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Sunday, September 17, 2006

Tale of two champions - a randomness perspective

Past few weeks saw 2 great champions announce their retirements from their respective sports - Andre Agassi from tennis and Michael Schumacher from Formula 1.

Both of them are legends in their respective sports and will go down as one of the best not only their respective sports has seen but generally. But both are them are very very different and pure randomness has a lot to do with it. Let me explain

Andre Agassi won a lot of titles during his 20 year career. He is one of the very few players to have won all 4 grandslam titles in tennis. But he will not go down as one of the all time greats - inspite of him being immensely talented and hardworking. Why? bad luck. His career for almost a decade ran parallel with someone who was even better than him - Pete Sampras. Agassi was great but Sampras was exceptional. And the fact that Sampras had to have his career at the same time was Agassi's pure misfortune. But for Sampras, Agassi would have won a lot more titles and would have definately had a place in the all time greats of the sport (if not already).

Schumacher has almost every possible record to his name in Formula 1. I am a great fan of his but he was not as great as his records suggest. He is brilliant, but he is not the best to have ever raced Formula 1 (unlike what the records suggest). Schumacher during his career had no great rivals to race against. Senna died unfortunately just when Schumacher was establishing himself. And then except for couple of years when he competed against Mika Hakkinen (and now Alonso), Schumacher virtually had no competition - he and his car were way ahead of competition. Senna when he raced raced against multi year champions like Prost or Mansell. Not Schumacher. Not his fault though, you take what comes your way and you cannot decide what comes your way - you can only choose how to react to that. Schumacher made the most of his opportunities.

Curiously enough Agassi's wife - Steffi Graf had also had such good fortine. Now, I am a huge huge fan of Steffi Graf, but her career may have taken a completely different turn if something very very unfortunate had not happened to her most difficult competitor - Monica Seles. Monica Seles as proving a difficult nut to crack for Steffi when a maverick Steffi fan stabs Seles during a tournament. This threw Seles's career completely off track and she never fully recovered from this incident - what shape would their respective careers have taken if that incident had not taken place? Would Steffi have gone on and won so many titles that she did? And Seles, she would most certainly have gone down as a great champion - but instead she goes down as one of the most unfortunate players ever.

There would be numerous such examples in other sports (or same sports) in business, politics, academics etc etc etc. The simple point being that when you say someone is great, its not just down to the skill of that person or his hard work but also down to chance. And similarly (if not more) to someone who is the second best or third best - its not always their fault, but many times, just their misfortune that someone better than them had had his/her career to coincide with theirs.

Take womens tennis currently - no single player dominates it. Why? because a lot of good players are playing at the same time - Amelie Mauresmo, Justin-Henin Hardene, Maria Sharapova, Kim Clijsters just to name a few.

Merit is relative!

That's it for now...

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