Will Novak win the most?

Considering the recency effect of inevitability, practicing with base rates, and reducing the solution space.

In early 2022, the men’s career grand slam standing were tied at twenty wins each between Roger Federer (age 40), Rafael Nadal (35), and Novak Djokovic (34).

For tennis fans, the big question is: Who will end their career with the most? For a while it looked like Novak Djokovic who was the youngest and playing the best. Djokovic had also won three out of the four majors in 2021 and his dominance looked inevitable.

But few things in life are inevitable, no matter how they look in the moment. Sports provides an example for other parts of our life and the Wharton Moneyball crew (in the 1/26/2022 episode) provide a way to think through probabilistic, inevitable, and recency related issues that come in any part of life.

“I was convinced Djokovic was going to end up with the most majors,” Wharton professor Eric Bradlow begins, “but let’s talk about what’s happened in the last six months.” Novak lost the last tournament of 2021 and didn’t play in the first tournament of 2022. Without getting vaccinated, Novak will not play in the French Open (and maybe U.S. Open) either.

But Djokovic not playing also means that someone else, like Nadal can increase his total. Rafael made the semi-finals at WON the Australian and plays best at the French.

“Six months ago I would have said Djokovic would be the top of all time. Now it’s 50/50. I give Nadal a legitimate chance to have the most majors of all time,” Bradlow says.

Tap the brakes, host Cade Massey says, remind us of the base rates. That is, what’s the oldest that someone great tends to win these major tournaments. “Federer hasn’t won one since he was 37,” Eric explains.

Ah. Now we have something to work with. Let’s follow a page from Zeckhauser and simplify.

Djokovic and Nadal each have about 12 chances left. But Novak isn’t vaccinated so subtract the ’22 Australian, ’22 French, and ’22 U.S. Open. “You’ve gone from twelve good chances to nine. And you still have (to play) Nadal at the French!” Bradlow bellows. Plus, it’s not just Nadal and Djokovic but a field of players and like something is always happening, someone unexpected will win.

Rather than overreact to news, we found the base rate (oldest age to win a major) and opportunities left. Though men’s tennis is top heavy, there’s a lot that can happen.

But wait, that’s not all.

“I’m bummed for folks like him (Novak), like Kyrie Irving,” says Massey, “like any high profile athlete, that takes a no vax stance. There is so little room for changing your mind. Once you take that high profile a stance, with the politics of it, it really diminishes the chance of him shifting his position.”

Put another way, a strong public stance creates a restricted action section.

Who will end up with the most majors? We don’t know. But we do know that using base rates, avoiding recency bias, finding simple examples, and not reducing our solution space are all good processes.

For football fans, there’s a section of fervor about the Allen-Mahomes game that speaks to the inevitability and our reactions to recent events.

Envy, the least fun mistake

Maxim 17 from Richard Zeckhauser is “Strive hard not to be envious – see your friend’s success as your gain”. Envy is an obstacle to be recognized early in the decision making process warned Charlie Munger in his Psychology of Human Misjudgment speech.

A 2021 Sports Illustrated profile of Pete Sampras addressed his envy, or lack of. When Roger Federer broke his record of fourteen major wins. A friend recalled this conversation:

‘“I said, ‘It’s getting close. What do you think?’ ” recalls (Paul)Annacone.
“It’s pretty amazing!” Sampras replied.
“What do you mean?” pressed Annacone who, ironically, would go on to coach Federer.
“Well,” said Sampras, “I just know how hard it was for me. If anyone else can do it, that’s just too good. That’s amazing!”

Zeckhauser, Munger, and Sampras all express an idea seen every weekend at the local 5k race. There’s little envy because every runner is running their own race. The couch to 5k crowd is happy to finish and the elite runners are happy to see them finish too. Toward the front of the pack the attitude is that each person competes against the clock.

If envy is uninvited should it, like spam emails, be blocked and never surface in the mental inbox? Maybe not. Denise Shull advises her clients to accept and understand their emotions because emotions are information. But what kind of information? Shull said:

“Put your feelings into buckets. Which feelings are childhood repetition? Which ones are because the other guy is doing better? Which one is your market recognition? Which one is your intuition? People can learn this, but most men have been told to put all that stuff aside.”

When Hank Aaron was asked if he was going to give Barry Bonds the home run record, Aaron replied that he wasn’t giving anything, that records were made to be broken.

There’s this snarky idea that if you’re one in a million there’s still 8,000 people like you in the world. That’s true. But it only takes thirty-three binary variables to get to 8 billion unique answers. Do you like licorice? Y/N. Have you seen Star Wars? Y/N. And so on.

In that sense everyone is running their own race and envy is irrelevant. I think Shull is right about envy as information, the winning move is to play it like Munger, Aaron, and Sampras.