Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Fare thee well 2011: 43 of the most fugly, flatulent and forlorn moments of the year

As good as 2011 was (and it was criminally good even without Nole), it was also filled with that quaint mix of fallacy, melancholia, scandal and fuglies (on and off-court) that, in a strange way, does its bit towards holding the year together – imbuing it with a sense of well-rounded closure without which it would just be a string of tennis matches – some good, some barely worth mention.


As far as I can tell, there isn’t a year end list recounting this phenomena. 

I’ve tried to be chronological. I don’t pretend to think the list complete.

Feel free to weigh in if you think I missed something out.


1) (Jan, Melbourne) FAIL: Henin re-retires from tennis

Well that blows? Except it didn’t….not quite.

For what it’s worth, I rather enjoyed the few modest successes she enjoyed during the first half of of her comeback in 2010 and felt she was rather unlucky with the elbow fracture.

But when she bowed out for the 2nd time in Aus this year, just days after one of the greatest WTA Slam matches of all time, the pervasive disillusionment and ennui seemed to have rather more to do with that suffocating sense of un-retirement déjà vu, than it did with any purported despair at having lost a much loved (and unloved) legend of the game.

Not a good mix.

2) (Jan, Melbourne) FORLORN: Rafa’s not quite GS

To be honest it sorta felt right that Rafa not hold all 4 Slams – as I said at the time, that seemed to represent a level of perfection that ought to remain beyond us…for now.

But it’s not often you see Rafa slumped sobbing into a towel – not all of it stifled.

And it’s still a little eerie to consider that Rafa got within just two matches of pulling off the holy grail of the Open Era (yes I realise Fed’s been there 3 times too). 

Can’t help imagining how his season might have turned out if he did.

3) BONUS: Up’n never-quite-comers

Perhaps I’m being harsh. Perhaps I’m not. Hear me out.

Grigor: A star is not born. It never is.

Ernie: Not even sure he qualifies as a young’un any more. But to quote one of the best tweets all year, “First he was up and coming…then he wasn’t”.

Milos: Do we really need another big-serving gangloid? One that seems rather too prone to injury, in that all too familiar way gangloids often are? Wish him well, but really?

Dolgopoloved: He lures you in with his kooky, flamboyant and very sexy dance moves, that leave the charred remains of Soderling, Wawrinka and Tsonga in their wake.  It’s a boat load of fun until he reveals himself equally capable of losing in straights to the 133rd player in the world. And I’m not even convinced that Alice-Band is as charming as it once was.

Harrison/Tomic: “Hooning” and outbursts I wish I could term “uncharacteristic” mar what should have otherwise been a breakthrough year.

All of which leaves Donald Young. Yes, he’s an acquired taste, but if he repeats this year’s success after his much-maligned decision to put ‘Mom’ in charge again, I won’t be sorry.

4) (Feb) MELANCHOLIA: Mario Ancic turns his back on tennis.

Now here’s a retirement that really blows.

5) (March, Miami) FUGLY: When 52 = 100

I’m torn between this and this for WTA meltdown of the year.

Ana’s choke (and it was a choke) was truly the fugly-of-fuglies – you’ve got to be very imaginative and very dedicated to put a positive spin on that (many did).

Even so, 52 UFEs from Caro equals over a hundred from anyone else. You’ve got to rewrite Maths itself to make sense of that.

6) (March, Indian Wells) UNSUNG: “When no one remembers your name”

Or even your face.

I’ve mostly given up on Marion ever receiving much of the right kind of press.

It’s true she hasn’t always made life easy for herself (particularly in relation to her compatriots). She’s not everyone’s cup of tea. And she certainly doesn’t feel the need to pander to the media like a trained baboon.

But this year, this phenomenon seemed to me to reach a head when those nice people at Yahoo! Sports didn’t see fit to include even a single pic of the runner up in their widely-viewed photostream (not unless you specifically searched for it). An event some persist in referring to as “the 5th Slam”. 

