Goldsmith: Take stats with a grain of salt

We sports fans have an addiction to statistics. There is a great impulse in sports analysis to gather and even manipulate data to underline the unique greatness of our favorite athletes. Any casual viewer of SportsCenter recognizes the tactic. So-and-so will spark great controversy complaining about coaching or contracts in a press conference, and during the voice over, ESPN displays that critical statistic exemplifying the athlete’s irreplaceable impact on his or her team or sport. ESPN’s commitment to 24/7 sports means that sometimes in the absence of any interesting sporting news we are insulted with something like “the Green Bay Packers are undefeated since the AFL-NFL merger in season openers against opposing teams whose quarterback is a reformed dog-fighting mastermind.” So this is obviously a bit hyperbolic, but in many ways, as a fan and a viewer, I often get the sense that sports analysts go out of their way to research the most esoteric patterns in a team or athlete’s success that say nothing about their real qualities or talents. We see this exacerbating tendency in every sport, but fortunately sometimes they are insightful and indicative of something deeper than mere coincidence.

My two favorite somewhat-esoteric sports statistics come from professional tennis and they certainly indicate something about its greatest players. Until losing in the quarterfinals to Robin Soderling in this year’s quarterfinal round of the French Open at Roland Garros, Roger Federer had reached 23 consecutive Grand Slam semifinals (reaching the finals in 20 of those appearances and claiming the title 14 times). Okay, it doesn’t have that initial impressive pop that a stat like career home runs may carry, but it simply means that for nearly 6 continuous years, Roger Federer dominated men’s tennis. He was the perennial Champion; whether he won the title or not, he was omnipresent.

Since that loss to Soderling, Federer has lost his throne. Instead, that seat now belongs to the man who is 107–1 when winning the first set in Grand Slam play. The owner of that obscure statistic can only be Rafael Nadal, perhaps the greatest front-runner in the history of professional sports. While there are countless other intriguing facts about Nadal’s tennis career (the least of which being the simple fact that he has won the last three majors in a row), I find this one to be the most compelling demonstration of his unique Rafa-ness, much like the previous Fed statistic. To me, this statistic simply means that Nadal is a relentless competitor.

So we’ve read some neat statistics, but what does it all mean in the context of the sport as a whole?

We have obviously witnessed a slowing of the Federer-Express and a changing of the guard in the tennis kingdom — anybody can see that. Probing a bit further though, I think it is worth noting that Nadal’s current consecutive semifinal appearance streak stands at three. The man we now consider the world’s (current) greatest player pales in this category in comparison to the man he has replaced. Meanwhile, no one has really bothered to track Federer’s one-set advantage record because it does not have the same significance.

Each statistic is remarkable and they tell us how our two champions differ. On one hand, we have an Ironman of sorts who continuously dominated unconditionally, and on the other a man who refuses to become complacent, overwhelming his opponents when ahead.

Neither claim can qualify one or the other as the unequivocal greatest, and only time and relativity will answer the question in the back of everyone’s mind — who is the greatest of all-time?

Statistics certainly will not answer this question. In fact, these statistics inherently provide no new analysis — they only serve to confirm what we already know about these two men. We can see it in their faces, in their reactions to victory or defeat. We see those 23 consecutive semifinals in Roger’s unparalleled poise on the court, as well as in his genuine disappointment after losing. Nadal’s snarling demeanor during matches feebly conceals the contempt he holds towards anyone who thinks they can defeat him.

Numbers and facts serve only as reputational evidence of otherwise intangible sensations that our greatest athletes conjure. I don’t need a stat sheet to know that I’m double-teaming Kobe Bryant on the last shot of the game.

Sam Goldsmith is a senior in Branford College.

Comments

  • FailBoat

    >ESPN’s commitment to 24/7 sports means that sometimes in the absence of any interesting sporting news we are insulted with something like “the Green Bay Packers are undefeated since the AFL-NFL merger in season openers against opposing teams whose quarterback is a reformed dog-fighting mastermind.”

    Tarring the lot of sports statistics with the brush of ESPN trivia is misguided. Trivia, even trivia with a number, is not the same as statistical analysis. Mr. Goldsmith needs to take a few more quantitative courses if he can’t tell the difference.