Tuesday, 29 November 2011

ATP WTF: Why we *shouldn’t* [only] be talking about Roger Federer’s longevity


A most satisfactory end to an event I was afraid wouldn’t live up to either hype or expectation. Or is that now treated as one in the same?

Rightly or wrongly, and for reasons best known (and unknown)  to myself, the WTF has become tightly associated in my mind with elemental performances par excellence.

Some of this is undoubtedly to do with the way Federer plays.

Some of it’s to do with the nature of the surface and the type of unforgiving yet strangely tranquil tennis it gives rise to.

Most likely, it’s an irregular fusion of both that’s responsible (usually) for that uniquely hypnotic experience only to be found indoors and at the end of the season - an experience that remains inextricably woven in with either Federer playing tennis that delivers a statement, or someone else playing once-in-a-lifetime tennis that delivers something more akin to a polemic. Yet also an experience it seemed we were to be denied this year until, that is, the final.


I’m not saying the final got it completely right either. And not only because both seemed stuck in that perverse first service purgatory that has successfully demeaned so many a player this year. But after floundering away the week in almost its entirety, it did seem to strike the right balance between daring play on the part of Jo, and Fed imposing the kind of lockouts that had seemed beyond him at some of his most critical moments throughout this year.

Perhaps what’s more interesting than any single match though is all the inevitable talk on Fed’s longevity it’s once again given rise to. All of it quite correct of course, but all of it, also, quite “boilerplate” in nature.

Fed’s turning 30 has undoubtedly imparted a particular resonance to it this time round – tennis twilight for most, when motivation is supposedly dithering even if the body hasn't somehow completely packed up.

Even so, I think we GET that Fed’s mode of play (and I would say genes) confer upon him a longevity that continues to elude other Big Four (or Five or Six) players – not all of whom, by the way, tax themselves the way Nadal does.

You make that longevity a little less amazing each time you recycle and repackage it: I certainly get why people talk about it. I DON’T get why they talk about it to the exclusion of all else.

Doing so seems to me to obscure something that, in my mind, is equally as important and telling.

Could it not simply be that he happens to be an impeccable indoor player? Just like, uh, I dunno, a certain Ivan Lendl, say? It is possible.

I understand why the prevailing theme is longevity – I also understand that 6 WTFs is kind of a big deal. Not all of which can be explained away with lazy allusions to “longevity” (allusions now fast becoming a form of disservice).


Neither can Nalbandian coming back from the brink of death and two sets to love down (2005).

Nor can Kolya’s pwnage of the entire field during the fall of 2009 – pwnage that included all of the top four. Pwnage that also included one Roger Federer.

And I think we might have heard quite enough on fatigue and the length of the season too: Nole played almost EXACTLY as much tennis when he won this event in Shanghai back in 2008 (81 matches) as he did in 2010 (79 matches) We heard next to NOTHING about wear-and-tear back then (an issue of commentary rather than player conduct).

It didn’t appear to affect Murray that year either who saw fit to leave it all out there in his win over Fed during the group stages. Clearly an important enough win for him to sacrifice any chance he might have had of progressing further in that event in what was (then) his strongest year.

Funnily enough it was Fed’s injured back in Paris back then that resulted in, what remains to this day, the only withdrawal of his career.

Point being, fatigue is not nearly as linear and untextured a phenomena as some (most) would have you believe it is. It affects different players (all of whom have different Achilles heels) in different ways, and at different times.

Not to mention the countless inexplicable, unfathomable, but wholly inevitable random seasonal currents, riffs and rhythms of life, all of which conspire together to ensure that no one day on tour is like any other.

And what of Jo? What of Berd? Are we to believe they found the long season taxing too? I mean Jo’s only played Fed, what, all of five times in the seventy-five matches he’s played this season prior to this event.

Neither looked tired, and I’ve heard nary a peep out of either of them on the length of the season. Why would we? It easily ranks as Jo’s best year on tour and the one time we’ve seen what he’s capable of uninjured for more than 2 months at a time.

Funnily enough, I’ve heard precisely ZERO on the speed of the surface from anyone either, except, that is, the usual formulaic rambling on the opening day [*whispers* maybe it’s because neither matters as much as we are told to think it does]

Without wishing to get too cynical (again, as much a problem of commentary as anything else), just when exactly does that critical moment come, I wonder, when it becomes ok to begin talking of fatigue (or strikes and unions, even) and to stop talking about the merits of “good scheduling”? Or, if you prefer it, to begin talk of “productive fitness regimes” and to end all talk on the “lengthy season”? Whenever you feel like it?

It seems ad-hoc at best and worryingly tendentious at worse.

Strange, is it not, how convincing and decisive tennis (like, say, the final) has a tendency to draw focus to what actually matters?

The same can be said of Fed’s staggering title haul of 6 WTFs gained over two successive tennis generations – many of which had nothing in the slightest to do with “longevity”. That’s kind of a “prevailing theme” too.
(Pics: Getty)


Thursday, 24 November 2011



Daveed has made the semis having won 4 out of 4 sets played against the number 3 and number 1 players in the world.

