Monday 25 November 2013

Loss, and Serbian Davis Cup Dismay

Losses are dispiriting. And, often, something far worse. The way we process loss tends to vary, mainly because, well, people do too.

Some require catharsis. An electrifying effusion of rage and grief whose undiscriminating solar wind incinerates everything in its wake and thereby - it is to be hoped - sets the scene for healing and acceptance. Unsurprisingly, many opt to draw on their support structures (where available).
Others face misfortune with something resembling stoicism, preferring quiet, solitude and the cultivation of hope.

There's really no prescribed way through disappointment - beyond the fact that you'll have to weather it. And depending on its magnitude it can sometimes feel like those well-meaning anecdotes on personal growth and self-discovery through the 'loss of innocence' are largely platitudinous and simply in place to keep you from feeling a mess.

Almost all coping mechanisms will, however, feature an element of introspection and rationalisation.

Some such searches will yield more satisfying answers than others, though even where blame can be neatly ascribed to 'this' or 'that' or 'him' or 'her', the journey seems to be at least as important as any insight or closure it affords.

More commonly though the question of 'why' or 'how' is a fraught, intractable and confused mesh of inter-dependencies within which ideas like "blame" will collapse into their most abstract form. At least temporarily anyway.

Something like this has been playing out within the Serbian DC team (and indeed its band of supporters as well as the wider commentariat) in the wake of last weekend's loss to the Czech Rep.

Novak was of course roundly expected to come through both his singles rubbers perhaps only dropping a set to Tomas. He didn't drop a single set as it turned out - no one did, in fact, in any rubber for the first time in DC final history (the US didn't drop a set to Italy in the 1979 final either, but the opening rubber ended by way of a retirement after only one set. #History).

With Troicki and Tipsarevic sidelined however, the Serbs fielded 117 ranked Dusan Lajovic to play Berdych. As expected both teams were one a piece at the end of day one.

With the remaining singles seemingly set to mirror day one, doubles - now effectively a deciding rubber - assumed an almost seismic significance.

The true story of why Djokovic was benched for that fateful doubles rubber may never be known. There were reports of him being exhausted (and we might reasonably assume being rested for reverse singles). There were also reports of it being a "team decision". Speculation soon flowed that it might be mostly or wholly Novak's choice. And then of course there were those more fractious post match reports of everyone in the team (inc. Nenad) rounding on Nenad's evident underperformance. Nenad himself eventually indicated that "keeping the Ferrari in the garage" was a mistake. (Radek was perhaps alluding to Novak's greatness. I don't claim to understand what was going through Tomas' head. Nothing probably).

I expect the post-mortem will go on for some time. While that impulse is undoubtedly instinctive and perfectly sound, it's probably asking too much of the participants to play the role of staid, detached auditors.

However messy catharsis might already be, finding answers becomes exponentially more fraught when it takes place within the unholy alchemy of conflicting personalities, the oppressive weight of national expectation (including, but not limited to, the need to placate a visceral fanbase), the unforgiving nature of the public eye and the sheer immediacy of the loss.

One only needs to take a look at the happenings in the Argentine locker room to know that this phenomenon isn't peculiar to any one nation. But it can sometimes lead people to see things that really aren't there.

It's certainly not *inconceivable* that having Novak play doubles might have lent a different colour to proceedings. At the very least the presence of the world's best on court has to come with some pretty unique psychological benefits.

But it is possible to oversell this. It has been. It *is* being. The reality is that Novak simply isn't a good doubles player. Quite apart from his suspect doubles record, his even more 'suspect' overhead and how unnatural he still sometimes is in the forecourt, you have to indulge in a kind of bullish conceit to imagine that skills cultivated and rooted almost wholly on or around the baseline might be immediately transposed to a doubles court.

I wouldn't go as far as to say it's a different sport, but it's simply incontestable that doubles has its own distinct skillset and a dynamic that is almost foreign to most singles players (yes, even Novak). While it may be a different story if they were involved with doubles all year round, and while more top singles players could, on average, make the transition than vice versa, singles players just aren't the de facto 'star players' they're often made out to be.

That's not to say Nenad didn't clearly underperform or that Novak definitely wouldn't have instilled a little extra something against one of the most successful DC doubles pairings out there. But would this be an issue if even *one* of Troicki or Tipsarevic were present?

And would we not be demanding the head, and quite possibly the entrails, of Obradovic if the much touted benefits of Djokovic's aura failed to materialise?

It's very easy to posit robust sounding tactical corrections *after* matches have been lost. And it's very easy to pretend we'd not be seeing precisely the opposite analysis couched in equally confident terms if Novak's inclusion failed to have the desired effect (and, I hardly need add, left him even more exhausted for singles).

But whether we choose to admit it or not, Troicki's and Tipsarevic's absence remains the single most causal factor for why we are where we are.

It's one thing to want to strategise optimally given those glaring gaps in the Serbian team, and quite another to abandon all reason by losing sight of the fact that those gaps ever existed, narrowly restricting one's focus instead to "Ferraris" and "underperformance".

Perhaps the most emblematic illustration of the unhelpful and unhealthy consequences of leaving that frenzied appetite for answers unchecked, are those reports of Nenad being held responsible by the whole team - even appearing to be convinced of that himself.

Again, expecting the epitome of dry objectivity from Team Serbia at this point is a little short-sighted - to say nothing of the complete want of empathy it shows. They'll likely take a more measured view of things with the passage of time. And even if they don't it will hurt a whole lot less.

