Sunday, August 26, 2012

What is this B.S. about Big Man Tennis?

Justin Gimmelstob seems to the forerunner in the promotion of this notion. Him and Brad Gilbert keep flapping their gums about some fellas on the ATP who are supposedly playing "Big Man Tennis". As opposed to what - Little Man Tennis? Small Boy Tennis? Tiny Toddler Tennis? What the heck is this supposed to mean and how does it add any meaningful value to the viewer's understanding of the sport?

Of course the entire thing is nothing but a rip-off of the concept of "Big Babe Tennis", credited to Mary Carrillo, who made this observation about the era of women's tennis dominated by the big games of tall powerful players like Lindsay Davenport and the Williams sisters. The term became widely adopted and promulgated and has been applied to such current players as Maria Sharapova and lately Petra Kvitova.

The term "Big Babe Tennis" (BBT) is now used by all and sundry, to include those plagiaristic male commentators who would have us believe that there is an equation on the men's side of the tour. I say there Isn't. I call bulls**t.

For a start, BBT implied that there was a distinct difference between the way these women played versus their counterparts. As a result, it became possible to acknowledge those smaller women who actually played a BBT-style of game. Justine Henin comes to mind. Justine would not in any context be described as a Big Babe. But put her on some clay -- and set aside any demands for truthfulness and honesty -- and Justine could produce some of the most fearless, dominant, scintillating tennis that would make your head spin. She wasn't a Big Babe but there were moments when she could play like one.

Second, Carillo never referred to these women as playing Big Woman Tennis. That would have been pejorative to the other women on the tour, because it would have implied that they were mere girls (although, to be fair, many of them actually are). I've always assumed that Carrillo meant Big Babe Tennis as a tongue-in-cheek, affectionate reference to gender without actually getting hung up on this. At issue was less their gender and more so a particular style of play -- a special kind of hitting out, a fearlessness, a dominance. So if there were such a thing -- and I personally don't believe there is -- the male equivalent would be "Big Dude Tennis" I suppose?

But even then, what the hell is that? And why are men so threatened by the notion of BBT that they had to run off and make up (cough, copy) their own stupid repetition? To explain what? To capture what phenomenon? To explain what period of distinctiveness?

These were my thoughts on Saturday as I sat courtside and watched John Isner beat Jo Wilfred Tsonga at the Winston-Salem Open. And I found myself having the same thoughts that evening as I watched Tomas Berdych take out Sam Querrey. Were these the Big Men that Gilbert has been chattering on about? Were they playing Big Man Tennis? Certainly there were some fearsome rallies. Definitely the balls flew. Clearly there were huge serves landing above 130mph. And yes they crushed the balls so hard that I wondered if the ATP would ever consider exchanging the balls after every three games instead of after every six.

But I also found that there was nothing distinctive about any of these mens' games. Mens' tennis, with few exceptions, looks very much alike to me. It's the era of the big serve, big baseline rallies, big double-handed backhands that can go cross-court or down-the-line with similar ease, and the rinse-and-repeat strategy of moving your opponent from side to side to mind-numbing side. Does mastering that mean that one is playing BMT? (Freud would have a field day with those two letters).

And how does the notion of BMT accommodate the fact that lately men appear to have rediscovered the dropshot? Do Big Men only play the hardcore, baseline, hard-driving, albeit repetitive formula?

Nadal stood out because his game was a refreshing change. Federer stands as as one of the few players with a single-handed backhand, a phenomenal slice, and a willingness to move into the net. But the majority of players on the ATP play exactly the way Tsonga and Querrey and Berdych and Isner were playing on Saturday. Some, like Djokovic, do it better than others. But the formula essentially remains the same.

So you can understand why I find myself wondering why Gimmelstob and his ilk keep trying to make "Big Man Tennis" happen. It's almost as if these men are threatened by the Big Babes of the WTA. If I didn't know better I'd say they were suffering vagina envy.

(photo copyright tennischick)

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Maybe our reactions are part of the problem?

Just take the way so much of the media reacted when Gabby Douglas dared to follow up her two gold medals by making a mistake that cost her in her next event. Just like that her successes seemed suddenly erased. It was like she had gone to London and wasted our damn time. All of the headlines bleated about her failure, that she had “fallen short”.

In fact, even when Douglas was busy succeeding, people spent more time prattling about her damn hair than about her incredible accomplishments, and at such a young age. The public outcry over her natural roots was so discouraging that it led her mother to fume: “How ignorant is it of people to comment on her hair and she still has more competitions to go? Are you TRYING to ruin her self confidence?” It's hard not to conclude that this may be part of an ugly agenda. It's sad not to notice that it seems to be working.

Maybe players feel like failures for coming second because they anticipate that this is the way much of the world will view them. Coming second makes you a loser, because you didn't come first. The pressure of expectation can be crushing. Coming in third may, in contrast, end up being interpreted as not quite failing altogether. At least you're not like that sad person in fourth place. The one who seems to have lost his sting.

