In sports, you better believe

The ongoing cacophony of sports is ostensibly balanced by the cold efficiency of numbers. Numbers, so goes the increasingly popular narrative, are supposed to tell us everything, from who is or isn't a Hall of Famer to which players are more valuable than others, to who will prevail between combatants. Whether this is a result of the social and emotional distancing between the athletes and ourselves, or the runaway interest in gambling along with the rising popularity of fantasy leagues (which makes the actual, personal drama on the field secondary to the statistics it produces), the phenomenon is real and lasting, if not accurate.

At the Australian Open, in the men's quarterfinal between friends and fellow Spaniards Nicolas Almagro and David Ferrer, the numbers on the stat sheet told us that Ferrer, the No. 4 player in the world, had beaten Almagro, the world No. 10, a dozen times in 12 meetings. Eight of their matches had been played on clay, where Ferrer is one of the most dangerous players in the world, a shade or so behind Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer, the three best players in the world on any surface. Ferrer's only win over the top players in 2012, in fact, was on clay over Andy Murray in the French Open quarterfinals.

The numbers also showed that, on this day in Melbourne, Almagro was the better player, whistling serves that routinely topped 135 miles per hour. Almagro was the better shotmaker, with an especially devastating one-handed backhand, and made fewer errors. Ferrer was overmatched. He was done.

In losing the first two sets, 6-4, 6-4, Ferrer did not challenge Almagro's serve. Before Almagro served for the match to finish Ferrer in straights, as well as break the losing streak and reach his first Grand Slam semifinal, ESPN tennis analyst Brad Gilbert said Almagro had to finish the match here, in straight sets, or his belief in himself -- even though he had completely dominated Ferrer -- would fade and the demons of the losing streak, the having never reached the final four of a Grand Slam, all that he hadn't accomplished, would envelop him.

Serving for the match at 5-4, Almagro crumbled. Ferrer won the set 7-5, breaking Almagro a second time after having been unable to even win points easily since the match had begun. Two more times in the fourth set Almagro served for the match. Two more times, he collapsed spectacularly. Ferrer won the fourth set. Then, Almagro pulled his groin and Ferrer steamrolled him 6-2 in the fifth, a heartbreaking and stunning ending.

What the numbers don't account for, and never can, is the invisible hand of belief, of the monstrously important effect of believing in victory or the terrors that come when being completely unconvinced of it. As quantitative and qualitative analyses grow more fashionable, it is here, in the land of sweaty palms and shaky nerves where the game is won and lost, and is most compelling.

That a professional of Almagro's caliber seemed so unable to redirect himself after playing so well seemed inexplicable. He, however, carried heavy burdens, having lost to one player 12 straight times. Almagro had never reached a Grand Slam semifinal. He had gained the reputation as being mentally fragile in November after losing the deciding Davis Cup championship match to 31st-ranked Radek Stepanek of the Czech Republic.

Tennis is the sport in which belief is so much more apparent than most sports, for in this game there is no on-field coaching, no timeouts, no real opportunity to rest and regroup and talk with teammates or coaches and breathe and figure it out. In tennis, the angel and demon of belief and despair are cruel and omnipresent, and their flighty restoration and abandonment must be completely managed by the individual. Though the two are similar, belief is even more apparent in tennis than in pitching, for while baseball moves just slow enough for the head to get in the way, pitching coaches and catchers and infielders can trot over to try to rescue a pitcher from the ledge.

This often immeasurable barrier to success also trips up teams. From 1946 to 1987, the Boston Bruins did not win a single playoff series over the Montreal Canadiens, 18 straight playoff defeats with different players, different dynamics, different years when Montreal was clearly inferior and yet the result was the same. In 1979, Game 7 of conference semifinals, the Bruins had the Canadiens cold, up by a goal late, got called for too many men on the ice penalty, and found a way to lose in overtime.

During the Jordan era, the difference so often was will, or belief. Michael Jordan had it and so many of his rivals -- Reggie Miller, Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone -- did not when it counted. Perhaps Jordan was just always just better than the rest, but more likely once he cracked the NBA Finals, doubt created the opening that gave Jordan his winning space.