People often need (more than can be stated) such wholesale rationalisations to make sense of the world in the wake of disappointment. But that doesn't mean we continue with the conceit long after the sell-by date of its therapeutic value.

You don't bring a knife to a gunfight. But then you don't bring a Ferrari to terrain it's so obviously unsuited for either (especially when it has to race the next day). Sometimes the garage is exactly where it belongs.

Wednesday 31 July 2013

Viktor Troicki and Anti-Doping ad-hoc-ery

You can certainly argue Troicki's suspension (full statement here) could be shorter.

You can also argue that whilst she didn't perhaps give any "assurances", that the DCO may have been ambiguous, and that she possibly didn't go far enough in removing all doubts as to what Troicki was leaving himself open to.

You can definitely argue that the ITF have emerged from this as a writhing mass of incompetence and that five blood tests over the entirety of Troicki's career is beyond parody.

It's difficult though, given Troicki's age and experience, to understand just how he imagined a hastily drafted note at the eleventh hour would excuse him from a blood test - not just in today's BioGenesised climate, but in any climate. In any case, the BCF he signed lays out (with or without the attached sick-note) the consequences of refusing a sample quite starkly.

There appears to be zero doubt, then, that an offense was committed, whatever else one might think of the length of the suspension (and which may still, remember, be reduced on appeal). The consequences of letting this slide, or even of treating a refusal any differently to actually testing positive, should, I hope, be very evident.

That doesn't mean, however, that certain aspects of the tribunal's decision don't deserve more scrutiny.

They seem, in particular, to be placing a lot of stock in the fact that Troicki behaved in an inconsistent way - whilst also, I might remind you, accepting that he had, under stress, convinced himself (quite wrongly of course) the DCO was offering him "assurances", hearing what he wanted to hear, and "elevated" what was, in fact, standard procedure activated in the event of a refused sample, to the level of a "potential solution to the problem" he faced.

On the one hand, you can't really fault this approach: the tribunal can only rely on uncontested facts and use any remaining inconsistencies in testimonies to piece together what parties thought was happening versus a viable approximation of what actually did.

To make matters even simpler they've, quite reasonably it appears, 'Occamised' things, opting to focus solely on the exchange that took place between Troicki and the DCO.

Having done all that, Dr Gorodilova was assessed as having imparted her duties correctly, and as having given a credible and coherent account of events. Troicki's testimony, meanwhile, was riddled with inconsistencies. The wonder that is Jack Reader was disregarded altogether.

Anything less than a suspension under such circumstances would be rightly regarded as a farce.

But let's be clear about this: the tribunal's decision relies on a quite specific reading of Troicki's behavior.

Paragraph thirty-three's contention, in particular, that Troicki's misinterpretation couldn't have extended so far as to have warranted the assertion he made to Braetov seems to me to require a leap of faith; which isn't uncommon, but quite a lot has been made of this, and against a backdrop of other similarly ad-hoc reasoning (see later) and an entrenched opacity from the anti-doping bodies, it does give one pause.

We should make it clear that we are not here suggesting that Dr Gorodilova was at all unclear in what she stated to Mr Troicki, rather that Mr Troicki (in the circumstances and for the reasons stated above) was misinterpreting her various statements. That said, we do not accept that Mr Troicki misinterpreted Dr Gorodilova to an extent that warranted the assertion made by him shortly afterwards to Mr Bratoev. His attempt to speak to Dr Miller, the content of his letter to Dr Miller (“thank you very much in advance for your understanding”; and the absence of any mention in that letter of assurances given to him by Dr Gorodilova or of any understanding on the part of Mr Troicki that he was justified in not giving blood), his failure to complain to Dr Gorodilova on 16 April 2013 when it became clear to him that his failure to give a sample might prove problematic (or even to mention to her in that context any assurances given by her the previous day) and the qualifications contained within his statement written four days later, all clearly indicate that Mr Troicki was not as confident as to the outcome as he wanted Mr Bratoev to believe was the case. One can speculate as to why Mr Troicki exaggerated the position to Mr Bratoev as he did; Mr Troicki came across to us as someone prone to exaggeration in order to make his point, but it may have been that he expressed himself in a way designed to avoid the possibility of Mr Bratoev telling him to go back to take the test.

a) 'It should be ok' - Whether or not she used those words, assume for a moment that the DCO was ambiguous (the tribunal was a little thin on the scrutiny she was put under): does it necessarily follow that Troicki should, in the letter he wrote to Dr Miller, make reference to the assurances he believed he was receiving, as implied by paragraph 33? And that the absence of such a mention must, therefore, indicate he wasn't truly convinced he was being assured?

I don't see it. While it might have made sense to include it, it's absence is neither here nor there (obvious differences aside, can you recall ever prefacing any sick note you've ever written with your understanding of its procedural role? I can't).

Indeed, if you believe that Viktor convinced himself that the DCO's instructions to write a letter to Dr Miller entailed her assurance that this would not then return to bite him in the ass (and bear in mind the tribunal concedes he convinced himself of precisely that), it's quite easy to conceive of him as following her instructions, safe in the knowledge that this is the way things are done, and that writing to 'the man that is deciding things' would alleviate him of any further responsibility. It's not clear to me that leaving out explicit mention of those assurances changes any of that, however bewildering we might find his choices.

b) What about the fact that he didn't complain to Dr Gorodilova when he was recalled back to her office a day later, that he made no mention of assurances supposedly only given 24 hours ago? Wouldn't that be precisely the moment to speak up?

This is more difficult to explain. But remember, we're not dealing with coherent behavior.

He may simply have arrived in her office determined to do whatever it took to put this behind him: complaining, and confronting a DCO on the way she's going about things is hardly conducive to that effort.

