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Archive for the ‘Tennis & Life’ Category

I watch live tennis on television most of the year, keeping The Tennis Channel’s weekly tournament telecast on my office TV with the sound muted, only tuning in on big points. But the ATP Tour ends it’s season in mid-November each year. The off season is only six weeks, so during the hiatus, I record the final couple of events on my DVR, and savor the matches one at a time at my own pace. The final tournament final was to be played last Sunday inLondon. Happily, there were 24 two hour or more “episodes” of the event recorded on my DVR. It was my personal time-shifting pleasure.

As I headed home from playing tennis Sunday, I ran into a neighbor who is also a tennis enthusiast with whom I often discuss the tour results. As we approached each other, I held up my hand and said “please say nothing about the Tour Masters; I have only begun to watch the event and I have it recorded”. Unthinkingly, she responded that her news “wouldn’t matter, because Federer had just defaulted the final.” To which I said, “gee, thanks for wiping out half the tournament for me”. She thought for a moment and then, realizing her error, apologized profusely, but the damage was done. A known fact cannot be selectively forgotten.

Contemplating the incident later, it seemed to me that all of us place differing values on immediacy, which is defined by Webster’s as “the quality that makes something seem important or interesting because it is or seems to be happening now!” It is clear that even in the digital age, live performances are highly valued in music and theater, even though we know that the studio music performances are likely to be cut and edited for perfection not often to be found in a live concert. Broadway performance tickets easily cost ten times the admission price for movie theaters, where we know the production values can be spectacular compared to live theater.

Some people have no interest in watching sports that were recorded to DVR, even though they may be great fans of the live event, and they do not yet know the results of the contest being shown. For others, it’s about watching the competition. Knowing the result absolutely kills interest for some, yet makes no difference to others. Some prospective parents ask their obstetrician to tell them the sex of their baby from the ultrasound. Long ago, I chose not to know because I didn’t want to spoil the surprise. I figured once we knew, we’d know forever.

Hot Tub Time Machine explores the absurd question of what it would be like to know the future. In the film, when the backwards time travelers have a small opening to return to the present, one of the three friends opts to stay in the past. Ironically, in the old present he was a ne’er do well, but after being re-united with his friends in the new present, he has become a successful businessman and family man. One of the many things I love about sports is that the favorites do not always win. You never know how the competition will turn out. If you did, it might still be fun, but it certainly wouldn’t be as exciting.

Why do we watch televised sports? On a base level, it’s about competition played out as a public surrogate for blood sports. However, true aficionados of any sport also savor the subtleties of the interplay of differing styles that competitors bring to the arena. Watching athletes more gifted than ourselves try to solve the riddle of how to win using agreed upon rules provides endlessly interesting human drama.

Champions aren’t born; they are made by hours of unrelenting, purposeful practice. In the book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell popularized the notion that it takes about 10,000 hours to achieve expertise in many sports as well as for performing artists and musicians. Yet there is still considerable variance between the abilities of the best athletes in any sport or among musicians playing the same instrument. As David Epstein makes clear in The Sports Gene, some athletes and musicians achieve expertise in far fewer hours. They may have physical attributes that leverage their ability to perform at elite levels that others can never attain no matter how hard and long they practice.

It takes many years in most sports to attain true expertise. It is during this development process that athletes and musicians are most keenly aware of how much variation in levels is required to continue to improve. Performance in sports and music, as in almost all human activities, fluctuates. Players get better, and they can also get worse. The sport of tennis readily illustrates this principle. Junior Tour champions can take years to transition their games to the main tour. At the age of 14 Pete Sampras changed from a 2-handed backhand to a one hander and almost dropped out of the junior rankings before it became a weapon that later helped him win 14 major titles.  And we have all seen many of our favorite athletes become just a step slower one year to the next, prompting their retirements.

Fluctuations in performance levels are not limited to juniors in development or those at the height of their physical prowess. We are all subject to the ravages of time, but even those who have played for decades are able to improve. They can get better primarily versus their own age cohort, and also on an absolute level. Part of absolute improvement for every player at any age is raising the technical aspects of their game, and part is mental. The higher the level, the more the mental aspects of the game play a part. In tennis, some players have such overwhelming physical/technical weapons that they play a dominant style. If their weapons are better than an opponent’s defense, they win. If not they lose.

