Saturday, August 18, 2012

The nobody beats me twice in a week rule

This golden rule states that if in a group play, team or individual A beats the close rival B but both finish atop of the group and advance, when they meet again in the final, B will beat A.  There are exceptions, but it happens often enough to merit evaluation.

The rule requires a competition format in which the field is composed of two round-robin groups, and then the elimination stage.  If you have a single elimination format or a single, large group, then nobody has a second chance.  If you have many groups, common in football, then title contenders are never placed in the same group.  Another limit for the rule is that A and B must be close in their world ranking, level of play, win-lose record, etc.  Thus, it does not apply to the US basketball teams and other clear favorites.

Not many tournaments use this format.  The most high profiled ones are the Olympic volleyball and tennis year-end championships.  Below are examples of A and B play in the group stage as well as in the final.

1984 Olympics.  Men, US lost to Brazil in group 0:3, but won the final 3:0.  Women, China lost to the US 1:3 but won the final 3:0.  These teams finished the groups as #1 and 2 and were considered strong title contenders at the time.

1992.  Men, Brazil beat Netherlands 3:0 and 3:0 twice.  However, Netherlands was #4 in the group and considered a surprise getting to the final.

1996.  Men, Netherlands vs Italy, 0:3, and 3:2.  They finished their group #1 and 2.

2000.  Men, Russia vs Yugoslavia, 3:1, 0:3.  #2 and 3 in their group.  Women, Cuba vs Russia, 2:3, and 3:2.  #1 and 2 in group.

2004.  We have the true exceptions this year.  Men, Brazil vs Italy, 3:2, 3:1.  Women, Russia vs China, 0:3, 2:3.  All finished #1 and 2 in group.  But on the women's side, Cuba was considered a stronger team than Russia, and Russia actually came awfully close to winning the final.

2012.  Men, Brazil vs Russia, 3:0, 2:3.  #2 and 3 in the group but had the same 4:1 record as the #1 US.  Russia came back from two sets down but the fifth set was easy, unlike the Chinese women in 2004.  Women, Brazil vs US, 1:3, 3:1.  US and Brazil rank #1 and 2 in the world.  Brazil was #4 in the group but only because of the upset by a clearly weaker South Korea team.

This rules is not limited to volleyball.  In ATP tour championships, 8 top players are placed into 2 groups, and top 2 advance to the SF and final.  In both 1994 and 1996, Sampras lost to Becker by a close 0:2 but prevailed in the final 3:1 and 3:2.  Becker was then still a dangerous player, able to beat Sampras enough times, and in 1996 playing in Germany the match was like a heavy weight title fight.

Why loser (B) of the first match tends to win the second time?  Because it happens so many times, it can't be attributed to the randomness of sports.  Perhaps B wasn't in the top form during the less important group play, or B made adjustments after the loss, to which A failed to adapt.   

So if I am B going to the final, I will feel confident but still need to figure out what went wrong the first time.  If I am A, I will be very alarmed.  Expect B will be very different, motivate myself or the players, and mentally plan for dramatic changes in the process and strategies.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Two interesting matches in the Olympics

A previous post "Two countries, three sports" pondered the future of badminton, table tennis, and tennis and suggested that badminton and table tennis might go like tennis as far as competiveness is concerned.  Currently China is dominant in badminton and table tennis, having won all 9 golds in the two events in London (and all world championships prior).  But the dominance will wane.  A critical factor is that nobody can keep a secret of the techniques Chinese use or develop, and Chinese coaches will train other athletes in China or overseas.  So players from other countries will master the same techniques and are not at any disadvantage facing Chinese players.  The only, main advantage Chinese players have is that their teammates are overall better training partners, but if it is the world vs China, the advantage is minimized.  Just like professional tennis.

If there is, ideally, little difference among countries, how about individual players?  Obviously, how well an athlete learns and uses various techniques depends on his physical and mental abilities.  People are innately stronger in some aspects and weaker in others, and their playing styles are molded by their development and natural strength.  Often we see close matches in which the two sides fight as hard as they can, with the outcome seemingly determined by who has the better stamina or will power.  But strategies play an often under-appreciated role, at least to lay people, as shown in one badminton match and one table tennis match in London 2012.

The badmonton match is the QF between Wang Xin and Ratchanok Intanon, truly the most notable match along with the WS and MS finals.  As an overview, WX led by 14:9 in the first set and lost, RI led by 16:9 in the second and lost.  In the third, RI was spent and lost.

