Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Why Steffi Graf?

It is close, but I think Steffi Graf is the best female singles tennis player ever.

Steffi Graf's career is well known to any tennis fan.  She won 22 Grand Slam (GS) singles titles and an Olympics gold, and was No.1 for the longest time.  She successfully challenged legends of the past (Martina Navratilova, Chris Evert), dominated her generation (Gabriela Sabatini, Monica Seles, Arantxa Sánchez Vicario), and played well against the younger generation (Martina Hingis , Lindsay Davenport, the Williams sisters).  She was good on all courts.

The argument basically comes down to two issues.

First is that Margaret Court won 24 GS singles.  But Court spent only half of her career in the open era.  So it is not a stretch to say Graf did at least as well as Court.

The second, the Seles factor.  Some people feel strongly that without Seles's stabbing in 1993, Graf would not have won that many GS.  However, no one can predict what might have happened, and this notion might well be a wishful thinking.

Conventional wisdom is that Seles dominated against Graf.  This is simply not true.  Graf had a winning record against Seles before and after the stabbing.   People got the idea from 1990-1992.  It should be noted that Seles is younger than Graf, and Graf was also going through a hard time due to injuries, diseases, and legal/family problems then, so the result was not a surprise, but one should never take it for granted that it would continue forever.  Seles was new and rising, so people thought she would be the next big one.  Did she have it to be it, though?  Not likely.  Remember, many "next big ones" failed to materialize. 

For one, people with the power game like Seles usually do not age well and will have more injuries later in their career.  Seles also never moved that well, which would be exploited as opponents adjusted to her play.  Seles missed 10 GS during her timeout, Graf won only 6 of those, not a huge advantage as one would think.  The most telling part is Seles herself.  Her timeout was much more than needed for the wound to heal, suggesting mostly a mental hesitation.  But to be great, one needs to be tough mentally and overcomes adversities.  Everybody including Graf went through that.  Seles could have come back strong in a few months, but she clearly didn't do well to overcome the incident, no matter how terrible it was, especially since steps had long been taken to prevent it from happening again.  Seles might look tough on the courts and was still a great champion, but she was not as tough as other legends of the game.

Seles was certainly not napping during her timeout.  She was still training, and one would think that she would be fresh and ready to revive her career, minus more than two years' grinding on the tour.  When she came back in 1995, she was indeed still a top player, easily got to the final of US Open.  There, Graf beat her.  She won the next Australian Open (Graf was missing).  When they met in the 1996 US Open, Graf beat her again.  Thus, while Seles could still beat most people, there was just no real evidence that she could have dominated Graf had she not been out.  Especially when Seles was fresh, and Graf was another two years older on the WTA tour age scale.  The rust factor can be largely discounted because Seles had little problem with anybody else in 1995 and 1996.

Seles faded after 1996.  Graf is older, played much longer, and was still a top player in 2000.  So, what might have happened?  Assuming Seles maintained her intensity of play, not a given, she could take away a couple of Graf's GS titles during 1993-1995, but Graf might also simply trade her losses to Arantxa Sánchez Vicario to losses to Seles and got a similar number of GS.  If Graf suffered a few more defeats by Seles, perhaps Graf would be fresher for more tennis, or she would be more motivated.  Seles could have faded in 1994 instead of 1997.  We will never know, but based on their characters, Graf was the stronger person.  Their head-to-head record says the same thing.

Graf didn't win every GS she entered.  With challengers like Seles, Graf could still have won 22 GS, perhaps just in slightly different years and different events. 

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Is Jan-Ove Waldner is the best male table tennis player ever?

Waldner is a Swedish table tennis player who has a remarkable career.  He won the World Championship twice in singles and four times in teams, one World Cup, and one Olympics Gold.  He appeared in a few other major finals as well, and won numerous other titles.  Nobody can argue he is not one of the greatest ever, but is he the GOAT, as many people believe?  Objectively, does he pass the litmus test with the three criteria?