Try and imagine Petko receiving the same treatment.

There’s laziness, there’s wilful obfuscation, and there’s straight-up disrespect. Take your pick - I’d say it’s all of them.

7) (March, Indian Wells) UNNECESSARY: Dinaroshka’s short-lived and not-so-sweet comeback 

The absurd, one-sided set of demolitions Dinara endured at the beginning of the year were both callous and uncalled for, and should probably be the subject of a UN inquiry into the use of excessive force.

Bartoli…..Kim…..and then Pova: neither defeat, incidentally, was incurred through any great fault of her own, yet she was allowed a total of just three games over all three matches. That’s just mean.

And then, after just one more month, her (what I guess we’d call chronic) back injury stopped her from playing altogether. Few believe she’s likely to return.

Sometimes it’s not a beautiful sport.

8) (April)  CALAMITY: Bepa fired Sergei for some guy named “Karen”

There are people still undergoing therapy for this.

It was like seeing Kate ditch William and shacking up with Tom Jones.

9) (April, Monte Carlo) FAIL: Jurgen Schmergen

Love Jurgen, but his attempts at what I guess we should call “fighting talk” (coming, unsurprisingly, after his defeat of Fed) made me snigger.

Daveed beat him in straights.

10) REDEMPTION: Robin Soderling

Ok, look. I’m glad Robin’s getting the love he is and only now being truly admitted in from the cold with many Rafa fans even now prepared to concede he may have been “misunderstood” (very popular word).


<brusque-haughty-Southern-accent> Just remember there were a bunch of us on this bandwagon first – we’all already took the best seats back when it was unfashionable to do so, and I’m not even remotely sorry that there’s standing room only. </brusque-haughty-Southern-accent>

In order to convince y’all, our guy had to, 1) put an end to two of the greatest streaks in history by two of the best players to have ever played the game, and 2) to then be sidelined by an illness (6 months and counting), one that has a rather nasty habit of putting paid to entire careers.

The uncomfortable parallels with Delpo, where a gruff, suspicious type gains acceptance (salvation?) after sacrificing themselves on the altar of Fedal, are only too evident.

All of which is to say that after a promising start to the year (and two years of laying siege to the top four), Sod was genuinely missed, not just by us hardcore fans, not just by tennis fans, but by tennis itself (and, I’d like to think, his enemies).

Wait, there’s more – he won’t be playing Aus. :S

11) BONUS: “Rafa had a rubbish year”

Sorry, no he didn’t. He won a Slam, reached the finals of two others, won a Masters title, reached the finals of four others, going out in each instance to a guy that only lost seven matches all year.

In other words, the only reason Rafa lost “all those finals” is that it was Rafa making “all those finals”.

You can certainly argue, as many have, that losing to the same guy so many times leaves scar tissue. That’s almost certainly true, but you’ll have a hard time convincing anyone with a functioning cerebral cortex  it would have been very different had anyone else made those finals.

12) (May, Paris) GAG: The Ball-Kid that jumped the gun

Remember him? That poor ball-kid who ran out on court before Viktor had finished putting a smash away?

And when Viktor pretended that was the reason he SPECTACULARLY blew a 5-2 fifth set lead to a hobbling Muzz?

Yeah, that was stupid.

13) (May, Paris) FLATULENCE: The wonder that is AbFab

If there’s an unvarying truth about the tennis season it’s that there’ll be at least one hedonistic atrocity during the French Open and that AbFab will be at the centre of it.

14) (June, Paris) SCANDAL: “I wags when I likes – and I likes when I wag”

Oh get over yourself. Not only have we seen other tennis players do this, we’ve seen other sports people do this. STOP PRETENDING HE THREATENED TO DEVOUR YOUR FIRST BORN.