This match featured the two most offense-oriented female players in the world and packed more firepower than any MS badminton matches.  WX and RI are not tall players, but they try to overpower their opponents like no one cares.  Players of the old attacking style do not have as many weapons and do not have the hit-a-straight-winner-every-point mindset, while Li Xuerui is a more complete player varying with opponents.  So WX and RI are similar to Lin Dan in 2004 or before, while Li Xuerui is like Lin Dan of 2012.  In the first two sets of the QF, WX and RI went punches to punches immediately after serves and didn't even bother with hitting to the four corners of the courts.  RI applied the same attacking strategy throughout the match, while WX was in a more rallying mode in the third, less entertaining but sensible when your rival was tired.    

RI got the upper hand until the second set at 16:9, because she defended better, and WX had the habit of simple errors when leading, which likely contributed to her unlucky fall in the later bronze medal match.  But how did WX come back at this late in the game?  WX had been serving long all day, while RI had varied with long and short serves.  At 10:16, WX suddenly served short and pounded on RI's returns right away.  RI was not prepared for that at all and lost consecutive points rather quickly in a similar fashion to 15:16.   This allowed WX right back into the game, and she continued to serve short to win the second set.  There were no typical, long rallies that ended when one side made an error or was out of breathe.  RI was in no position to win the third set.

I don't know how this WX's move from the left field came about.  Was it a game plan before the match, advised by her coach during the interval, or did WX come up with it all by herself or simply learn from RI?  It worked magic for her. 

The other is the men's doubles match during table tennis team SF between China and Germany, which essentially determined who would win the Gold.  China won the first singles' match, Germany's Boll beat Zhang Jike for the second, so it was 1:1.  If China won the double, Ma Long was expected to win the next singles.  If Germany won it, we might see the fifth and deciding match involving Wang Hao.  If he lost, we would have the image of 2004 Athens MSF all over again.  So the stake was very high for both teams.

The match featured Wang Hao and Zhang Jike vs Boll and Steger.  Chinese double alreay lost to Russia in team competition, so it was suspect.  The German pair were left and right handed, a combination better than the all right-handed Chinese.

Zhang Jike's forehand always has holes, but in his previous match against Boll, his forehand often swung and missed, and even when it made contact, he hit it wildly into the net or over the table too many times.  I think the problem is that his reflex was a tad slow on that day.  A deeper reason is perhaps he was nervous or not excited enough.  A telling point is at one set apiece, 8:8.  Zhang served, Boll popped up the return, but Zhang was slow to the ball and made such a half-hearted attack that Boll recovered in plenty of time.  That was perhaps the turning point of the match as well. 

Zhang Jike's form continued, although better covered by Wang Hao in the doubles.  Boll was prepared and motivated; Steger is not as famous as the other three, but he is very steady with dependable techniques and does not give away many free points.  Germany won the first set, a consecutive win of four sets by Germany, a sense of momentum.  China won the next two and was ahead by one or two points in the middle of the fourth set.  But a Chinese win was not sure thing as Boll and Steger fought hard.  A Chinese mishit or a German successful counterattack could turn the tide. 

A characteristic move by both Wang Hao and Zhang Jike is backhand loop-returning serves.  This has the advantage of initiating attacks and being aggressive.  But once you do it too many times, your opponent will expect and back off the table more, and he can better defend or even counterloop it.  That is why while Wang/Zhang always seemed to be the first to attack, they were not winning by a wide margin.  Then perhaps by a stoke of a genius, they returned serve with a short push near the net at 4:3 and won the point outright when Boll couldn't move forward fast enough.  Coach Liu Guoliang asked for a timeout at 6:4.  Don't know what he said or whether he was inspired by the service return he saw earlier.  Chinese looped the next German serve like old and lost the point.  Then at 6:5, short push, won, to 7:5.  Germany served again at 9:5, drop shot return, won.  Next serve, drop shot again, won again to 11:5.  In modern table tennis where every point necessitates high rpm loops or wide angle shots, I have never seen an outcome of a match of this magnitude decided by a simple change of service returns at so many points.   

