Monthly Archives: May 2006

fantasy tennis and the matrix

Fans are disillusioned with professional sports. Barry Bonds and the steroid lies, Kobe Bryant’s ego, Terrell Owens borderline case of narcissism. Hmmm, when does borderline mean on the edge and when does it mean over the edge. In either case, if you’re diagnosed as borderline, it’s probably pretty bad.

Ever since [jeez, what did they call it when they developed gloves and masks so you would be in an imaginary world? what was Billy’s friend’s name who was in the forefront of it?], we’ve been promised that we can play in an imaginary world and it’s here. Many adolescents would rather play and NBA video game than sit and watch a seven game first round playoff series. And they’re not limited to playing with friends either. Put on the headphones and sign onto the web and choose your [link]Halo opponent from anywhere in the world.

Philosophy has told us that we make up the world. We ignore anything that contradicts our view of ourself and heartily embrace something that inflates our preferred view of the world. [link to the movie]The Matrix was able to express complex philosophical ideas because we were already familiar with alternative worlds, we had already gone through the levels of [link]Myst or [link]Doom and could easily move forward or back through layers of a make believe world, through layers of reality?

The Matrix, the movie by the Wachowski brothers, was such a huge hit and spawned so many video games, followups (movies that come after the first movie) and even [link to animatrix]animation because it has a fundamental and common theme of science fiction -the battle with technology – are we running the show or are out computers running us? – and there are few religious and philosophical ideas it does not reference. In the Matriz, the AI robots (?) are running the simulation and Neo and his friends have to free us from their control.

If you’re Christian, Neo is the second coming and will save us. If you are a Hindu, the message is that the physical world we live in is, literally, an illusion. Neo wants to know what is real so he is lifted out of his vat and the computer cable is removed from the back of his head so he can take the red(?) pill and opt for reality. Which is, of course, is the path to God and may (does Neo die?) result in Neo’s sacrifice (resurrection?).

Professors of philosophy at Oxford University get off on it too. Nick Bostrum has written a paper titled [link] “Are You Living in a Computer Simulation.” Bostrum suggests that computer technology has advanced enough that we could be the forebears of a later generation that is running us as a simulation. To what end, I’m not sure. I can’t imagine what we could provide unless it’s a particularly amusing video game. That could be good enough I suppose.

I remember reading about out of body experience by reading the work of Bob ???. He was stunned to discover, on one of his out of body experiences, that our purpose in life was to generate love which acted as fuel for the race of people who were controlling us. If so, given our penchant for wars, the system has 50% efficiency at best.

In either case we can applaud our search for our purpose here in life and it’s interesting to note that it often parallels our day to day life. We use each other to get what we want. We start wars to ensure our sources of fuel.

I played computer simulations early in their development [find a name of one] – they were text driven at that time, no images, just text that told you where you were and asked you a question whose answer determined the next step in the game. When I studied biology in high school I delighted in drawing detailed pictures of structures which I knew nothing about. I spent most of my time drawing complex images of the world that the text driven game was spelling out and never got very far in the game.

And even though I write about fantasy tennis, I’m not that good at it. I’m currently number 7179 out of the 11,000 teams in my league. But there are 11,000 teams in my league and there are (??) fantasy baseball players and (??) fantasy football players in the US and there were (??) video games sold last year.

Video games enthusiasts have often been viewed as nerdy escapists pale from hours in their room beating this or that game or an opponent on the internet. That is changing now that companies are beginning to switch endorsements from athletes who play in real dirt to the gamers and they have become stars in a similar way that skateboarders originally became stars.

At some point in the future, I might be writing regular columns about combatants in a tennis video game.

Still, we view video games as an escape because the world is made up and you can shoot and kill people without going to jail. Fantasy sports has been [and I gues this is the point at the moment – are video games escapist and fantasy sports interactive, but how does that tie in simulation] viewed as interactive in the sense that consumers are no longer satisfied with watching, they want to play too. They want to be George Steinbrenner. A fantasy league is formed, team owners draft players then sit them or play them as they choose and trade them if they want to. That is more interactive than sitting alone in your living room watching a game.

This has been covered in books. What do I want to do here? A comparison between fantasy leagues and video games?

fantasy tennis league: real game, fantasy team. Video games: fantasy game, real players.

survey (talk tennis?): do fantasy players watch the matches less and focus more on the results, in other words, do they become like gamblers who are not so interested in the players or the team but whether or not they won.

fantasy sports: it’s not enough to be a passive spectator any more. We demand to have a team, to be come team (or player) owners.