Rafa fist-pumps with a raised knee, Nole beats his chest and merges his grunts into a celebratory roar.  Not everyone likes that either. I think we can tolerate the odd, UNHABITUAL finger-wag from Federer.

Your faux-outrage is convincing no one.

15) FALLACY: The Grunting issue that just won’t go away

Not even in the face of the biggest WTA breakthrough since Maria Sharapova in 2004. Not even after almost every player asked about it has said, in one form or another, that they couldn’t care less.

16) BONUS: “Maria had a rubbish year”

Sorry, no she didn’t. She won two Premier-fives (one on her worst surface), reached the finals of Wimbledon, the semis of RG, the finals of Miami and the semis of IW.

You can certainly argue that Pova’s game has habitually deserted her at the moments she’s had most to play for – that’s not even vaguely disputatious. You can also choose to speak that little thing known as “the truth” in relation to the Wimbledon final: that every last bit of it was on Petra’s racquet – no one with an ounce of common sense considers Petra beatable that day.

The heart of this particular fallacy relies on making a fake conflation between Maria’s admittedly untimely, disappointing play (about which many reasonable concerns might be expressed), and the idea that this somehow precludes her from ever winning a Slam (about which many unreasonable and downright salacious things have been said).

The latter may or may not be true. But the fact is that, as of now, the numbers simply don’t back it up.

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Maria’s tennis may be in the gutter, but she is clearly looking at the stars.

Assume for a moment that Vika took more than just that one set from Petra (who can still go AWOL) at Wimbledon and made the final. Can you honestly not see Pova winning that?

17) (Sep, New York) FUGLY: “…on the inside”

Wouldn’t surprise me to learn that the few remaining neutrals in the stadium ended up rooting for Stosur after Serena’s little episode of self-destruction – the only truly “ugly” thing on court that night.

What hasn’t perhaps been emphasised enough – and what made it worse for me –  was whom she chose to pick on.

Eva Azderaki???  That’s like picking on Little Miss Muffet.

Equally repulsive were the amount of Serena fans who chose to make light of and, in some cases, to defend it – often from the same group that like to crap on Andy Roddick for his “anger management” issues.

Serena is what she is. She has her ugly side like anyone else. She’s unlikely to change very much. She’s gotten enough heat for it. And not all of her run-ins with authority figures have been her fault.

But it seems to me you’ve lost your right to be taken seriously if you made light of this blunder.

18) (Sep, New York) SCARY: The Slap

Not the Aussie novel, but the single most spectacular moment of this and most other years I care to remember. ‘Decisive’ doesn’t quite capture it.

I mostly included it for the sake of completeness. And because it’s flat-out scary.

Understandably, it’s provoked all sorts of reactions, ire and outrage,  euphoria and delirium.

People clearly have  a lot of very strong (and not always pent up) feelings over it – feelings they mostly don’t know what to do with.

I don’t rightly know whether it’s a good or a bad thing – or whether it’s even meaningful to think in those terms.

To this day, I haven’t even been able to trace where the ball actually landed.

Fed, of course, dismissed it as “luck”, a child-like “slap” – the kind of ‘street tennis’ he wasn’t brought up to play. Novak’s supporters (and many others), of course,  marvel at its sheer audacity.

Where you choose to sit on that divide is largely a matter of philosophy. You should be able to see both sides.

In the end, it got Nole what he wanted. And that, I suspect, is all that counts.

19)  (June) BLAH: The Gimelstob/Feli bust up

Noteworthy for the revelation that Feli gets hot under the collar.

Non-noteworthy for the revelation that Gimelstob should get anyone hot under the collar.

20) BONUS: “Murray had a rubbish year”

His post-Oz slump was uniquely icky. He continues to have trouble with Fedalovic at the Slams. And people are right to ‘meh’ over his clean-up of the Asian Swing.

But there’s nothing rubbish about 4 Slam SFs. Or, for that matter, the best clay court season of his career. Next.