Victoria Azarenka had the twin joys of winning both bronze in singles and gold in mixed doubles. If the original researchers are correct, her happiness should therefore be reflected two-fold. There should be no trace of negativity in her language. And I actually could find none in her post-tournament interviews:

Victoria Azarenka (BLR)
On how the Olympics compare to other achievements, like reaching the world No. 1 rankings and winning the Australian Open title...
AZARENKA: It's definitely very different emotions and very different accomplishment. The feeling I had yesterday on the court, just also winning a bronze, it was absolutely amazing. It's been a dream come true for me to achieve gold because I think every athlete in the world is dreaming about this prize to get. You don't get so many chances. In the Grand Slams, you kind of have a few more, but definitely I'm really proud of all of those achievements. This is definitely something special.

Compare this with Maria Sharapova, who when asked what it was like to be the silver medalist, responded as follows:

MARIA SHARAPOVA: Well, it means a lot. This is my first Olympic experience. I mean, this is probably one of the toughest events, playing six matches in the span of eight days against tough competition. It's such a unique experience for all of us. For me to be a first Olympian and to leave with a silver is an amazing accomplishment. Obviously it's always disappointing to lose in the finals, but it's great to get a medal, that's for sure.

Notice always the mention of disappointment. I'm not judging it. I'm just saying that maybe there is something to this notion of counterfactual thinking after all. But then along comes Roger Federer whose response throws the entire theory out on its ear:

Roger Federer (SUI)
On whether he's happy to win a silver, or disappointed not to win a gold...
FEDERER: No, no, I'm very happy. I am satisfied. I think this is as good as I could do during these championships. Andy was much better than I was today in many aspects of the game. For me, it's been a great month. I won Wimbledon, became world No. 1 again, and I got silver. Don't feel too bad for me. I am very, very proud honestly to have won a silver. Had a very emotional tournament from start to finish. I could have lost in the first round against Falla. Same thing obviously with Del Potro. I felt like I won my silver, I didn't lose it, so I feel very, very happy.

Do you think Roger is speaking the truth or is he just media savvy and knows better than to give the public the opportunity to cut him down?
(Part 2 of 2)

Sunday, August 5, 2012

So right now Del Potro is way happier than Federer?

And Victoria Azarenka may be in a more celebratory mood than Maria Sharapova? That's what some research based on photographic evidence from the 90s would have us believe. That winning a bronze medal at the Olympics makes you happier than gaining silver. That landing in third place is a far more thrilling experience than coming second. Sounds counterintuitive doesn't it?

But back in 1992, a trio of psychological researchers named Victoria Medvec, Scott Madey and Thomas Gilovich, studied photographs of the faces of medal winners at that year's Barcelona Olympics. They examined the faces at two points: At the conclusion of their events, and again as they stood on the podium to receive their Olympic medals.

And they found that bronze medalists had happier faces than athletes who had won silver. Gold medal winners were understandably the happiest of the lot. (And was there a better example of beaming this year than Serena mimicking her friend in the players box and doing the Crip Dance? LOL!). 

But why would bronze medalists seem to be more joyous than the individuals who won silver? Why would coming in third be more thrilling than coming second?

The why is easy enough to explain. The researchers believe that medalists engage in 'counterfactual thinking'. Their emotional responses to the outcome of their efforts are overly influenced by thoughts of 'what might have been'. For silver medalists, the counterfactual thought may be that they could or should have won the gold. For bronze medalists, the counterfactual thought is that they could have finished without a medal. As a result, bronze medalists end up feeling happier. Perhaps relief translates into joy.

In other words, silver medalists compare themselves to the individuals who won gold and end up feeling like they didn't measure up. Bronze medalists on the other hand, compare themselves to the fourth place winner, or to players who did not get a medal at all. They end up utterly thrilled to have won a medal at all. 

My next question was whether this finding from the 90s still holds today. To answer this question I decided to conduct my own non-empirical twist on this study. Instead of looking at photographs of the facial expressions of tennis medalists, I decided to examine their post-match interviews. If the researchers are correct, the interviews of the third place holders should all reflect language of joy and happiness, while second place winners would talk of feelings of disappointment. In other words, I would expect bronze medal holders to be generally more positive in their language, and silver medalists to be more negative in tone. That was my working hypothesis.

So I decided to take a look at some of the post-event interviews posted at the International Tennis Federation site, to see if this theory still holds up. I decided to start with the youngest player to win an Olympics silver medal – Britain's Laura Robson. My thinking was that this 18-year-old hasn't yet been so media-managed that her words will end up being a bunch of fluff signifying nothing. I counted on the teenager to tell the truth of her feelings. And she did:

Laura Robson (GBR)
On winning the mixed doubles silver medal in her hometown...
ROBSON: I don't really know at the moment because we were so close to the gold medal. So for the moment I'm just a bit disappointed, but it's been a really, really good week. Just to be playing in the Olympics, I was really happy with that. At the start of last week, I just thought I was playing doubles. So to be a silver medalist is pretty cool. I'm looking forward to seeing my medal.

Compare this with Juan Del Potro who took the bronze in singles for Argentina:

Juan Martin del Potro (ARG)
On winning a bronze medal after the disappointment of losing in the semifinals...
DEL POTRO: I think I'm the most happy of the world at this moment. After a really sad day two days ago, it's not easy to recovery and to play these kind of matches, but I had energy into my body, into my heart, and that's help me to play this big challenge for me.

(Part 1 of 2)