No one else in the entire DRAW can make that claim.

In other news, I love sport.

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No idea what was going on with Nole.

I mean, yeah, he must be tired with the amount of tennis he’s played this year, but that doesn’t quite account for the criminal amount of balls that landed at the bottom of the net.

Assist (as with any Spanish victory this week): Yannick Noah.


Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Rafael Nadal: “The Score is True”

I sometimes feel Rafa’s English is the perfect vehicle to understand and rationalise the types of beatdowns, “severe results” (as one journo put it), we saw last night.

Sure, there’ll be plenty of tracts trying so desperately to replicate the sense of ecstasy evoked by Foster-Wallace’s infamous essay on Fed as a religious experience; and whilst that might still feel relevant to some, I’ve always found it far more interesting (and moving) to consider the essence of that sublimity together with more deeper questions such as the nature of loss – and how that in turn might playfully shape the forces that underpin their rivalry.

There's plenty of innocent jokes on the adorable (or at least affable) nature of Rafa’s English, but it also seems custom built to cut through much of the bullshit that is so prevalent at times like these, and to set out the truth before you with not so much as a hint of drama or embellishment.

”The Score is True”
is both an abstract and absolute truth. At once, so pithy, so very urgent, you can almost see it being used as the title of a polemical op-ed, a life-affirming poem about war, the satirically coloured memoirs of a sporting journo, or a historical biopic that wins the Palm d’Or. You might even get away with it in a frothy high school romance. Universal truths tend to translate well that way.


The same can be said of much of his unassuming and somewhat curt reflections in the rest of the presser which resist overanalysis and seem, almost, to embody truths greater than those contained in either the scoreline or the sport itself.

Even the "True” from within “thats’s the true” seems to evoke a bigger and more significant vision of reality than that suggested by any mere “truth” (lower case).

The truth (lower case) is, I didn't want to see either Rafa OR Fed routed in this way, but, really, when was this ever about what any one of us wanted? The peculiar charm of competition is that you simply don't know how any single match will play out on any given day however celebrated the competitors or their rivalry.

And results like these often add hidden layers of texture, meaning, structure and narrative to rivalries that more even matches are often completely devoid of, however well fought. THAT'S the TRUE.

Rafa says he "didn't play badly". He really didn't.


He might perhaps have served better and gained the resulting free points he alludes to in the presser. "I didn't as usual" - the barbed self-flagellation is wholly intentional (also one of the best moments in the presser) but is also put out there as a matter of record: Rafa's simply not serving nearly as well as he was last year.

But other than that? Fed's level was just as "special" as Rafa says it was - bordering almost on the type of sinister necromancy found in his dismissal of Roddick at the Aussie Open in 2007 - a match in which the very contours of the court appeared to warp and reshape themselves around both the essential certainty and trajectory of his winners.

In some ways, we shouldn't be surprised with the uncompromising clarity of Rafa's thoughts - pressers are mostly given within minutes of the last ball being struck; but try, in any case, to imagine the frighteningly solitary moments he endured in that arena (particularly in the second set) with his most respected and most potent adversary impressing the abstract truth of his supremacy upon him, blow-by-(non-abstract)blow - blows Rafa was mostly powerless to fend off.

If being savaged that way leads to certain crystallised convictions on where his game stands in relation to Federer's on this or any other surface, it shouldn't surprise us in the least.

There really is no substitute for watching the elite operating unfettered in their element and preferably on their favourite surfaces – nor a more convincing proof of its essential truth.

Once Rafa was broken in set one (it was surprisingly even to that point, though I doubt most will remember that)  Fed ran away with it in exactly the same way that Rafa did in RG 2008.

I'm sure many thought I was a buzzkill for making that comparison on twitter in the minutes that followed Fed's victory yesterday - the very same comparison was made by both in their respective pressers. There's an abstract and maybe even a moral equivalence underpinning BOTH those beatdowns – one you choose to ignore at your peril. THAT'S THE TRUE.

More to the point, when the elite do break free that way, the unilateral lockdown they impose is usually as certain and as fatal as time itself.  Federer's rhythms are, of course, all his own - he sometimes even breaks free of the limits imposed by those. And yes that does qualify as a quasi-religious experience. THAT'S THE TRUE.

Like he said in his presser, Fed's been on the receiving end of those lockdowns too. There's an equivalence there of empathy as well as supremacy. Perhaps as a result of this equivalence, both their answers can appear unduly curt – the type of thing Fed’s accused of arrogance for, but in reality no different to the shoulder-shrugging and wincing that formed the mainstay of Rafa’s presser.


Both proceed from a heightened sense of awareness that remains irradicably intolerant of bullshit. An awareness of their rivalry, their strengths AND limitations – limitations that, as Rafa put it, simply “weren’t there” for Fed yesterday.



Tuesday, 22 November 2011

ATP WTF: Tomas Berdych and the reformatory power of melancholic angst

Nope. Uh-uh. Not impressed. Not yet anyway.