Are we actually more unhinged from reality – will young people be less able to deal with day to day life problems and be less able to relate to others – or will we be more sophisticated about reality?

the pig and the enema or how I lost my voice

conversation with Billy:

my strength is my voice and my ideas. My posts sound just like you’re talking to me. If I’m writing about fantasy league, I can write about it as my experience – a diary if you will – fo my experience as a team owner.

I can also use the fantasy team picking process as follows: first, I don’t need to do much data analysis, I can return to doing it how I inititially did it. I still got 50% on the first round.

The process of picking and looking at the draw can lead me to studies. In other words, it’s not interesting to read about who will beat who. What’s interesting is that, for instance, I only get 50% picks right in the first round. Why? Well, there are a lot of unknowns because qualifiers and wild cards are in the draw. When I did do statistical analysis and looked at the head to head records, I found that many a lot of players had never faced each other.

Why is that? Well, tennis is a very high income sport, there is tremendous pressure from junior players and post junior players for places on the tour. For example, in the article about Ivan Lendl, it stated that Michelle Wie is already number 15 in income of all, male and female tennis players.

The point is not to write about who is going to beat who but write about interesting matchups and why and why players don’t meet each other very much. These are the interesting subjects.

Also, the reason that the Roland Garros poster story didn’t work for Slate and the reason I had trouble with the story is because I lost my voice and thought that, since it is a magazine article, it somehow had to sound different.

E.B. White, [the pig and the enema-why I should stick to what I know] title of a piece about why I am not making picks any more.

Here’s a quote from Death of a Pig that isn’t in the excerpt:
“I discovered … that once having given a pig an enema there is no turning back.”

Poor piggy. Wasn’t there a better way. Herbs or something?

Also, writing as Billy tells it. What the person speaks is what will make good writing. Just ask them to blurt it out and copy it down.

“I’m embarrassed to show my face on the Talk Tennis forum it was so dumb.

E.B. While quote, “I discovered, though, that once having given a pig an enema there is no turning back, no chance of resuming one of life’s more stereotyped roles.”

Since I hadn’t created it using HTML, it meant that google. couldn’t search it … oh never mind. The problem with an image is that google can’t search for the text in it and … Stop. Now you see what the problem was. I had gotten caught up in geek talk instead of writing the damn tennis column.

Somewhere on my journey I got lost. I write a column for an online website and I decided that I could attract readers and post more frequently if I provided intense coverage of the [link]ATP Tennis Fantasy Season, a fantasy tennis league on the [link]ATP website.

First I had to figure out how to make a 32 player tournament draw that I could display online. After spending days reading about html tables – not pretty enough – and [link]CSS styles tables – way too complicated, I created the draw using the software program Photoshop.

I printed out my Photoshop file of the draw for the upcoming tournament then set about predicting the eight players who would get to the quarterfinals. Every week fantasy league members pick an eight player team. If I could correctly pick the eight quarterfinalists for the current tournament, I had my team. If I could do it well, thousands of fantasy players would flock to my website.

Next I had to develop a system for picking the winners in each match. After a few weeks I had ten statistical categories for each player including the record against their current opponent. For 32 players that is 320 pieces of information I had to look up in the statistics in the ATP database. And that was only for the first round. For the second round and later, I would have to look up the head-to-head record of my projected players.

By the time the ATP tournament in Hamburg rolled around, I was ready. But Rome is a Masters Series event so there are 64 players in the draw and I was sunk. After five straight hours spent lying on the couch with my laptop propped up on my belly, I called my friend Willam the technical wizard. There was one last glimmer of hope. Page scraping. Evidently you can write a program that will gather information from website pages automatically. That means that I could write a program to get the data I needed.

I have been using computers since 1971 and did a fair amount of programming in the past but even for me, that was over the top. If you get the same fuzzy headed feeling reading this page as I do, you understand.

I managed to get through the day and fill out my draw but the next morning, it really was all over.

The top two tennis players in the world, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, had entered the Hamburg event. I picked them both for my team because I had accidentally failed to pick Nadal for Monte Carlo and Federer had already won Hamburg three times. I had to pick them. I was already down to number 7131 out of 11000 fantasy teams so I desparately needed a win.

The problem is that Federer and Nadal had just played a glorious final in Rome that went over five hours and it never occurred to me that they would, of course, drop out of the next tournament – Hamburg – to rest for the French Open.

Anyone who couldn’t figure that out is not qualified to write a column about fantasy tennis.

William is not only a tech wizard, he is a very wise man. Whenever I fail miserably, I call him up for advice..

E.B. White, [the pig and the enema-why I should stick to what I know] title of a piece about why I am not making picks any more.

Here is a well-known quote from the piece: “I discovered … that once having given a pig an enema there is no turning back.”

