Monday, January 17, 2011

Sports: First Round Ritual Execution

In tennis, the gap between the elite and the journeymen is wider than in any other sport. That's partly a function of the scoring system; since every point counts the same no matter how spectacularly it's won, there are no fluke knockouts or miracle plays that can singlehandedly win a match for an underdog.

Mostly though, the gulf exists because the top players are just that much more skilled than the rank-and-file churning underneath them. You can see the disparity most clearly in the early rounds of the four Grand Slams (the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon, and the U.S. Open). In these 128-player tournaments, the seeded players can encounter opponents in the first few rounds that are ranked far, far beneath them. These matches are among the least competitive sporting events you'll see on television.

This year's Australian Open has produced an unusually high number of these early round drubbings. Defending champion Roger Federer hammered 97th-ranked Lukas Lacko with a flurry of outrageous winners in a match that felt more like an exhibition for Federer's shotmaking than a battle:

Sometimes, a lower-ranked journeyman will opt to play with an injury rather than relinquishing their spot to a lucky loser, since you get a substantial payday just for reaching the first round. That's what happened with world no. 1 Rafael Nadal's first match in this year's Aussie Open. Qualifier Marcos Daniel was so banged up that he literally couldn't hit a single ball past Nadal; Daniel retired in the second set trailing 6-0, 5-0.

Most of the time, though, the lower-ranked player puts up a decent fight, but doesn't have the weapons, the stamina, or the talent to really threaten the favorite. I think it's actually these matches that are the most depressing: both the underdog and favorite play at about their average level, and the favorite wins comfortably, as inevitable as the sun rising in the east. Life doesn't have the brutal pecking order of tennis...that's probably a good thing.


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