Most players are not able to simply dominate. They employ an array of strategies, any or all of which can work at any level. These include defensive “don’t miss” styles and  counter punching defensive to offensive players. It’s all about featuring your strengths against an opponent’s weaknesses. As a competitor playing cerebral tennis, you want to make the opponent feel like he’s just not playing well by not letting him set up for his favorite or best shots.

Like most tennis players Diogenes has always had a weaker backhand side. During a recent layoff for injuries, he decided to try to remake it into a weapon (again). There had been a multiyear attempt at learning a two-hander. It was steady but never had any real “pop”, and steady wasn’t good enough to raise his level. But knowledge in tennis, or any human pursuit, is never wasted. Diogenes still uses the 2-hander to block big serves and hit short angle shots from the forecourt.

In the current improvement effort, Diogenes has drilled his one handed topspin backhand for hours trying to change his contact point forward by about three to four inches. This small but fundamental technical change allows him to more often be moving forward on hitting his backhand, whereas the prior technique often resulted in weak hits off the back foot. The new stroke is both bigger and has more spin. The cross court shot has become dependable, and up the line backhands are a new option. The new backhand was good enough to add pressure to his everyday opponents, but playing tournaments is the true crucible for Diogenes. The pressure is immediate and unrelenting. At a national indoors event a couple of weeks ago, the new backhand broke down under increased pressure from better, harder hitting and more precise players.

Diogenes will continue to work on improving the new backhand because it could bring an ability to change his entire style of play. In the past, he was mostly an attacking forehand player who often employed serve and volley tactics to avoid baseline rallies that would expose his weak backhand. Transitioning his mental approach to that of a balanced forehand and backhand player would allow him to grind from the back of the court and stay in points longer waiting for better opportunities to attack. The return of serve can be made from further back and be both a higher percentage play and more offensive. This changes everything…maybe.

Who Are Those People?

Diogenes is a sometimes competitor in age group tennis tournaments sanctioned by the United States Tennis Association (USTA). At the end of this month he will return to competition after a seven month hiatus occasioned by yet another surgery (his 8th) to repair a minor injury sustained during competition last year. Thinking about competing again prompted consideration of who else participates in adult competitions.

About 7,000,000 million Americans self report that they play tennis 21 or more times per year. Of those frequent participants, over 400,000 play in the USTA Eastern Section, which includesNew YorkStateand parts ofConnecticutandNew Jersey. About 50,000 are dues paying members of USTA Eastern. One of the reasons to join the USTA is to take advantage of it’s many programs for all ages and levels of play. At the top of the age, and perhaps skills, pyramid are senior adult players, where age groups are organized by 5-year cohorts starting with 25&over and extending to 90&over. Men, women, singles, doubles and mixed doubles events are held in various locations.

Most USTA members today play Adult Team League Competitions, which are organized by both National Tennis Rating Program (NTRP) levels, gender and finally, by age. The most skilled members are among the over 7000 individual competitors that played in a USTA Eastern Adult Competition Sanctioned Event, and almost 2500 of these lived within Metro NYC. There were about 20 of those tournaments per month throughout the section. Many players compete in leagues during the week, and in tournaments on the weekends. Most are 4.0+ NTRP players. Not all are world beaters. Many former ranked ATP and WTA tour players compete in age group events around the country, but they are certainly a minority. There seem to be teaching professionals in almost every event, but most tournament players are just pretty good public parks or club players.

Why do they (still) compete?

It turns out that older people who are athletes from around the world in many sports still compete for many of the same reasons across age, sport, and birthplace.  A study (Rylee, Baker and Horton “Older Athletes’ Perceived Benefits of Competition”) conducted among competitors in the World Masters Games inAustralia in 2009 found five common themes to explain what the athletes gained from continuing to compete:

  • “I like a challenge” depicts Adult Competition as an ideal context to test one’s abilities. In particular, lifelong athletes (or those who had returned to sport after a long break) enjoyed the satisfaction of knowing they “can still do it!”
  • “I discovered that at this age group I could win things!”
  • “I’m more motivated to work harder”, describes how regular competitions provided goals for participants which structured their training. Also, the act of competing brought out their best performances.
  • “You know where you stand”, shows how participants liked that competition enabled them to compare themselves with others of their own age cohort.
  • “Travel” and “companionship”, explains how the organized, competitive structure of Adult Competition allowed for regular travel, the establishment of ongoing friendships and weekly social interaction.