Clearly a stretch, but not the hopeless implausibility we're being lead to believe.

c) As to the later qualification he issued "wanted to be 100% sure" that too doesn't, in itself, betray any lack of certainty in any assurances he thought he was receiving - people often go to great lengths, engaging in further supplementary efforts, to secure peace of mind in matters where certainty already exists. We've all been there.

In no way is any of this an endorsement of Troicki's decision-making, which even in its most sympathetic rendering remains extraordinarily clueless; nor, as already mentioned, do I think the tribunal weren't completely justified in issuing a suspension.

It's a stretch though to infer (as paragraph 33 does) that inconsistent behaviour, in itself, somehow belies a certainty in his beliefs.

We've surely met enough irrational, yet quite committed, people to know that behavioural inconsistencies with professed beliefs don't often have any real bearing on anything - least of all the strength of their convictions.

Furthermore, if you concede (as the tribunal has) that someone's acted irrationally, that their faculties are "impaired", that they've even "blanked out" anything that doesn't cohere with what they want to believe, you don't then get to make logical inferences based on their manifestly illogical behaviour - or at least, to read a whole lot into it when things don't add up ("We accept Viktor convinced himself of gibberish but only up to a point." "Why 'only up to a point'?" "Because we reconciled that gibberish against gibberish and it turns out it's gibberish." "Oh.").

That's not to say Troicki definitely wasn't less than certain in his fantastical convictions (or even that he wasn't being evasive) - merely to point out that we simply don't know, and probably never will.

It's entirely proper for the tribunal to pore over Viktor's many inconsistencies and to then determine that their collective weight, together with further discrepancies from Reader, as well as the strength of the DCO's testimony, renders the idea of his being something less than certain, to be, on balance, the likeliest of theories (I know I buy that). But that's very different to saying irreconcilable behaviour must, of necessity, betray that lack of certainty - an assertion, not that different, in nature, to the kind of "elevation" the tribunal suggests Viktor engaged in.

This is important, as you otherwise open the door to the suggestion that Troicki isn't being entirely honest about things - the tribunal, in one its finest moments, diplomatically side-steps this inconvenience by characterising Viktor as 'prone to exaggeration' (fine, but that does seem to suggest that they too see a problem here).

It actually feels as if they thought an act of misinterpretation wouldn't, in itself, warrant the kind of sanction they wanted to impose: Viktor did, after all, refuse a sample - you can quite easily see the precedent of, say, a 6 month ban for something as serious as that being abused quite horribly.

Introducing this more 'intangible' sense of 'not-quite' wrongdoing clears the way for a stiffer ban whilst preserving the innocuous basis for the misinterpretation.

But while we likely all have a private view on the veracity of his claims, it's all too easy to transpose that view upon what the tribunal also found:

- they accepted his phobia of needles and how weak he looked that day.

- they actually went as far as to confirm that they didn't believe he was trying to "evade detection of a banned substance".

- any inconsistency in his testimony was clearly framed in terms of "stress", "impaired faculties", his being "prone to exaggeration" even, but never anything more sinister. Never, that is, except in a resolutely harsh reading of paragraph 33 (which I'd argue it leaves itself open to).

Not everyone will buy this, and that's ok, because even this more sympathetic view of his actions is based upon a 'balance of probabilities' - a judgement call, in other words, not dissimilar to the type of judgement call being made in paragraph 33.

The truth is, we can't ever know that Viktor wasn't being evasive any more than we can know exactly what impression the DCO gave him. Viktor not making any mention of "assurances" in a letter he hastily scrawled at the last minute, labouring, we are told, under a misapprehension, doesn't change any of that.

And that really goes to the heart of the problem. Because this isn't the only place where the reasoning feels less than rigorous: the decision not to require Troicki to forfeit his winnings in events subsequent to the date of the offence, right up to Umag, has proved even more difficult to digest.

Article 10.8 of the Programme provides that “all other competitive results obtained from the date the Sample in question was collected...or other Anti-Doping Rule Violation occurred through to the start of the Ineligibility period shall be Disqualified (with all of the resulting consequences, including forfeiture of any medals, titles, ranking points and Prize Money), unless the Independent tribunal determines that fairness requires otherwise”. The ITF submits that the burden is on Mr Troicki to establish why fairness requires otherwise in the circumstances of his case. Accepting that burden, Mr Troicki argues that it would be unfair to Disqualify him in respect of subsequent events because he was truly convinced that he had not broken the Rules.

While we have not accepted that as a fair summary of the player’s state of mind at the time, we are nonetheless of the view that fairness dictates that Mr Troicki should not suffer any Disqualification beyond the event in question. In reaching that conclusion, we have borne in mind the helpful analysis of the relevant authorities on this point in the case of Bogomolov (an ITF Anti- Doping Tribunal Decision of 18 January 2005). It seems to us that, in circumstances where the Anti-Doping Rule Violation is constituted by a failure or refusal to submit to giving a sample, where there is no suggestion that this failure or refusal was in fact prompted by the player’s desire to evade the detection of a banned substance in his system, where there have been subsequent negative tests (including on the following day) and where the facts of the case warrant some mitigation of sanction under Article 10.5.2 of the Programme, it would be disproportionate to penalise Mr Troicki in respect of his subsequent playing activities. We accept that there is something to be said for the view (advanced by the ITF in argument in Bogomolov) that the Programme is designed to encourage players voluntarily to abstain from competing pending the decision on their case and that Article 10.8 should be read against that background. However, we do not consider that, on the facts of this case, Mr Troicki should be penalised in effect because he chose not to take that voluntary course.

