaningfully applied in many areas of life.

Kramnik conceded that Carlsen should be considered the favorite in the Rapid Tiebreak but he cautioned that Caruana has legitimate practical chances if he has proper opening preparation.

Kramnik's comments make sense, but it seems a bit hypocritical for him to criticize another player's alleged fear when he dodged a rematch with Garry Kasparov, as mentioned in the interesting article Garry Kasparov: King without a Crown. While there is no question that Kramnik earned his match victory against a stubborn and complacent Kasparov, there is also no question that Kasparov deserved a rematch and should not have been forced to play in a qualifying event to get that rematch. As Kasparov stated of Kramnik, "He made new discoveries and pushed chess towards new horizons. It was not the most attractive style, but that does not matter. He came up with a strategy that took me by surprise and it is important for the development of chess that I was forced to make corrections to my style. I had been winning too many tournaments. You can't learn from your wins, only your defeats. It was a very painful defeat, but I deserved it because it taught me that I needed to change. It took a long time for me to do this--and I am still in the process of doing this--but I am winning while learning."

Kasparov retained his highest rated player in the world status even after losing to Kramnik and Kasparov absolutely dominated the subsequent tournaments. He even finally beat Kramnik's fabled Berlin Defense. "All my claims for a rematch and that I was the best player would have been weakened had I failed win," Kasparov noted. "Kramnik should play me anyway, but my victory sent out a very important message. I finally broke down the 'Berlin Wall.' I believe it is the duty of the world champion to defend his title against the most dangerous opponent. When I beat Karpov in 1985 I was forced to defend my title against him within eight months. The organizers and the public believed that Kramnik was the most dangerous opponent, so I had to play him--I had no choice. Kramnik knows this and now he is champion he must prove to the world he is 'real,' by facing his most dangerous opponent--me. In the last six months I have proved I am still the world number one and I beat Kramnik recently. But now Kramnik, who was not made to win a qualifier to play me, implies that I must qualify to play him. I don't want to diminish the importance of his victory. He deserved to win. But it is Kramnik's turn to prove Kasparov didn't go mad in London. The public need another match to prove Kramnik is the real thing."

The point of this tour down memory lane is that, while Kramnik has the right to express his opinions, it should not be forgotten that at the peak of his career as World Champion he displayed fear, if not outright cowardice. At least Carlsen embraces the opportunity to play against the second highest rated player in the world; Kramnik ducked a Kasparov rematch and eventually Kasparov retired in frustration, still the highest rated player in the world.

Interestingly, Kasparov shared Kramink's viewpoint regarding Carlsen's game 12 draw offer and Kasparov predicted that Caruana would win the Rapid Tiebreak because, according to Kasparov, the most important trait in Rapid is strong nerves and Carlsen had demonstrated that his nerves were shot. While it does appear that Carlsen's nerves or fighting spirit may not be quite what they were at the start of his reign, his performance today suggests to me that Carlsen really was just being very calculating and practical. He has enough self-awareness and enough knowledge of his opponent to understand that they are basically equal in slow games but that there is a big difference in their skills at faster time controls. It was once said of Jack Nicklaus in his prime that he knew that he was the best golfer in the world, his opponents knew and he knew that they knew. There is more than a trace of that psychological warfare in Carlsen's match strategy: he knows, and he knows that Caruana knows, that Rapid and Blitz immensely favor Carlsen.

This is the second consecutive time that Carlsen defended his title by winning a Rapid Tiebreak--he defeated Sergey Karjakin 3-1 in the 2016 World Chess Championship Rapid Tiebreak--and this is Carlsen's third title defense overall.