I’ve no doubt we’ll eventually reproduce something of the electricity I normally associate with one of my favourite events of the year (we almost did with Big Berd yesterday), but we ain’t there yet. Not nearly.

And something’s been off since before the event began.

Not even the ATP photoshoot, normally the single most prolific moment for unintentional awesome all year, lived up to expectation.

Admittedly the Abbey Road crossing and the innards of Downing St set a high watermark.

But this year we got…..8 suits in front of Battersea Power Station. That awkward moment when everyone realises there’s not very much happening, and that not even a close-up would help alleviate the ennui.

The iconic Pink Floyd album cover is one of those things that sounds like a good idea in principle – in practice, a moody, un-peopled near-apocalyptic work of modern art doesn’t lend itself to the kind moments that have made previous shoots such a hit – and I’m not sure it garners quite the necessary universal appeal either.

Sorely disappointed. And I still think a Downton themed photoshoot with Mr Carson (that voice) umpiring a mixed dubs encounter between Lady Edith, Muzz and two other choice members of the cast/players would have been AMAZING.

Neither were things redeemed by what should have been an explosive opener between Jo and Fed. With Federer reminding us of the unearthly errors we’d almost, but never quite, forgotten after the sustained brilliance of his last two events. One can only hope he’s got it out of his system.

But at least, even at three sets, it was over quickly: Rafa/Fish, on the other hand, was a super extended directors cut of a very average daytime movie full of the deleted scenes and bonus features no one wants to see. And all of that was before Rafa’s infamous potty break brought on by an apparent tummy bug. One can only hope he’s got it out of his system.

With Fedal out of the way, I was sure that either Muzz or Djokovic would provide the bonfire that finally lit up the event.


It didn’t happen with Muzz/Ferrer – worse, Muzz was revealed to have an agitated hip that puts into question his continued participation here.

Sometimes an injury’s just an injury – neither evidence of questionable moral fibre nor an opportunity to big-up your fave with that excruciating form of player-juxtaposition so many seem to find so necessary. Try harder.

And with that, Daveed tops group A being the only player to have won his opener in straights. Every cloud, it seems, has an underrated, sporting and very Spanish lining.

Only with Nole/Berd last night did things finally come alive – though not always for the right reasons. The rallies and shotmaking were light years ahead of any match that had preceded it. Some of Berd’s misses were also akin to near death experiences.

It all had a uniquely, grungy form of fatalism about it from which Berd has seemingly emerged uniquely scarred:

"I just need to get through this feeling…I'm even more sad for the Czech people who came to see me"

I cherish Czech angst and melancholy the way I do some forms of modern poetry, but I’m also kinda hoping he puts all that behind him. Or at least re-organises it all into a focused intensity that takes no prisoners – I’ve seen it before.

Nole admitted that Tomas had been the better player for most of the match. He’s right. And, as we saw last night, he’s, in some ways, the player uniquely placed to cause all manner of upsets.


People tend to react to Fedal encounters in the way they might to James Bond films from the late 60s and 70s. For some, they were always overhyped and don’t appear to have dated terribly well. For others, they remain the benchmark of excellence with a continuing pull of nostalgia and loyalty if nothing else.

Either way, everyone feels compelled to take a position either for or against it. Try as I may, I can’t not admire that.

My own feeling is that whilst the more recent encounters haven’t exactly been memorable, and whilst Fedal may be over as an ‘era’ – we shouldn’t be surprised to find them embroiled in skirmishes that rival anything we saw in between 2006-2008. We may even be pleasantly surprised tonight.


Saturday, 19 November 2011

Roger Federer: ZING done right.

“A gentleman is one who never hurts anyone's feelings unintentionally.”
Oscar Wilde

ZING (for want of a better word – there’s got to be one) is as much a noble art as it is a precise science.

As noble as a bout of fisticuffs and as fine as any of the works of Keats, Mozart or Murakami. 

As ordered as the physics of Newton and as precise as that of Einstein, both of which were just yesterday used to prove that Neutrinos might in fact exceed the speed of light – which in turn might just lead to a revisal of EVERYTHING (mark: ‘handle with care’).

Done right, it can overturn kingdoms, alter the entire dynamic of battle in your favour and still leave you looking like a gentleman.

Try too hard, with too little, or at the wrong time, and you end up resembling that vengeful cretin that loses EVERYTHING including his own credibility in a dissonant fog of anguish.


A well-worked ZINGER embodies the very best of whatever mysterious force it is that makes the classics of both antiquity and modernity resonate to vein-popping extremes. Whatever else Steve Jobs might have achieved, you can safely assume he would have known how to ZING both caustically and responsibly. As did Thatcher, Abe Lincoln,  Churchill and Joan of Arc.

Indeed, we do it a great disservice when we dismiss any one of the few verbal skirmishes still remaining in an impossibly sanitised ATP as a ‘ZINGER’ or a ‘SMACKDOWN’. The uppercase is supposed to be for effect but seems more suggestive of a dialectic vacuum – like I said, given time, I’m sure we could do a lot better.

