This post is not really about Genie Bouchard, or even tennis in general, but let’s start with her.
On Thursday, Bouchard, the top-ranked Canadian player on the WTA Tour, lost 6-4, 6-4 to No. 8 seed Timea Bacsinszky at Roland Garros. The loss could be interpreted as another setback for Bouchard, who ranked as high as No. 5 in the world in October 2014. Since then, she has slumped, going 12-18 in 2015 after winning 39 and 43 matches in the previous two years. What’s gone wrong?
Possibly, the answer is nothing at all.
The Paradox Of Skill
“In activities where results combine luck and skill, luck is often more important in shaping outcomes even as skill improves.” (source)
As a thought experiment, imagine a professional tennis player whose true talent is No. 35 in the world. Let’s say this player finds himself in Morocco for a clay-court tournament and is presented with a strange lamp which releases a genie when rubbed just the right way.
“What is your wish?” asks the genie.
“Can you make me the No. 1 tennis player in the world?” says our hero, a very good player who, until now, has been simple cannon fodder for the sport’s elite in major tournaments.
“I can’t do that,” the genie answers. “But I can make you No. 5, for a year.”
“Deal.” And so this player goes on his way and proceeds to have the best season of his career. He pads his bank account with prize money and sponsors’ cheques before quietly fading away a few years later.
He made out like gangbusters. Luck was essentially on his side.
The Genie’s Pact
All that is fine and good. But what happens when the athlete is unaware that such a pact had been made?
What if the universe had conspired to give someone a temporary leg-up?
In Genie Bouchard’s case, her impressive 2014 season was made possible by a few things:
Australian Open (Rankings: No. 31)
1R: beats Tang (No. 487)
2R: beats Razzano (No. 100)
3R: beats Davis (No. 68)
4R: beats Dellacqua (No. 120)
QF: beats Ivanovic (No. 14)
SF: loses to Li (No. 4)
French Open (Ranking: No. 16)
1R: beats Peer (No. 88)
2R: beats Goerges (No. 107)
3R: beats Larsson (No. 99)
4R: beats Kerber (No. 9)
QF: beats Suarez Navarro (No. 15)
SF: loses to Sharapova (No. 8)
Wimbledon (Ranking: No. 13)
1R: beats Hantuchova (No. 34)
2R: beats Soler Espinosa (No. 75)
3R: beats Petkovic (No. 20)
4R: beats Cornet (No. 24)
QF: beats Kerber (No. 7)
SF: beats Halep (No. 3)
F: loses to Kvitova (No. 6)
US Open (Ranking: No. 8)
1R: beats Govortsova (No. 117)
2R: beats Cirstea (No. 80)
3R: beats Strycova (No. 29)
4R: loses to Makarova (No. 18)
2014 Grand Slam match record: 19-4 (14-1 vs lower-ranked players)
2014 non-GS match record: 20-18 (17-13 vs lower-ranked players)
Bouchard career record vs lower-ranked players: 181-118
In her career-best 2014 season, not only did Bouchard win most of her ranking points and prize money at Grand Slam events (the most lucrative and point-heavy tournaments), but she somehow only lost one match the entire year against someone she was supposed to beat.
In essence, her 2014 success was built on something unsustainable amplified by the disproportional rewards for winning Grand Slam-level matches. Maybe she really did meet her name sake one day in Morocco…
The Problem Of Expectations
In our original thought experiment, the lucky journeyman was thrilled to be temporarily part of the tennis elite, and presumably enjoyed his success while it lasted. But what about in the real world?
Unfortunately, humans in all walks of life tend to attribute bad randomness (lung cancer, financial losses or a low PDO) to luck, while attributing good randomness (a promotion at work, meeting a significant other or a hot streak on the tennis court) to hard work and/or innate talent.
If you know that you’re really the 35th best player in the world, yet finish the year at No. 5, you’re far more likely to believe that No. 5 is now your true ability level rather than accept that you were the lucky beneficiary of the good kind of randomness. Not acknowledging randomness means letting expectations (the media’s, the fans’, the coaches’, your own) run wild, and that’s not healthy.
Expectations can turn a beautiful gift into an instrument of torture. If someone’s “desire to win” stems from expectations, then maybe it’s better to downplay that a little bit.
The Irony Of Numbers
Ultimately, I believe that professional athletes don’t need to know very much about their numbers, though getting to that stage may involve being a bit more receptive to the people who do know about their numbers.
From my experiences with Genie Bouchard, I’d assume she would belt me with a tennis ball if I went on a long explanation of why her 2014 was one big aberration. But I sure hope that she realizes that she has a few things to improve upon if she is not genuinely comfortable with hanging around her current ranking for the next few years. She’s already a good player now, if nothing else. It’s not a bad thing for everyone, including herself, to make peace with that.
As for hockey players heading into the off-season, you may want to ask someone stat-savvy what your numbers mean (not what they are). Then watch some tape and work on your skills. Eat clean, lift big, and sleep lots. Once the season starts, play hard, enjoy the game; stay grounded. Whether it’s a long scoring slump, pitching 3 shutouts in the same week or ending up on a line with Joe Thornton, there’s no need to get too excited.
As a player, it’s all you need to understand. Whether you’re getting paid to play the game or not, there’s really not much more to it.
Jack Han is the Video & Analytics Coordinator for the McGill Martlet Hockey team. He also writes occasionally about the NHL for Habs Eyes on the Prize. You can find him on Twitter or on the ice at McConnell Arena.