Poor piggy. Wasn’t there a better way. Herbs or something?

Pörtschach: why everyone is upset

I told you there was a problem with Pörtschach. Because both qualifying ended and the main draw started on Sunday, we had to pick our ATP fantasy team before Sunday morning at 10am. That’s why I didn’t know that Richard Gasquet got in as a lucky loser. He beat Hrbaty in the first round. I admit that I looked at the qualifers’ draw and did not see his name. Selective blindness. I expect to see young unknowns there, not players who’ve beaten Federer.

Not only that but no one in the ATP fantasy league chose a doubles team because none of our choices are playing in Pörtschach. I guess they’re in Dusseldorf too.

There were sixteen matches in the first round at Pörtschach. In ten of those matches the opponents had never played each other

I knew it could happen but I didn’t think it would: Hewitt lost in the first round. He is really lost these days. He also twisted his ankle in the match. He’s had so many injuries you begin to wonder if he wouldn’t prefer to be home with his family and buddies. It’s unfortunate for Pörtschach too, Hewitt flashing the vicht is the p.r. image for the tournament. Their main draw is gone in the first round and all the big players are at the World Team Cup event.

The ATP isn’t helping. It started the week with a splash page on its website advertising the World Team Cup. Do I really need to load yet another page before I can get to the where I want to go? Pörtschach’s didn’t help themselves either. Their website was not working on Sunday and Monday.

Usually I pick about 50% of my first round matches correctly. That is as accurate as tossing a coin. This week my record was 10/16 in the first round which is unusually high. Here is one reason it’s difficult to predict first round matches.

There were sixteen matches in the first round at Pörtschach. In ten of those matches the opponents had never played each other. The hardest thing to do in an early round is to adjust to a new opponent. Your coach can scout the player but that doesn’t give you a feel for the spin of their ball or the rhythm of their shots and, often, by the time you adjust, that’s it, the match is over.

The higher ranked player has an advantage in most matches but that advantage is reduced against a new player. In Major League Baseball, there are plenty of cases where a rookie pitcher was successful the first time he went around the league. By the time players saw him a second time, they knew what to expect and the pitcher was less successful.

Because the French Open starts on Sunday, the Pörtschach semifinals are on Friday and the final on Saturday. I expected to check in after round two but the SBC DSL network was down for an evening and then I lost my TCP/IP stack. I don’t know what that is but my DSL modem won’t work without it. Meanwhile, I received two frozen chickens by UPS and had no idea how to cut them up and when I logged onto google to ask, the internet was down again.

The first tech support person I had spoken to, “Jim”, speaking from somewhere in India – why do they insult our intelligence by using fake Western names? – had told me to push the reset button on my modem and that had wiped out my login info. “Happy,” somewhere in the US, helped me fix it. Which was a good thing because the frozen chickens had been shipped with twenty pounds of beef soup bones and there was blood all over the kitchen. I had already stabbed myself in the thumb trying to cut through the chicken backbone and I had dried red blood on my watch. I was hoping my vegetarian roommate did not walk in on this scene.

Had I checked in, this is what I would have found. Davydenko is chugging along towards the final and will probably win it, he won last year. Jiri Novak, who has done nothing lately, is in the semifinals after getting rid of both Melzer and Chela. Andrei Pavel is the other surprise. He beat Simon to get to the semis.

I picked Luis Horna for my team because I thought he might finally have recovered from his win in Acapulco. I was right, he’s in the semis too. I have him in the final only because I need the prize money. Maybe Horna read my column and figured out what he was doing wrong. Could happen.

One last interesting thing to look at. After Tommy Robredo won Hamburg last week, he addressed the media about his search for a coach. Look at this comment:

For example last week against (Greg) Rusedski, if I had been with coach, I wouldn’t have lost for sure. Because in the game I was completely lost. I was trying to look outside, and my physio was there and he was supporting me, but he wasn’t able to tell me exactly what to do. So I need to find someone in the future.

Now, he could have been saying that a coach would have told him how to prepare for Rusedski, but it sounds like he’s also expects his coach to pass him information during the match. I bring this up because Roger Federer had words with Rafael Nadal’s coach, uncle Toni Nadal, during the Rome final because Toni was coaching during the match. Federer yelled at him sarcastically ”Is that all right Toni?” and later said, ”I caught him in the act and it’s not the first time.”

Many people are so enamored of Federer that they wonder if Federer held back some of his game in Rome so as to prevent giving away all of his strategy for the French Open. That is highly wishful thinking but I do think Federer was doing the same thing Phil Jackson does before his Los Angeles Lakers team plays a big game. He calls out the officials to make sure that he gets good calls.