How Does Competing Affect the Competitors?

Most children born before the 1980s were nurtured with competition in sports before the new age of collaborative efforts. The theory was that tough competition would give kids a realistic view of their own strengths and weaknesses. An accurate sense of one’s own ability could help the process of acquiring expertise, and aid in the development of self discipline. Now we have no-cut athletic teams, and the theory that “everyone is special”. Children are discouraged from concentrating on only one sport and competing much before the age of 12 in the hopes of preventing “burnout” and encouraging the development of cooperative skills required for team play.

If we no longer believe that individual competition is great for children, how has thinking evolved on benefits for older competitors? Are champions wiser than their non competing peers? Given the adoration we lavish upon our champions, one might wish this were so. Studies comparing professional athletes with amateurs and non athletes don’t seem to fully address the question, although many anecdotal references can be found. Analysts at Mint.com report that 60% of NBA players file bankruptcy within five years of retirement. Football players are even worse. More than 78% of NFL stars will file for bankruptcy within five years. Major League Baseball players have only mildly better luck, filing for bankruptcy four times more often than the average U.S. citizen. On the other hand, contrary examples are easily found of great athletes that appear to be superior, generous human beings. In tennis, we need look no further than Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal, who have endowed large philanthropic efforts and are humble and gracious to a fault.

Interacting with the champions at national age group competitions has convinced Diogenes that they have about the same, or even greater, personality issues and disorders as the rest of us. Certainly as athletes they are a bit healthier than Americans as a whole, but more than a few are hyper competitive. They are great in high stress moments during tournaments and would be great as soldiers at the front in time of war. The reality is many of them are hard to live with, lots have difficulty in sustaining a  job, and most have moved often during their professional lives. The lesson is that moderation is probably good in sports competition as in most things in life, and keeping the proper perspective is the healthiest approach. Well experienced coaches teach their students that one should treat every match as if it is the most important thing in the world, while realizing at the same time that it really doesn’t matter much at all.

The big news at this year’s Australian Open has been the weather. For four days temperatures hovered above 100 degrees Fahrenheit, peaking at 111 before breaking for the second week of play. These extreme conditions hobbled many competitors in both the ladies’ and gentlemen’s draws. The players in the Oz Open are all finely conditioned athletes, but the top players are also the most fit. Grand Slam champions win many matches with physicality rather than stroke production .

Many spectators are not aware that whatever the ambient temperature, it feels much warmer on the court. The Plexi-Cushion surface is an acrylic paint on top of a ground rubber cushion layer laid over an asphalt base. A thermometer hung off the net post would register 12-15 degrees warmer than the ambient temperature, while the surface of the court would have been 140-150 degrees F. during this period. Caroline Wozniaki claimed that she put a plastic water bottle on the court surface and it melted. Many players came to the court with multiple pairs of shoes because their feet blistered while frying on the court. Ice vests were placed over the competitors at changeovers. Even a couple of the ball kids passed out.

Using Ice to Battle the Heat in Oz c. Firstpost Australia

Under WTA rules the women (who play best 2 of 3 set matches) can get a 10 minute break after the second set in the heat. Men playing best of 5 sets (and getting equal pay) get no such accommodation. Players who have competitive 5 set encounters will be on court for around four hours. Expecting players to compete at such a high level for so long under ordinary summer conditions is tough enough. To do so in this level of heat borders on the ridiculous in that it ceases to be about the tennis and becomes strictly a test of endurance.