But whatever you might call it, competent and successful ZING relies on an entire panoply of precepts, best practices and guidelines – most of which are derived from that age old tradition of oratory and rhetoric. Not all are appropriate for every situation and even those selected must be carefully honed and configured before being deployed as a linguistic WMD.

Three in particular, Timing, Substance and Clout, are, however, indispensable – the critical bedrock of verbal volcanism.


The reason Federer has, for the most part, gotten away with his rhetorical rockets over the years is that he’s understood and taken to heart these fundamental principles . And where he’s fallen foul of them, he’s mostly been taken to task for it either by the mainstream or by members of that very active counter-revolution to the mainstream.

There’s other reasons too, of course. For instance, I’m not much convinced that the delivery of a well-formed ZING is fundamentally at odds with the “old-school” image Federer supposedly embodies – one of the biggest fallacies of the past decade.

A gentleman of the old-school is all about fair play and chivalry, of course. But they're never averse to the occasional verbal joust. Indeed, they’d be found wanting in character, spirit and essence if they fell short in this regard. 

If the FedEra has, paradoxically (mistakenly IMO), turned ZING into a dying art-form (and I’m inclined to think it has) then it’s only right that he be the one to reclaim the practice – my guess is not too many mind whenever he appears to do just that.


However cheesy it might be as a cliche, timing is, indeed, ‘everything’ – in any, and all, forms of competition.

Seize the day? HELL YES.  Jump the gun? Not so much.

All too often a few milliseconds here and there decide the entire fate of a civilisation. You just wish that were an exaggeration. Like Federer said, it’s crazy how small the margins sometimes are.

What immediately leaps out at you about Federer’s verbal campaign this year is how quiet it was all kept until so very late in the year. There were even times, when Murray was in a slump, where he rallied to his support – all the while keeping his opinions re Djokovic’s year, the length of the season and surface homogenisation to himself – keeping his cards, in other words, tightly pressed against his chest.

Then, only a few weeks ago, just at that critical moment when he would have sensed people were beginning to tire of talk of strikes and unions from well-paid athletes:

“It’s better to have too many than too few tournaments,” Federer said. “The season cannot be too long when Andy [Murray] requested a wildcard. I think he knows not quite what he wants”

Try and imagine what would have been lost had he opened fire even a few weeks earlier, muddying the waters whilst Nole, Rafa, Muzz and ARod were still busy agreeing upon whatever exactly it is that they’re  all meant to agree upon.

The same holds true for leaving it too late: whatever you make of it, Muzz left himself open by requesting a WC  for Basel in the same week he chose to bitch about the lengthy season – not even a journeyman ZINGer lets an opportunity like that pass them by. 

“I’m not taking anything away from what he did but was Asia the strongest this year?” he asks. “I'm not sure. Novak wasn’t there, I wasn’t there  and (in Shanghai) Rafa lost early.”

Again, a try-hard ZINGer might simply have settled for those harmless few scorch marks that result from levelling this attack immediately after Murrays (admittedly impeccable) Asian Swing, a string of results the British Press immediately went to town with.

Waiting till that same Press attempted to conflate that Asian swing with Murray’s chances here in London in the few days leading up to it, is the mark of a craftsman who knows exactly what iron to use and just how hot it is.



It’s a demonstrable fact that 90% of ZING that goes on is of the disposable, frothy, playground variety, most of which is as tuneless as it is hollow and barely meets with the definition of ZING.

More astute ZINGers might be able to get away with their lack of substance with more subtle sophistry (particularly if they TIME it well – see above) but for the most part, your target and any assembled onlookers will see right through it. And you’ll have missed your one chance for a shot at something better.

With precious few exceptions, even the best-timed ZING needs something to work with to pack a real punch.  Its not wholly unselfish either: you open yourself up to all sorts of ridicule if your ZING doesn’t bear scrutiny.

Again, you might question the wisdom behind some of Federer’s deliveries, maybe even the timing – but only in his most braindead moments will he issue the call to a frothy war.

He was right when he cut Murray down as a “grinder” after losing to him in Dubai back in 2008. That many cried ‘sour grapes’  is neither here nor there – had Murray not attended to those shortcomings (many of which still exist) he wouldn’t be the player he is today.

He was right when he called the early Rafa “one-dimensional”, tendencies Nadal still sometimes reverts back to under pressure, tendencies that usually end up costing  him very dearly – sometimes against vastly inferior players.


And he’s right in calling into question the significance of Murray’s Asian Swing now. Again, complaining that his Basel win is open to the same criticism is to spectacularly miss the point. I doubt he cares very much. If anything, I suspect he’s a tad disappointed that the set of double standards propping up this particular ZING don’t go far enough.

Takeout: You can get away with saying most anything you want so long as you resist the urge to talk cobblers.


Like it or not, the elite will always get more for their buck, their words will carry rather more weight and leave a far more enduring impression than any number of  journeymen. It shouldn’t be that way, but there it is.