A lesson from these two matches is that you don't have to use all your athletic ability to win every point, or even the most crucial points.  No heavy lifting, a clearer mind or better vision will go a long way.  This is perhaps how the best individual players win.  Have a good coach and game plan, still remember the plan in the heat of the competition, and change and adapt.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Badminton, table tennis, and tennis in 2012 London Olympics

These sports are the ones I play almost exclusively and also follow the most, so they are the most interested ones to me in Olympics.  Also, these three sports represent the pinnacle of how humans use tools to compete directly with each other, or, the "highest" combination of human physical and mental ability and skills in sports.  Badminton requires the utmost agility, table tennis fastest reflex, and tennis power generation.

In badminton, MS, WS, and MD are the most remarkable.  In MS, one can only say the legend continues (confirmation bias alert).  The Chinese media for all their foolishness make up the notion of “四大天王”, or "four kings" or "fantastic four", but really, there is Lin Dan, and there is everybody else.  This is admittedly a slight to Lee Chong Wei, who likely would have won at least one Gold medal, one world championship, one more AE, and one Asian Games Gold without LD.  The final was very similar to the 2011 World final, except that LD didn’t face any match points in London.  LCW prepared quite well against LD at the end, unlike the surprise he got from 2011.  At 19:19, LD attacked quickly to gain an advantage.  At 20:19, LD played fast but didn’t overforce it.  LCW varied by attacking a couple of times but when shots were returned he played it safe as well.  It was a long rally involving a variety of shots, both players well-balanced, with LD perhaps a bit more pro-active.  The difference is only the air which flew clearly from LCW’s back, sending the shuttle eventually long.  LD and LCW have been the two best MS players since 2008.  LD wins most of the times, especially in big events.   This is likely due to the playing styles of the two.  LD is offense-oriented.  So at crucial points, he can and will try to unleash the winning smashes.  His opponents are well aware of that, which adds pressure to their strategies.  LCW is more defense-oriented, so at crucial points his natural tendency is to wear opponents down.  LCW did attack this time at 19:20, but when it didn’t work, he waited for opportunities, which was the right thing to do, except that drift was not on his side.  LD also is taller and bigger, so his presence at the front court makes LCW hesitant.  To use a running analogy of 10 km race.  A few years back, LD would win by a lap (e.g., 2008).  In the past two years, LD and LCW are head and shoulder at the last 100 meter, but LD is naturally a better dasher.

The young Li Xuerui won WS.  From the Chinese’ perspective, her victory was slightly tempered by the fact that she didn’t beat the major threats from India and Thailand, who were taken out by Wang Yihan and Wang Xin.  I like her style a lot (“Who will you pick for a fight?”) and hope it is the moment when the legend begins. Wang Yihan would have been an excellent and thoroughly deserved choice for the Gold as well, too bad in the final she faced the only player in the world who can consistently beat her.

Cai Yu/Fu Haifeng won the MD.  This is really a gratifying sight, of which one can say the legend completes.  The only thing CY/FHF hasn’t won is Asian Games, but that is not a particularly important parameter because Europeans who are strong in MD do not participate.  The pair has won 4 world championships, 2 AE, all the team titles since 2004, world No 1 for so long, Silver in 2008, and Gold in 2012.  MD has always been the most competitive in badminton, with many potential title contenders and new, strong pairs coming up all the time.  It is, therefore, the most remarkable that CY/FHF have been able to maintain their high levels since at least 2004.  During this time, many good pairs have come and gone, such as Koo Kien Keat/Tan Boon Heong, Markis Kido/Hendra Setiawan, and Lee Yong Dae/Jung Jae Sung, only CY/FHF have remained.  They are by far the most successful MD in the history of badminton.  Whether they are the best, like LD, is unclear.  There may never be a answer to this question, but at least they enter the conversation.  The downside of all this is that where is the next dependable Chinese MD?

In table tennis, Zhang Jike won a well-deserved MS, while Wang Hao got three consecutive silvers to three different players, which must have been a record in Olympics, not just in table tennis.  I suspect Wang Hao lacks a bit killer instinct.  He is a slow starter, while his opponents at the final always struck first and fast before he could respond.  Zhang Jike thus becomes the youngest MS to win the world championship, world cup, and Olympic gold and the first with all three titles at the same time.  The only blemish is for the world cup and London, merely two Chinese players were entered.  These days the biggest challenge to individual Chinese players comes from their teammates.  See Ma Lin vs Wang Liqin.  Playing style wise, the only player who has any advantage over Zhang Jike is Ma Long, who was excluded in the world cup and singles in London and beaten by Wang Hao during the last world championship.  So obviously Ma Long has a lot to do, and Zhang Jike needs to consistently beat Ma Long to show he is truly one of the greats in history. 