Early on the second day of the heat wave, Australian Open tournament officials invoked their “Extreme Heat Policy”. First introduced in 1998 at the insistence of the players, the EHP comes into play when a combination of temperature and heat stress makes play dangerous. They calculate the Wet Bulb Globe Temperature which is a combination of ambient temperature, wind speed, humidity and the intensity of solar radiation.  A combination of the WBGT with the actual air temperature is used to decide whether the EHP is activated. On Tuesday, the 109 degree F. ambient temperature was high enough, but the WBGT was not, presumably because the humidity level was only 44%. On Wednesday, with temperatures at 111 degrees and humidity on the rise, play was stopped for several hours on the outside courts.

“Grinding” an opponent by extending rallies and refusing to miss is a time tested low risk strategy for well conditioned competitors to play their matches. Many top players who are also extremely fit welcome the heat. Jim Courier, known as a physically intimidating presence while on the tour and a resident of Florida, won the Oz Open twice. In 1993, the tournament discussed closing the roof of the arena to lower the court surface temperature. At the time the world #1 ranked player, Courier declared his refusal to play the final if that were done. The court stayed hot and he won. Today’s classic grinder is David Ferrer, the number 3 seed who today advanced to the quarterfinals.

Fitness can vary dependent upon training, and adaptations can improve resistance, but some players (as all people) are more susceptible to heat than others. Heat of 110+ degrees F. will eventually cause dehydration  in all athletes. The symptoms include headaches, dizziness and cramping, which can set in even after the match ends. Part of the code of tennis etiquette is that default is anathema. If you are still on your feet, always believe that you can come back…and win! But when dehydration sets in, your brain becomes fuzzy. That can be dangerous, because if one continues to play, heat stroke or worse can follow.

Although they dread it, most competitors are prepared to suffer to win. They recognize that fitness is a weapon honorably employed. The television audience was treated to the gladiatorial spectacle of athletes struggling to stay coherent in the heat, even as the live audience was surely discomforted almost as much as the players. Diogenes believes that Grand Slam matches are tough enough and that play should be stopped at temperatures above 100 degrees F. If it’s sufficiently hot that a sensible individual wouldn’t volunteer to venture out anywhere other than to a beach or pool, then it’s just too hot to play!

What would happen if heat delays the competition early in the tournament? At the Oz Open, play could continue around the clock inside the two enclosed arenas (a third stadium will be finished by next year). The players are used to extended delays and playing at odd hours around the globe. Most of the television audience watches the matches on tape delays because of the time difference from Australia to the rest of the world. The Grand Slams are all grueling competitions. They should be more about tennis skills than physical endurance.

As in other sports, rule and equipment changes have periodically modified how tennis is played. Fifty years ago, Diogenes first used a 65 square inch wooden racquet with strings made from sheep’s guts and used it to strike white balls. The professional tours adopted yellow balls in 1972 because they provided more contrast and were easier to see on color televisions. Over the next several years, yellow balls were adopted by most recreational players. In the late 1970s, the game migrated to graphite racquets with about 100 square inch heads, allowing players to hit much harder with greater spin and consistency.

By the 1980s, nylon strings replaced natural gut strings for most recreational players. They were less expensive and not as sensitive to moisture degradation as gut. Co-polyester strings were widely adopted by professionals in the early 2000s, although nylon is still used by most recreational players. Polyester strings are very stiff and have very little elasticity.  This is what makes them popular with big hitters. Because of this lack of elasticity, the ball doesn’t trampoline off the stringbed, so a player can take a big swing at the ball without it sailing long.  The stiff string also digs into the ball generating more spin as the strings brush across the ball. Most recreational players find that this stiffness requires taking bigger swings at the ball or the resulting shot lands short in the court, which is a weak shot. Not only do they have to work harder, but the string’s stiffness results in more shock transfer to the player which can result in shoulder, wrist or elbow injuries.

The search for increased control by using more spin has been a constant quest by string and racquet companies for years. Tennis researcher John Yandell analyzed slow-motion video and determined that current world #1 Rafael Nadal hits his average forehand with 3200 rotations per minute (rpm) and sometimes reaches a mind-boggling 4900 rpm. By comparison, Roger Federer’s forehand averages 2700. And Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, two of the America’s greatest players ever, hit their forehands at a mere 1800 rpm, imparting slightly more than half as much spin as Nadal. When we talk about spin, mostly we are referring to topspin. Although underspin (slice) is a solid occasional play, chipping the ball is as often as not  a defensive stroke. This is so because of the trajectories of balls struck with topspin versus one struck without spin, as shown in the chart below.

