Oh Greatest Match! How Do We Quantify Thee?

claudia celestial girlAnalyst IJuly 7, 2009

WIMBLEDON, ENGLAND - JULY 05:  Roger Federer of Switzerland (2R) celebrates with the trophy alongside Bjorn Borg (L), Pete Sampras (2L) and Rod Laver (R)  after the men's singles final match against Andy Roddick of USA on Day Thirteen of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on July 5, 2009 in London, England. Federer won 5-7, 7-6, 7-6, 3-6, 16-14, to claim his 15th Grand Slam title.  (Photo by AELTC/Pool/Getty Images)

Last year, we said we'd witnessed the 'greatest match ever.' 

And then this year, we turn around and say it was better than last year.  

This, of course, begs a question whether we are too biased toward recent memory.  In fact, on most folks' all-time great match lists are only those that have happened in the last decade or two.

So I wondered about devising a way of quantifying, setting standards for, a "greatest ever," and taking subjectivity out of it.

But wait...there has to be subjectivity!  

The things that makes a match memorable are going to be things that are subjective in nature.  

For some, the greatest match will be one in which the rallies were long.  For others, it will be because rallies were short and the serving paramount.

With that in mind, here are my criteria for judging greatness.  It should be noted that momentum, great shot-making, and great serving change in a match.

Those things are part and parcel of any final, any five-set match.

a.) Important things at stake (significant records, history)

b.) An element of drama 

The drama can take four forms:

b.1) drama from the natural world-darkness and rain delays that affect the players, playing to the advantage of one or the other.

b.2) drama from the external world-world war and players from different nations.

b.3) interpersonal drama-a great rivalry, or a rivalry of tennis nations, a history of head-to-heads between the players, or other personal (non-historical) quests.

b.4) drama from extraordinary length of tie-break or set within the match itself.

Now let's test my criteria against some memorable matches.  

Um, let's try those that J.A. Allen mentioned in Trey's article on the Federer/Roddick final.  

To make it really interesting, let's take each of my five bullets above, and put them on a three-point scale.  Three points for a significant contribution to any bullet, one point for a minor element of any bullet.  

Maximum points for any match = 15 pts.

Bjorn Borg vs. John McEnroe 1980

(b.4) In my opinion, this match was memorable for its extraordinary fourth set tie-breaker.—three pts.

(b.3) Also memorable for the drama of the ice-man Borg vs. the fiery McEnroe.—one pt.

Total: Four pts.

Rafael Nadal vs. Roger Federer 2008

(a-Roger) In attempting six Wimbledons in a row, it would break Borg's record and do something not achieved in 100 years.—two pts.

(a-Nadal) Attempting the Channel Slam, not completed in 30 years.—one pt.

(b.1) Rain delays that affected both players (but not as significant as the rain delay that gave Agassi the FO in 1999).—two pts.

(b.1) Impending darkness that lent an air of urgency to the fifth set.—three pts.

(b.3) Nadal, a Spanish player from a country without a grass court tradition, attempting to win a major on a surface other than clay.—one pt.

Total: Nine pts.

Roger Federer vs. Andy Roddick 2009

(a-Roger) Going for 15th major title, a record.—three pts.

(b.3) Roddick trying to reverse a pretty egregious h2h against Federer.—one pt.

(b.4) Longest fifth set in history at 16-14 games.—three pts.

Total: Seven pts.

(For some people, this just completed match is the greatest of all time.)

Roger Federer vs. Rafael Nadal 2007

(a-Roger) Trying to tie Borg's record—one pt.

(a-Nadal) Attempting the Channel Slam, not completed in 29 years.—one pt.

(b.3) Nadal, a Spanish player from a country without a grass court tradition, attempting to win a major on a surface other than clay.—one pt.

Total: Three pts.

(For those who witnessed it, an incredibly great and dramatic match.)

Don Budge vs. von Cramm 1937 (Davis Cup-held at Wimbledon, included for comparison purposes)

(b.2) A representative of Nazi Germany vs. a representative of the "free world" in a world on the verge of war—three pts. 

(b.3) The aristocratic veteran von Cramm vs. the youthful Budge from California.—three pts.

Total: Six pts.

(By all accounts, truly one of the greatest matches in history.)

In sizing these up with the criteria outlined here, the system appears to evaluate matches in an objective flavor, but I'm not sure it agrees with our intuitive sense of which were the best.  

An example is the 2009 Ladies Semi-final between Serena Williams and Elena Dementieva.  

Great match.  

One of the best Ladies' matches at Wimbledon that I can remember.

The only criteria I can give it is the great shot making and changes in momentum.  

But I just said those were part and parcel of any great match!  

So even though I like these criteria and scale, I think it's back to the drawing board to come up with a quantitative ranking system.  Maybe those intangibles—momentum swings and quality of shot-making—have to be accounted for after all.


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