Sunday, June 27, 2010

Sport-related stuff

Before moving to New Zealand I watched a lot of sport. Football, cricket, tennis, golf, athletics, snooker, darts (is that a sport?), you name it. Even when I came here I got to know in which cities the various Super 12 (or 14) rugby teams were based. But in the last year or two I've largely lost interest. My attitude has been, who cares who wins? How can this bloody football match possibly matter any more than the winner of Ready Steady Dance matters? Of course a lot of this has been caused by my depression, and when I'm depressed very little seems to matter.

However, in the last two weeks things have changed again, due to Wimbledon and the biggest single-sport event on the planet, the World Cup. When you're overseas you begin to get some idea of how big an international event the World Cup really is. In Bangkok and Bali, both in countries without a team in the competition, people were going nuts. I watched a few of the games, mostly on a very grainy TV picture in my hotel room, though in Bali I'd sometimes see a game in a bar with a big screen while downing a Bintang beer.

Many of the games I saw were a disappointment but it was a delight to witness New Zealand's progress. I have to admit I got quite animated when they scored in the last minute to draw with Slovakia, but their shock 1-1 result against Italy was something else. I'd rate that match among the best in the group stages, bettered only by the States' comeback against Slovenia. When the All Whites returned to Wellington today following a third straight draw, they got the rapturous reception they deserved. A classic match (for all the wrong reasons) was Portugal's 7-0 thumping of North Korea, sorry, the Democratic People's Repuplic of Korea. I wondered what the hell it would be like to live in North Korea, and how many people in that country knew anything about the match.

As for Wimbledon, the first three rounds of the singles competitions have now been completed (yes, despite that match they really have!) so with sixteen players left in both draws I'll try and predict the winners. In the men's I'll go out on a limb a bit and pick Söderling; anyone who can hit the ball that hard, that accurately, and is in such a rich vein of form, must be in with a serious chance. On the women's side I'll play safe and stick with Serena.

I've still got the rest of my trip to write about. I promise I'll do that soon. I should also mention that tomorrow is Dad's 60th birthday.

Friday, June 25, 2010

"The greatest match ever": some analysis

The Isner–Mahut match at Wimbledon, which finally ended in Isner's favour with the monumental scoreline of 70-68 in the fifth set, seems out of place in the 21st century. It belongs in an era of unlimited FA Cup replays, timeless Tests and fight-to-the-finish boxing. That there is still room for this sort of encounter in today's quick-fix, penalty shoot-out, winner-takes-all world is I think the biggest positive that we can all take from what some have called the greatest ever tennis match. In terms of quality it probably wasn't that great (I only saw the last of its eleven hours, finishing at close on 4am my time last night) but in sheer size it was truly colossal; nothing before has ever come close. At times Isner could hardly move his legs, but somehow he was able to rely on his brutal serving arm. Both players were presented with a special trophy after the match, as was the umpire. You can find a priceless commentary of this match from the Guardian here.

Rule number one of successful blogging is that all content should be of interest to its audience, not just its author. I should warn you now that I may be about to violate this rule. First, here are a few facts and figures surrounding the three-day contest:
  • Both players' ace counts hit triple digits, Isner serving 112 aces to Mahut's 103.

  • The previous longest match lasted just over 6½ hours. Just the fifth set of this match exceeded eight hours.

  • The number of points played in the match nearly reached quadruple figures, Mahut holding up his half of the bargain with 502 points while Isner managed 478. From what I could tell, Mahut made most of the running on the second day's play as those figures would suggest. He unquestionably looked the fitter of the two men, but he just could not find a way to break the Isner serve.

  • Mahut had to win three qualifying matches to make the main draw. In the second of these he was pushed to a 24-22 deciding third set by Britain's Alex Bogdanovic, a marathon in itself. He then came from two sets down to win his last qualifying match in five.

  • Thiemo de Bakker, Isner's second-round opponent, won his opening round match 16-14 in the fifth set.