A flat tennis ball has a lower margin of error to both clear the net and land inside the baseline. A ball hit with more topspin will travel higher over the net and bounce higher,  making it more difficult for the opponent to hit. (This is so because most strokes should be hit at a height between the player’s knees and below the chest in order to create a low-to-high loop. When the ball bounces above the shoulder, a player can choose to hit a weaker, higher shot, or retreat in the court in order to create the proper contact height.) In the past, the combination of smaller head size, lower powered racquets and lower technology strings prevented players from being able to easily access spin.

Dr. Rod Cross, co-author of The Physics and Technology of Tennis, demonstrated through lab research that as a ball is about to leave the strings, the main strings snap back and give the ball a sideways kick, thereby increasing the rate at which the ball spins as it comes off the strings. In other words, about 80% of the spin, and control of a ball is determined by the mains, or vertical strings in the racquet. A looser pattern imparts more spin, but lower control. In the past, players chose between tight string patterns such as 18 mains X 20 crosses in order to maximize control, or looser string patterns such as 16 mains X 18 crosses to increase power. These trade-offs could be somewhat mitigated by other variables such as string tension (looser for power; tighter for more control), string type, frame size, beam width and racquet weight. As a DIY racquet stringer, Diogenes has considered what enhancements could boost effectiveness.  The holy grail would be to retain control while increasing spin or power. Other stringers had suggested to Diogenes that one could achieve that end by either skipping the first and last crosses, or skipping every fourth cross. The results from these experiments were not good.

In early 2013, Wilson put out the Steam 99S, a racquet that had a 16 X 16 string pattern. Intended for intermediate players, the results were too powerful for Diogenes. Prince jumped on the idea, and about a month ago introduced several racquets with fewer cross strings. Two weeks ago, Wilson introduced the 6.1 95S, with an 18 X 16 string pattern geared towards more advanced players. “For every 100 r.p.m.’s of topspin you can put on the ball, you can reduce the flight distance by 6 to 12 inches,”  Bob Thurman, Wilson VP for R&D said. The goal, is to reduce the coefficient of friction between the strings and allow them to move more, which creates more force when they snap back. In other words, to create more spin without a change in one’s swing. Wilson has attempted to solve this problem for control players by creating a racquet with fewer cross strings than vertical main strings.

A few days ago, for the first time, Diogenes purchased a racquet without first demoing it. The new 95S has the potential to radically improve his mediocre strokes without making changes in how he strikes the ball. Many iterations of stringing may be required to achieve that result, but that is part of the fun of a winter indoor season. Testing and adjusting to new equipment is a routine practice from the pro tour down to lesser players. Sometimes it works, and sometimes not, but the pleasure is in the process of finding things out. Ain’t life just grand?

Many Americans were painfully aware of the dispute between Time Warner Cable and CBS which was finally resolved this week. The network attempted to sharply increase fees paid to it by TWC to transmit CBS’s programming, demanding $2/head. Time Warner knew that it would not to able to pass along this cost to subscribers and allowed the network to go black for subscribers.

TWC had many reasons to fight. It argued that the networks have traditionally been advertising based revenue models who provided their programming free to local over-the-air broadcast stations. The cable companies have for years paid small fees for bundles of the networks’ channels, but CBS wanted a substantial increase.

The biggest reason TWC was resisting the new fee demands is that many of its subscribers now consider cutting the cord on cable television monthly fees altogether. Paid television peaked at 86% of households a few years ago, but are now shedding subscribers, and as the following chart shows, nearly 20% of US households will no longer pay for television by 2017.

 

For anyone who has been tethered to cable or other paid TV most or all of their life, cutting the cord is liberating. Alternative technology allows one to time or place shift consumption of any media. Many consumers today believe that paying for media in any place should entitle them to consume/watch or listen to that media anywhere and anytime so long as it is not done so in the context of a commercial enterprise.