First, the achievements.  Waldner has an impressive collection of major titles (team and singles only).  But keep in mind that World Cup didn’t exist until 1980, and Olympics 1988.   Guo Yuehua, who played from mid-1970s to 1983, won the World Championship twice in singles and three times in teams, and two World Cups.  In more recent times, Wang Liqin won three World Championship singles and four team titles, and one Olympics team gold.  Ma Lin won five team World Championships, four World Cups, and Olympics team and singles gold medals.  Waldner stood up well against anyone else, but did not go far and beyond. 

Second, head-to-head records against rivals.  This is one area Waldner did not exactly excel as GOATs would.  Waldner competed with a long list of players, in terms of generations of Chinese, Jiang Jialiang (most of the 1980s)-Ma Wenge (1989-early 1990s)-Kong Linghui/Liu Guoliang (mid-1990s to early 2000s)-Ma Lin/Wang Liqin (Waldner played longer, but those were his chief rivals).  Waldner dominated only against Ma Wenge.  Jiang Jialiang always gave Waldner a headache.  Liu Guoliang was tough on Waldner until 2000, while Waldner beat Kong until 2000.  Waldner’s records against Ma Lin or Wang Liqin are not good, although then Waldner was already past his prime.  His teammate Jörgen Persson also played about 50:50 against Waldner. 

So come to criterion #3, it is safe to leave GOAT open, because nobody has been THAT dominant.  This certainly does not diminish Waldner’s immense influence on the sport. 

Now the more technical:  how about the intangibles, and will or should they affect the consideration of GOAT?

The most impressive aspect about Waldner’s career is definitively its longevity, beginning from his first world championship team final appearance in 1983 till his run in 2004 Olympics.  Only Jörgen Persson could match it in duration but not in brilliance.  But as great as Jimmy Connors was, few consider him as GOAT. 

The playing style, will or should it add a few points?  This is too subjective.  Waldner had a great table tennis instinct, excellent and deceptive serves followed by devastating attacks, and his rallies were steady, innovative, but not overpowering.  Many “new tricks” attributed to Waldner were actually not his inventions, although his high profile enhanced their acceptance.  The fact that Waldner was a finesse player who relied more on instinct and experience than on athleticism explains his longevity but also why players like Jiang Jialiang and Liu Guoliang whose styles of play caused a natural trouble for Waldner. 

Should Waldner get extra credits for challenging the Chinese all by himself?  This argument is in reality not valid because it ignores the fact that Sweden was one of the best table tennis countries for a long time and has a rich history and tradition.  Waldner is the most outstanding, yet he was aided by great coaches, mentors, and teammates along the way.  Stellan Bengtsson was the first Swedish world singles champion in 1971 and a huge influence, and two of the most successful teammates of Waldner were Mikael Appelgren and Jörgen Persson.  From 1980s till mid-1990s Europe also had many other elite players like Andrzej Grubba, Zoran Primorac, Jörg Roßkopf, Jean-Philippe Gatien, Jean-Michel Saive, and Vladimir Samsonov.   

In sum, Waldner has a strong case but weaker than Federer in tennis.  By the way, I think Steffi Graf is, but Federer is not GOAT. 

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

中国短道速滑队 is a mess

According to 新浪体育北京时间815日消息,国家体育局冬季运管理中心15日夜宣布,整短道速滑队领队王春露的工作位,离国家短道

The direct cause is obviously the brawl.  It is probably the worst ever PR disaster in Chinese sports and might be an extension from the earlier brawl.  There has never been an incident of a similar scale from any other national teams with better or worse achievements.  It reveals problems with how the short track team was run and characteristics of certain coach/skaters/manager.  

There are many unanswered questions.  What we have learned is what 王濛 said, what 李琰 said, and what some other people said.  We never heard what 王春露 said directly about the episode, although there is speculation that 王春露 was the source of some media reports.  Nobody appeared 100% innocent, but in short, we don’t know both sides of the stories.