Perhaps the most damning revelation is that that a negative blood test given 24 hours after it was first requested (quite enough time for substances to leave no trace) is being taken as support for there being "no suggestion that this failure or refusal was in fact prompted by the player’s desire to evade the detection of a banned substance in his system".

Despite the very evident disparity between how understanding, congenial even, the tone here appears to be vs. how restrictive and specific things get in the case of paragraph 33, the reasoning in both cases feels similarly ad-hoc. There may be very valid reasons for this - we're not privy to everything, of course - but it's hard to escape a feeling that something's either missing or remiss. Neither instils much confidence.

If we are to have confidence in the testing process, reasoning, both for and against athletes finding themselves in this position, has to be less opaque, demonstrably consistent, and far more robust. We simply can't get to that point if distilled, hygienic, some would say tokenistic, rulings like this continue to trickle intermittently down to us from some magical wormhole up above based largely, it would seem, upon the whim of the authorities.

What are its guiding principles?

What accountability is in place in respect of the conduct of DCOs and other testing officials?

Who does one escalate to in the event of a refused sample?

Are they required to be on the other end of a phone, and if not what are the limits on how long they may take to make themselves available?

Is it standard practice to get the athlete concerned to attempt to contact them with a fax number?

Are just 5 blood tests over a 7 year period considered acceptable?

Are the reasons for this indecently low number purely budgetary? And if so, what precisely needs to happen (besides everything that already has) for that to change? What is scandal tolerance threshold?

Are so-called 'silent bans' solely the province of folklore and conspiracy theorists?

What is the specific protocol for the publicising of an offence?

Should there be such a disparity in the length of various suspensions?

What guidelines are in place to shape understanding of 'mitigation' and 'compelling justification'?

What, if any, is the cut off from the committal of a doping offence to when a suspension formally begins?

I suspect that none of these questions have one-line answers, and it's really quite juvenile to expect every internal procedure to be made public; but the call for more transparency will only continue to get louder and, I'm guessing, more abrasive with each passing month.

Without such transparency, and with the continuing fallout of the Biogenesis affair, it's no longer fanciful to think this smacks of more worrying systemic failures within the heart of the testing process.

It's a tad heavy-handed to call it a 'heart of darkness' just yet. But, of course, all that depends on how much opacity we are prepared to tolerate.

(Photo: Fox Sports Asia, AP)

Thursday 11 July 2013

Marion Bartoli is more than just a bundle of quirks

It wasn't something you could immediately explain, but in only a matter of hours following Marion Bartoli's Wimbledon win this Saturday, something about the way this was being processed and sold felt a little off.

As the world sits up and takes note, the only touchpoints offered with which we are to appreciate this oft-neglected, very talented and, yes, quite unique player are her eccentricities.

It's understandable, of course: no other player or lay person I know has that elaborate a training regime, or practices with that amount of intricate elastic attached to her arms and legs, or with balls under her feet - or like this. Nor, assuming that's what's happening, can I blame the media very much for trying to popularise a "lesser-light" to people who only watch tennis for four (or just two) weeks of the year.

But it's also a resolutely blinkered portrayal: whilst her methods are undoubtedly novel, the real reason, I suspect, we are seeing this over-egging of her indie-factor is that she doesn't, for the most part, look like a tennis player. And, well, that presents a quandary.

That probably needs elaboration: what that actually means is, she doesn't conform to "our" expectations - expectations conditioned by years of societal and media-honed iconography of what a female athlete and physicality itself is supposed to look like.

This has led to her being likened to a Rottweiler on air (yes battling players are sometimes described in animalistic terms but ask yourself how desirable this really is and why Sharapova would almost certainly never have that term used about her), having her drive and work ethic explained away as a coming-to-terms of sorts with the idea of never being able to look like Sharapova, and receiving a horribly predictable torrent of insults on Twitter.

People really have a problem with Marion Bartoli winning Wimbledon (and that's before one even approaches the question of asterisks). The only surprise there, sadly, is how unsurprising that is.

Yet even in what appear to be genuine efforts to give her her dues, the adulatory notes inevitably seem to give way to an all too familiar celebration of her quirkiness.

I like this to a point. The use of such a 'hook' seems to me to be a good way to catalyse interest in what is after all a diverse array of vibrant and interesting personalities not normally known to viewers who don't follow this sport year round the way I do.

Even within the ranks of tennisheads you wouldn't count amongst her fans, there exists an appetite to celebrate Marion for being Marion - it just seems ideologically unsound not to. So why on this occasion does it feel lazy, somewhat insipid, and, well, a bit of a cop out?

It's not that here haven't been some perfectly good profiles of her win setting out both the context and history of her journey, warts and all.

Nor am I suggesting that allusions to her quirks aren't in many cases (though clearly not all) benign and affectionate. I hardly need add that no profile can hope to steer completely clear of her oddities. Would we even want to read that?

Perhaps what I find so discomfitting is the credence this may give to the idea that she's only worth talking about because of these peculiarities.

Such treatment would, after all, be entirely at one with the type of banal coverage women's tennis often (some notable exceptions, as always) receives and with which Inverdale's comment - which, incidentally, has actually been trotted out in one form or another by many, well before his use of the word 'looker' this year - almost perfectly coheres.

Whether it's those tiresome 'decibelle' features, 'irreverent' debates about equal prize money, or quite deliberate scorn masquerading as nostalgia for an age of variety, the enduring subtext is this: beyond the glamazons and those too-big-to-ignore (already a problematic stratification), women's tennis is decidedly second tier - and the second tier of that second tier (of which Bartoli is a constituent) is something to be endured, politely exhibited perhaps but not engaged with in any serious sense.

