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Premiership 2010/11 End of Season Review.

In Sport on June 21, 2011 at 6:33 PM

With Manchester United tying up the title and one of the tightest, most dramatic, relegation battles in premiership history, so comes to pass another season of the premiership. And what a season it was! It included ridiculously over-priced transfers (Torres, Carroll), bizarre sackings (Hughton), contract face-offs (Rooney vs Fergie), super-injunctions (inherently anonymous), multi-million pound takeovers (Kroenke of Arsenal) and the introduction of the inimitable Mario Balotelli, who at times kept the daily soap opera of football running single-handedly!

Oh, and there was also some rather fine football on show too. Though not consistently, the top 4/5 played some wonderful football; a relatively low title-winning margin personally showing the competitiveness of the league rather than the ‘mediocrity’. As demonstrated by the wildly erratic, plum-mid-table, Sunderland, those in the mid-table were far from boring plodders. And the teams at the bottom also provided the league with much colour too, especially Blackpool, whose spirited shoe-string squad cemented their place as ‘second team’ in hearts of seemingly everyone with their admirably gung-ho brand of ‘you score 4…we’ll score 5’ football. Personally, the league will be a lot less colourful without them, literally and figuratively. In this article, I give end-of-term reports on the top 6:

Ian Holloway unveils the new signature of himself.

Ian Holloway unveils the new signature of himself.

Manchester United

United were far from the seemingly invincible team that they have been in past title races, but continually managed to pull results out of the bag due to some abstract brand of ‘Champions spirit’, if you will. As Alan Hansen always (and rightly) lauds, Sir Alex specialises in this. This was a title won as much through infamous ‘hairdryer’ treatment, opportunism and ‘never say die spirit’ (see for one their Giggs-inspired comeback from two-down on a grim night at Bloomfield road), as it was through quality (not to mention a fair bit of luck too). They have, however, played consistently good football elsewhere, in getting to the F.A cup semi-final (only to lose to rivals City) and in reaching the Champions League final at their home-from-home (old joke, I know, but as a jealous Gooner, I couldn’t resist). Yes, Barcelona’s mesmerising passing made it a ‘men vs boys’ contest, but very few teams recently have come off as anything better than adolescents against this Barca team which, for my money, rank as the second greatest ever, eclipsed only by the great World Cup-winning Brazil ’70 team.

Stars: Van der Sar and Giggs continue to defy their age by putting in consistently great performances, the latter from his newly-realised position in the middle of the park. In front of the ever-reliable Van Der Sar, Vidic was, as usual, a rock, even if he occasionally displayed the movement of one too. Nani has continued to fill the significant void left on the wing by one Mr. Ronaldo by adding end product to his undoubted skill. And up front, United have been spoilt for choice. Berbatov has seemingly strolled, literally at times, to being the Premiership’s joint top scorer thanks in no small part to a staggering 5 against Blackpool. Javier Hernandez has been signing of the season; his estimated £7m transfer fee a mere snip for the frequent ‘poacher’ goals and permanent ‘last man’ threat. The ‘Little Pea’ is such a perfect foil to Berbatov and Rooney, the latter having improved greatly in the second half of the season after the settling of the contract debacle.

Flops: On his few appearances, new signing Porteguese winger Bebe has seemed entirely unworthy of the ‘new Nani/Ronaldo’ tags bandied around him. Evans often seems out of his depth and Gibson also does not quite look like a United player, as demonstrated by the harsh fan abuse which caused him to shut down his newly-opened Twitter account.

A-

Manchester United FC lift the 2010/11 Premiership trophy

Manchester United FC lift the 2010/11 Premiership trophy

Chelsea

After a solid start playing attractive football, slightly atypical of Chelsea in recent years, they collapsed like Dominoes over the winter, plummeting out of the European spots. With little help from their megabucks flop Torres, they mounted a quietly impressive late run from February which, as rivals slipped-up, earned them second place finish, having lost the late top-of-the clash at Old Trafford. Alas, a decent 2nd  place in the league and Quarter-Final exit in the Champions’ league was evidently not enough for the ultra-demanding powers that be. Thus, Ancelotti was given his marching orders.

Stars: The backline has been typically solid, conceding the league’s joint lowest goal tally (with City). In the absence of a ‘20-goal’ forward this season, midfielders have been left to pick up the slacks. Malouda has impressed, bagging a very healthy 13, as has Lampard with 10, though he has not up to his usual stratospheric standards. Kalou has also popped up, often as a sub, to score 10.

Flops: Torres is the obvious, much-ridiculed flop with only 1 goal in his 14 starts, but the whole frontline has struggled to gel, perhaps as a result of too many big egos clashing. Anelka has bagged just 6 from his 32 appearances and Drogba 12; a little disappointing by his own standards. Indeed, arguably, they have all been upstaged by the on-loan Sturridge.

B

£50 million 'flop', Torres.

£50 million 'flop', Torres.

