Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Edward Pariants' Poignant and Loving Tribute to Mikhail Tal

"Genius is pain."--John Lennon

In 1992, Edward Pariants penned a beautiful obituary about the incomparable World Chess Champion Mikhail Tal, who had just died at the age of 55 after an all-too brief life plagued by serious health problems. The entire piece is a wonderful remembrance of a great genius--a bon vivant and a good soul who was gifted not only at chess but also as a writer (his autobiography The Life and Games of Mikhail Tal is one of the greatest chess books of all-time)--but these passages are particularly insightful:

A beautiful man was gone, the brightest player of our century was lost. Earth possessed one genius less. Nature is not generous with genius. Should she perchance extend the offer to all, few, if they knew the conditions genius imposes, would readily accept...

Then, of course, there is fate. The monumental question is, Why? Why are there people here on Mother Earth who must live without a kidney or without half their insides. Why did this have to be his fate? This I can't understand. All too often, while the world awaited further sparkling victories a la Tal, he was in an ambulance, angrily demanding that he be made well enough to play chess "sooner, faster, quicker!"...

It goes without saying that Misha was a prodigiously talented player, but the secret of his genius did not lie in his amazing ability to calculate or in his phenomenal memory--he could show you all 40 games played in a simul!--his greatest gift was his love of the game.

I have heard it said that Tal did not know any theory, that he just played "off the top of his head." This is ridiculous. To be a genius in your profession a complete mastery of theory is a necessary starting point. Consider the great Spanish painter Velasquez. Velasquez' deep understanding of classical painting was the foundation that allowed him to diverge from classical theory more profoundly than anyone else of his time.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Putting Nadal's Shocking First Round Loss at Wimbledon in Proper Historical Context

Just two weeks after capturing his record eighth French Open title, Rafael Nadal lost in the first round at Wimbledon to 135th ranked Steve Darcis, falling in straight sets--7-6 (4), 7-6 (8), 6-4--to a player who has won just two career ATP titles. This is the first time that Nadal lost in the first round of a Grand Slam. Nadal's setback reemphasizes how difficult it is to win both the French Open and Wimbledon in the same year and how rare it is even for an all-time great to make it through his whole career without suffering a first round loss in a Grand Slam.

Bjorn Borg's "triple double"--winning both the French Open and Wimbledon for three straight years (1978-80)--is unprecedented. When Borg retired at 26, he simultaneously held the modern record for most French Open titles (six) and most Wimbledon titles (five); no other player has ever held both records. Borg never lost in the first round of a Grand Slam and he only once lost in the second round; he made the Finals 16 times in 27 Grand Slam appearances, an astonishing .593 percentage.

Nadal has reached a Grand Slam Final 17 times in 35 appearances (.486). Nadal won the French Open and Wimbledon in the same year in 2008 and 2010, while Roger Federer accomplished this in 2009. Rod Laver is the only other male player to win the "Channel Slam" during the Open Era (post-1968). Laver reached a Grand Slam Final 25 times in 55 appearances (.455), but he lost several prime years of his Grand Slam career because prior to the Open Era professionals were not permitted to play in Grand Slam events; without those restrictions, Laver would have notched several more Grand Slam wins and Finals appearances. He lost in the first round of a Grand Slam five times. Federer has reached a Grand Slam Final 24 times in 56 appearances (.429). He lost in the first round of a Grand Slam six times. Federer may be the most durable great player in tennis history but he is not as dominant as Borg, Nadal or Laver.

Nadal's first round Wimbledon loss is surprising, whether or not he is completely healthy (last year he lost in the second round at Wimbledon and then had to take seven months off to rest his balky knees), but his Grand Slam career is not seriously diminished by this one blemish.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Does Nadal Belong in the Greatest Ever Conversation? Oui, Oui, Oui, Oui, Oui, Oui, Oui, Oui

Bjorn Borg's career numbers are as impressive and dominant as those of any other Open Era player but if--following current fashion--the "greatest" discussion must be limited to what we have seen in the past 10 years or so then Rafael Nadal must be included very prominently in that conversation. Nadal defeated David Ferrer 6-2, 6-3, 6-2 to capture his eighth French Open title; he has not only shattered Borg's French Open record (six titles) but Nadal now holds the record for most wins at any single Grand Slam event. Nadal is tied with Roy Emerson for third on the all-time list for Grand Slam singles titles (12), trailing only Roger Federer (17) and Pete Sampras (14). Emerson held that record for more than three decades, but he was not particularly dominant (winning 12 Grand Slam titles in 59 appearances, a .203 winning percentage) and he racked up those championships in no small part because tennis' ridiculous rules during the pre-Open Era prevented Rod Laver and other professionals from playing in Grand Slam events. Emerson won 10 of his 12 Grand Slam titles from 1963-67 without having to face Laver even once; Laver won all four Grand Slams in 1962, was not eligible to participate in the Grand Slam events from 1963-67 and then he won all four Grand Slams again in 1969. Laver enjoyed a 49-18 head to head record against Emerson, who was just two years older than Laver, and Laver won seven of the nine Grand Slam matches that they played against each other.