How then does one go about actually cutting the cord without becoming a hippy or an “intellectual” who proudly doesn’t even own a TV? Aereo.com is an intriguingly simple solution to local, public and broadcast network programming with a DVR function at a cost of $8/month. With Netflix, a la cart purchase options from I-Tunes and the Google Play store, and free online distribution, many techies believe most content should be advertising supported and freely available. To such viewers, any amount paid for cable is too much in an age of Miracast bluetooth wireless display from an Android phone to a big screen TV.

Alternatives to cable TV can even be an improvement to the viewing experience. For example, coverage of the US Open Tennis Tournament has been confusingly split between CBS, ESPN, ESPN2 and The Tennis Channel. Parts of the coverage are overlapping, with The Tennis Channel and ESPN showing different matches at the same time. Web simulcasts on ESPN3 are available when ESPN cable channels are showing live matches. Earlier in the two week long event, internet viewers had a choice of as many as six different matches, which were also available for replay shortly after the matches finished. The weekend coverage, which migrated to CBS, could not be viewed on Time Warner Cable a few days ago, but five courts had internet webcasts available from USOpen.org. In this day of 4G wireless, the high definition signal was stunningly sharp.

Cable and other paid TV growth has slowed in the US as alternatives have appeared. The experience can be better on the internet, as is the case with the US Open, but the changes have been driven as much by economics as by technology. Paid television costs have risen by an average of 6% over the last 17 years, far outpacing inflation according to NPD. The average US cable bill was $86 in 2011. NPD projects that monthly cost to increase to $123/month in 2015, and to reach $200/month in 2020. It’s no wonder many Americans would rather pay around $25 or less/month to consume their media without cable TV. By using a combination of Aereo, Netflix, and Itunes, they are easily able to do so while consuming media when and where they choose.

Sports viewing constitutes a significant portion of TV consumption. The ESPN franchise, owned by Disney, has become the single most valuable media property in the world, with average cost to cable households of over $5/month of their cable bill, whereas the average cable channel costs consumers $0.26/month. ESPN recently announced an 11 year deal starting in 2015 with the USTA for total coverage rights to the US Open. Every match on all 17 courts will be available on the web, and it is likely that by then ESPN’s revenue model will include an internet only option, as the technology continues evolving to present more content at lower prices and in more convenient ways. The cord cutters among us can’t wait.

Equal pay for equal work has long been considered an international human right. 2013 marks the 50th anniversary of the US Equal Pay Act which states that “employers may not pay unequal wages to men and women who perform jobs that require substantially equal skill, effort and responsibility, and that are performed under similar working conditions within the same establishment.” Despite this law and others since, women in the American workforce earn only 77% on average of the earnings of men, so that it is rare to discover a situation where women are paid more than men for equal work.

Tennis professional tour events utilize a best of three sets format for both men and women for all tournaments except for the four “Grand Slam” major events (Wimbledon, the Australian, US and French Open championships). In these “majors”, the women play best of 3 sets as they always do, while the men play best of 5 sets. The lengthier format for men was once used for many other tournaments, but as most tournaments changed from grass to hard courts, the shorter format was adopted almost everywhere. Traditionalists managed to keep the format unchanged from amateur days for the majors and for Davis Cup play.

All of the grand slam tournaments have paid the men’s and women’s champions equal prize money since  2007. While few players dare to publicly disparage the equal pay, many believe it is unfair to the men not to be paid more, since they are playing more sets on the court. Furthermore, Wimbledon charges considerably more for tickets to the gentlemen’s final than for the ladies’ final, and it is argued that this reflects their relative appeal and should affect the prize money paid out to each gender.

The primary argument in favor of continuing best of 5 set matches at the majors is that the longer format is a bigger test of mental and physical endurance which more often allows the better players to prevail. Unfortunately the evidence does not support this theory. Best of 3 sets format was instituted for doubles at every tour event for the past several years. It was generally expected that the shorter formats would disadvantage the top teams, but there turned out to be no effect at all. The best players before the format change continued to top the rankings.

Diogenes believes the equal pay argument is a canard. Rather than considering paying women less, the question of pay should be re-framed as to what is best for tennis, and for the fans whose ticket purchases and TV viewership support the game? Clearly, what needs to be done is to amend men’s competitions in all events to best of three sets.