21) (June) FAIL: Lynn Barber played at being Rafa iconoclast.

I get what she was trying to do. I just don’t think she got what she was trying to do….let alone the matter of actually doing it.

22) (June) HEGEMONY: “Script-Gate”

I’m told there’s an argument that it would be an existential threat to journalists’ livelihoods and credibility if they didn’t get first bite of the players’ press-conference cherry.

That the only way around this is withholding those pressers from the public domain for at least 24 hours, thereby giving them an ample window within which to work on and release their pieces, well before ‘Boris Blogger’ is allowed to  get his dirty mits on them.

I’ve only ever been partially convinced with that explanation.

What’s criminally unambiguous is how much this smacks of snobbery and hegemony.

23) (June, Wimbledon) EPIPHANY: Pironokva discovers the existence of ranking points outside of the Slams.

Simply astonishing.

So ends one of the great mysteries of life – how Pironkova manages to move like a fairy whilst razing the competition at Wimbledon, but is unable to otherwise win two matches together all year.

This year she made the QFs at Wimbledon and was one of only two players to take a set off Petra. No one was very surprised.

I’m still not completely sure this wasn’t a hoax. But I kind of want it to be true as it would explain EVERYTHING (and an awful lot besides).

24) (June, Wimbledon) UNSUNG: Domi made the QFs of Wimbledon meaning she’s now reached the R16 or better at every Slam.

QFs or better if you exclude Oz. She also won her (long overdue) first WTA title.

I get that she hasn’t the fanbase others do. I get that it’s unreasonable to expect non-fans and neutrals to undergo the levels of ecstasy experienced by that modest fanbase (of which I’m unashamedly a member). I’m even willing to concede that she hasn’t always helped her cause .

I don’t get why such a WTA milestone barely gets a mention by any of the outlets (mainstream and those that like to think of themselves as “indie”). Try and imagine the euphoric whiplash if and when, say, Kirilenko or Pavlyuchenkova (nothing against either of them) makes that same milestone.

Players have inspired cults for doing far less. Instead, this was deemed more relevant.

25) (July) FAIL:  Janko/Nole stage a mock assassination.

Tasteless, yes. Damning? No.

And before anyone brings it up, no  it’s not a “cultural thing” either.

No more than humiliating chair umpires is “an American thing”, or punching your racquet strings to the point of drawing blood is “a British thing”.

26) REDEMPTION: Mardy Fish

I never really got why it was considered “trendy” to hate on Mardy Fish. He has his dark side like most of us (and seems to consider being unable to speak French a matter of pride) – still, the reaction has always seemed disproportionate, out of control and, at times, downright ugly.

In any case, at some point early on this year his image seemed to undergo a transition.

Much of it can be traced, of course, to the fact that he began winning. That usually helps. But it’s also a simple matter of practicality: they simply transferred their bile to a new (and easier) target: Ryan Harrison.

And it all went swimmingly well (for a while): those that would once have pointed and laughed, looked on dotingly as Mardy publicly rebuked Ryan for a childish, braggy tweet.

It was a fair point, but didn’t in my mind seem like it deserved such public censure – older and more mature players than Ryan have gotten away with far worse.

What was more likely is that they’d simply overcompensated in their appropriation of Mardy; an easy mistake to make  in the presence of what they deemed a greater and more obviously obnoxious evil – that would be Ryan, for those still with me.
Either way, there was no doubt about it – Mardy’s stock was up.

The fake-out was revealed for what it was with the “don’t-speak-French-dumbass” episode which is when the illusion was shattered, and all those latent Fish anxieties resurfaced once more.

God only knows what 2012 will bring.

27) (July, Wimbledon) HEARTBREAK: Muzz’s Wimbledon SF loss.

I played the blame game.

Difficult to conceive of this being anywhere near as heartbreaking as the Oz final, which I still maintain had much more to do with his own poor performance.

