Saturday, 26 February 2011

DooBye: A Plea for Perspective


Every year sees a variant of the same ol’ same ol' ritual: Shahar arrives under heavily armed guard and remain sequestered at a remote part of the venue from which she only emerges to attend her matches – low key affairs typically hosted on an outside court with one entrance and exit. 


Once she loses, media outlets roundly declare the situation as “deplorable”, (rightly) lament Shahar’s plight, soundly condemn the authorities for inheriting a problem not of their making, and  comfortably pretend that nothing that occurred in the region in the last 60 or so years could possibly have given rise to this state of affairs.


I’ve long since given up on the issue ever being tackled honestly.

What makes some of the dialogue particularly grate this time round has been the callous ease with which some call for the tournament to be “canned”.


Let’s be clear.


I have the greatest of respect for Shahar as a player – her work ethic and determination to fight (losing battles) to the very end and in the very best of spirits embodies, to a large extent, the finest aspects of the sport I love. It was on display when she first broke into the top 20 back in 2006 (often only with a fraction of the talent of some of the other up and comers) and has remained with her ever since.

Like many others, I disagreed with Dubai’s refusal to issue her a visa back in 2009. It was frankly an embarrassment for the sport. Even so, the commentary of the time was notable for the absence of any recognition at all of why such a debacle came to be. And of course there were those that sought refuge (as they always do) in the very tired, very blasé “tennis and politics don’t mix” line. I think you’ll find they’re inextricable dearie.

That said, and in common with many other voices (not merely Arab, but European, American and many of them from inside Israel itself), I strongly disagree with many of her country’s policies.

That’s neither here nor there. It’s not what this post is about and I certainly don’t intend to trivialise what’s likely the most divisive issue of our age by presuming to suggest that mentioning it (in passing) on a tennis blog comes anywhere near to giving it the treatment it so duly deserves – for which, by the way, well-written, well-researched, dedicated blogs already exist.

But I do feel it’s time we stopped pretending that there isn’t another (far more complex) side to this story and that the fallout from events in that region (going back over half a century) either shouldn’t exist, or shouldn’t, at any rate, intrude upon our enjoyment of a tennis tournament.

How very inconsiderate of them. How very inconvenient and tiresome for us.

Is it fair to Shahar? Absolutely not. Is it right that she should remain sequestered away under armed guard whilst being made very aware of other players prancing around in photo shoots you, frankly, wouldn’t want to be seen dead in were you able to move freely? No, of course it isn’t.

And in a perfect world it wouldn’t happen.

The trouble is, we don’t live in Disneyland: far more distressing and tragic compromises have been made in a conflict going back several decades (and counting). Like it or not, legitimate grievances do exist the consequences of which continue to reverberate globally.

Shahar will, at least, be handsomely rewarded for her progress at the event. Try comparing that with someone growing up in the Occupied Territories who can never even conceive of becoming a tennis player, not because they have no tennis infrastructure, but because in some cases they have no infrastructure at all. Or any economy to speak of.

The outrage over her treatment would be more convincing if it was coupled with even a cursory nod at the events and circumstances that have led to such a hostile reception in a country which, after all, has no diplomatic relations with Israel.

Venus and ARod’s “principled” stand would be even more principled if it contained even a hint of recognition that the seeds of the “discrimination and exclusion”, Venus in particular spoke out against, are at the very heart of what’s driving the conflict (many, including ex-President Jimmy Carter have described some of  Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians as a form of ‘apartheid’).

People would probably have screamed it’s not their place to comment and it certainly wouldn’t have changed anything – it would, however, have represented a more nuanced, equitable stance.

So let’s “can” the event then? Clearly that’s the only way forward. Better still, let’s never hold another event in the middle east again (no that doesn’t sound myopic at all).


Funny. I thought tennis fans existed worldwide and that the sport as well as the right to enjoy it belonged to everyone – not just those that happen to share aspects of your foreign policy.

I realise not everybody calling for its removal is being this blinkered – trouble is, when you broach an issue as emotive as this with such casual derision, it smacks of precisely that.

A funny and rather beautiful thing happened in Doha a couple of days ago. JJ was drawn to play an Omani WC, Fatma Al-Nabhani. A virtual unknown, Al-Nabhani moved up from the top 1000 to the top 400 last year – her finest moment to date being the doubles QFs of junior Wimby.