But based on what we do know from , 王濛drank, cursed, threatened people, beat people, and damaged properties, which should have earned her a jail time, not simply a dismissal from the national team. She showed a total disrespect to the laws and other people and no brain whatsoever during the incident.  王濛 was like running a mafia and the real boss of the team.  She has perhaps 5 core supporters, and all the other, younger skaters must obey her or else.  Even the coaches and manager were afraid of her some times.  Right after the dismissal, 王濛 threatened to expose some sponsorship and drug scandals, although she didn’t follow up.  I am all for the disclosures: she or anyone with real evidence should come forward to say whatever is wrong with the team.  In fact, one would have earned more respect if saying it while still with the team. The relevant government agencies should look into the accusations, although it would be hard to get deeper without cooperation.

Another troubling aspect is the division between 李琰 and 王春露, mostly from what 李琰 said.  李琰 complained about王春露’s involvement in the training and how王春露 dealt with the skaters and money.  These problems between 李琰 and 王春露 aren't even directly related to the brawl.  We don’t know the real story because王春露 has been silent.  It seems, however, a lot of complaints李琰 could have raised directly with 王春露 before.  If she did, I am curious of what 王春露 responded.  Did 王春露 give a good explanation?  If so, why did 李琰 keep talking?  If not, why didn’t 李琰 complain to a higher up?   She has had plenty of time.  李琰 apparently complained to王濛 a lot, but did 李琰 try to solve the problem with 王春露 or not? 

王春露 should answer many of the accusations directly, although it seems unlikely, as she remains with the sport agency, just no longer a manager.  There is a clear problem with the way she works with 李琰 and some skaters, although not everybody.  Still, the public has the right to know how the national team operates and uses its money.

As it stands, the apparent real winner is李琰, loser is 王春露.  王濛 might receive only token punishment and return sooner rather than later, but only time will tell.  But unless王濛 emerges truly a better person, I don’t like the future of the team.  The public deserves a better representation, gold medals be damned.  

While 李琰 is the biggest winner, she is the one I am the most disappointed with here.  I knew her name since the late 1980s.   She was a great skater, and the Olympics didn’t incorporate short track soon enough.  She also worked in the North America for a long time, so I expect that she would be able to deal with people and the media in a more straightforward manner.  Largely speculative at this point, yet from the media reports, she seems to talk behind people’s back instead of working out the differences openly, and like to talk about people instead of what really happened.  For example, if what 王濛 complained about王春露’s public explanations about the brawl was valid, why didn’t 李琰 work with王濛 and 王春露 earlier?  李琰’s husband was with 王濛 out drinking, and 李琰 was present during the drawl, but what did she do at the time, and why didn’t she say anything earlier and specifically about what really happened that night or morning?

Purely speculative, 李琰 may be afraid of 王濛, and to a lesser extent, her core supporters in the team.  She absolutely depends on them to perform well in 2014, and this further emboldens 王濛’s gangs. Now that王春露 is gone, 李琰 has no more excuse.  Can 李琰 deliver?  I am not optimistic.  Regardless of 王濛’s status, 李琰 needs to develop younger skaters.  Perhaps two years has been or will be wasted before anything good will happen. 

Why 铁道部新闻发言人王勇平被免职 is wrong

According to 人民网北京816 据新网英文(微博)消息,中国道部816日表示,道部新闻发言人王勇平被免

I think 王勇平 got a bad deal.  The moral of the story is that the Chinese society (the public and officials), as a whole, needs to get more sophisticated dealing with the flow of information.

What王勇平 did is clear, as he gave the first press conference one day after the “7.23”甬温线动车事故.  At the time, understandably, the public was anxious to learn more about the accident, like the cause and casualties.  Understandably, much of the information was incomplete or not available at the time, there was a lot of confusion, and the situation was still evolving.  This is the background we need to remember.   On behalf of 道部, 王勇平apologized, promised to help the victims, and promised to investigate and to do a better job later.  He said whatever he knew at the time and more (below).  Most importantly, looking back three weeks later, what he said turned out to be the closest to the truth, compared to the so many rumors and confusion at the time.