Almost nobody ever plays best of 5 set matches. 70% of all play in the US is on public courts where someone is usually waiting to take over your court after only an hour of play. Each set on the pro tour is far more grueling, and the players wear out with best of 5 sets matches. Almost every player who manages to win a long 5 set match at the majors goes on to lose in the next round to a fresher opponent.

The fan experience would also be enhanced by shortening matches. Except for die-hard fans, who wants to spend four or five hours watching long five set matches? For many viewers, a decisive third set climax two hours in would be just great.

A serendipitous byproduct of shortening the men’s format in the majors would be an increased incentive for the top players to participate in doubles at the slams. At other longer events where players do not have singles matches every day such as at Miami and Indian Wells, the top singles players also play doubles to the delight of the fans. Few do so in the slams because they fear the longer format.

Tennis is one of the only sports followed and played by both men and women, together and separately. The ATP Tour needs to adopt the best of 3 sets format for all events, including the majors. It would be a boon for players and the fans, and it’s the right thing to do to signal the sport’s commitment to support and practice equal pay for equal work.

It is common in tennis, and other sports, for players to think they can approximate their performance against other players based on results against common opponents. Let’s say Adam (A) plays and beats Brad (B) Mathematically, this is can be expressed as A > B. Then Brad plays and beats Charlie (C). Therefore B>C. Adam hears the second match result and is sure that he will beat Charlie when they play. If A>B, and B>C, then A>C.

Tennis is a sport where the better player usually, though not always wins. One would think that Adam would beat Charlie when they play. But it is not uncommon for Charlie to beat Adam. Because tennis, like most of life, is not transitive.

What can explain such results? Well, each player is a mix of strengths and weaknesses. One might have a terrific serve, along with poor volley skills. Another has a great forehand which he uses to hide a weak backhand. Winning matches requires a player to determine where he has an advantage over his opponent and exploit those match-ups repeatedly until the other player responds by changing his patterns of play and/or exploits a counter weakness. If the other player won’t or can’t do so, he loses.

It’s like the children’s game of rock, paper, scissors, also known internationally as roshambo. Used instead of a coin toss or drawing straws, players “throw” gestures with their hands to determine the winner: rock breaks scissors; scissors cut paper; paper covers rock. Pure match-ups. Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. No strategy always wins.

All players have performance ranges, and some days are better than others. On any given day, a player could  feel that he played much better than average (for himself), and on other days he might feel that he performed poorly relative to his own standards. Part of being able to perform well is understanding the patterns of play you are initiating as well as those of your opponent. A player “plays well” when he is dictating, and “plays poorly” when the opponent forces him to hit his least favorite shots. So, within a range of abilities, a player does not beat the same player every time. He might beat the opponent when they are both playing well, or both playing poorly, but not win when the opponent plays well and he does not.

Diogenes is delighted that tennis is not transitive. How glorious to be forced to figure things out! The thrill of matching wits with someone else of relatively equal ability is the essence of competition and part of the enduring appeal of sports.

On this last day of the year, Diogenes was delighted that the ATP World Tour has resumed after its annual six week off-season. Live play began today from the Persian Gulf state of Qatar, a relatively secular Arab state with a striking new skyline of eclectic modern skyscrapers. The incredibly international nature of the tour was reinforced while watching the first televised match on the Tennis Channel between the Italian Simone Bolelli and Spaniard Daniel Gimeno-Traver.

A new rule was put into effect for this season that ought to improve the viewing experience for the fans. The server has 25 seconds from the end of the last point to put the ball in play. Players today are mostly the products of academies that teach students to employ serving rituals to focus their attention as they step up to serve. Until this year, tour players regularly took three or four balls from ball kids to choose which two to use, even though six balls are used in tour matches and changed every 9 games, so there is not a lot or difference between them. In addition, many players toweled off between almost every point whether or not they were profusely perspiring. These routines sometimes elongated time between play to 45 seconds. (Imagine club play with opponents taking these kinds of delays, especially in New York, where we pay for court time by the hour and someone is always waiting to take your court when your time is up. In the absence of umpires, many would be tempted to club their opponents!)

