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Tuesday, July 3, 2012
You say it's an upset?

By Jeff MacGregor
ESPN.com

Lukas Rosol and Rafael Nadal
Rafael Nadal has been in the past five major finals, so we consider his loss to Lukas Rosol in their second-round Wimbledon match an upset.

Italy beats Germany. It's an upset. Spain beats Italy. It's expected, business as usual. The U.S. beats Spain, it's a huge upset. The U.S. beats Germany and Italy? It's the war in Europe circa 1945, and we've lost track of our sports premise.

Expectations and upsets.

As I'm sitting here, first-seeded Maria Sharapova has been "upset" -- in all its primary definitions, except perhaps to butt-weld as in metalwork -- by No. 15 seed Sabine Lisicki at Wimbledon. Serena Williams has just avoided an upset and remains not upset, i.e., "serene." World No. 2 Rafael Nadal was famously upset last week by unfamous Lukas Rosol, who was then beaten -- predictably -- by slightly better known unknown Philipp Kohlschreiber, a man who just beat utterly unknown American Brian Baker, who surfed a wave of upsets into the second week of the tournament. Unless this trend (or singularity) of upsets is itself upset in a completely predictable and rather dull return to the mean, I predict more upsets.

Upsets and expectations. Tiger wins at Congressional? Blake beats Bolt? Supreme Court upholds the mandate? Anderson Cooper outs himself? Surprise? Upset? Sandbag? Or was it all long ago foretold by statistics and arithmetic and science and Nostradamus and all those backmasking tracks on "The White Album"?

Maybe an "upset" isn't really a surprise at all. Maybe it's just the failure of a reasonable occurrence to conform to an unreasonable expectation. A phenomenon for which my friends and colleagues and I over here at the paragraph factory can often take credit (or blame). We're here to manufacture your unreasonable expectations, after all, as well as fashion your surprises and consensus and narrative high purpose and heroes and goats. We're here to roll out the odds and the numbers and the judgments and the previews and the nonsense and the pregames and the postgames and the mythos and the pathos and the bathos and the analysis and the blowback and the backlash. As well as sentiment and nostalgia and X's and O's and those little arrows pointing every whichaway with our electronic-diagramming pencil-pen machines.

Tiger Woods
First Tiger Woods was on the rise. Then he wasn't. And then he was back again. And you know this because we told you so.

This we do for money, so I remind you again that predictions are for suckers. Although, in our defense, with the exception of all those times we're wrong, we're sometimes right. Not in the case of the L.A. Kings and the Stanley Cup, necessarily, or the Detroit Tigers winning the World Series and whatnot, but in predicting some things that might one day come to pass in sports -- and for which we would certainly take credit if for some reason you have forgotten what it was we said when we said it all those months ago in our league preview issue. Those predictions we stand by, forever and ever, whatever they were. It's all part of the great circle of life in our economy/ecology of prognostication.

But how do we manufacture upsets, you ask?

By first making expectations. If we tell you often enough that something should happen, it's going to seem like a pretty big surprise when it doesn't. Thus, if I tell you again and again that Bradley Wiggins can win the Tour de France, it's going to feel like a very mild upset if he does not. We can raise or lower your expectations along a whole continuum of reasonable hopes by simple repetition.

We make a much stronger case when we bring real evidence to bear. Like statistics and history and a good crack over the head with the record book. In fact, given enough time and enough rope, we can haul you up one side of an athlete and down the other while completely contradicting ourselves. Tiger Woods is a good example. First, it was an upset when he won. Then it was an upset when he lost. Then it was an upset when he won again. And that was just the past three weeks.

So it can be confusing. Other than its pale army of zombie accountants and oddsmakers, you wonder how Las Vegas keeps up. Even the etymology of the word "upset" to describe an unexpected sports outcome is something of an upset. The "Upset" vs. "Man o' War" horse racing/origin story has been debunked. And I trust you to trust this Web page because, yes, it's really good-looking.

We do all this not out of malice but because humans enjoy stories and humans enjoy surprises, and humans enjoy surprising stories perhaps more than anything. And we're storytellers.

The purity of actual sports upsets, made as nature intended them to be made, can still be found. Take the NCAA tournaments every year. When a Slippery Rock or a Stony Brook brings down a marquee school, that's an authentic upset. But these moments will become rarer still as sportswriting and regression analysis become more sophisticated and drill deeper through the truth of each team. Once predictive information outweighs ignorance and hope and expectation, it's much harder to be surprised.

Also, much less fun to watch the games.

I wonder if a college football playoff system will ever produce the same kind of Cinderella randomness. Doubt it. I suspect it will conform to a more predictable and repeatable kind of Wall Street science. Which isn't to say that fans will be any less engaged by it. Because our passion is the last outpost of our illogic. What and whom and how we love remains the universal mystery, unpredictable by any means ever devised.

Still. Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes?

Not an upset.