That is what Federer is doing. He wants to make sure that officials don’t allow Toni to coach if they meet in the French Open final. Smart man.

Fading Away: Conchita, Al, And Thomas

Conchita Martinez, Thomas Enqvist and Albert Costa retired from the game of tennis this past month. I waited to see if this fact would prompt more than a passing blurb from tennis observers, but it hasn’t really. Fans have been preoccupied with the start of the Fantasy Tennis season, and the intricacies of the Roger-Rafa rivalry.

The Retirees were nowhere in the same league as Federer-Nadal, but they brought a lot to the game. Durability is the word that springs to mind with all three players. Conchita Martinez played the game for nearly two decades, and at a consistently high level. She hung out in the top 50 women every year she was on tour, and amassed around $11.5 million in earnings. You can’t earn that kind of loot just by hanging around; you actually have to play, and play she did. She was a player designed to drive other players batty, with an arsenal of just about every shot in the game, and some you would swear could only come out of her kitchen and hers alone. Conchita could see to it on a good day that her opponents were kept in a state of high anxiety, as she served up an incredible array of dips, spins, chip shots. You had to hope she didn’t ding you to death. Then one year she even got into a Wimbledon final, and won it against Navratilova. I saw that match, and remember how people were scratching their heads a bit. After all, her strongest surface was not grass but clay; 20 of her 33 titles came on clay. But it should have come as no surprise that she beat the pre-eminent woman, Navratilova, on her best surface.

The woman was incredibly strong mentally, and her reserves were bottomless. She would find a way to win, even though she did not possess quite the fiery tenacity of her compatriot, Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario, or the powerful game of someone like Navratilova. But Conchita had a very workmanlike attitude on court, and great court sense. She played and won enough doubles titles (13) that you knew she could do more at the net than most clay courters. Just ask Martina: they met five times in their careers, Conchita won four of the five. Three wins on clay, and the Wimbledon win on grass.

Well done, Conchita, she called it quits just after her 34th birthday. We hope you are riding off into the sunset on one of your favorite motorcycles, perhaps with a glass of fine red wine awaiting your return. The woman had taste and style, and I for one will miss her.

Albert Costa was another clay court workhorse who left the game this spring, at age 30, after losing to Juan Carlos Ferrero in the Barcelona event. Well, at least he lost to a Spaniard. Costa was kind of the flip side to Conchita. Both had good one-handed backhands, a rarity at that time for players from Spain. He was no slouch either when it came to lurking around draws and giving fits to the bigger male names on the ATP tour. Costa has been around for a while too, and carved out quite a solid niche for himself on clay. Roland Garros was Al’s favorite home away from home: he made it twice to the quarters, once to the semis (’03) and actually won the title (in ’02). Costa earned close to eight million dollars over his career, and got his ranking as high as Number Six in the world in the summer of 2002, probably his best season on the tour.

“I want to be remembered as a fighter,” he said, after the loss to Ferrero. That’s a perfect epitaph.

Thomas Enqvist was another breed of player altogether. He had the power and the physical size to make a dent in many draws, and he was one of those rare Swedes who could enjoy life other than just on the baseline. Sometimes he even came into the net. But basically he relished the power game. “Grinder” is probably too light of a term for what Enqvist did to you; he simply bludgeoned you to death. Long rallies were something you did not want to get caught in with this guy.

Thomas was also a bit of a hunk in the good looks department, and personally I always find it sad when the hunks retire. Mary Carillo tells the story of running into Thomas’ father at a tournament, and after buttonholing the guy she segued right in to praise of his handsome son. Only to be told, “Oh, boys who look like him, they’re a dime a dozen in Sweden.” The blaseness caused Carillo to roar with laughter, and me to wonder, what do we get for a quarter’s worth?

Enqvist had the misfortune though to follow on the heels of the greatest Swedes in the tennis pantheon, Borg and Wilander and Edberg, and undoubtedly much was expected of him early on. His game echoed theirs in many respects: he could grind you steadily from the back court like Borg and Wilander both, yet he lacked their relentless consistency. He had good reach to play at the net, and he could play net, but nothing like the way Edberg served and volleyed. Enqvist never quite lived up to the hype, but he forged a solid career for himself. At 6’3″ and nearly 200 pounds, he appeared big and strong, but his body often seemed locked in to me. When you first saw the guy on court, one word might spring to mind: yoga. If anybody could use the wonderfully gentle stretching of yoga, it was Enqvist. He seemed stiff as a board at times.