JJ won in straights as expected. Though the 19 year old, clearly outclassed and obviously inexperienced (and having lost the first set 6-1) rebounded admirably in the second, showcasing her big serve and the kind of forehand winners off the back foot that JJ can only dream of. All at a moment when it would have been only too easy to fade away.

She still lost it 6-3, but held herself throughout with the kind of calm dignity and composure that still remains beyond many top 20 players. Unsurprisingly, the commentators loved her.


We might never see her again (not everybody is destined to “make it” – see Ancic, Mario), but without hosting events in that region, she might never have got that sort of exposure.

In other words, it was good for her, it was good for Oman and it was, I hardly need add, good for all of us to come into contact with a player from a culture we might not be accustomed with and one not, frankly, known for its tennis tradition.

We’re sometimes more cynical than we should be as regards the role of sport as a “unifying force” – it always tends to evoke a wince from me, and its significance is, at any rate, overstated all too often.

But moments like this tend to garner universal approval. As they should.

Aren’t these exactly the kind of values the WTA should be upholding? Isn’t a very large part of its remit to foster the spread of tennis this way? Particularly in countries with little or no tennis heritage.


One can only assume (and hope) that those calling for it to be “canned” don’t realise how insular they sound.

Of course $$$’s are involved. When has this ever not been the case?

The situation is what it is: you either rule out ever staging a tournament anywhere in the middle east or you’re forced to make certain compromises – God knows it wouldn’t be the first or the greatest.

It’s one thing to sensibly, objectively and justly debate whether Shahar’s treatment is a compromise too far (don’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen) and entirely another to indulge idle, callous rants that call (effectively) for around 300 million people to never see a tennis event staged in their home nation. If the latter sounds insular, it’s because it is.

Friday, 25 February 2011

Mario Ancic: Tragedy and Destiny


I don’t like to use the word ‘tragic’ in the context of tennis. It seems to me to be overused and wholly inappropriate given the world we live in.




But it’s difficult not to feel a pang of “something” hearing of Mario’s retirement at the age of only 26 – still very much in his prime.


We should probably also revisit the word “destiny” – or at least insist on a more comprehensive usage.

The trouble with referring to Fed’s 16 Slams, Rafa’s rise or (further down the scale) Milos’s breakthrough as “destiny” is that, for every Rafa we have an Ivo, a Kohlschreiber or a Seppi who will (very likely) end their days very respectably somewhere in the top 100, with only a handful of titles and no Slams to their name. That too is destiny.


And for every Pova, for every Novak, we have players like Haas, Seles, Dokic and of course, Mario – careers ravaged by injury, illness and misfortune.  The dark underbelly of destiny that cruelly maintains that it’s (clearly) not "meant to be" for everyone.


I don’t know anyone with a bad word to say about Mario. He was naturally charismatic (having a “Ralph Macchio” babyface probably helped), but he also dealt admirably well with misfortune by using the downtime imposed upon him by mono to study for and complete a degree in Law. Alas his subsequent back troubles were to prove a battle too far and put paid to any meaningful return to the sport he invested much of his life in.

Most people remember him for what he very nearly achieved at Wimbledon, or for being the last player to beat Fed there before Rafa came and did what he did.

He seemed to me to combine his unique talent with an equally unique and seemingly irresistible boy-next-door look that made him both a fan and media darling throughout his years on tour.

I can’t come up with a better epitaph that embodies all of those qualities than something I heard on twitter – where else? (hat tip @LexiDV):


“Mario Ancic. The first player I ever took a day off from work to watch on my tv. He lost :(“.


Yep, he was that player.


Memphis: Tennis can never have enough ‘Starsky and Hutch’


I didn’t see the match but was happy to see Roddick claim his 30th career title in what (by all accounts) was a thrilling (if somewhat ace-heavy) match – probably more so than it had any right to be.

The alternative result would have seen Milos claim his second consecutive title, which let’s face it would have been pretty crazy too.

Perhaps more so, given that post-Oz it was all about Dolgo having “arrived.” Milos has now comprehensively shat upon his coming-out party and threatens to continue to further cramp his style. You have to admit that’s just as compelling.

I’ll concede the effect maybe lost on me coming in "cold" without the benefit of the 3 primeval sets of tennis that preceded it - but "best MP ever"??


Dubai: The Middle Ground


Criticism both for and against Woz has gone from being an idle weekend pursuit to a large part of how you define yourself ideologically


On the far-right you have those Neanderthals for whom any and all of Caro’s victories are evidence of her opponents’ dysfunction and presumably of what poor shape the WTA is in.  The other extreme consists of those sandal-wearing pacifists that have made an art form of forging touchy, defensive tracts even when the circumstances point overwhelmingly (as they did this weekend with Sveta) towards a poor performance on the part of her opponent.