The controversy stemmed from the fact he said “至于你信不信,我反正信了” and “只能是生命的奇迹”.  Let’s analyze the contexts. 
至于你信不信,我反正信了” was in a response to a question about 体被地掩埋, 是不是了掩盖.   当听到这样, 王勇平生如此愚蠢的问题? 这么举世都知道的事故淹没的了?”  (someone more knowledgeable) 我,不是想掩埋,事个事情是无法掩埋的,王勇平要掩埋,他们给出了这样的解现场抢险的情况, 境非常复杂,下面是一个泥塘,施展来很不方便,其他的理,所以他车头埋在下面,盖上土,主要是便于抢险。他们给出的解这样,至于你信不信,我反正是信的。

From what is accepted now and supported by real evidence, there was no such thing as “or车头被掩埋, 掩盖”.  The problem started with the question, which is akin to asking “why did you beat your wife”.  王勇平 made a mistake by agreeing to or assuming “车头埋在下面,盖上土”.  While it is true that 车头 and 其他的 were moved at the time, they were never 掩埋 by a common sense.   The underlying meaning of his answer, which was about why they moved the车头, is certainly more believable than掩盖.  In short, 王勇平信的是.

只能是生命的奇迹”was in response to the question何救援宣告束后仍发现一名生儿童.  Again, the problem started with the question, like asking “why did you beat your wife”.  There was some confusion about 救援宣告in the morning of 7/24.  There was never any official declaration of 救援.  Some people appeared to believe that they had done all they would, with their overnight search and the equipment they had, which was understandable but did not by itself mean the whole rescue effort was over.  All reports indicated that the rescue of the girl on the bridge was possible only after better equipment was brought in later.  王勇平 was not familiar with the details and unprepared for this question, especially since the child was rescued only a few hours earlier, so he seemed to simply borrow a common phrase like “生命的奇迹”.  People used it a lot when they found any survivor 5 days after an earthquake.  With a clear mind, one can say every survival is a miracle, more so if you are in a terrible accident, are squeezed in a tiny space in a hot summer day, and everyone around you is dead.

I have watched many press conferences and seen many evasive or patently wrong answers from high and low level officials.  What王勇平 did was actually passable under a difficult situation (honest and eventually correct most of the time), although imperfect.  The main problem is that he tried to befriend everybody by bowing and using folk languages like “至于你信不信,我反正信了” and “只能是生命的奇迹”, to the point that it almost seemed insincere. On one hand the common people could see an official trying to be like just one of them.  On the other hand, they could view this as a sign that the government was not in control or was hiding something; with the emotion running high then, this would be a more probable outcome.  

So what could have been done better?  The reporters first should do their homework better by asking questions that were more precise and supported by real evidence.  王勇平 should also do his homework better, think about the questions before answering, and say what he needed to say, nothing more or less.  Like “至于你信不信,我反正信了” is not helpful.     

Monday, August 15, 2011

Is Lin Dan the best badminton player ever?

Selecting the greatest player of all time (GOAT) is a semi-serious exercise by sports fans.  Firstly, we have to decide on the criteria, which are seldom agreed upon universally.  My criteria, as listed below, are likely stringent, for the reasons given therein.  Secondly, one has to make certain assumptions.  The most important one is that the overall, relative quality of players or competitions is the same across generations, even though players of the younger generations look clearly stronger and faster than those of the older ones.  Such an assumption may or may not be true, but it is a reasonable null hypothesis.