  • In 2007 Mahut had a match point in his loss to Andy Roddick in the final of Queen's. He had beaten Nadal earlier in the tournament. That would suggest he knows how to play on grass.

  • Also in 2007, the six-foot-nine Isner burst onto the tennis scene by winning five successive matches, all of them in a tie-break in the final set. In last year's US Open he beat Roddick on a tie-break in the fifth and final set. Then at the start of this year in my home town of Auckland, he picked up the title by beating Arnaud Clément in the final on, guess what, a tie-break in the final set.

What I keep hearing is, "we'll never see anything like this ever again". Is that true? Well even though this match has obliterated every record in the book, given infinite time and no changes to the rules of tennis (more on that later), and that Wimbledon doesn't fall into the sea due to climate change, we will see something similar again, be it in our lifetime, our great-grandchildren's lifetime or some time after that. So it's really a question of whether tennis continues to be played as it is now, hundreds of years hence. If it does (and that's a really big if) how long will we have to wait to see a 70 in the games column again?

First it would be nice to know the chances that the Isner–Mahut match-up, in particular, should produce such a marathon. What were the odds that we'd get to 68-all? Even to do that I'll have to make a few assumptions:

  1. Both players have the same chance of winning a point on serve, which I'll call p. As Isner had a far superior ranking (he was the 23rd seed while Mahut was ranked outside the world's top 100) this is a bit unrealistic. But Mahut had proven his ability on grass before and he was coming into the match on the back of considerably more grass-court play than the American. So this assumption, which implies that both players are of equal strength, isn't so far-fetched after all (as the eventual result showed).

  2. Only this match is used to estimate p. Match-ups are so important in tennis. For instance Mahut's chance of winning a point on the Isner serve is surely smaller than against just about any other player, with the possible exception of Ivo Karlovic. Likewise the surface plays a huge part; even different grass courts play differently. So adding any other opponents or surfaces into the mix will only make my estimate less accurate.

  3. The outcome of each point is independent of all other points, so p is constant throughout the match. Whether this is a realistic assumption I honestly don't know. My guess is that there are "momentum" and "crisis aversion" effects that come into play, as well as (in a match as long as this) a serious "fatigue" effect. Also, players may have a better chance when serving or receiving from a particular side of the court (left or right). That's for another investigation.

Of the 980 points played, 759 of them went with serve. This gives p = 0.77449, a figure much higher than the corresponding 0.66469 taken from all the matches in the first two rounds of the men's tournament combined.So what's the probability of the server winning a game?
He can win it to love [probability p^4], to fifteen [4*p^4*(1-p): there are four ways of winning a game for the loss of one point], to thirty [10*p^4*(1-p)^2] or in a deuce situation. The "deuce" case is a bit trickier as it involves an infinite series, but it works out to be:

Summing these four terms, the probability that the server wins the game (I'll call this g) is:
0.35980 + 0.32456 + 0.18298 + 0.09823 = 0.96556. Wow. So given how Isner and Mahut were serving, you could only expect a break of serve a little over one time in thirty. It's also pretty amazing that the most likely outcome of a game in this situation is a hold to love.

The probability that the match goes into a fifth set, given the assumptions, is 3/8. I'm sure this is a slight overestimate due to the effect of momentum (between two evenly-matched players, I'd imagine whoever wins the first set has an above 50% chance of also winning the second). Now what's the chance that a set goes to six games all? The probability of this is:
[g^10 + 25*g^8*(1-g)^2 + 100*g^6*(1-g)^4 + 100*g^4*(1-g)^6 + 25*g^2*(1-g)^8 + (1-g)^10] * [g^2 + (1-g)^2].

Plugging in our value of 0.96556 for g, that probability is 0.67854. So with two players serving as well (and returning as badly?) as Isner and Mahut, you could expect two-thirds of sets to reach 6-6. Contrast this with the tournament as a whole, where using the figure from the first two rounds, you'd expect just 28% of sets to reach 6-6 (and I'm sure on clay it would be even lower than this).