The World Chess Champions who dominated their eras for a long time and/or were significantly better than their contemporaries include Paul Morphy (unofficial World Champion but clearly the best player of his time), Wilhelm Steinitz, Emanuel Lasker, Bobby Fischer and Garry Kasparov. Carlsen, who has achieved the highest chess rating of all-time and won World Championships in Classical, Rapid and Blitz formats, deserves to be included in that group. Is he better/greater than those players? Would he have beaten them in a match? Those questions are impossible to answer, because of the differences in eras, rules, computer preparation and so forth. My opinion is that Fischer is the greatest player of all-time because he was further ahead of his contemporaries (based on the official ratings) than anyone else has ever been. It is worth mentioning that Fischer thought very highly of Morphy, who was far ahead of his contemporaries in an era when chess ratings did not exist. Carlsen's current rating, which is dozens of points below his peak rating, is still higher than Fischer's then-record 2785, but when Fischer was 2785 he was 125 points ahead of everyone else, which is more than half a rating class (a rating class is 200 points). That is a staggering margin. Caruana is currently just three points behind Carlsen and no one would put Caruana in the same sentence with Morphy, Steinitz, et. al.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Ross Sprague (1940-2018) Played Master Level Chess For More Than Five Decades

Ross Sprague, a dominant force in Midwest chess from the 1950s through the mid-2000s, recently passed away. Sprague achieved the National Master title during an era when there were only a few dozen Masters in the entire country and he later earned Senior Master status with a rating well over 2400.  He did not have the opportunity to play FIDE rated chess during his prime or he certainly would have attained FIDE Master status and he quite possibly could have become an International Master. National Master David Presser, the 1964 Ohio co-champion, told me years ago that he believes that Sprague is the most naturally talented native Ohio chess player of all-time. Sprague was a powerful attacker who knew a lot of opening theory and was blessed with a tremendous memory. If you survived the opening and middlegame against Sprague you then discovered that he seemed like a walking endgame tablebase. He had an incredible sense of how to optimally place his pieces and pawns during the latter stages of the game.

Sprague's chess career began in Cleveland, Ohio in the 1950s. He often told stories about playing ping pong and speed chess against Bobby Fischer during one of the U.S. Junior Opens in the late 1950s. Sprague also formed a friendship with Grandmaster Pal Benko, who called him "Poopsie" and taught him a lot about endgame play. Sprague served as an airplane mechanic during the Vietnam War and later became a practicing attorney.

Sprague won or shared first place in the Ohio Chess Congress four times (1958, 1975-76, 2005). He holds the record for longest time span between OCC titles (47 years), breaking the record of 35 years set by James Schroeder. Based on my recollection of conversations with Sprague, I believe that he said that he won several other state championships, including (I think) Illinois, but I cannot find official confirmation of this. Sprague also won the Dayton Chess Club Championship twice (2005-06).

After Sprague first moved to Dayton in the mid-2000s, I received many endgame lessons at his hands as I drew seemingly winning positions and lost seemingly drawn positions. He was past his prime (his U.S. Chess Federation rating had dropped from 2400-plus to the mid-2200s) but he could punch above his weight, as former World Chess Championship Challenger Gata Kamsky found out when Sprague held him to a draw at the Kings Island Open. I will never forget Sprague's concise recap: he said that Kamsky grumbled after the game that he had five different ways to win, to which Sprague replied in typical Sprague fashion "But you chose number six, which draws."

Clearly, I am far from the strongest player who crossed swords with Sprague but since 1991 (when the USCF first began keeping such records) I faced him 52 times in regular rated games, making him my most frequent opponent during that time frame. I am also listed as Sprague's most frequent opponent, one game ahead of International Master Calvin Blocker, but of course those records omit nearly 40 years of Sprague's chess career. Sprague scored 25 wins, 11 draws and 16 losses in our regular rated games.

I am Sprague's most frequent Quick chess opponent by a larger margin of 132-73 over Daytonian Mark Kellie. Sprague scored 56 wins, 28 draws and 48 losses against me in Quick chess.

He kept playing tournament chess until he completely lost his sight. He was too proud or stubborn to use the special equipment that is available to assist blind players to participate in tournament chess.

I believe that competing against and analyzing with Sprague is one of the major factors that helped elevate my rating from fluctuating in the low 2000s to consistently being above 2100 for several years (and peaking at 2190 before various life events put tournament chess on the back-burner for me for a while).

