Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Table Tennis and Tennis, all in one Paris, 2013

First of all, the 2013 World Table Tennis Championship was held in Paris, France, in May 2013.  The biggest news is perhaps that Zhang Jike repeated as the world champion in men’s single.  In mere 3 years, he has won two world championships, one world cup, and one Olympic Gold, equaling Waldner’s major hauls.  It seems silly to ask if Zhang is as good as Waldner, but this is not so inconceivable.  A big praise for Waldner is his longevity, but one can argue that Zhang’s star burns brighter, because he wins so many so quickly.

On closer inspections, though, Zhang may owe his titles to more luck than Waldner.  What would you think if Waldner had won all the big ones by beating the same Jean-Philippe Gatien in the finals four times?  In Zhang’s case, it did happen with Wang Hao instead.

Zhang’s playing style can be summed up as control with power/spin, same as Wang Hao’s.  For comparisons, Waldner and Ma Lin’s style is control with variations, Wang Liqin’s power with control, while Ma Long’s motto is faster and faster.  A big advantage of Zhang over Wang Hao is that Wang Hao’s peak is in 2006-2009, so beating a slowly declining Wang Hao is not easy but still not the biggest deal.  Wang Hao tried hard in Paris, 2013, but at this stage, his movement is only slightly better than Ma Lin’s, which is, sadly, like a flag pole.  Zhang won the final (and previous encounters) by getting to better forehand positions faster.

Yet, if Wang Hao is so “weak”, how come he was in the final, not others, like Ma Long?

In Zhang Jike’s four majors, Ma Long played in only the two world championships due to quotas, and he lost both times to Wang Hao in the semis.

Ma Long historically has had problem with Wang Hao, owing to their playing styles.  Ma Long has balanced forehand and backhand, but he looks to win points faster, so he uses and trusts his forehand more.  In the old days (<2010), Wang Hao would initiate attacks with his penhold backhand over the table, pin down Ma Long at his backhand corner,  then out-rally Ma Long with forehands when Ma Long was younger with less power.  Zhang Jike can’t win like this because both he and Ma use shakehand, Ma Long can go toe-to-toe in backhand, and Ma Long’s forehand is faster and less predictable than Zhang’s.  Zhang can beat nowadays’ Wang Hao because when it comes to finishing points with a forehand, Wang Hao simply can’t get to as many balls as Zhang Jike.

But how about Ma Long vs a now-weaker Wang Hao, especially, why didn’t Ma Long win the semi-finals in 2011 and 2013?  The explanation is that, in 2011, perhaps just a coin toss, in 2013, Timo Boll.

In 2011, the semi between Wang and Ma was close.  Ma Long was leading 2:1, and it was not apparent who would win until the end.  But in 2013, it was clear from the very beginning that Wang played much better.  Ma long made a ton of mistakes, and more tellingly, when Wang Hao attacked his forehand down the line, Ma Long didn’t even move.  Wang raced to a 3:0 lead before Ma Long responding bravely with two sets and then running out of gas in the sixth set.

What happened in the semis, including the other semi that Zhang Jike beat Xu Xin even more badly?  Well, much can be attributed to the fact they played two matches on the same day.  Wang Hao beat a teammate, a less stressful situation,  Zhang Jike beat the weakest opponent of all, Baum, but Xu Xin and Ma Long used most of their energy beating their earlier opponents.  Thus, Xu and Ma can be excused for being both physically and mentally drained in the semis.  This is a reason I wrote this post, as I found few people had pointed out this obvious, at least in the print media.

Anyone who watched Xu Xin beating MATSUDAIRA truly appreciated how much running and energy Xu spent.  The 4:2 score does not tell the full story.  How many times did Xu Xin run around his backhand to play forehand loops to win just a point?  Xu Xin always has a hard time against Zhang Jike attacking his backhand, but Xu Xin’s performance at the semi was way below his usual.

Ma Long played Timo Boll, no doubt the biggest non-Chinese challenge in men’s singles.  The match is arguably of the highest quality in the whole event, with numerous fast attacks and counterattacks.  Both players gave their best.  A number of times I was impressed with Boll even bothering a long run to cover his wide forehand in a hopeless cause.  Ma Long played fast and furious out of the box and managed to maintain the high gear through six sets, the last five in close contests.  The focus of Ma long, likely of the Chinese team as well, was to stop Boll.  Once he achieved that, Ma Long was just out of focus, out of goal, and out of gas.

To illustrate the point, this scenario can happen to everybody.  Remember Zhang Jike in 2012, fresh off his London singles’ Gold, lost to Boll in the teams?  It is not that Zhang can’t lose to Boll, but in that match, Boll completely dominated the latter half of the match.  And that was already quite a few days after the singles.