Until now, umpires would issue a warning to players for time code violations. Additional time delays were supposed to be progressive in that they would result in the loss of the point. As a result, it was very rare for umpires to call second time violations. The new rule calls for umpires to start a clock which only they can see at the end of a point, and call a time violation at 25 seconds if the ball is not in play. The penalty is loss of the first serve. Subsequent violations are not progressive and results in loss of the next serve whether it is a first or second.

Tennis is one of few sports where there is no time limit to finish. Players must win 2 of 3 sets in regular tournaments, and 3 of 5 sets in Grans Slam events. This can sometimes result in very long matches. At the 2012 Australian Open final in January, Novak Djokovic defeated Rafa Nadal (two notoriously slow players) in the longest slam match in history, needing 5 hours and 53 minutes to prevail. In addition to scheduled 90 second breaks every two games, each player routinely took 30 or 40 seconds to serve, so the actual time the ball was in play was likely less than an hour. Such matches are almost as difficult for the spectators as for the players. Shortening them with faster play improves the game for everyone.

In the Bolelli v. Gimeno-Traver match today, time violations were called several times, particularly at crucial break point junctures. This was terrific to see. Diogenes expects that basketball-like countdown shot clocks will be put at court side by next season to further engage spectators and allow the players to time their actions to avoid the penalties. At the end of the day, it’s not just sport. It’s entertainment!

Diogenes is a long time resident of a New York apartment building which has the wonderful amenity of a fitness room in its basement. First established nearly 20 years ago, this gym had deteriorated over the years through lack of updates into a slightly dingy and depressing, albeit functional place. One feature of the health club that regular users cherished was that each of 12 aerobic machine stations had its own small TV and VCR/DVD player, allowing users to record their own media and watch it while working out. A long overdue refurbishing of the gym at the end of the summer yielded flat screen TVs with no speakers and no media inputs. It seems that the remodeling committee decided that users (their neighbors) could not be trusted to comply with facility rules requiring headset use. Additionally, some few of us were spending too much time on any one machine, and perhaps grunting overly or perspiring too much while doing so.

Initially, Diogenes was outraged at this small infringement of his right to sweat profusely. Of course, the reality is that anything that governs any action is a limit on liberty, which is why the Founding Fathers held the idea of limited government as a basic tenet of the foundation of our republic. “Civil society” regulates our activities in countless ways, so why was Diogenes annoyed? It was because he had seen this problem coming and tried to head it off. As an original member of the committee that planned the construction of the gym, he had long ago specified the equipment to be replaced. Diogenes wrote letters to the current committee asking for slight changes to accommodate personal media. In a West Side building this input would have likely been debated intensely, but in this East Side coop, Diogenes was ignored, probably due to a lack of technical knowledge.

The simple answer to the equipment change in the gym would be to purchase new media from iTunes for every use of the facility. But Diogenes is rarely simple. This would constitute a new tax when he already paid for cable and NetFlix. Accepting the self imposed challenge to find a solution to the new equipment required Diogenes to exercise his brain, a far more daunting task than beating up his body. It had been years since Diogenes had considered the topic of video capture, and most of what he knew involved recording in old, “standard” definition of 480 lines of resolution. His first attempt involved the purchase of a TV tuner for a laptop. It would not record through the cable box, and so would only record unencrypted basic 2-13 channels. Not good enough.

The wonder of the internet is the ability to teach yourself almost anything without leaving your desk. Eventually, Diogenes purchased a high definition video capture device intended for gamers. It allowed the recording of signals through the cable box to a laptop. Unfortunately, the recorded media was not in a format to be transferred into an I-Pad. Further research yielded a separate media conversion software program that did the trick.

Diogenes wound up spending as much for hardware and software to record and view media as he would have to simply buy it for a year or so. But as noted physicist and polymath Richard Feynman wrote in 1981, sometimes “the pleasure of finding things out” is its own reward. Every time Diogenes forces himself to overcome his inertia to use the gym, he chuckles to himself as he watches…whatever he wants. He thanks the committee for prodding him to expand his knowledge, and upgrade his viewing experience.