The tittle-tattle surrounding Tsonga’s swipe at Nole (there were actually two, neither all that concealed) may have proved diverting but the world is a noticeably different place when the Fed/Muzz “on-again, off-again” tongue-lashing is “on-again”. And the better for it.


Now if deadpan Murray would respond in kind…


Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Why you should give Andy Murray’s musings on boxing a fair hearing.

Not many will have missed the very candid Murray Daily Mail piece.


Agreed with virtually all his thoughts on British Tennis and its lack of anything resembling a single, coherent ethos (versus diverging instances of several more transient ones).

My personal view remains that no amount of money or strategising will account for an essential lack of talent;  though he’s certainly right that a more enduring (non-exclusionary) tennis culture may just bring about the conditions in which we might at least aim to see the emergence of more top 100 players (the way, say, the French Federation has) rather than only one in the top five that also happens to be the greatest Open-Era player Britain’s produced.

There’s interesting anecdotes in relation to life on tour and EVEN his suggestion that how you deal with pressure is largely a function of how you’re built deserves a fair hearing (Though Wayne Rooney – of all people – as an example of world-class brilliance with similar “anger-management issues”? Something of an own goal).

By far the most unflinching, honest and introspective interview he’s ever given, but perhaps also one that does rather more to confirm rather than repudiate whatever opinion you may have of him.

We already know of his Boxing obsession – as many will tell you, there’s almost a sultry edge to it.

The notion of one-on-one combat as a metaphor for the confrontational and somewhat lonely nature of solo sport is one that either resonates with you or not.  In this paradigm, boxing serves as the purest possible formalisation of solo competition “stripped down to its bare essence” – as Murray has noted on several occasions, its risky and unforgiving nature ACTUALLY leaves you with “nowhere to hide”.

As an allegory, it can sometimes induce that romanticised, keenly felt, but rather vague melancholy found in some of those sporting "art-house" types who deem its accuracy both philosophically and aesthetically complete; in the rest, it seems to provoke amusement, snorts of derision, or simply that curious stasis in which very many eyes glaze over in unison very many times – though perhaps that's just the normal reaction to the sound of Murray’s voice waxing not-so-lyrically.

Where you sit on that divide is not so important, but I can’t help feeling that it’s rather harsh not to give his musings on boxing a fair hearing, if only because he’s actually been in (and emerged bloodied no less than three times from the wrong end of) that eye of the storm that exists at the highest levels of any sport – the solo nature of tennis only infuses it with further poignancy.

If boxing’s the paradigm that’s allowed Murray to unlock and organise some of his most charmingly confused thoughts, and to espouse some of the most cherished ideals of his sport, then so be it.

It’s truly not something those British ex-Players Murray makes a point of calling out will have ever experienced.

(Pic: Daily Mail)



Monday, 14 November 2011

The Truth That Dare Not Speak Its Name: Roger Federer still won on a fast, indoor court. Kinda. [And the trophy ain’t that bad either *ducks*]


There’s sometimes a tendency to underestimate just how much Fed enjoys winning the few titles that have eluded him (Shanghai, Monte Carlo and Rome for the chronically pedantic). And those that do have something to say on the subject seem  hell-bent on painting it as a uniquely obnoxious clinical condition (Jeez what a hegemon) .

For me, the anomaly is how he ever managed not to win Paris: perhaps the only understandable loss is in 07 when he went out in R3 to that utterly ridonkulous version of David Nalbandian that’s been known to occasionally show up – who (having already won Madrid) then went on to win the whole damn thing. Having gone through Rafa, Novak and Fed (not easy in 2007), ain’t no one gonna argue that he owned that fall.

But perhaps the fact that it took Fed so long here is just one of the many anomalies we have been told to accept in relation to Paris. A place where even a firebrand like Marat won a shockingly steady three of his five Masters titles. The place where Henman won his ONLY Masters title. Go figure.

This year, all the talk has, quite rightly, been about the decision to slow down the one remaining surface that happened to, you know, BE FAST. Quite frankly, it was an anomaly we could have lived with , even if it was giving rise to the anomalous results so many seem to find so grotesque – I’m not so sure it was responsible (reality, as always,  tends to be just a little more complex).

But there's already been more than enough virtual ink spilt on that subject. And honestly? Its obscured something just as relevant: IT'S STILL A FAST INDOOR COURT.

It's fertile territory for jokes of course (of which there have been many), but the truth is, however slow it is, it's not going to suddenly start playing like a clay court – Fed made much the same point after his quite impeccable win over Berd, perhaps his single best match this year.


Not only that, but following his regular post USO lay-off, Fed tends to excel on the fast indoor courts that form the mainstay of the end of the season – a period when most others are worn-out, beat-up, and bitching in various degrees about the length of the season.

Whatever unique advantages these courts confer upon Fed are going to continue to exist even in a slightly compromised form. And that, more than anything else, is what makes him the rational bet going into London.

Clay court Fed will likely remain my particular favourite long after he’s retired – I find the curious, elemental spectacle of Fed’s adapted play working the contours of a surface that should be out-of-his-element until it’s very much in-his-element to be utterly seductive.

