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Determining tennis' greatest player

Greatest tennis player of all time? The answer will rock your world

Originally Published: August 14, 2011
By Peter Keating | ESPN The Magazine

IF YOU WANT TO KNOW THE BEST ATHLETE or team in any sport, there's a straightforward way to figure it out: Have everyone play everyone else a significant number of times and see who earns the best record. Of course, in most sports, that's impossible to do, which often leads to the mother of all sports riddles: If Team A beats Team B, and Team B beats Team C, and Team C beats Team A, how do you rank the three teams?

Well, thanks to scientists in a field called complex network analysis, there's a novel way to solve this conundrum -- and settle a whole lot of bar arguments.

A network is simply any system of points connected by paths that carry information. Networks are everywhere. Groups of proteins that interact within cells are networks. A large set of tennis pros who routinely play each other is a network. So is your set of Facebook friends. So is the Internet itself, for that matter.

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