So the probability at the start of the Isner–Mahut match that it would reach 6-6 in the fifth, i.e. the no-tie-break "overtime" stage, is 3/8 * 0.67854 = 0.25445.

We can continue by working out the probability that the fifth set will run deeper than this:

So there you have it. These two would serve up (literally!) a 70-68 (or longer) fifth set 0.357% of the time, or once every 280 times they step onto the court.

I'm sure most people would think it was far more unlikely than that, somewhere in the thousands or even millions-to-one range. And they're probably (partially, at least) right. When I've watched marathon men's matches in the past, at around 10-all in the decider one man starts to cramp, or loses concentration, or serves a couple of double faults, putting a major dent in
his value of p and opening the door for his opponent. Remarkably, in the Isner–Mahut match, that never happened. If anything, both players' p-values seemed to rise as the match wore on, and it took two out-of-the-blue passing shots from Isner to bring it to an end.

So all I've done here is come up with a figure for one match alone, based on some dodgy assumptions. As for calculating a probability based on all the matches that take place in a tournament, you'd need a whole bunch of p-values for all the possible encounters, many of which are clearly not 50-50 match-ups, and I wouldn't know where to start! Here's someone who has started, and more than that.

This match has inevitably generated some discussion about a possible fifth-set tie-break at Wimbledon (and, for that matter, Melbourne and Paris). Currently the US Open is the only Grand Slam to use a tie-break in the final set. Personally I'm a fan of the "no tie-break" rule in the last set, at least not at 6-6. The Wimbledon finals of 2001 and 2008, as well as the Australian Open semi between Federer and Safin in 2005, are examples of classic matches that were taken "up a notch" by the lack of a deciding tie-break. The same can be said of some great women's Grand Slam finals, particularly at the French Open. But I wouldn't be totally averse to a tie-break coming in later, at least in the early rounds. There are three problems I see in a gargantuan battle like this. Most obviously the winner of the match, in this case Isner, is completely shot when he comes to play his next match. As it happened, Isner won just five games against De Bakker, and incredibly did not serve a single ace. Had Mahut won, I think he would have done better. Secondly it becomes almost irrelevant who wins, partly because the winner is unlikely to advance further. Finally so much attention is given to the match as to almost overshadow the rest of the tournament; in twenty years' time people may well remember this match but have no clue as to who won the final. I reckon a tie-break at 12-all would make sense (it's like an extra set) and as for the final, well that should definitely stay no-limit.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Fifty-nine all?!

I haven't been off the plane long and I'll post properly in the next day or two, but I just saw that John Isner and Nicolas Mahut are locked up at 59-all in the fifth set at Wimbledon. The match has been suspended for a second day after a total of ten hours' play. Quite unbelievable.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

I need a holiday

So I do post again after all. I arrive at Heathrow on Wednesday, check in, sit down, relax. Or try to. A message flashes up on the screen: with typical German precision it tells me my flight to Frankfurt is delayed by 58 minutes. Whoa, that makes my connection to Bangkok a bit tight, doesn't it? I ask at the desk. Apparently my flight isn't really delayed at all, and that message was just a precaution due to the bad weather. And, you know, my connecting flight will probably take off late anyway, so on average I'll be fine. Huh?! I don't care about on average; I want to know about this flight.

Anyway my plane takes off, we end up in an electrical storm, we spend some time circling at the other end, then finally we get the OK to land. Phew. But at the last minute the pilot pulls out of the landing and we head towards Stuttgart where we spend an hour or so on the ground to refuel. I'm philosophical about this: if the pilot isn't comfortable with the conditions he shouldn't land. We arrive at Frankfurt three hours late to a round of applause. At 2am, after much faffing around by Lufthansa (to me the airline epitomise German unhelpfulness but don't show much sign of German efficiency), I get put up in a rather swanky hotel and in the morning I have an equally swanky breakfast.