In other words, Wang Hao won the semi against a tired Ma Long.  Zhang Jike was lucky in a sense that he has never played Ma Long for his four major titles.  It is not a given Ma Long would beat Zhang, of course, because Zhang Jike seems to play better and better into the events.  But it is always a regret in sports fans’ mind to not see arguably the best two players meeting in the majors.  And as Ma Long gets older, one wonders how long he can still maintain his quickness.  For Zhang Jike, his style is more geared up for longevity.

Now turn to the 2013 French Open tennis.

Nadal won his 8th title (see post "2012 French Open men's final"), with an epic, semi-final win over Djokovic.  Nadal is returning from an injury and long absence, has been winning a few tournaments already, but not without question marks, since he had to come back a number of times, including in Paris, in early rounds.  But he started to play better in later rounds.  In the meantime, Djokovic looked eager for the title, 3:0 beating Dimitrov and Haas, who beat him earlier in the year.  Dimitrov basically forgot how to play tennis in Paris.  Haas missed a few put-away forehands, but Djokovic ran hard and retrieved a lot of balls to overcome Haas.

Nadal was in a winning situation for most of the semi-final.  He went ahead first in the second set, and ahead, twice, in the fourth set, but lost both sets.  Nadal did come back from the fifth set, when Djokovic got tired at the end.  One has to wonder if his tired legs had anything to do with his failing to stop during the famous net play at a crucial time.  Sort of surprising, since their 2012 AO final was an hour longer, in favor of Djokovic.  Watching the match, Nadal’s backhand stood its ground better than before, and this allowed him to cover his forehand, with many straight forehand down the line winners (for more analysis see post "Sports news before 2012 Olympics").  But Nadal’s serves were poor, and fell apart when he got ahead in the second and fourth sets.  How many second, 90 mph serves did he do in those games?  If he wants to have any chance in All-England, Nadal needs to improve his first serve percentage.

Serena Williams won her 16th GS titles.  She is by far the strongest, and smartest woman player right now (see "Sports news before 2012 Olympics").  Next stop is 18 GS titles, then she has a chance at Graf’s record of 22 titles.  An earnest question is, is she the greatest ever?

In the objective criterion department (see post "Is Lin Dan the best badminton player ever?"), forgetting the GS titles for a moment, Serena has a winning H:H record against everybody, and has dominated the upcoming generation(s) of players for sure.  But there are caveats.

One is that Serena didn’t really dominate the older generation, most of who just faded away.  That is, the overlap was too brief to be a guide.  Her sister, Venus, may be counted as one.  Venus may be better than Serena on grass at their peak, but Venus hasn’t been a factor in years.  The same generation, the closest rival is Henin, with Serena leading by a close 8:6.  Hingis was also close, but Hingis is long gone. 

Serena has an even bigger advantage against her younger, major rivals, so one also has to wonder about the quality of the younger female players, so dominated by Serana at an “old” age.  Since 2012, at over 30, Serena seems to have a second (or third) spring in her career.  It is almost like Federer dominating his generation and tennis, but Federer did that in his mid-20s. 

In short, it is hard to judge at this point.  Serena faces fewer rivals.  Maybe she is just too good (like Federer, but at an older age).  Is this natural, or a sign that her younger opponents are just too weak?

Monday, June 10, 2013

American Heroes, Edward Snowden, and Glenn Greenwald

The bombshell news of the past week is that Edward Snowden has now come forward as the leaker of NSA surveillance programs.  

The story started when Glenn Greenwald reported in the British newspaper the Guardian that NSA has been collecting Americans' phone records through Verizon.  More NSA surveillance programs are revealed in quick successions by Glenn Greenwald and the Washington Post.  This is such a significant development that everybody has to respond to these revelations, whether he believes they are justified, lawful, or whatever.  And predictably, people in power are clamoring for the head of the leaker, much like towards Bradley Manning, the so-called Wikileaks leaker.  Nobody needs to wait long: on Sunday, Edward Snowden, a 20-ish American like Manning, currently in Hong Kong, revealed himself.  Edward knew full well he risked a lot for his actions, and he explained in no uncertain terms why he did this.

The whole thing, while dramatic, contains two non-surprises and one semi-surprise.

The first non-surprise is that NSA has such programs at all.  At least since mid-1990s many people me included have known that NSA collects global communication data.  Remember the movie Enemy of the state?  What is novel here is that everybody now sees the most current, solid documents to prove it.  Yet, what else should we expect?  Every country, if it can do it, will do it.  In the US, the big brother is the most powerful government in the world, so it will be silly to think it does not do the most of such things.