The “middle ground” (if it exists at all)  is occupied by other varying shades of apologists and belligerents.


I no longer want any part of it.


Q. Do you think it’s unfair when people criticize you or when people talk your game and they say, She gets lots of balls back, but she hasn’t got a big weapon? You’ve got to No. 1 in the world. Do you think that’s unfair when you hear people say that?

CAROLINE WOZNIACKI: Um, well, if I don’t have a weapon, then what do the others have? Since I’m No. 1, I must do something right. I think there’re not actually criticizing me. I think the other players should be offended.

She’ll never be your cup of tea if, like me, you enjoy brash, bold, big-hitting tennis. That doesn’t, shouldn’t, mean


a) that she hasn’t earnt many (if not all) her wins,


b) that we don’t call out, in the strongest possible terms, her (supposedly more experienced, high ranking) opponents for capitulating as badly as they seem to against her, or, for that matter, why she appears to cause them so much trouble – is she clearly not doing something right?

c)  or (worse) that she’s somehow foregone her right to being credited for the type of mental resilience necessary to play the style of tennis that seems to offend people so much. (Hint: it’s the same focus we so enjoy celebrating in Pova and Rafa amongst others – but somehow not hitting the same amount of winners as them means you forgo that right?)

It also doesn’t mean (and this cannot be stated enough) that her style of play has no business at the top of the WTA food chain.

The problem (as I see it) comes when well (or seriously unwell)-meaning peeps try and present being “rocksolid” as an incontrovertible virtue and rationalise EVERYTHING (from tennis results to the origins of the universe) by invoking that great tennis tautology: “a win’s a win”.


Yes, a win is indeed a win – but some wins are clearly better (or worse) than others. And being "rocksolid” is infinitely easier to appreciate when it’s not fashioned upon the bedrock of your opponents stupidity. I’m not even going to attempt to understand what lay behind Sveta’s flatulence – let’s just say “it happens”.


The most infuriating strain of this thought goes as far as crediting her with talents she clearly doesn’t possess like “nuance”  – I’ve even heard her being compared to Rafa.


And that, I’m afraid, is when knives are drawn and plates are broken.


Marseille: Unimpressed


In the last four months Sod has won an ATP 250, a 500, a Masters-1000, …..


Please to fill in the gap and complete the sequence.


I remain, as ever, unimpressed.



It’s not just that winning 250s is not any great indicator of form (not, at any rate, a reliable one and certainly not when the number three seed is Mikhail Youzhny). There’s just no sense of trajectory or, dare I say it, narrative in winning one of these things anymore.


This is much more Marin-territory, no? –  who seems to be showing his first reliable signs of life in around a year. YES IT’S BEEN THAT LONG.


Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Shifting Narratives

Delpo on the brink of making his first final since his injury comeback….Dolgo on the verge of winning his first ATP title….with Sod/Tsonga and Petra/Kim still to look forward to. That’s how I left it on Saturday night.

It’s not often I ask for EVERYTHING. I’m usually open to a watering down of at least some of my dreams – such flexibility is an essential coping mechanism for life itself.


But then the stakes aren’t usually this high, are they? 


Dolgo has “arrived”, now, I would imagine, by anyone’s reckoning  – a first ATP title would have accorded perfectly with his gung-ho, indie, all-court narrative. (Aside: Truly astonishing anyone thought he’d find the nickname ‘Dog’ either cute, funny or a term of endearment – he doesn’t)


And I’m guessing friends, fans, frenemies and foe alike are all united in wishing Delpo the best as he makes his precarious comeback – if only (in the case of the latter) so they may feel free to root against him again.


Those particular narratives will have to wait.




1) Soderling over Tsonga 6-3 3-6 6-3

Perhaps the wrong narrative altogether, because I’m afraid the stakes, in this instance, are no longer very high at all.


The most visceral, charged narratives often involve those who stand to lose or gain everything - a remote, anachronistic existence in which ‘anything can happen’ and ‘impossible is nothing’. It seems to me we’ve already had the first act of this with Sod upsetting two of the best players ever.

Always great seeing him come through of course – even a piddly 500 event reminds us why he’s here to stay, and defending a title definitely lends itself to a certain truculence which is, by the way, completely in keeping with his narrative and station.