You don't tend, after all, to be quite that denigrating towards a product you're supposed to endorse, value and enjoy.

You might, therefore, say Bartoli hasn't been a staple of the media for a very different, darker sort of non-conformance. Female athletes have always been judged by their looks - often to the total exclusion of their abilities and accolades - and held against an absurdly singular vision of 'body ideal' that our senses are daily trained to further imbibe and aspire to.

I don't presume to understand how Bartoli made sense of all this growing up but there's little doubt she's not about to let such vacuous notions of brand and marketability bother her now - her brushing aside of Inverdale's 'banter' was quite satisfactory in that regard. If, that is, we were ever in any doubt as to how she rolls.

But against that backdrop - and even allowing for a certain wackiness (we're not likely to see her accomplish this feat ever again) - it's difficult to avoid a feeling that someone who wasn't even accorded her own shirt sponsor until late 2011 isn't, at times, being treated as a bit of a sideshow.

That 'The Misfit' - a lovingly endowed moniker by her fans - isn't in the context of that murky place known as 'the world we live in' simply one of many tropes commissioned in order to avoid engaging with women's tennis in a way which should, by now, be axiomatic.

All in all, I'd say that's a bit of a shame considering tennis is one of very few global sports that can boast comparable participation and earnings amongst both genders.

Put simply, the occasion of her winning arguably the biggest title in tennis ought to be the moment for precisely such engagement, whatever else might have gone on to this point.

Especially if you're serious about grabbing the interest of young girls who need role models besides Maria and Serena - who, great as they are, can seem a little larger than life at times.

Far easier to comedify the funny-bouncy-lady who came through what was unarguably 'Wacky Wimbledon'.


The above notwithstanding, there's just no getting away from it: in her training methods, the way she plays, and in her dealings with the FFT, Bartoli is the antithesis of formulaic. Most people seem to agree this is no bad thing.

Yet what can sometimes get overlooked is that it's that very strain of determination and stubbornness to go about things precisely as she sees fit, that has (quite unsurprisingly actually) rendered her more relatable than countless other more media-compliant players are allowed (or allow themselves) to get.

Marion catnaps between matches, paints, giggles uncontrollably with her new team, and as far as I can tell, lives and loves life in ways which aren't always that dissimilar to many of us. Yes, there's an incurable oddball at the heart of this, but don't kid yourself we don't see these people all the time.

The kooks are all around us everywhere, all the time. In thrall to no one, and nothing but themselves, doing their bit to add to the entropy of our lives, everyday, little by little - staving off a Meagresville of sobriety, uniformity and compliance.

You know the type. We all do.

She hasn't always got it right. Her episode with the FFT could be construed as the authorities throwing their weight around, or a diabolically stubborn miscalculation on her part depending on whose side you're on. And amongst some, the view is that the decision to appoint a new dad-less team could have come sooner.

But isn't that what we all do when we believe in something?

Nor - and this is equally important - has she chosen to court popularity by cultivating that unbearable air of faux-eccentricity; by going out of her way to provide "quote", sporting ever-more mysterious tattoos, professing ever-more controversial opinions and generally providing the kind of fodder that makes some profile writers drool, but doesn't, in the clear light of day, actually stack up to a whole lot of anything.

Whatever else one might think of her, she's succeeded through discipline, rigour, the courage of her very well documented convictions, and, dare I say it, a terribly old-fashioned love of her craft, without recourse to the kind of swanky sponsorships that we are told are so important.

She's what I imagine an intelligent, articulate person that happens to be prodigiously talented at tennis being themselves actually looks like.

And that's why I'm a fan.

(Pics: Reuters, Julian Finney/Getty, Adam Davy/PA, Bartoli's Twitter Feed)


Tuesday 21 May 2013

Federer, Nadal XXX and other pre-RG 'State of Play' type stuff

1) I don't like the word "favourite", but the fact is Serena goes into RG several leagues above even her two closest 'rivals' - a term that's beginning to make increasingly less sense even notionally.

I had a sense both Vika and Masha were making modest advancements in their recent encounters with her (and Vika did, of course, earlier this year, score her second win on the hard courts of Doha), but Madrid and Rome (and it would seem clay in general) clearly show otherwise.

Failing an early letdown - she's typically slow off the mark which can prove serious even in cases far less severe than last year's Razzano meltdown - it's difficult, as of now, to see her losing to anyone.

Or, to put it another way, a "disrespectful" top 50 upstart (not necessarily even a "sensation") would appear to have a greater chance of springing an upset in week one than either one of Vika and Masha would of maybe even keeping things competitive in week two.

2) However much Rafa may be the "favourite" (he'll doubtless suggest otherwise), he remains, unlike Serena, vulnerable to his closest rival on clay.

Novak's early losses and the confidence Rafa's sure to accrue in a comeback that now includes 6 wins in 8 consecutive finals (has shot him to the top of the Race, and only really "lacks" a win over Novak), may render even that concern into something less worrying.

His surreal proficiency on his preferred surface was perhaps more evident in the latter stages of Rome than at any other time during his comeback and particularly in that eye-watering first set he played against Berdych. But the fact remains that Novak is the one player with a M1000 win over him on clay this season and the only player I can see staying with him over five sets.

3) I don't know what peculiar metaphysical alchemy takes place when Federer plays Nadal but, on clay at least, it now feels like we're well beyond talk of lefty forehands being viciously spun high into single handed backhands, or of analysis itself.