But the Wimbledon SF seemed to me to underline how far he still has to go when Rafa, Fed or Novak are redlining – or whether he’ll even get there. That’s much worse. Isn’t it?

28) (Aug) ENIGMA: Caro parted ways with Piotr

And then sort of didn’t. And then did, again. Kinda. I dunno.

Whatever. Ricardo-Caro on court-coaching will be one of the early highlights of next year.

29) (Aug, Cincinnati) GROSS-OUT: The worst tie-break of the year

The closing moments of this were probably far worse than even Muzz/Haase. Whereas the latter’s atrocities were at least diffuse, this one seemed to have all the toxins distilled into the final set tie break.

At the end of it all, as if in relief, Dasco squatted down and spat on the court (he might just as well have barfed or blown his nose), an apt way to seal in the EVIL. Nevermore to be mentioned amongst polite society. Or, you know, normal people.

30) (Aug, Canada) NUTTY: Canada did its thing…

And it was WACK.

31) (Sep) BLAH: That familiar sound of itchy fanatics undercutting Noles season.

Whatever took them so long?

32)  (Sep, New York) BEATDOWN: Rafa’s 2nd worst loss of the year.

He managed to wangle a set out of it. And perhaps just the faintest scrap of dignity. That was all he wangled out of it.

33)  (Sep, New York) FLATULENCE: The worst match of the year

Bar none. WTA included. Challengers/Futures....in fact every ITF match played this year.

What happens in Ashe stays in Ashe.

34) FLAT: Li Na and Sam Stosur

Don’t get me wrong. What they’ve achieved this year is MONUMENTAL, each in its own way. Sam winning the USO, in particular, is perhaps my favourite moment of the year. Vindication, for her many long-suffering fans and of their undying belief in her game.

But if you’re gonna manhandle Caro for not being up to scratch in the Slams, it’s only fair that you do the same for those unable (or unwilling) to perform outside of them.

Both Sam and Li are top ten players whose tennis ability is undisputed amongst even the harshest of critics. Both’s non-Slam record this year has been DISMAL. Neither, as far as I can tell, was injured.  In other words, there’s no excuse.

What this also means is you really can’t be that confident of their chances next year (the way you might have been with Fran after RG 2010).

Who would you choose to watch your back in a street fight? Pova would be in most people’s top 3, you might imagine Fran or Marion (who didn’t even make a Slam final) would feature highly too…a few might even pick Caro.

Not many would choose Li or Sam. It’s easy to see why.

35) (Oct, China) FAIL: The journo that dared mention the ‘R’ word. Roddick was having none of it.

And no, this wasn’t a “cultural thing” either. We really need to stop confusing flat-out blunders with culture.

36) (Nov) BLAH: Nole’s season finally caught up with him

He pulled out of Paris for which he was flayed alive, and then bowed out quite timidly in London.

No one was very surprised.

37) (Nov, London) UNDERWHELMED:  The ATP WTF photo shoot blew

After the Abbey Road and Downing St., I’m, frankly, kinda outraged a bigger fuss hasn’t been kicked up over how rubbish this was.

38) (Nov, London) OUCH: Rafa’s worst loss of the year

The score was true. Just like the man said.

39)  BONUS: “I saw her first…No I did…No me….Me”.

Major, MAJOR peeve. Apologies in advance for going on for so long.

Every time we get a new talent emerging – and especially when they have their breakthrough the way Petra did this year –  we seem to get a rush of self-satisfied morons who claim to have been in attendance many years ago when talent-x (then a scraggly looking teen) went out in round two of a Challenger event so obscure it probably doesn’t even exist anymore.

The obscurity is deliberately selected and is in direct proportion to the accolade you are now expected to confer upon them for having “a good eye”, as well as being more generally awesome than you in all other respects. No – it’s actually that infantile.

Think of it as their vicarious version of the rags-to-riches tale. Their moment to bask in the radiance of talent-x’s reflected glory.