I'm rebooked on a Thai Airways flight and I'm happy about that, though that would mean I'd miss my Air Asia flight from Bangkok to Bali by minutes. I try to phone Air Asia from my room to change my flight - I'd written down several phone numbers before just in case - but the "press one, press two" thing didn't work and I'm billed ten euros for a bunch of pointless phone calls. I then use the phone at reception but Air Asia tell me I can't change my flight at such short notice. My god. Maybe I'll get something back on my insurance but I wouldn't bank on it.

Frankfurt airport was horrible: their thermostat was turned up to max and everyone had to drink bottled water, ridiculously priced at two quid for a small bottle, just to survive. I have to say that the Thai flight was excellent and I thoroughly recommend them to anybody. When I arrived at Bangkok I had one question: where the hell are my bags?! I was told they'd be coming on the next Lufthansa flight in, uh, half a day. I hadn't changed since London and was feeling decidedly dirty.

A couple of hours after arriving at the hotel, my bags magically turn up with the word RUSH on them. It felt great to change into some new clothes. Who knows what flight my bags had been on. At the hotel I use the internet to book another Air Asia flight to Bali (I could have gone with Thai but that would have cost me megabahts). I'll be staying a bit longer in Bangkok, and nine nights in Bali instead of the twelve I'd planned.

My hotel room is huge: it's got two double beds just for me. I've got the opposite problem to the one I had at Frankfurt airport: the air con is set to freezing, but I can live with that. I played with the controls for a while, then noticed the air con remote has the number of the room next door on it. Perhaps my neighbour has my controls. "Air con wars" has a certain ring to it. "You think you can make me sweat, well take that, mister!" Next to my bed is a price list. It seems everything in my room is for sale. A hand towel is 100 baht or about two quid. The fridge is 7000 baht. Maybe I could buy the fridge and hitch-hike around Thailand with it, then write a book about it.

Last night I grabbed some food from a street stall across the road. It was cheap and tasty though I couldn't quite tell what the meat was, and as I ate it I was surrounded by dogs. Breakfast this morning included Spam and didn't quite match that hotel in Frankfurt. I'm now about to take a taxi into central Bangkok; the hotel staff have assured me that it's OK.

Living with my gran meant living in a clockless, calendarless world. With all that messing around with planes I now have very little idea of what time it is, or what day. Whether it's night or day is about all I can handle.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Heading back

I'll be flying out of the UK tomorrow. I've got mixed feelings about that. My gran is understandably upset that I'm leaving: she has no family to look after her. On the other hand it's damn near impossible to do anything with my gran about and I need to get on with my own life.

I've booked twelve nights in Bali to avoid the whole Thailand mess. As a kid we used to stop over in Bali on the way to and from New Zealand. I'd rate our '89 and '90 stopovers as the best holidays of my life, so I'm hoping this trip will bring back happy memories for me.

Last weekend I stayed in Birmingham (which is a million miles from Bali) and met up with some friends from university. One of my friends, the one I've been in touch with the most, was kind enough to put me up, or at least his parents were (he still lives with them). He qualified as an actuary in no time; he's an incredibly clever bloke whose knowledge extends to music and popular culture, not just academic stuff. I spent a few days in Italy with him in 2008. His mind worked at such terrific speed that I couldn't help but feel stupid most of the time. We spent some time on Saturday at the Lickey Hills, playing some weird batless version of cricket. One of the (many) great things about Birmingham is that you're never far from the countryside.

I don't know if I'll have much computer access in the next two weeks so this will likely be my last blog post for a while.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

It's all too complicated

Yesterday I parked the grannymobile - a bright red '96 or '97 Nissan Micra - at Huntingdon station. Right, now how much is it and how do I pay? I had great fun trying to interpret a sign with a long list of prices ranging from £6.20 to over a grand. How on earth do people manage? I sat in the car waiting for 10:00 to pass - missing the 9:59 train in the process - so I could get a cheaper rate. The next train stopped at every station including some that I'd never heard of.