My three criteria for a GOAT: 1. This player's achievements must be better than those of all the other greats in the history of the sport, or in rare cases, at least the same as the best of the class.  Examples of achievements include Olympics gold medals, world championships, world cup championships, grand slams, and other, historically major competitions/titles in the sports.  This criterion is obvious and accepted by everybody, although the details can be up to debate.  2. This player must have a good head-to-head record against all his principal rivals of the same generation as well as against those of an earlier generation and of a later generation, if a large sample size is available.  This is a tough one, but it shows that this player is truly a transcending figure, pushing aside earlier greats, thoroughly dominating his peers, and then withstanding challenges from the young guns.  A possible scenario is that if he keeps on playing for too long, he will lose to the younger players more and more.  A solution is to set an arbitrary cutoff time up to the point when he is in the final of his last major title game, meaning that he is still competitive.  3. It is OK not to have a GOAT.  Combining criteria 1 and 2 we will have many candidates with an overall excellent case for GOAT but also a glaring weakness, in any sport.  In that case, since GOAT is really about a sport as a whole and the history of the sport and more than any particular game, any single player, or a generation of players, why don't we just leave the "sacred" title vacant for now?

With these tough but objective criteria, is Lin Dan the GOAT in badminton? (Since 1980, because before 1980 the badminton world was divided, so it is hard to argue for or against the players then.)

1. Define the achievements, slightly different from what the BWF says.  Level I events are Olympics (OG), World Championships (WC), Thomas/Uber Cup, Sudirman Cup.  Level II are All-England (AE), Asian Games (AG), team and singles.  Level III: all the others.  AE is ranked high here because of its longest history.  Some of the events are for teams, but one can still consider the individual plays.

2. Let's define Lin Dan's generations or main competitors, one from each country and roughly based on when they first played in the Olympics.  Of the same generation: Lee Chong Wei (LCW), Bao Chunlai, Sony Dwi Kuncoro (SDK), Park Sung Hwan.  The previous generation: Peter Gade (PG), Taufik Hidayat (TH), Xia Xuanze, Lee Hyun Il (LHI), and Choong Hann Wong.  TH and LHI can also be considered only half a generation older than Lin Dan (LD) or even the same.  The younger generation: Chen Jin, Simon Santoso, and Jan Ø. Jørgensen.

If we look at LD's achievements (criterion 1), he is far better than anybody listed above, with one OG, AG (two teams and one singles), 4 WC, 4 AE, 4 Thomas Cups, 4 Sudirman Cups, all as the No 1 singles, and many other titles.   The only person ever coming close in comparison is Yang Yang (YY).  YY won WC consecutively and was a sure hand in Thomas Cup plays.  In YY's time there was no Olympics badminton, although he won the exhibition in 1988, and only once Sudirman Cup, in which YY won his matches.  LD's peak or domination is from late 2003 and still ongoing (2011), while YY peaked from 1986-1990.

Criterion 2 sets LD apart from YY and everybody else.  YY had a bit trouble beating Zhao Jianhua, while LD dominates all his major rivals.  For example, according to BWF, which does not count AG, the head-to-head record until 8/2011 against TH is 8:3, LCW 16:8, LHI 9:3, PG 15:3, SDK 9:1, and Chen Jin 11:5.  Only the older Chinese Xia Xuanze has an OK record against LD.

So LD's case for GOAT is extraordinarily strong and airtight.  He is truly the best ever. To put it into perspective, I don't think there is a clear GOAT in women's badminton.  With Badminton being such a physically taxing sport, it is hard to imagine anyone could be so good for so long.  We are lucky to witness LD playing at our times. 

Note: LD's battle with LCW in 2011 WC was a dramatic match, high in intensity but low in beauty (relatively speaking), as both players made a ton of errors.  LD made more at the beginning of each set but fewer at the end, which was why he won.  There is nothing like fate or certainty that prevented LCW from winning.  With some extra luck LCW could have won.  But the place of LD in history was set well before 2011.


About SSPN

Inspired by ESPN, SSPN stands for sports/social/politics/news, typical subjects of this blog. 

I am interested in many sports.  I play badminton and table tennis since the late 1970s, and tennis since mid-1990s.  I watch and follow many others since 1970s.  My favorite professional sports team is the NY Yankees, and if I need another one, the STL Cardinals.