One can accept it as a fact of life.  Or consider it a gross intrusion of privacy and freedom.  Or consider that the government is becoming too big; although many anti-big government folks cheer the loudest for these programs.   

People in power are quick to pile up on Snowden.  Most of their responses are so predicted and not worthy of a thought.  There is one that does raise eyebrow; a congressman declared that if Snowden had a problem with NSA programs, he should have come to the Congress.  Never mind the Congress has an approval rate of 10%.  Never mind the there are so many morons and so many idiotic words coming out of the Congress.  Never mind 99% of the Congress quickly fall in line every time "National Security" is invoked to serve as a stop of any conversation.  Never mind the Congress actually passes the laws and supported the practice. 

Thus, what is more revealing and resigning is that, unlike the recent Obama "scandals" such as the IRS scandal, what NSA does is perfectly legal, at least in the eyes of the ruling elites, with the Congress already codifying it with the PATRIOT Act and others, and various Courts always rubber-stamping such requests by NSA, CIA, FBI, etc, for many years.  This is a reason why there has never been real democracy in the world, because the system is so rotten to its core.  What Snowden did is to send the issue back to the people, by itself not a guarantee of anything but is the essence of democracy.  Perhaps the US Supreme Court can even review the constitutionality.

But at it goes, people will talk about it, then likely nothing changes.  A common catch phrase is that 911 changes everything.  A newer catch phrase is, apparently, that Boston bombing also changes everything.  One wonders how many times everything can change, but it is a truism that the more things change, the more they stay the same.  Because NSA has been doing this well before 2001.  

The second non-surprise it who broke the story.  Glenn Greenwald is considered primarily as a lawyer, a writer, and a commentator (see my earlier post "Learning from the Americans"), so it seems odd that he first reported the news, not the other, mainstream news organizations, like NYT, LAT, CNN, ABC (except WP).  But Glenn has been a prominent supporter of Wikileaks and especially of Bradley Manning in the US for the past years.  So Edward Snowden has a very good reason to trust him.  Like Manning, Snowden also contacted other news outlet(s), but received at most lukewarm responses even at WP, making Glenn Greenwald the perfect conduit, and Glenn did not disappoint, in print and on TV.  One would think that the American news media have learned their lessons after the Manning treatments and DOJ investigations of AP and a Fox News reporter.  But they have long become part of the system to be servile to their masters in power. 

While still young, Glenn can go down among the best reporters and commentators US ever sees.  Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden already join Daniel Ellsberg as the most influential leakers in human history.  All three's motives are clear and noble.  Technically the three broke the laws.  Ellsberg escaped due to technicality, Manning is now on trial, and Snowden's fate is unclear.  But what they did simply exposes the dirty work of those in power and the system.  The system covers its behind by legalizing their own dark practice, but it does not change the fact that what they do and try to hide is much much worse than revealing classified information.  Heroes such as Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald give the world hope.

The semi-surprise is that Edward Snowden is now holding up in HK, China.  There are no inherently wrong and right choices for Edward, only that how HK, China handles the matter is interesting.  What Edward reveals has no direct bearings on China.  HK police is well-known to do wide-ranging surveillance, China is presumed to have similar practice as in the US, although the reach is unlikely on par with the US, and China knows very well US is doing its things globally.  Thus, people in HK and mainland China will not think what Edward did is such a big deal at all, and they will not attach much significance to the case as Americans might think.  But there will be two things to consider.  First is that American business, media and politicians have been accusing China of hacking, and the exposure by Snowden will certainly blow in the face of the Americans.  

Second is that how some people in HK will react.  HK has a group of loud people that antagonize the Chinese central government and sees the US as their savior.  Freedom and democracy are two words in their every sentence.  How will they react now that they suddenly have a truly American problem on hand, especially when the core of the problem is about freedom and democracy?  According to HK laws and in contrast to many pundits in the US say, Edward might not be extradited to the US due to political reasons.  And the Chinese central government can still step in even after HK has opted for extradition.  

It is a problem that HK and Chinese government did not ask for, but how it plays out has global ramifications.  The process will take years, as in the situations of Manning and Wikileaks founder Julian Assange.  A plausible scenario, if Ellsberg' case has any predictive power, is that Manning will get convicted on some minor counts and receive very mild sentencing.  And as China and US are negotiating, something happens, likely in the US, e.g., DOJ decisions, that makes the entire extradition talks moot.  With Daniel Ellsberg, Manning and Snowden will be idolized in history, no matter what the courts say.