There's nothing wrong with this 'post-analysis' analysis. It can be immensely liberating. But it means one has to stop floating 7 year old theories like Federer stubbornly refusing to change the size of his racquet as the meaning of life; or the very unique pressure Rafa puts him under to hit big as the primary cause of more and more rash errors which, though somewhat true, mostly feels like a way to avoid confronting reality.

The closest Fed ever got to solving this problem was also in Rome 7 years ago in the final, my personal favourite of their many encounters (even Wimbledon 08). You could describe the two match points he blew then (11:50 in the above clip) as "pressure to hit big/end the point" - that certainly wasn't what I saw this weekend.

Instead, I saw him adrift, spiritually disconnected from proceedings, in a way which transcends talk of shanks, focus and match-ups. Rafa doesn't just possess obvious tactical advantages over him, he seems to embezzle the core of his very soul on a clay court, leaving him a facsimile of the player he only thinks, rather than believes, he should be.

Glass half full: reaches a final and back at #6 in the ATP Race in his second event back. Half empty: not much in the way of serious match practice (Gilles Simon at #17 was his highest ranked opponent prior to the final) and his last pre-RG memory of competition on a clay court will be of another annihilation at the hands of one Rafael Nadal.

He's Roger Federer. He'll make the second week - if for no other reason than that the GS format of 5 sets with a day off in between works to his advantage by allowing him to drop a set now and again whilst continuing to play himself into form (Serena has no such luxury).

Beyond that, I'm just not buying into the pessimism I'm already seeing because, quite simply, none of the problems described above vs. Rafa apply to Djokovic. If Djokovic, or for that matter anyone, beats him, age will certainly factor into it, but it will essentially be about their having played a better match rather than any specific technical incompatibility or uniquely spiritual angst.

There may well be a universe in which Federer defeats Rafa on clay, but it's probably also one in which Ricardo Sanchez runs a Swiss finishing school, and Federer perhaps only possesses a couple of Slams.

4) Somewhat like Federer, Vika lost early in Madrid following an eight week spell away from the game. And somewhat like Federer she then made the final of Rome. And somewhat like him, she appears to remain further than ever from working out the problem posed by her opponent in that final.

Clay clearly isn't her strongest suit, but she hadn't, in all honesty, moved well all week to begin with. Making the final in that suspect form, therefore, has to be construed a positive. And if she can draw on the lessons learnt in her victory over Serena at Doha (many of which are mental and, therefore, surface-independent) we can, at the very least, hope for a more balanced encounter if and when they meet.

5) I'm sure she's improved but it was difficult to gauge just how much better Masha's performance on clay was this year in relation to this time last year.

Her not running into Serena last year (except on blue clay) undoubtedly helped her and thereby set in motion a wave of adulatory reporting that quite rightly made a big deal of her reinvention on the surface.

Running into Serena at this year's Madrid final refocused things, instead, on the great gulf that exists (for whatever reason) between the two in the starkest possible terms.

It's a very different build-up, narratively speaking, to RG and probably derailed any serious appraisal of her game, which may, in some ways, have improved (losing horribly to Serena again doesn't change that).

Take out: Remains, as of now, the second best clay courter out there. May have repeated last year's run during the RG build-ups in Serena's absence (and had she not gotten stricken in Rome with no one quite knows what). The same is probably true of RG itself.

6) I expect some will disagree but I don't find either of Novak's two losses during this clay court spell earth shattering: Berdych crushing the ball that accurately will beat anyone on any day, and a defeat to a rising star like Dimitrov playing the match of his life isn't, if we're honest, something that Fed or Rafa are unfamiliar with (Ernie almost did it again this event) - so it's a mistake in my mind to get too bogged down with questions about form, fitness or the presence of hostile vibrations in the ether.

On the other hand, something definitely happened to Novak in the second half of that Berdych match. And I'm guessing a 2011 Novak (the most optimal version for now) would *probably* have found his way past Dimitrov too. That second point alone means that from Novak's perspective at least, he fell short. And it shouldn't surprise us in the least to find him describing himself as "a different player" in the latter half of the Berdych match, or thinking he has work to do in general - even if we believe (as I think most everyone does) that both Grigor and Tomas earnt those wins.

7) Difficult to understand where Murray is until we learn more about the injury. As of now, all we know is that it's a problem that's been troubling him for around 18 months, and that it seemed to flair up this time last year too. That suggests a certain seriousness, although remember he won everything he did last year, and also made the finals in Aus plus another title in Miami this year with, presumably, a careful regime of managing that same complaint.

It may, of course, be the case that the physical challenges of clay pose a unique risk and, in any case, I prefer to err on the side of caution with complaints like this, but only he and his medical team really know what's going on. I certainly don't believe he should miss RG purely because "that's what Lendl did", even though that would appear to be the sensible choice this year.


Friday 1 February 2013

Victoria Azarenka and *that* timeout

By now you'll have read the pieces chastising, excoriating or otherwise pouring scorn on Vika and her infamous MTO-that-was-completely-within-the-rules-and-not-without-precedent.

You'll have read all the incensed calls for her disqualification, the cries of 'bushleague' and variously coloured J'accuses of a system that allows for such MTOs.

And you'll likely also have read the many pieces at least appearing to cede to the demands of impartiality/balance by highlighting the triumph of her will and nerve in exceptionally difficult circumstances whilst continuing to use the same emotive language about a MTO-that-was-completely-within-the-rules-and-not-without-precedent.