They remind me of those knobs that sometimes turn up on the IMDB message boards claiming to be Johnny Depp’s 2nd cousin.

What are you – nine years old?

Firstly, NO ONE CARES that Petra was your, my or anyone else’s “discovery”….like, at all. Whatever brownie points they think they might be accruing with these (not even that fanciful) tales don’t seem worth it somehow. Most of us stopped doing this sort of thing at the age of 10.

Secondly,  most people I know make it a rule to disregard anything not immediately verifiable  – the outlandish and the not so outlandish.  So even in the unlikely event that their little unmagical fairy tale turns out to be true, it’ll be treated as guff. And it’ll be entirely proper that it be treated as guff. Most of us learnt this lesson early on in life. 

The most frightening aspect of this pre-school behaviour is that it’s exhibited by relatively mature people of a certain age – people that seem well grounded in all other respects, but who then suddenly, mysteriously, take leave of their senses.

Takeout: Pics (and preferably links), or it didn’t happen. And I doubt anyone will care even after that.

40)  (December) CLOAK AND DAGGER: Why exactly did it take so long to appoint an ATP boss?

This one had all the political intrigue and mystery of a bestselling spy novel.

Ian Ritchie was wikileaked before any official announcement – that kinda scuppered things.

Krajicek was deemed short on business experience by Federer. But what role did the discovery that he follows the unsavoury Islamophobe Geert Wilders on Twitter have to play?

Then, with only 9 days of this year left, we suddenly hear someone called Brad Drewett has been appointed.

He seems, from what I can tell, to have  the right blend of business and tennis experience. Which kinda begs the question, where’s he been all this time?

It seems, to put it charitably, like something they cobbled together at the 11th hour. Or, to put it less charitably, an appointment of last resort.

41) FUGLY: Fed 2nd only to Nelson Mandela

Not that I have any trouble accepting that Federer (or any one below him on the list) should be “liked” or “respected”.

All the same, this made me hurl. And I make no apologies for it.

It would be no different if it were Rafa, Novak or any of the other top 10 most "liked, respected, admired and trusted" world leaders juxtaposed alongside a lifelong activist who forsook all the pleasures of life most of us take for granted in favour of a struggle for freedom and equality that cost him almost 30 of the best years of his life.

But perhaps that's the fault of the survey and iffy sounding metrics like "liked" and "admired".

In any case, the survey also uncovered that older respondents tend to be more critical (not surprising), as do Latin Americans (really?); women tend to be drawn to corporate figures (although also more critical of the female ones) whilst men favour sports stars. World leaders don't fair particularly well at all.

Not to be a spoilsport, but all of that seems far more compelling.

42) FOLIE DE-GRANDEUR: Trial by Noah

Every year an ex-player (not always a legend) makes a tired bid to make themselves relevant again.

This is mostly harmless (if a little embarrassing) and usually takes the form of making the most outrageous picks and forecasts imaginable. It’s something of an annual pageant.

”Fed will never win a Slam again”, “Rafa’s washed up”, “Novak has peaked”, “Murray will win multiple Slams”…that sorta thing.


This year that role was filled by Yannick Noah, who chose to crap not just on Rafa, not even just on Spanish tennis….but on all of Spanish Sport.

It was, to put it mildly, in a class of its own.

There’s kangaroo courts. There’s the many layers of hideous-kinky that lie below that. And then (and only then), do we get to the lowest depths  of farce and ego-mania that is the ‘Trial by Noah’.

43) FOLIE DE GRANDEUR: Martina Hingis and the (incessant whiny) tale of the on-again-off-again Olympics mixed-doubles partnership.

First it was “leaked” that Fed’s people had approached her. Then she denied any such thing had happened. Then it seemed to be on-again. And then it didn’t.

By now, most had lost interest and were willing and wishing it would remain “off-again”. Permanently.