We first faced each other in a John Carroll University Action Tournament held on June 5, 1992; the 2427 rated Sprague beat me (I was then rated 1980) en route to finishing tied for second behind International Master Calvin Blocker. Our last regular rated game took place 19 years later to the day as I beat him in the final round of the 2011 Gem City Open. Sprague's rating was floored at 2200, while I was rated 2087; Sprague had been battling severe vision loss and other health problems for quite some time, so I have no illusions about my peak playing strength compared to his.

Sprague was well-read and our conversations were always interesting. If you caught him in the wrong state of mind, he could be a bit blunt and abrasive but he always treated me with respect and I think he knew how much I respected his chess abilities. We were from different generations and had different life experiences but we connected because of our mutual love of chess.

Here is my loss with Black against Sprague from the April 2005 Gem City Open. Sprague was rated 2205, while I was rated 2012. After an innocuous opening, we traded into an equal ending, whereupon Sprague methodically outplayed me:

1. e4 d6 2. d4 Nf6 3. Nc3 c6 4. Bg5 Qa5 5. Qd2 Nbd7 6. Nf3 h6 7. Bxf6 Nxf6 8. e5 dxe5 9. Nxe5 Be6 10. Bc4 Bxc4 11. Nxc4 Qb4 12. b3 Nd5 13. Nxd5 Qxd2+ 14. Kxd2 cxd5 15. Ne3 e6 16. Rhe1 Kd7?! 17. Kd3 Rc8 18. c4 dxc4+ 19. bxc4 Be7 20. Rab1 b6 21. f4 Rhd8 22. f5 exf5 23. Nxf5 Bf6 24. Ne3 Kc6 25. Nd5 Rxd5?! 26. cxd5+ Kxd5 27. Rbc1 Rxc1 28. Rxc1 Bxd4 29. Rc7 Be5 30. Rxf7 a5 31. h3 Bf6 32. Rc7 Kd6 33. Rc8 Kd5 34. a4 Ba1 35. Rc1 Bf6 36. Rb1 Bd8 37. Rb5+ Kc6 38. Kc4 Bf6 39. Rd5 Ba1 40. Rd1 Bf6 41. Re1 Bd8 42. Re6+ Kd7 43. Kd5 Kc7 44. Re8 Bf6 45. Rf8 b5 46. axb5 Kb6 47. Rb8+ Ka7 48. Re8 Kb6 49. Kc4 a4 50. Re6+ Kb7 51. Ra6 Be7 52. Rxa4 Kb6 53. Ra6+ Kb7 54. Kd5 Bg5 55. Rg6 Bf6 56. Rxf6 gxf6 57. Ke6 1-0.

I miss our nearly weekly friendly but fierce chess battles for Dayton Chess Club supremacy but I cherish the memories of competing against such a talented player who helped me to come closer to maximizing my potential. It is good to be challenged, to be pushed, to find out what you can do when you are tested. Thank you, Ross, and Rest in Peace.

World Chess Championship Heads to Tiebreakers After 12th Consecutive Draw

Game 12 of the 2018 World Chess Championship match came to a sudden, surprising and disappointing end after World Champion Magnus Carlsen offered a draw in a very promising position and relieved Challenger Fabiano Caruana accepted. The match, tied 6-6 after 12 straight draws, will now be decided by tiebreaker games to be played on Wednesday. The first tiebreaker is a best of four match of Rapid Chess (25 minutes per player per game, with a 10 second increment added after each completed move). The second tiebreaker is a series of up to five Blitz Chess matches of two games each played at a time control of five minutes per player per game, with a three second increment added after each completed move. If neither the Rapid nor Blitz tiebreakers prove decisive, then the World Chess Championship will be determined by a one game, winner take all Armageddon showdown during which White has five minutes and Black has four minutes plus draw odds (thus, a draw is a win for Black). An increment of three seconds per move will be applied after move 60 of the Armageddon game. The players will draw lots for color assignments in these games. The prize fund would have been split 60/40 had the outcome been decided during the 12 Classical games but now it will be split 55/45.