You'll probably also have read the pieces that are a little less severe in tone, perhaps even garnering some sympathy for her but nonetheless proclaiming that some kind of tipping point has been reached and that something ought to be done.

You may even have read the Economist piece that actually attempted to grapple with the complexities of that "something"- without, to its credit, piling on anyone - though come away feeling that its slightly prosaic, academic handling of the issue hadn't actually solved very much, and, well, what business it was of the Economist anyway.

Having had some time to reflect you'd probably have concluded that it wasn't really the Economist's fault. That it was well within the stylistic remit of a column entitled 'Game Theory' to come up with a somewhat dry, detached piece that read more like a business proposal, within which the principal actors are referred to as 'Mr' and 'Ms'. And that the cost/benefit analysis of applying various restrictions to MTOs-that-are-completely-within-the-rules-and-not-without-precedent had essentially proven the point that no one solution would appease or satisfy everyone (or indeed anyone).

If you were inclined to be at all fair at this point, you might accept that Vika had bought at least some of this on herself. That by electing to take a MTO-that-was-completely-within-the-rules-and-not-without-precedent at such a conspicuous moment she had after all violated the spirit of the game.

You may even have conceded that there was such a prevalence of this sort of thing on tour that whatever she might have said afterwards it was probably fair to assume that she could have lasted another game and was simply looking to break the hoodoo by getting off court.

In which case, you'd still be left wondering why her MTO-that-was-completely-within-the-rules-and-not-without-precedent was being subjected to such unique scrutiny.

Why neither Novak, Janko, Rafa, Mary Pierce and countless other players, though much vilified for doing much the same, have never had to endure anything quite like Vika's post match presser in which barely a single question was raised about the particulars of the match and which felt more akin to an interrogation.

And whether such a good-cop-bad-cop interrogation was even appropriate for a MTO-that-was-completely-within-the-rules-and-not-without-precedent; or whether it, and not the latter, was in fact 'bushleague'.

You would probably also have thought that it was Vika's own clumsy handling of the incident that had, in part, escalated things to this level. That her (right) answers to questions not actually put to her by Sam Smith and the multiple clarifications and damage control she engaged in afterwards had actually made things worse.

You might also have felt that, whatever else the case, Vika does need to come to better terms with the press who, much like an MTO-that-is-completely-within-the-rules-and-not-without-precedent, are very much part of the scenery, and though far from perfect, do also offer certain very tangible benefits to someone in her position.

Of course, many people didn't think she was being clumsy or inaccurate. They seemed to find it much easier to believe that she was admitting to a) choking (true), b) taking an MTO for choking (not true), and c) cheating or something far worse (both counterproductive and highly unlikely).

They didn't seem to think it was at all relevant or important that Sam Smith's questions were both ambiguous and vague, and that English isn't, after all, Vika's mother tongue.

Or that she may not have come out expecting to be questioned about a MTO-that-was-completely-within-the-rules-and-not-without-precedent, and as a result answered a question she only assumed she had heard.

You might, in any case, have thought it very evident that she plainly wasn't answering the questions Smith had posed, and found it most odd, therefore, that this should be lost on trained professionals that regard English as their mother-tongue; people well-versed in both the art of writing and the conducting of interviews, who might, by virtue of their trade, reasonably be expected to have an above average grasp of comprehension, but who, instead, mistakenly saw this as an unmistakeable confession of cheating.

You may even have thought that her answer to the wrong question was less a function of how the question was put - and that were it even to be put with absolute clarity, and were Vika to speak the Queen's English, that this was simply something that players do from time to time. And that if you had cast your mind back just 24 hours prior, to Federer's match against Tsonga, you might remember Roger making much the same mistake: speaking at length to Jim Courier on how he'd performed early on in a set without once referencing the breaker that had preceded it - in response to a question about precisely that breaker and nothing more.

You may also have thought that it isn't that surprising that a player should make such an error in the immediate aftermath of a match, and how in different circumstances other players might have been given the benefit of the doubt, but that Victoria Azarenka under these circumstances almost certainly wouldn't.

Of course if you were more generous you may have actually believed her story about a locked rib and the breathing trouble it was causing her.

You might also have wondered just how many people that were panning her had even experienced a panic attack (or even knew what one was), much less tried to play GS tennis through it.

You might, in any case, have thought that once the medics who appraised her during the MTO-that-was-completely-within-the-rules-and-not-without-precedent had confirmed her side of the story, and the tournament director had satisfied himself that there really was nothing either peculiar nor remiss about the affair, that that ought to have been the end of it.

And that perhaps the fact that that wasn't the end of it had something to do with her a) playing a darling of the American (and much of the international) media, b) being a woman and c) being Victoria Azarenka; that this maybe wouldn't be happening if even one of those were untrue.

And that elevating it to the level of a global scandal with a somewhat misogynistic edge to it, in the same week that tennis continues to feel the reverberations of the biggest drugs scandal sport has ever seen, wasn't perhaps the most proportionate or helpful way of dealing with the fallout.

You might, in other words, have thought that Victoria Azarenka has a lot to answer for, but that all of that is far worse.

(Image: Telegraph)


Thursday 24 January 2013

Murray vs Federer - A plea for sanity.

Ever since Murray won his maiden Slam last year there's been an eruption of speculation on what bearing this might have on his chances of success at this year's AO and, indeed, throughout the rest of 2013.

This isn't about the shrill, garden-variety hyperbole of the Brit press which might be expected to gather pace after a 76 year male Slam champion drought, nor that very committed periphery of fans that consider Fedal all too "mainstream" and seek to usher in the "edgier" age of 'Novandy' by any means necessary (it's of trifling significance, OF COURSE, that both Federer and Rafa were Slam winners in 2012 too).