But Indoor-Fed shuts you out of a match in a way only a walking scorched earth policy can. And a lot of times that’s just as good.

Explain to me why they did away with carpet again?

(Pics: Getty)

Friday, 11 November 2011

Deceit and Entrapment: Novak Djokovic and the $1.6M Matrix of Cynicism

1. If Novak doesn’t play Paris, its because he’s saving himself for London – his shoulder has almost nothing to do with it. Neither is it relevant that countless other players both past and present have done precisely that under similar circumstances.

2. If Novak plays Paris, but loses his opener, he’s still saving himself for London but is now also a “low-rent” mercenary for claiming the $1.6M he was due for competing in 7 of the 8 Masters events – or, as Bodo would have it, for “brazenly gaming the system”.

3. If Novak plays Paris, but retires during his opener, he’s still saving himself for London, is still “brazenly gaming the system” by claiming the $1.6M he was due for playing 7 of the 8 Masters events, but is now also one that hasn’t the grace nor the class (both overused terms) to give his opponent the win they’re due.

Bonus hater points accrued depending on how the injury is presented: “his body always seems to break down” (opportunist ~2pts) vs. “his body always seems to break down” (wet behind the ears ~2pts) vs. a creatively insidious combo of both (~5pts)

4. If Novak wins his opener, he’s putting in just enough legwork to counter the accusations of “not trying hard enough” he WILL receive should he pull out or lose any one of of his subsequent matches. His primary motivation (as a low-rent mercenary) remains exiting the event both quickly and by drawing as little attention (censure) as possible. Needless to say he can’t do both and the more diligent hater won’t let him get away with it.

5. If he fights back from a set down as he did against his compatriot yesterday, he’s a showboating dickhead that’s cynically exploiting the opportunity of beating a flaky minion (one whose game he knows inside out) to present himself as someone that doesn’t shy away from a fight, no matter how much he may be hurting, and no matter how little is at stake. Again, the more astute hater won’t fail to avail the opportunity of satisfying the dual objective of both undercutting Novak and snarking on Viktor.

6. If he makes the latter stages or – God help us – wins the event, he’s an insufferable egomaniac that doesn’t know when to stop (the chip on the shoulder of most players from small Eastern European countries usually ensure that they don’t) and will in all likelihood pay the price for it in London.

This is the matrix of cynicism with which Novak’s every action has been evaluated over the past week – the handout from hell.

Its beauty lies in the arc it artfully traces between the two extremes of blaming him for one thing, namely pulling out to avoid further inflaming an injury(1) and blaming him for its reflexive opposite (6) – veteran haters are able to pull this off without the transition between (1) and (6) seeming too jarring, or even without anyone noticing it’s taken place at all.


Between the two endpoints lies a breadth of possibilities that is truly daunting and the real magic lies in predicting what Novak may or may not do and devising ever more creative means of undercutting  “the good” and highlighting “the bad”.

What you end up with is a complex web of deceit which ensures Novak’s presented in nothing other than the most unfavourable terms, and from which there can be no escape as no stone has been left unturned.  As a piece of legal, political and actuarial manoeuvring, it stands alone – you really have to marvel at its completeness and attention to detail. 

Let’s be completely honest: Novak was gonna be gunned down whatever he did this week.

His pulling out after winning two matches is supposed to mean we can all go back to pretending he wouldn’t have got shat upon had he pulled out before the event began or, rather more crucially, had there not been $1.6M at stake.

And one thing I have learnt this week is that there is, apparently, a middle ground between the haters’ invective and the more conventional discourse around Nole’s injuries – this appears to be what most have settled upon.

There’s only one thing wrong with it: it happens to be  a crock of shit. Elaborate, inventive, and maybe even a little persuasive, but a hoax all the same.

Novak's physical conditioning has always proved polarising – and yes he has sometimes brought it on himself – yet there’s something inexorably icky about the nature of the spite this time round as it seems to be motivated primarily by the question of money.

That would be the $1.6M bonus he was due for playing 7 of the 8 Masters events – something no one else was able to do this year, and a provision that, as far as I can tell, has always been in place.

I don’t think he should have played this week either, I don’t feel the need to go out of the way to defend his decision to do so and, yes, he probably didn’t "give it his all”, but we really shouldn’t be muddying the waters with talk of money. 

And if we’re honest about it, it’s no different to what countless other players, both past and present, both journeyman and elite, have done (in some cases many times over) – only they seem to get the most lavish praise imaginable for “listening to their body”.


Only yesterday, Mardy Fish withdrew with a pulled left hamstring – a recurring injury that also caused him problems in Basel, an injury he would, presumably, have been nursing when he decided to play here this week, an injury that puts him in much the same position as Novak, yes?

If Novak’s a shithead for pulling out two matches in, then so is Mardy – $1.6M should have nothing to do with it. Or are those levels of winnings only for players you like?

I can’t in all honesty say I even find that much wrong with pocketing the amount he did without supposedly “giving it his all”; it’s not the epitome of principled behaviour, but it is increasingly becoming an unavoidable consequence of the more physical modern game – and, dare I say it, the length of the season. We’re going to have to find a way to live with that without casting doubt on any and every withdrawal we witness.