Before Game 7 of the 2003 American League Championship Series between the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees, Willie Randolph famously told me, "You know, they're probably better than we are, but whenever we've had to beat Boston, we always have." The Red Sox dominated the entire game only to lose on Aaron Boone's home run in the 11th.

None of which is to suggest that winning is as simple as believing. It is a conversation separate from talent in which the better team, self-doubting or not, usually wins and the worse, more confident one will still lose. Belief is more subtle, more complicated and in many ways far more personal. It is an issue of believing that the altitude is never too high, when a player peels away the clich├ęs and false bravado and confronts the terrors of the fight.

The evident, elusive state of belief creates the great conflict between simply failing to execute (say, Scott Norwood missing a 47-yard kick to win the Super Bowl, or Kobe Bryant shooting 6-for-24 in a victorious Game 7 of the 2010 Finals against the Celtics) and being Maria Sharapova, who walks onto every tennis court armed with more belief, more will and more toughness than every opponent she faces, win or lose, until she faces Serena Williams.

Against Williams, Sharapova does not only lose, but plays as though she knows she cannot win. Sharapova beat Williams 6-1, 6-4 in the 2004 Wimbledon final and then later that year in the final of the Los Angeles indoor championships in three sets, and has won exactly two sets from Williams since 2005 over a total of nine matches. Worse for Sharapova isn't the losing, but the beatdown. Sharapova walks onto the court expecting to crush every woman on the planet, but, in her past four meetings has won at least four games of Serena in a single set only once.

Ferrer is one the most determined, hungry and indefatigable players in sports. He's the guy no one wants to play because he's usually in better shape and less prone to the wavering belief. He routinely beats more gifted players because of his steeliness. He is the epitome of that personal self-confrontation: He has decided he is willing to play, suffer, hurt and struggle for as long as it takes.

Yet, when it comes to playing the top players, Ferrer plays against them with even less belief than Almagro plays with against Ferrer. Against Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer, Ferrer is 0 for his past nine matches since the beginning of 2012. He is 0-14 lifetime against Federer and has lost three straight to Djokovic and and five straight to Nadal. He beat a hobbled Nadal in the 2011 Australian Open, which is his only win in their past 13 meetings.

In some circles of the tennis world, Ferrer is simply viewed as a realist. He cannot outhit them. He cannot out-serve them. He cannot out-rally, outwork or outthink them. No player on tour has extracted more from his ability than Ferrer and he realizes that barring the extraordinary circumstances of rain and gale-force wind (which allowed him to take the first set from Djokovic in the U.S. Open semifinal before play was halted) he will be lucky to win a set. Ferrer cannot overcome Federer, but unlike Sharapova with Williams, the matches are competitive but predictable.

In other circles, these failings are considered merely a cop-out for Ferrer, for it is one thing and no dishonor to be beaten by the great Djokovic or Federer, but quite another to win only five games in three sets and be sent home in 90 minutes. Ferrer plays not only as though he has reached his ceiling but also is comfortable in the knowledge that against them he will be taken to the woodshed. Over their past four meetings, Ferrer has played Djokovic as if resigned to his fate.

Belief is air. It is wind, obvious and apparent but cannot be seen. It is the undercurrent of the debate over clutch hitting and clutch pitching and has made sports psychology a million-dollar business. There was a time when it was thought that Djokovic did not believe enough to be the best in the world, and the same was said of Andy Murray and in other sports, John Elway and Paul Pierce. The elixir wasn't just in winning, but in raising their level of concentration and performance to not suffer the critical lapses created by doubt. Belief is where the numbers cannot help, where the numbers are mere byproducts of the action, an accounting for what happened.

"Pressure comes from believing there is a chance you could lose," John McEnroe told me last year at Wimbledon. "Nerves come from the lack of belief that you can actually win. What you're really saying to yourself is that you're not quite sure you believe you deserve to be on the biggest stage, and that little shred of doubt is what will destroy you."