But even beyond excesses like this (seriously, read it), our more acceptable appetite for "change" appears to have led many (I believe) to over-inflate their well-meaning prognosis of Murray's coming year.

Such an appetite is, of course, natural; change is exciting, inevitable and often challenges our most sacred tenets - witnessing it can be as hypnotic as it is traumatic.

But it should not be sought at any cost (I'd much rather see Vika/Masha step it up vs Serena the way, say, Stosur did in 2011 than see Serena hobble out of the event in the name of "change") and should always be grounded in reality.

Murray's success opposite Fed prior to Wimbledon last year was at the Masters (three set) level and born largely of frustrating Fed into errors. Yes, that's a gross oversimplification, but, as with all gross oversimplifications, has its basis in reality.

Yet anyone that's followed the evolution of his game - particularly (but not exclusively) after Lendl's involvement - will know that that somewhat threadbare characterisation is in need of revision.

He's still not, for my money, getting the free points he should with his 1st serve, but there can be no doubting his improved FH and more frequent attempts at shortening points.

The problem is many of those changes are optimisations rather than wholesale revision. Or to put it another way, adjustments bolted on to the edifice of his existing game, rather than some radical, fairy-tale attempt to rebuild his game from the ground up.

You could argue in similar terms of Wozniacki. While it's only right to exhort her to play with more aggression, it's rather silly to expect her to reemerge from a period of 'reorientation' as, say, Sabine Lisicki.

The facets of the game Murray grew up with, may continue to go through adjustments, but will remain, with very few exceptions, as organic to him as that glaring birthmark of his.

And therein lies the rub: for when the pressure is on, players will, almost without fail, default back to their old less-nuanced selves; stripped down of any and all intricacies they will, no doubt, have worked so hard to introduce.

It's just easier at that point in the game not to fight physics.

His previous Slam matches vs Federer have mostly seen the latter come out lightening fast smothering any rhythm Murray might have created right out of the blocks.

And TBH, a large part of Fed's focus will be on bringing exactly that about: to whip, carve and maybe even coax Murray into that pliable, more compliant version of opponent against which he's had so many wins at this level and can more comfortably close the remainder of the match out.

Of course the great expectation is that Murray's new 'enSlammed' status as well as his win at the OG will bolster him enough for him to see the occasion in an entirely new light: that such regression will either be minimal, or won't take place at all. His performance in the Wimbledon final does actually give us some confidence in that regard (though pretending Fed wasn't exhausted at the OG? Too far)

And it's certainly right to say he would/should now be disappointed at repeating the same mistakes against Fed (or anyone) at every Slam going forward (He can hardly be expected to be content with "just" another SF having already made a number of those playing pre-Lendl tennis)

But we need to stop pretending that he's turned into Optimus Prime - or even Ernests Gulbis.

Or that the nature of his matchup vs Fed has so radically changed as to render Murray the "overwhelming favourite".

He's not the overwhelming favourite. He may not even *be* the favourite.

It's still, at its core, the same battle of wills between Fed trying to impose himself on the one hand and Murray attempting to seize the initiative earlier on in the rallies - and not regressing into his comfort zone of passive, pre-Lendl tennis.

And if Fed's service at this event is anything to go by, that battle will be 50/50 at best.

If Murray wins, it'll be because he's successfully executed the gameplan that was custom built, and fine tuned to, both the strengths AND the limitations
of his, and only his game.

Not because he's turned into Robin Soderling.

Signed, a Murray fan.

(Image: Sky Sports)


Sunday 20 January 2013

On Taste and Perception

Sorry, no. This isn't the first time we've seen a player overreact and I doubt it'll be the last.

Oh sure, it was OTT, unnecessary and, as Sloane would have it, "so disrespectful".

But quite a lot of the backlash seemed to be coming from fans rallying to Venus' defence. Which, however well-intentioned, seems, ultimately, to me to be ill-conceived.

Venus' own smirking eyes actually conveyed all necessary levels of disdain and derision in a far more economic yet powerful and exacting way. But not otherwise giving us any reason to think she felt especially slighted.

Why would she?

Thing is, it's Maria Sharapova - probably a mistake to expect her (or indeed most players) to abide by the specifics of the protocol you've set up to honour *your* fan hierarchy.

Some people even suggested the opposite: that it was an illustration of the esteem she holds Venus in. I'm not sure I go that far.

But what's far more telling is the inability of most outlets to frame the affair outside of the context of Masha's relationship with the Williamses. - some even going as far as to suggest "Sharapova reacted as if in order to slay Serena, she first had to get Venus".

If you say so.

She may simply have been overjoyed at playing her best spell of tennis in ages (more than one commentator has alluded to the parallels with her win here in 2008). And at not serving 20+ DFs per match. Or 70+ UFEs. Just a thought.

Perhaps I'd be more convinced if I saw similar levels of outrage at Rafa, Serena, Novak, Ana and countless other players doing much the same - and more. But you don't.

As for Novak's shirt ripping after his (actually) epic win over Stan today, well, you either like that sort of thing or you don't. Or, you're largely indifferent to it, but indulge him a little for playing a 5 hour 5 setter. Either way, it comes down to that slippery thing known as taste.

I'm not especially fond of it, but again, there's no shortage of counter examples of similarly extravagant exhibitions from others, or, indeed, commendable behaviour from Novak.

I guess what i'm saying is, I don't much care; tastes, values and perceptions differ, and jousting about the pseudo-ethics of it all doesn't always feel relevant, helpful or necessary.



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