In any case, after the season he’s just had, I’d say he’s entitled to the benefit of the doubt. The same benefit of the doubt readily conferred upon more popular types – even those popular types that are actually guilty of “brazenly gaming the system”.


Saturday, 5 November 2011

The unanswered question of Loyalty behind Dmitry Tursunov’s smackdown of Pete Bodo

So this was written.


It only makes sense that Bogomolov wants to play Davis Cup. He's got a lot to be thankful for, right?


The only problem is that he wants to play Davis Cup for Russia.

Yep. The Russia from which his father, well-known coach Alex Bogomolov Sr. (who worked with, among others, Yevgeny Kafelnikov and Andrei Medvedev), fled over two decades ago in order to find greater opportunity and a more prosperous way of life. The Russia to which the older Bogomolov returned (leaving his family behind) in 2003, because he didn't find happiness amid the palm trees and abundant tennis courts of south Florida. Alex and son have had a strained relationship; it's better now, partly because Bogomolov's present ranking (a career-high No. 33) gained him direct entry into two ATP events in Russia in recent weeks—nice work from a guy who couldn't survive qualifying to make the main draw of the Australian Open at the beginning of this year.


Bogomolov Jr., who has dual citizenship, did well in his homeland—he was a quarterfinalist in Moscow (lost to Viktor Troicki) and a semifinalist in St. Petersburg (lost to Janko Tisparevic). He also re-connected with his dad, although Bogomolov admits that he still won't speak with his dad after a loss—only if he wins. You might think Bogomolov Jr. would see the way all the help and support he received here has been instrumental in his success, especially after his father left. And you'd think he'd be aware of the role that help played in this apparent semi-reconciliation with his dad. In fact, there may not be a more appropriate way for Bogomolov to quietly close this somewhat strange and painful narrative than by representing his adopted homeland on some tennis court.


Which is why Bogomolov's intentions just don't make sense to me. All I can think is that Junior wants to play Davis Cup for Russia because, in some bizarre way, he still wants craves the approval of his dad (what better way to earn it than by playing Davis Cup for Russia?), or perhaps he just wants to one-up his dad, rub his nose in the success he's enjoyed without support from his semi-famous father—what better way to demonstrate that Senior made a big mistake abandoning his family and giving up on Junior? But the Bogomolovs' family issues are of lesser interest to me than the fact that he's brazenly gaming the system. All other things aside, the word "ingrate" comes to mind.


-- Pete Bodo, Tennis.com


Following which this happened.


Further words were exchanged with tennis illuminati.

Twitter silliness ensued.

You get the idea.

[WARNING: This is not a blog smackdown of Pete Bodo. I even get uncomfortably close to agreeing with him at one point. Caution is advised as this has been known to to induce seizure in some]

-- The Devils advocate in me wants to point out that Bogo shouldn't be surprised his choices ruffled a few American feathers.

-- I’m not even sure I disagree with Bodo on the issue of loyalty (though players switching nationalities, indeed, countries poaching players, is hardly something that began yesterday)

-- I only wish he hadn’t brought Bogo’s dad into it – Bodo would still be treated with the customary contempt we’re all used to (“trendy”, kneejerk contempt I don’t always agree with), but it might then at least be considered (or ridiculed) on merit alone.

-- As it stands, Bodo has shot himself in the foot and given his detractors a reason to shoot him in the other one. He should know by now they don’t usually need one.

-- Family is generally off limits at the best of times. Family strife – unless that strife forces its way into the public eye the way Damir Dokic did (in which case it BECOMES the story) – most definitely is.

-- With that in mind, it’s really quite shabby dragging in someone’s difficult family circumstances – a situation Dima rightly points out Bodo knows nothing about – into the making of a point which could be argued either way.

-- Dare I say it, the article has the air of the type of Cold War antagonism you sometimes continue to hear from people “of a certain age”. The type of people that are noticeably less scornful when it’s their own country doing the poaching, as some argue the US did with Andrea Collarini.

--  I’m not sure that’s so very deserving of the respect Cronin insists upon, much as I agree with the idea that the experience and wisdom that supposedly comes with age doesn’t always get the respect that it is due.

-- But returning to playing devils advocate again, I still don’t think Bogo should be surprised his actions caused annoyance. And I don’t think anyone else should either.

-- I get that articles about “milk maids” invite ridicule, but don’t let’s use Bodo’s blunder as a smokescreen to evade tackling a thorny issue – even (and especially) when it’s more fun to ridicule.


-- Believe it or not, there’s a perfectly valid argument to be made in favour of loyalty, whatever you might think of Bodo and whatever his prejudices may or may not be. Players are, of course, free to jump ship and countries will continue to poach, but they shouldn’t expect to emerge from it smelling of roses.


Tuesday, 1 November 2011

WTA Championships: 10 Post-Istanbul Thoughts

1) A Slam, A Premier-Mandatory, A Premier, A couple of International titles and, of course, the WTA Championships.