At 1pm I met up with my old flatmate (we flatted in Birmingham in 2001-o2) at the British Library where we visited the Magnificent Maps exhibition. I like maps (as art perhaps more than as a tool you use to get somewhere) and I once had a job that involved making them. New Zealand featured on very few of these maps because it hadn't been discovered. We saw the world's biggest atlas - a book about as tall as me - and a huge labour-of-love comedy map of London.

We then spent a short time at Covent Garden:

It was a perfect day in London yesterday - there literally wasn't a cloud in the sky. How often, anywhere in the UK, can you say that? We walked along the Thames and visited some bars whose prices were very similar to what I've seen in Auckland, just in a different currency. My flatmate is a doctor and has a lot of disposable income but very little disposable time, so I was lucky to get to see him. We finished up at a Turkish restaurant where we had some very tasty food, just far too much of it.

Then I found I'd lost my return train ticket. My flatmate called that a disaster, though that was a bit strong (I now realise I used that word inappropriately myself in my last post). I searched everywhere but the ticket had vanished. I nearly jumped on the train and took the risk (I'll be out of the country in no time), but in the end I bought another ticket. Train ticket pricing makes no sense in the UK - a return costs about 1.05 times a single (so what are you actually paying for when you buy a ticket?). Whatever, I could kiss goodbye to another £22. I'm burning money on this trip. When I boarded my train at platform zero, I felt a lot like this bloke:

Today I've been all over the place, and let's face it, a bit depressed. Gran and I went into Huntingdon. The last thing we did was visit the supermarket, something I don't enjoy doing at the best of times. But my gran only wanted three items: gin, tonic and milk, so it would be easy. Yeah right. To begin with I offered some resistance, but not wanting an argument I gave up as my gran made sure she got at least something from every aisle, even though she had identical items untouched at home in the fridge. "Put this in, we're running short of that, you really can't have enough of the next thing."

Tomorrow I'll be taking the grannymobile to Birmingham. I've been looking for a road map, but the only maps I can find here could almost belong in that exhibition. The most recent of them is dated 1985.

Thursday, June 3, 2010


Here's a picture of a demonstration from Monday's market in St Ives:
I wouldn't want to play badugi with that bloke.

Yesterday I went into Cambridge on the Whippet bus (in America they have Greyhounds, here we have Whippets). Cambridge is an amazing city and I'm proud to say I was born there. Its academia seems to attract all kinds of oddbods, so you can be yourself there without ever feeling out of place. Yesterday I got a real buzz just from browsing the bookshops and clothes shops, even though it was a wet day. I bought nine books, a few clothes and a Glenn Miller album for my gran. I even found a fair-trade clothes shop called Wombat which must be one of the coolest words in existence. It's easy to forget that just like any other city Cambridge has its problems, such as homelessness, depicted in Alexander Masters' excellent book Stuart.

The World Cup starts next week, and every other car has a cross of St George flying from its aerial. Can England win it? Of course they can. But so can, realistically, a dozen other countries. New Zealand might struggle, but they did just beat Yugoslavia. I reckon there's a lot more luck involved than people realise. Qualify from your group, maybe winning it to get an easier draw in the second round, make it through that, then what? You'll be facing one of the big guns, and quite possibly a penalty shoot-out.

Tomorrow I'll be seeing an old university flatmate in London.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Living with Grandma

I get on well with my gran but it's hard work at times. She's been largely immobile for some years, but lately she's lost much of her mental sharpness too. She gets confused very easily and her short-term memory is almost non-existent. Sometimes I feel I'm living in some kind of Alice in Wonderland world. My gran has lost all sense of time, so effectively while I'm living here there's no clock and no calendar. She'll make herself breakfast at 3:30 am, then pour me a cup of apple-flavoured instant tea at 5:30 (which I tip down the sink when she's not looking), then she'll sleep most of the day.

Friday was her 88th birthday. I gave her regular reminders of this as the date approached. She would recite her date of birth - "twenty-eight five twenty-two" - but without knowing what it meant; it might as well have been a car number plate. And then the big day came. We - myself and the absent members of her family - made a fairly big deal of it. I'm glad we did. In all she got two birthday cakes, three bouquets of flowers, two punnets of strawberries and numerous cards. And the phone hardly stopped ringing. I even took her to the village pub for lunch (it was good to see her eating well). But later that afternoon she wanted to know what day her birthday was!