For me, my favorite Enqvist moment was one that speaks more to his character than his game. It occurred right after he lost the Long Island tournament in 2000, to Magnus Norman. Norman, who rose that year to be Number One for a short while, had been mentored growing up by Enqvist. But Norman had trouble getting on track against him. He had lost their four first meetings. This day was different. Norman finally beat him. Even though Thomas lost the final and should have been eager to flee the court on that hot summer’s day in New York, he hung around and chatted. In fact, Enqvist came around to Norman’s side and sat next to his buddy while they chatted. It looked so nice and civil. You don’t often see rivals hanging out like that. Especially right after losses.

Well done, guys. And girl. Skol and adios!

– – – – – – –

Martina and Venus Act II

It’s been a long rivalry. Both players are 25 years old and they’ve been playing each other since 1997. They’ve both had injuries, one was forced to leave the tour because of them, and they both have five grand slams. The one glaring distinction is the total number of weeks at number one: Martina Hingis was number one for an incredible 209 weeks while Venus Williams was there a pedestrian eleven weeks. That shows you how well Williams plays the big tournaments. Or maybe it’s yet another reason to bemoan what could have been. How many slams would Willams have now if she’d been as dedicated as Hingis?

the women’s tour is so unpredictable that it doesn’t present a consistently good product

While the ATP celebrates Federer and Nadal, the biggest draw on the WTA is the second act of the rivalry between Martina and Venus. That is, if you don’t count Romina Oprandi’s run to the quarterfinals here in Rome along with reporters’ attempts to mention her size – she’s larger than the average player- without sounding fattist about it. The WTA website doesn’t list Oprandi’s height and weight but we do know that Venus has six inches and thirty pounds on Martina. We also know that they’ve played each other twenty times and are tied at ten wins each.

WTA players are injured so much these days, both physically and mentally, that the top spot looks like musical chairs. Kuznetsova has only just recovered from winning the US Open in 2004, Davenport has a bulging disc, Sharapova had a chronic pectoral problem and now has a chronic foot problem. There are nine Russians in the top thirty, Dinara Safina is already in the final of this tournament, but they keep leapfrogging each other. Petrova is currently ranked higher than Sharapova. The men’s tour is too predictable with Federer in every slam final but the women’s tour is so unpredictable that it doesn’t present a consistently good product.

That leaves us with Martina and Venus.

This semifinal match is the second meeting between Hingis and Williams since Hingis returned to the tour at the beginning of the year. Williams beat her in three sets earlier this month in Warsaw.

The first set was a washout. Hingis hit her second serve short and Williams pounced on it to win the set 6-0 in twenty-two minutes. If you’re counting, that’s three bagels to one for Hingis in the rivalry.

Hingis was able to break through in the second set. In Williams’ second service game, Hingis hit every return deep and sent a ground stroke caroming off the baseline tape causing Venus to flail at the ball and totally miss. Williams had a chance to break back at 3-2. Hingis had a sitter and sent it long to give Williams a break point but Williams is still inconsistent, this is only her third tournament of the year. She got a second break point in that game but couldn’t win it then hit too many unforced errors in the next game and went down another break.

Both players hit a ton of errors in the second set but Hingis won the break points to take the second set 6-3 and even the match. Hingis hit a second serve facing a break point at 1-1 in the third set and even though her second serves rarely get above the low 80’s, Williams put the return into the net. I say Williams smashes that return if she can stay healthy and interested enough to get back to her regular form.

In the seventh game of the set, Williams hit a strong backhand shot deep to the corner and followed it with an equally strong forehand to the same spot. Hingis, remarkably, got to both shots. Williams then hit a forehand long and walked a few steps into the court to take a better look. She may have been checking the ball mark but the ball was clearly out. It seemed more like she didn’t believe what she’d just seen. Did Hingis really get both those ball back?

That was the most exciting point in a match that didn’t have many. On the next point, Hingis broke Williams to go up 5-3 and served out the set and match, 0-6, 6-3, 6-3.

People said that Hingis quit the tour after 2002 because she didn’t have the power to compete with either Venus or Serena. Hingis is currently number twenty-one in the rankings and number six in this year’s race to the tour championship – the rankings are based on the last 52 weeks but the race is based on this year’s results only. Still, I’m not convinced she can hit with the big girls. She beat Davenport at Indian Wells but Davenport was already suffering from a bulging disc and hasn’t played since.

Hingis went on to beat Safina in the final for her first title since returning to the tour.

If Hingis does get back to the top, doubtful, or wins another grand slam, also doubtful, it will be because the Williams sisters decide to drop off the map and the younger players continue to drop in and out of the tour with injuries. It was less than a year ago that Davenport and Williams slugged it out in one of the most memorable Wimbledons ever played. Three of the Russians have won grand slams but the new generation has yet to take over from its elders.