That’s a win at every level, and on every surface. Look even closer and you’ll see she also snuck in a straight sets win over Kim Clijsters back in February.

No Premier-5 though – I say she’s not trying hard enough.

You might have pronounced Petra ‘player of the year’ last week even if she hadn’t won Istanbul. You’d be a fool not to now.  Caro? Stosur? Li? Kim? No one even comes close.

2) Her play wasn’t always as stellar as it was, say, at Wimbledon (where she only dropped one set – also to Azarenka).

But in terms of finding that elusive middle ground, that ability to win matches without recourse to her thermonuclear A-Game, it was arguably more impressive. More impressive and more beneficial, I’d say, than blitzing any number of top-tenners in straights.

3) Petra saved 4 BPs in the opening game of the final set. Vika was well into her stride by then.

x610 (2)
In the ‘What If?’ scenario that sees Vika convert one of those BPs, it’s not a stretch to conceive of her going on to win the title. The 6-3  scoreline doesn’t do justice to how close that final set sometimes got.

4) Number one ranking?

Petra has to defend Brisbane (280 pts), an Aussie Open QF (500 pts) and Paris (470)….and all of that’s just by the first week of February.

For all the “Caro’s days are numbered” jibes, dislodging her might prove harder than you think.

There may only be 115 pts in it, Petra may be a better player than Caro, she may even be the “enSlammed” #1 we’ve been waiting for – and Lord knows we’ve put in the miles – even so, defending points is a whole different dynamic, and not one I’m especially confident Petra’s suited to.

Besides, you know who else knows how to put in the miles? Caro. It’s what she does. Give her that, if nothing else.

5) Vika may have more flair (and more tongue) than Caro, but she suffers from exactly the same problem vis-à-vis the big hitters, which, of course, includes Petra. 


That’ll probably continue to be a problem, certainly in respect of Serena.

Even so, her second set against Serena at the USO (the one after she got breadsticked) was probably the best you’ll see all year; and no one that saw the final last week will dispute there were even times against Petra where she seemed to give as good as she got. 

That might, you know, come in handy next year.

6) If you’re going to rip on Caro for not performing at the Slams then you must, by the same token, have something to say on those that are unable to perform outside of them. Quid pro quo.

I’ve done my share of defending the WTA from unnecessary flak, but Li and Stosur’s top ten ranking comes with air quotes until further notice.

610x (2)
The only reason Sam didn’t receive more censure for her epic meltdown against Vika (group stages)  is that it was eclipsed by Li’s more cataclysmic one only a day later.

Not to be unkind but, with Pova’s injury, Stosur making the semis was more coincidental than anything else – heaven knows how she might (or might not) have fared against Bartoli.

7) Bepa’s opener against Caro was the single best set of tennis in the entire championships – her final set against Aga was the single most monumental choke.

The dramedy of blowing 3 match points over 3 masochistic sets is always to be preferred over the economy of a straight sets win. Bepanomics.

8) The Petra-dactyl squawk (and Pojd) is here to stay. Deal with it.

Asking someone their thoughts on fistpumping on UFEs is akin to asking about abortion or the death penalty.

My view? People are getting way too precious over this. It’s out of control – more out of control, dare I say it, than either the fistpumping or grunting itself.

Is it really that difficult to make an intellectual distinction between something the players do, almost reflexively, to keep mentally anchored in that “winning place” and a crude, malicious form of gamesmanship?

Needless to say Vika, and I suspect most every other player, couldn’t care less:

"Oh, yeah, it's pretty loud, but it's okay. [But] I don't care about that. You know, whatever helps players to be better. That's her own way. I have to respect that. I just think that every player, as every person who is spectator or whatever, has to respect the players for what they do on the court. I don't think she does it to piss somebody off. It's just her own way to pump herself up. You know, somebody has to jump around, somebody have [sic] to say bad words or whatever. It's their own way."

-- Azarenka

Is it loud? Poor form? Yes, and I would prefer that neither Petra nor Ana did it.

But then neither is it on quite the same order as Global Warming or the Credit Crunch. It’s not even a “hindrance” which is something we can take action against.

And you know what’s far more troubling? The quite appalling double standards that continue to exist around the issue.

How some quite merrily hand a free pass to players they obviously like (whether that’s Ana, Petra or anyone else) but feel obliged to whip themselves up into a state of hysteria over those they don’t – witness the amount of quite hideous invective Domi receives from otherwise sensible people for doing exactly the same thing. No, wait…that’s not quite right - others get a free pass for even deliberate gamesmanship.

9) Marion came and Marion went….and Marion left her own indelible mark on proceedings the way she always does.

As always, we expected nothing less.

10) Aside from that little post-Marion episode that saw Vika booed off court (only to be rehabilitated just 48 hours later), the Istanbul crowd seemed courteous, fair, appreciative and not at all given over to applauding UFEs from anyone.

No biggie, but also not something we see often enough from crowds at, say, the Grand Slam hosting nations.


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