What makes it hard for me (and anyone else) is that she's unwilling to accept help from others. She still thinks she can be in control of everything. Every morning a carer briefly visits her for a quick check, but whoever this person is (unfortunately it changes) my gran doesn't trust them.

I should point out that her emotional responses to other people are just the same as they've always been. There's no point trying to pull the wool over her eyes; she can read you like a book. And occasionally all the circuitry in her brain magically aligns and everything, for a few minutes, returns to normal.

Conversation often makes little sense. For instance I'll hand her a bowl of strawberries. "I think I'd better leave these to stand for a while." Stand? So they can brew? Ferment? Dance?

On Saturday disaster struck as she developed a severe pain in her lower back and she could hardly move at all. Suddenly simple things like getting into bed or using the loo became a major operation. On Sunday I called the doctor who came round and prescribed some painkillers.

Not that he should have bothered. There are painkillers, and just about every other kind of prescription drug under the sun, all over the house. She has a cupboard jam-packed with diazepam, clonazepam and nitrazepam, although I couldn't find the one we get in New Zealand called sweetazepam.
Most of the dates on the boxes are from last century but if I dared throw any of them away I'd be in big trouble. My gran is a rampant hoarder (I'll get on to her ancient tins of food in another post).

If you're wondering what diazepam (a.k.a. Valium) is doing in her cupboard, she's suffered from anxiety, panic attacks and depression for sixty years. Her thirties sound like they were a living hell. Things haven't been anywhere near as bad recently but she still gets the odd "attack" such as today when the realisation that the cleaning lady will be arriving tomorrow sent her over the edge.

I love my gran a lot, she was very good to me as a boy, and I'm happy to help her (so long as she'll accept my help!). Funnily enough after cutting her toenails today (she's unable to do them herself) she thinks I should pursue a career as a podiatrist!

Last night I watched Andy Murray's disappointing loss to Tomas Berdych in the French Open (normally I'm watching on a TV with no clever red button, and it's at night anyway, so I don't get that luxury). Murray's body language wasn't good - it was as if he couldn't wait to get off the court (and I know what that feels like). This year's Roland-Garros was the seventh time I'd been to a Grand Slam (I went to Wimbledon in '98, '99, '01 and '02, and the Aussie Open in '05 and '08). It's been a real shame to see so many empty seats in Paris this year. Apparently the tickets have been sold but people don't turn up. Something similar happens at Wimbledon with all the corporate fat-cat tickets, but not to such a ridiculous extent.

Today was a bank holiday so St Ives had a special super-sized market. This time we even had people giving demonstrations of their products. I had a look around, but as always, restricted my purchases to food.


On Saturday I watched the Eurovision Song Contest for the first time in yonks. I didn't watch the singing bit, just the voting bit. The Scandinavian countries tend to vote for each other. So do the Eastern bloc countries, some of which didn't exist the last time I watched. Greece and Cyprus always give each other top marks. As for the UK, well nobody votes for them. This time the UK finished last with just ten points. Germany, the winners, got several hundred.

As a kid I used to love it. The UK entry was chosen by the public who had to ring some 0898 number. Every year I'd ring in but the song I voted for never won. But the contest itself was great, especially the voting. Back then you couldn't see each country's spokesman - or woman - on screen; you just got someone speaking dodgy English or French on an equally dodgy telephone line with an echo and a delay. I remember one year the scores ended in a tie and nobody had a clue what to do. The presenters hung around for ages waiting for an official ruling from some old bloke whose name sounded like Mr Neff. Now it's all so much slicker and, frankly, more boring.

We had Terry Wogan commentating then. On Saturday Graham Norton did it. He was really good at it too, but I guess witty one-liners every five seconds aren't my thing.

Since I got back from the continent, I've had an interesting time with my gran. More about that in my next post.