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Saturday, 6 July 2013

The art of predicting the unpredictable in grand slams

                                         
“Wimbledon is coming up and who do you think will be the champion?” This can be the looming question in every ardent tennis fan’s mind. Like Wimbledon, other grand slams and masters events are also eagerly awaited and we all possess that lingering curiosity to know more about the potential winners of the tournament.

The answers for such queries can be found through different ways – closely following the matches and by watching and browsing tennis websites, blogs and news channels.
There are many great sites, Tennis.com, ESPN, BBC Sports, Bleacher Report, where we can know more about the tournament predictions, previews, reviews and in-depth match analysis. In addition to the wealth of knowledge and insights from the seasoned journalists and veteran players, these sites also lend voice to the fans across the globe.

While the reviews and post-match analyses on the sites are more about what happened in the tours and throw light into the reality, it is the tournament predictions that come under the scanner for many. Tennis predictions are like the beautiful yet fickle English summer. There is just one word to describe those predictions – unpredictable.

This unpredictability of tennis predictions, especially grand slam previews, was glaringly evident in this Wimbledon. For the men’s singles title, most of the experts picked top seeded Novak Djokovic. Riding on his eight French Open crown, Rafael Nadal was also a choice of many others. The third and last pick by the experts for the Wimbledon 2013 title was world number two and home favourite Andy Murray.

Rafael Nadal’s shocking first round exit from Wimbledon doused the hope of fans as well as the commentators for a third Euro Slam. That also literally put a lid to the hopes of a mouth-watering quarter final match-up between Roger Federer and Nadal. Another unexpected setback was the second round exit of defending champion and seven time Wimbledon winner Federer. Surprisingly, there was no mention of Federer in the multiple previews, except a passing remark from Nick Boellttieri.

Most of the projected dark horses from the Wimbledon predictions also failed to make an impact. Milos Ranoic, Gigor Dimitrov, Marion Cilic and Sam Querrey are in this list. A few of them – Ernests Gulbis and Mikhail Youzhny - were the exceptions.

Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic are the last titans standing in this Wimbledon. So whether it is Murray or Djokovic who wins the title, at least some part of the Wimbledon prediction will come true in the men’s singles section.  

If there is a ray of hope left in the form of men’s singles title contenders, the Wimbledon predictions for women’s singles title and the eventual winner left all of us spell-struck. Not even in their dreams people would've have thought about a Marion Bartoli vs Sabine Lisicki final. And how many of us would've picked Bartoli as the winner of Wimbledon 2013. Well, in my opinion, not even hard-core Bartoli fans from France would've done it before the tournament.

From the women’s draw, every single expert and fans were rooting for Serena Williams to be the champion. It is a no-brainer why the pundits opted to choose Serena as the favourite to win the Venus Rosewater Dish. The WTA world number one had just conquered her biggest challenge – the French Open and was in great touch. But she was ousted by the boom boom Lisicki. Two other contenders, Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka fell to the curse of black Wednesday at Wimbledon.

Just relate the previews and results of Wimbledon 2013, and you will get a clear picture. There is just a huge difference between the predictions and eventual grand slam winners. Why it is difficult to get the previews right is the major issue.

The unpredictability of tennis could be the major reason. Especially in WTA circuit where there is always a constant change of dynamics, it is very hard to say that this particular player will win the tournament, unless you are talking about a certain Miss. Serena Williams. The huge gulf of talent that divides Serena and Sharapova from the rest of the players (no offence to Azarenka, Li Na and others) is very evident. Obviously for grand slams, they remain the players to beat and favourites for the tennis experts. If anyone or both of them goes out early in the tournament just like Wimbledon 2013, this will leave the respective sections of draw open for other players to come out and win the tournament.

ATP circuit also tells the same story. Here you have the big four and the rest. But unlike the WTA, the big four is consistent enough (barring the injuries of Nadal and sometimes off-color Federer) to reach the second week of grand slams. This is the major element that increases the success rate of ATP previews.  

Another key factor is Lukas Rosol inspired players. There are some fleeting moments when lesser known players make a larger impact on the tour. Steve Darcis, Sergiy Stakhovsky and Michelle de Brito demonstrated just that in SW19. Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Maria Sharapova were shockingly ousted from the tournament by them respectively.  

Like we have seen in this Wimbledon, injuries and withdrawals can also dampen the effect of predictions. Many bigwigs who were expected to make an impact on grass went out early in the tournament. This includes Victoria Azarenka, Joe Wilfred Tsonga and John Isner. The last minute withdrawals always have a negative impact on the previews.

Add this to the conspiracies of heaven to send the rain gods untimely and we will have a very different grand slam experience than we envisioned. There are certain other jinx factors that are also allegedly behind the downfall of many names.

Mastering the art of predicting the unpredictable in grand slams is an acquired talent. You have to be the master of the game. Nuances including past history and current state of the tournament, along with the previous records on the particular surface and current form of players also play an important role while previewing a tournament. It is a very rare sight that such a massive failure happens with grand slam predictions. Let’s hope that the Wimbledon 2013 final between Murray and Djokovic will bring some cheers for all those who forgot to smile after some shocking exits.


Please note that this analysis only refers Wimbledon 2013 previews from BBC Sports, tennis.com and espn.go.com.

Picture Courtesy: guardian.co.uk

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