For those who love chess as an art and violent sport, it is sad that the linear, classical World Championship will once again be decided by games contested at fast time controls. This is exactly what happened in the previous World Championship match when Carlsen retained his title by defeating Sergey Karjakin 3-1 in a Rapid tiebreak match. At the time, I acknowledged the entertainment value of those Rapid games but also stated unequivocally that this is a "terrible" way to determine who is World Champion. There are separate championship events for Rapid and Blitz, so deciding the classical World Championship with Rapid (and possibly Blitz and even Armageddon) tiebreaks is like determining the NBA Championship with a Three Point Shootout followed by a Slam Dunk Contest; those are great events but they have nothing to do with crowning a champion.

Bobby Fischer, arguably the greatest chess player of all-time and a tremendous fighter, once responded to a draw offer by growling, "I determine when it is a draw!" He won the 1964 U.S. Championship with an unprecedented 11-0 sweep, fighting to the bitter end to win the last game even though the second place finisher (former U.S. Champion Larry Evans) was hopelessly behind with 7.5/11. It was later said that Evans won the tournament and Fischer won the exhibition. Fischer later won 20 straight games en route to claiming the 1972 World Chess Championship; the mental power, psychological tenacity and personal drive that it takes to prevail in 20 consecutive games against the best players in the world is difficult to quantify or explain--but it stands in marked contrast to Carlsen's approach in this match and particularly in game 12, about which he said flatly, "I wasn't in a mood to find the punch." As Gurney Halleck told Paul Atreides in Frank Herbert's Dune, "What has mood to do with it? You fight when the necessity arises--no matter the mood! Mood's a thing for cattle or making love or playing the baliset. It's not for fighting."

It is evident that, based on Carlsen's match strategy to minimize risk as much as possible in the 12 classical games and then seek victory at faster time controls, Carlsen did not believe that "necessity" had arisen in game 12. Carlsen's strategy may make statistical sense based on a comparison of his prowess at faster time controls compared to Caruana's relative ineptitude at such time controls but this situation indicates that the match's format is flawed if fan excitement and decisive games are paramount values.

It also seems that Carlsen in general has lost some of his fighting spirit/motivation, his confidence or perhaps both. Carlsen's confidence may have been shaken after missing a winning shot in game one. Carlsen's public lament about his favorite chess player being himself several years ago--even if offered tongue-in-cheek--strikes an odd note for a World Champion and the highest rated player ever who one would expect to have tremendous confidence in his repeatedly demonstrated abilities.

Is it possible that, having been World Champion and having surpassed the rating record once held first by Fischer and then by Garry Kasparov, Carlsen has lost the drive to be the champion? He wants to win--anyone in his position would want to win--but does Carlsen still want to work hard enough to win or is he content to just kind of coast and accept whatever outcome happens? Prime Carlsen used to show at least some semblance of the fighting spirit that Fischer almost always displayed, for prime Carlsen used to press minuscule edges until his opponent cracked. Now, Carlsen lacks the willpower or patience for such long-term maneuvering.

Grandmaster Alex Yermolinsky, whose pithy, blunt and informed post-game video commentaries have been a treat to watch, speculated that the problem "may not be the format, but the players." He hypothesized that because Carlsen and Caruana have lived and are living rather sheltered lives without deprivation or risk they do not understand or appreciate what is at stake in a World Championship match. Yermolinsky stated that regardless of the outcome on Wednesday, life will proceed the same way for both players, with invitations to closed tournaments with guaranteed paydays and not much at risk.

Carlsen has already accomplished a lot in chess, and defending his crown against the second highest rated player in the world would further enhance his legacy but from the larger viewpoint of the future of the sport this kind of match is not good from an artistic or sporting standpoint--nor is there reason to believe that circumstances would improve if Caruana becomes World Champion, because throughout this match he has alternately been unable or unwilling to push Carlsen despite the fact that it is obvious that Carlsen is content to have 12 draws. If I were Caruana, I would resent the notion that I am easy prey at any time control.

It remains to be seen if either player has saved up any special opening preparation for these final games. If Carlsen has done so, then Caruana--who is uncomfortable anyway at fast time controls--is toast; if Caruana has a surprise up his sleeve then it will be interesting to see Carlsen forced to react to a novelty with limited time to think.

The tiebreaker games will likely be entertaining, but not as entertaining as it would have been to see the title determined by a decisive result in the classical portion of the match.