Sports Perfection

Performance oddities with a Memphis angle and some lessons.

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And now on this hot week of the Fourth of July, a change of pace and a few pearls from the world of sports and mathematics about perfection, motivation, and probability.

For sports fans, the subjects are tennis, baseball, pitcher Matt Cain, and a professional tennis match played at the Memphis Racquet Club in 2006 that was a sports rarity for the ages.

For the statistics minded, there are some calculations of the probability of perfect games in baseball and perfect sets in tennis by my friend Nancy Gates, a super math teacher at Memphis University School.

Last Saturday, there was a "golden set" in the women's division at Wimbledon. Yaroslava Shvedova won the first point and the next 23 points in a row against Sara Errani. According to the Women's Tennis Association, it was the first golden set in the modern era of women's professional tennis and all the more remarkable because Errani is a world top-10 player.

According to Gates, the probability of a golden set in pro tennis is such that it will happen once every 840 years if the players are evenly matched as they were last weekend and once every 60 years if one of them is ranked much higher than the other, as is often the case in the early rounds of tournaments.

The probability of a golden set in any given match is (.3)^12*(.7)^12+(.3)^12*(.7)^12=2*(.3)^12*(.7)^12=.0000000147. Got it? Me neither.

"This is interesting to try to analyze, but I guess the point is that it ain't easy," Gates told me.

One-shot wonders — a hole-in-one in golf or an 80-foot game-winner in basketball — are one thing. Sustained perfection is something else. The closest thing to a golden set in other pro sports might be a perfect game in major-league baseball. That's where Matt Cain, who played baseball at Houston High School in Germantown, comes in. Three weeks ago, Cain pitched a perfect game, striking out 14 batters and allowing only 7 balls to be hit out of the infield. It was the 22nd perfect game in the 143-year history of major-league baseball.

"A perfect game is probably easier than a golden set, because hitting a baseball is so difficult," said Peter Lebedevs, tournament director of the Regions Morgan Keegan Championships at the Memphis Racquet Club (owned, incidentally, by Golden Set LLC). "A hitter with a .300 batting average is great yet he fails 70 percent of the time. Good tennis players do not fail 70 percent of the time on any day."

I only saw the highlights of Cain's gem on television, but I did witness near perfection of a different kind at FedExForum when the Grizzlies lost to the Clippers, who made a 26-1 run in the fourth quarter. Playoff game, home court, Griz got the ball after each Clippers basket — the odds of that collapse were astronomical.

An even more incredible (incredibler?) sports turnaround happened in Memphis in 2006. Lebedevs vouches for the story. Shvedova won the first 23 points against Amy Frazier and was within one point of a golden set when she double-faulted. She still won the set 6-1, but Frazier won the next two sets 6-0, 6-0.

In the space of a few minutes, Frazier regrouped and went from near infamy to perpetrator of a "double bagel." Somehow, her determination and confidence soared just as Shvedova's will and confidence collapsed. The literal tipping point? That double-fault.

I don't doubt that Nancy Gates could calculate the odds of that happening, but I don't think there is enough space in this column to print the calculations. So I'll just go with "most incredible."

Any life lessons for the rest of us? I believe so. In the corporate world, it's called discretionary effort. You wake up one day full of vim and vigor and positive thoughts, but then a colleague or your boss comes by with a downer or a whole succession of them. Or, alternately, with a compliment or a reward. Or you move from a stale job to an inspiring one. On such things are prizes won, discoveries made, bonuses earned, deadlines met, and masterpieces finished. And shelves of motivational best-sellers attest to the validity of the argument.

So I'm thinking of asking Gates to dope out the odds of the unified school board picking a superintendent this month and adopting the recommendations of the Transition Planning Commission.

On second thought, some things are probably incalculable.

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