Li Xiaoxia won WS over Ding Ning in a match marred by the judge messing around with DN’s serves.  It was a golden opportunity missed by DN, who had beaten Li for her world title and world cup a year earlier.  DN is still young and has her chances.  But again, her competition will come from her teammates, and who knows who will come up in the next four years where only two slots are available for China.  

An observation in London is that many matches were close, much closer than in Beijing.  Chinese actually lost matches during team competitions or won by 4:3 in singles, which did not happen in 2008.  It can be due to the host factor in 2008, playing singles prior to teams in 2012, or other players are getting better. Germany now has a stronger team that can really challenge China.  Japanese men did not perform well this time, but they are young and have potentials.  South Korea’s three players should have their swan song this time, and what will their successors be like?

In tennis, Federer ran out of gas in the final and likely lost his last chance at Gold.  A bit surprising that Novak Djokovic lost the Bronze medal fight.  Despite his great success in 2011, if he wants to be in the same sentence as Federer and Nadal, he needs to get his form back up quick, as Murray seems ready to take off.  Nadal pulled out of the Olympics and subsequent events, so it is confirmed that he hasn’t been well since May.  When he comes back, he does need to have more confidence in his backhand so that he doesn’t have to run around too often (“Sports news before 2012 Olympics”).

Serena Williams won the WS.  She is the best female player since Graf, and her 6:0, 6:1 win is another example of her being a smart player and what is wrong with women’s play (“Sports news before 2012 Olympics”).

Overall, most of the best players in the world were present and tried their best in London, the competition was fierce, and the winners were well deserved.  It is regrettable that some top players could not come due to injuries or the stupid quotas.

On the closing day of the 2012 London Olympics

It has been a great success for London Olympics in terms of athletic performance.   There are also a few issues plaguing the Games.  With regards to organizations, venues, judge scores, and drug use and its allegations, these discussions are unavoidable once every four years, so nothing new.  Two things do stand out in London.  

The first is there are many rules, appeals, and overrules or no overrules in swimming, fencing, track and field, gymnastics, cycling, boxing, etc.   Those affected include Olympics and world champions, world record holders, and who would win the Gold, Silver, and Bronze. There was almost not one day going by without such an incident.  Don't remember ever seeing this before.  It is good for some athletics because fairness prevailed.  Unfortunately, different sports have different processes, so other athletics are justified in thinking they were robbed.  Judges need to improve themselves, just like athletics, with the help of better technologies.  All sports should apply the same or at least similar rules to ensure objectivity and accountability of the judges and openness.

The second is the disqualification of 4 badminton women's double pairs, one from China, two from South Korea, one Indonesia, because they tried to lose to each other during their last group matches.  Officially, competitors should try their best to win, so being passive during competition is ground for dismissal.  In a perfect world this would be absolutely true, and if I were the Chinese coach I would not have ordered it.  But clearly we are far from a perfect world.  There are many other instances of passive plays in other sports (track and field, football, cycling, etc) in the London Games or before, without such high profile DQ.  And the 4 teams were merely aiming for a better position during elimination plays since they already advanced, so from this angle, they were indeed trying their best to win the Gold later.  The only reason officials make such a unprecedented decision likely was that these teams wanted to lose so badly were such terrible actresses in the matches.    

At I watched the many different sports I am not familiar with, I appreciate that the athletics train hard and deserve the praise and medals, but I also wonder if they and we as audience place too much emphasis on Olympics.  If you never win a Gold, once every four years chances, are you a failure, even if you have won everything else in the sport?  Especially compared to your main competitor who always lost to you but won, just once, in the Olympics?   There are many such cases in the history of Olympics.  Some of the Gold medalists are out of the top 3 or 5 in their professions. Like, top tennis players are competing in Olympics as the fifth GS now, but Nicolás Massú (2004) and Elena Dementieva (2008) had never won a GS, while Federer will probably never win a singles' Gold.  Extrapolate to other sports without a GS counterweight, players have an even bigger image problem.  Is Ji Xinpeng (2000, Badminton) a better player than Peter Gade or Lee Chong Wei as of 2012?

Another long-standing problem is counting the medal totals of countries, which is fine, but what does it mean?  A country is better than another at developing top athletics in more specific Olympic sports?  If so, how much is the significance of that?  One would hope it stimulates people in a country to participate more in sports.  Otherwise, Olympics are just like a summer blockbuster movie, only it lasts for two weeks once every four years.