The same might be said of all those insufferable “teasers” that would seem to indicate she may be persuaded to compete in Oz. Singles, doubles, I really don’t care.

Only Mc-Wozil-Roy, inspire more tepid and vacuous thoughts. And sometimes, I’m not even sure of that.

The moral of the tale must surely be how it’s possible to kill what might have once been a credible story by running it again, and again, AND AGAIN,  through the rumour mill.

And if there’s a “story” here at all, it’s that this was THE MOST BORING NON STORY OF THE YEAR.

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Novak Djokovic and the Politics of Admissibility

There were certainly a lot of (not terribly consistent) thoughts in the immediate fallout that proceeded from Wertheim’s decision to tweet a link to an Albanian blog post. A  well-researched post that he presumably thought put "the other side” of the narrative surrounding Nole’s conquest of the world rather well.

In so far as it was possible to disentangle, my first impulse was actually to agree.

We’d heard, it seemed to me, rather a lot since 2005 on Serbians training in emptied-out swimming pools with little or no mention of the devastation Milosevic and Co. wrought in that region during the 90s.

Perhaps the decision not to mar that early rise of Serbian tennis with reference to those atrocities was the right one.  Why, after all, should the country’s athletes (many of whom were pre-pubescent at the time) be expected to shoulder that burden? What can their tennis have to do with the prevailing political circumstances of their childhood?

Well, if you’re going to persist in chronicling the difficulties you faced during those early years (none of which I disagree with by the way) and weave it into an elaborate symphony of national reawakening,  it actually has EVERYTHING to do with it.


Its perfectly valid for Ana or Novak to draw attention to how their geopolitical plight placed their tennis development in a vastly different context from, say, Andy Roddick’s formative years. It did.

It’s equally fair for others to want to challenge much of that romantic imagery when you are a self declared nationalist using your (well earned) position to garner international support for your homeland.


Novak’s no different to any self-respecting athlete in wanting to raise his country’s profile in this way, but you can hardly blame others for wanting to relay the other side. Particularly those that lived through and were immediately affected by the conflict.

Quite apart from any of that, a superstar’s personal life and attitudes (both pre and post stardom) have always been fair game. That would have been true even if Novak weren’t an avowed nationalist. Only a tendentious prick will insist those attitudes tell the whole story, yet they always have and always will shape opinion. Not at all at odds with the now burgeoning narrative surrounding Novak’s rise to the top.

All well and good. But that’s when the cracks began to appear.

For one thing, it didn’t seem to me that the Kosovo post told us anything terribly new. Only the very young, in this age of Smartphones and Wikipedia, will have managed to remain wholly ignorant of a conflict that spanned most of the nineties – a conflict described as the most devastating since World War Two.

The Kosovo blog post was certainly a worthy reminder of the last of those conflicts, furnished with facts you may have missed (or forgotten from) the first time round. But it wasn’t, ultimately, all that revelatory.

Secondly, as many have already pointed out, branding Novak a “dangerous nationalist” on the basis of one quote is rash, uncouth and a little confused. You can certainly see why those living, to this day, with the consequences of ethnocentric expansionism might be naturally suspicious of Novak’s patriotic side. That’s a far cry from those neo-fascist extrapolations that are as bizarre as they sound and helpful to precisely no one.

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All of which brings us back to Wertheim. Who, on the one hand, deemed it both relevant (key word) and important enough to link to a blog post some might consider tendentious. But then ducked accusations of bias by offering to link to a rebuttal.

I really don’t think Wertheim was taking sides – that is, I’m sure he has a private opinion (one he may have been itching to get out), but I rather doubt that was ever what this is about.

And I’m not sure I buy into the outrage of those that would have us believe that linking to blogs in this way constitutes a new-fangled form of low-rent journalism.  Journalists of all spheres and from all walks of life link to blog posts all the time. It’s becoming increasingly acceptable to do so (within certain limits) and we should expect to see a lot more of it.