The very last thing I want to see, however, is this coming at the expense of bigger and better things – or worse, seeing him get comfortable as the “Andy Murray” of the 500 or even the Masters-1000 level. As good as it is, a title like this should, now, mean less to him than it does to someone like Jo-Wills (his first final in 16 months).


There be bigger fish to fry out there Robin. Classical form would now demand that you go fry them.





2) Petra over Kim 64 63.

Voluntary disclosure of rooting interests for 2011: As many as half of my WTA eggs are in Petra’s basket.

Was Kim not at her best? Perhaps. This certainly wasn’t the officially endorsed narrative for the newly crowned world #1 (Update: Neither is Petra’s 76 76 loss to Morita in Dubai earlier today)

What I do know is that Petra’s serve out wide might just be the best shot in women's tennis right now. Unreadable pace. The worst kind.

Oh sure, ‘one win does not a champ make’ and all that, but it’s not just been about the one win has it? This is her second title in 6 weeks which, taken together with her QF run at Oz and SF at Wimbledon last year, simply demands that we take note. (Two Slam fourth rounds in her late teens isn’t too shoddy either)


Perhaps most convincingly of all, it’s the way in which she outplayed rather than outlasted Kim. Ask yourself whether the narrative of the timid counterpuncher is nearly as compelling as that of the audacious upstart.

Timely too – with a whole raft of retirements imminent in 2012, I have an opening in my tennis pool. Maybe even a number of them.


Yes I’m on board, but don’t think for a minute that the decision has been taken lightly:


-- She’s a lefty. Not the philosophical solution to life it’s sometimes made out to be, but the different look does, nevertheless, throw many players (more than you’d think) out of their rigidly defined comfort zones.


-- She’s daring and/or unhinged enough to imagine winners where none exist. True that this can sometimes prove counterproductive (if you saw her match against Woz in Beijing last year you’ll know just how counterproductive) – it’s also a necessary mind-set for anyone with an eye on the big stuff.

Put simply, you have to have it within you to be just a little suicidal against the best players. Both classical form and the big occasion demand it. The timid counterpuncher would never even conceive of blitzing the world #1 and winner of the last two Slams in straights.

-- She has all of the big weapons necessary to pull off an upset at the highest of levels unlike say a MJMS, yet remains far more nuanced than a Rezai – both of whom won Premier events last year. Why should we expect any less of Petra?


-- Best of all, the braces are a feint echo of Sveta’s 2004 USO run. Detail like this is at least as important as any of the above if you’re in the business of narrative.

Nothing is certain of course (whole matches can turn, have turned, round very fast when she loses focus the way she did after Wimbledon last year), but consider all of the above points my “due diligence”.





3) Confession: I still haven’t seen Milos play


I’m hearing the dubious Pete Sampras comparisons. I’m hearing utterly terrifying ice hockey jokes. I’m even hearing some doubts being expressed over the prevailing (overwhelmingly stark) opinion about the future of non-European tennis.


Listen carefully and you might even hear the wind carrying the sound of Dancevic cursing into his glass.

I’m yet to see him hit a ball. Laughable I know. But that’s just the way it panned out with timezones being what they are. All of which means I’m not in a position to weigh up any of the above.

I aim to rectify this before he, you know, wins a Slam or something.


From what little I have gathered, he seems (in common with Dolgo) to have the makings of an all-courter and is not afraid to have a crack at the ball – both of which bode well for the future. Being 6’5 can’t hurt very much either.


If I had it my way, Delpo would have made the final and Dolgo would have won in Brazil. And yet all this talk of “narrative” and “destiny” is of course all utterly preposterous. Smug, self-satisfied spiritualist nonsense – a little too full of its elemental self.


What makes one narrative more compelling than any other lies not always in its strict conformance with classical form. But rather in its audacity.


And more often than not, the more audacious narratives are forged through what seem like mere random inflections at the time.


Like Hantuchova winning her first title since 2007 for instance.

Ask yourself whether Delpos comeback would be nearly as gripping if he won his 2nd event back.


Ask yourself whether Sod winning a Slam (should it happen) would be nearly as compelling if he hadn’t pulled off what he pulled off in 2009.

Nestled deeply somewhere in the swinging, conflicted narratives of Dolgo’s floating hair, Petra’s shining braces and Milos’s scrawny 6’5 frame lies a future threatening to be as uplifting as anything we’ve seen.

Don’t let’s forestall it by being that twat sitting directly in front of you that always gets up and starts clapping before the credits have even started rolling.



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