In contrast to Emerson, Nadal has been dominant (12 Grand Slam wins in 34 appearances, a .353 winning percentage) and Nadal owns a 20-10 head to head record against Roger Federer, who was prematurely crowned by many pundits as the greatest player of all-time. Nadal has never trailed in his matchup with Federer, even when he was a young player while Federer was at the height of his considerable powers. Federer has won 17 out of the 56 Grand Slam events that he has entered (.304) and Sampras won 14 of the 52 Grand Slam events that he entered (.269). Borg still holds the all-time record (11 for 27, a stunning .407 winning percentage). Nadal has now won at least one Grand Slam in nine straight years, breaking the record of eight shared by Borg (1974-81), Sampras (1993-2000) and Federer (2003-10).

Nadal's 2013 season could end up being one of the greatest ever; he has a 43-2 match record this year, including 22 wins in a row. He has won 21 of his 22 matches against top 10 players. It was hilarious to hear some people suggest in 2011 that Nadal had some kind of "Djokovic problem." While Djokovic won all six of his matches against Nadal in 2011, that was clearly an aberration; Djokovic had one great year during which he pretty much beat everybody--including Nadal--but after his five set win over Djokovic in the French Open semifinals Nadal leads Djokovic 20-15 in their head to head encounters and he has never trailed in his head to head matchup with Djokovic. Anyone who thinks that owning a 20-15 advantage over Djokovic is a "problem" for Nadal should explain why Nadal's 20-10 lead over Federer is not a "crisis" for Federer.

Tennis' official ranking system sheds little light on who should be considered the greatest player right now, let alone who is the greatest player of a particular era or the greatest player of all-time; all you need to know about tennis' official ranking system is that, even after Nadal's straight set victory over Ferrer, Ferrer passed Nadal and is now ranked fourth while Nadal drops to fifth. That is why I do not put much credence into who is ranked number one and/or how many weeks a player has been ranked number one during his career; the most relevant tennis statistics are Grand Slam titles won divided by Grand Slam appearances, match winning percentages in Grand Slam events and head to head results against elite players (provided the sample size is large enough), followed by those same statistics in ATP Masters events, followed by those same statistics in all Tour events.

Another important factor to consider is multi-surface dominance; the three most amazing statistics about Borg are that he won over 40% of the Grand Slam events that he entered, that he at one time held the modern record both for career French Open titles (six) and career Wimbledon titles (five) and that he won both of those events in the same year a record three straight times (1978-80). Nadal now owns the French Open record and both Sampras and Federer broke Borg's Wimbledon record but no one has come close to Borg's winning percentage, his French Open/Wimbledon "three-peat" or achieving simultaneous career dominance of both events. If Nadal can stay healthy, he is the one player who could perhaps approach Borg's standards in all of those categories.

Biogenesis Scandal Demonstrates that Bud Selig and Major League Baseball Still Have not Contained the PED Problem

Major League Baseball ignored rampant performance-enhancing drug (PED) abuse among its players in the 1990s as Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire--among many others--disgraced the sport and trashed its most hallowed records; in the 2000s MLB asserted that its PED problem had been solved but the fact that high profile players still test positive for PEDs is an indicator both that players believe that they can get away with cheating and that players believe that PEDs work, even though economists/"stat gurus" insist otherwise. The ongoing Biogenesis scandal--which implicates more than 20 MLB players for using PEDs, including admitted PED offender Alex Rodriguez and 2011 NL MVP Ryan Braun--strongly suggests that PED users continue to win major awards and lead teams to championships.

Major League Baseball's late and tepid response to rampant PED abuse illustrates that Commissioner Bud Selig's greatest flaw is that he lacks the toughness to make difficult decisions--or, to put it another way, it seems as if Selig has too much "good" Captain Kirk in his personality. If Selig had been an effective leader then he would have tackled the PED problem head on from the beginning, much like NBA Commissioner David Stern instituted a strong policy against so-called recreational drugs in the 1980s when rampant drug abuse threatened both the league's image and the league's integrity (why should anyone pay to watch people who are literally getting high on the job?).

A few MLB players had the integrity to speak out against PED use even when it was not popular to express such opinions; one of those outspoken players was Frank Thomas, whose physique never changed during his career and who was robbed of at least one MVP (in 2000) by someone who later admitted using PEDs (Jason Giambi). Thomas recently said, "When I played, guys all said, 'Let's get to the Hall of Fame.' Now guys are like, 'Let's do five years and make $150 million, and you're set for life. Who cares?' I think that's the feeling among most of the guys now. It's shameful, what's happened over the last seven, eight years with this whole scandal, but guys continue to try it. I played against Barry and Roger and I know they're Hall of Famers, but what they did at the end of their careers is going to hurt them for life, I believe. It's a sad thing, because I know how good those guys were. Barry could have been a 500-500 [home runs and steals] guy before he started doing this stuff. Really, was it necessary? He could have gone down as one of the greatest all-around players of all time, if not the greatest."

MLB's PED cheaters damaged the game, damaged the careers of the clean players and very likely damaged their own bodies as well; it is wrong to suggest that PED abuse was somehow a victimless crime or not even a crime at all: in 1988 the federal government made it illegal to use steroids without a medical prescription, so MLB's PED users since that time broke federal laws, received their inflated salaries under false pretenses and essentially stole money from the clean athletes who were not competing on a level playing field. 

It will not be easy to clean up MLB or any of the other sports leagues/federations that are infested with PED cheaters--but that is no excuse to just give up; not every thief, con man and murderer is caught, prosecuted and sent to jail but law enforcement authorities and the judicial system are still duty bound/honor bound to pursue the criminals who can be caught, prosecuted and sent to jail.