Nevertheless, it does seem somewhat irresponsible to do so with something as explosive as this. Offering to link to a rebuttal feels too much like offering to call the fire service after burning the house down.

What then? Bravado? Telling “the untold story”? .

Well let’s see: a liberal American journalist posted a link to a blog post highlighting the illiberal nationalism of an Eastern-European nation state with fairly weak US diplomatic ties – a country that until recently was considered by many US politicians as something of a pariah state. 

Nothing even remotely radical about that – I daresay he wasn’t trying to be. Nor have I any reason to doubt that he felt it was worth telling that “untold story”. Or AN untold story, at any rate – one it’s politically expedient to tell. Plenty remain untold.

Not to single out Wertheim (the problem’s bigger than any one person), but it’s easy to offer up counter-narratives to a brand of nationalism that’s fallen out of vogue with most of the more liberal west – and it’s easy to deem that kind of discourse “relevant” when it isn’t at odds with any national agenda.

Would he have linked to a Palestinian blog during the Dubai/Peer debacle two years back? There’s an “untold story” there too.

Saying the two situations aren’t comparable because of either the glaring discrepancy between Novak and Shahar’s standing in the game, or simply because there’s no accompanying rhetoric surrounding Shahar that involves training in emptied swimming pools is disingenuous.


What this episode speaks to, ultimately, is the politics of admissibility – the politics that determines what’s relevant and what’s not. Or to put it more crudely, who’s in and who’s out.

Politics that’s bigger than any single journalist – indeed, politics that both subsumes and governs their industry. Like I said, it’s really quite crass to single Wertheim out.

As it happens, I didn’t agree with Dubai back then either – not least because it felt kinda ridiculous for a WTA event to even consider banning a WTA player. But neither did I feel they didn’t have the right to protest against an on going occupation by a country they don’t even have diplomatic ties with (I can only assume that Dubai, like others in the vicinity – to say nothing of the many Jews and non-Arabs worldwide –  didn’t take too kindly to Israel’s then recent incursion into Gaza that had resulted in 1400 Palestinians dead, over 900 of them civilians).

But none of that was deemed either “relevant” or “admissible”.  Instead, we simply went, as we always do, through the tired old charade of pretending that nothing that’s occurred in that region in the past 60 or so years could have or should have given rise to this state of affairs. Words like “discrimination” and “exclusion” were used by no less than Venus Williams and Andy Roddick as if they were the exclusive provenance of one side, and Shahar in particular.

Well, there’s “another side” to that too. Though you’ll have to cast your net just a little wider to get at it.  The absence of a counter-narrative here would be quite laughable if it weren’t so chilling.


Novak’s hardly unique in holding views some might find unpalatable. Players, celebrities and superstars have done that since time immemorial.

Nor would it surprise me very much to learn that he may harbour future political ambitions–

When Djokovic won the Wimbledon championships in July -- which catapulted him to the top of the world rankings -- all of Serbia was ecstatic. A euphoric Serb president jokingly offered Djokovic his post, while 100,000 jubilant fans welcomed their native son back to Belgrade with folk songs, fireworks and red-blue-and-white flags.
-- Spiegel 

A joke? Really? In a world where Marat gets appointed to the Russian Parliament? Anyone that’s followed Novak’s rise to superstardom knows that he might have been earmarked for Serbian statesmanship as far back as 2007.

"The war also made me a better tennis player because I swore to myself that I'd prove to the world that there are good Serbs, too."

Is that bad?

I’m not going to pretend to be a great fan of nationalism – not least because it’s seems unhealthily predicated upon the alienation of those “unlike” you. But it’s hopelessly naive not to think it plays a rather large role in the lives of many in that region (and indeed of many in the “liberal” west) – the vast majority of whom simply want to live in peace.

Is there any reason, at this point, to think Novak’s nationalism should be any different to, say, that of Goran Ivanisevic?


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”.



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