Manchester City

In contrast to the massive egos and transfer fees off the pitch, Manchester City have been steady, solid, yet rarely spectacular on it. At a relatively low 60, their league goals tally lies a good 18 below United’s total, but their parsimony defending goal (joint lowest conceded goals and most clean sheets at 18) has ensured many one and two-nil victories which has brought them the F.A. Cup and Champions league football with their 3rd place finish.

Stars: Of particular mention in their oft-changing rearguard is the ever-present, safe hands of Joe Hart, who has cemented his place as a world-class keeper. Going forward, Yaya Toure has to a large extent justified his astronomical wages with his surging presence and David Silva has often been a creative force. Tevez has had a very good season, being at times scrapping and at times spectactular and ending up as joint top scorer with 21.

Flops: Hard to mention flops with city because, with the size of their squad, they can afford to keep mediocrity (even better) hiding behind the proverbial curtains on the bench (see for one, Shay Given). That said Dzeko hasn’t justified his hefty January price tag, scoring just 2 in his 15 appearances. Undoubtedly entertaining, Balotelli could fit in either category, going as he does from brilliant and talismanic one week, to blundering and uninterested the next.

B

Mercurial Mario Balotelli - 'Super Mario'

Mercurial Mario Balotelli - 'Super Mario'

Arsenal

Arsenal were doing well up until about late February when they were still in serious contention for all four trophies. Then they had the seemingly customary ‘bottle job’ as the wheels fell off and they lost the League Cup final (courtesy of a horrendous, last-minute defensive cock-up), crashed out of the F.A cup and Champions League to the respective superiority of Manchester United and Barcelona and threw away the league too. The latter was largely down to throwing away points at home in goalless draws with Sunderland and Blackburn and the unbelievable draw with Liverpool. In this game, Arsenal scored a 95th minute penalty… only to concede a very clumsy one in the NINETY-NINTH minute which Kuyt converted.

Stars: Nasri had a stellar start to the season, though failed to quite match these astronomical standards upon returning from injury. In his first real season in the first team, Wilshere was very promising, even if his inexperience occasionally showed, especially in his sometimes rash tackling. Van Persie hit the ground running upon his return from injury managing to bag a very impressive 18, considering. Arshavin was intermittently impressive, as was Fabregas when fit.

Flops:  In the long absence of Vermaelen, none of the backline covered themselves in glory, particularly Koscielny and Eboue. Goalkeeper was a particularly problematic position, with newcomer Wojciech Szczesny the best of a bad bunch. Especially in big games, Denilson just isn’t up to the task of ‘enforcer’, which Arsenal so sorely lack a world-class example of. After a good start, Chamakh faded and Bendtner was his usually faltering self.

C-

Arsenal crash out of the Carling Cup in the stoppage time

Arsenal crash out of the Carling Cup in stoppage time

Tottenham Hotspur

Spurs gamely fought for their second Champions League spot in two years, which indeed they occupied at various points of the season. But, perhaps due in part to the mental and physical toll of their European adventures, they were edged out by the literal and financial strength of City.

Stars: Dawson was a consistent presence at the back. Van Der Vaart proved a mere snip at £8m, claiming 9 assists and 13 goals in his 28 starts. Alongside Lennon (who’s recently acquired the ability to cross), skilful Modric and speed-merchant Bale, so electrifying in Europe, Van Der Vaart marshalled a very creative Spurs midfield.

Flops: Gomes, though often brilliant, is still prone to horrific errors, such as the ones he made against Real Madrid and Chelsea. Crouch and Defoe’s respective totals of 4 goals are quite paltry, though the former did link well with the midfield, especially Van Der Vaart, and the latter was injured for much of the season.

B –

Gareth Bale dazzles on the wing against Inter Milan

Gareth Bale dazzles on the wing against Inter Milan

Liverpool

Under Roy Hodgson, Liverpool started the season disastrously, lacking both the creativity and drive necessary for a Champion’s League finish which the club so desperately craves (even feels it has some sort of God-given right to). Indeed, by January, they were languishing not far above the relegation zone. But then, on the 8th of January, Hodgson left and ‘King Kenny’ returned to his beloved Kop! He evidently put some fire back in to the hearts of the players (and fans) as, with the help of the incoming Carroll and Suarez, they subsequently rose up the table to finish in sixth.

Stars: Since his £23m arrival in January, Suarez has proved he is worth every penny, putting in far superior performances to the ones Torres was (and indeed continued to do at Chelsea). His movement is so brilliant that he could probably find space in a telephone box and his touch ain’t bad either (see his trickery to set up Kuyt against United). Kuyt scored 13 and, as ever, was a tireless workhorse all season, whether deployed wide on the right or as an out-and-out striker as he often was before the arrival of Messers Suarez and Carroll. Mereiles and Maxi Rodriquez were two particularly rejuvenated by Dalglish’s return to the Kop. After fairly non-descript starts to the season, their performances improved drastically, going on to score some crucial goals to end with 5 and 10 respectively.

Flops:  It’s hard to really pinpoint where the blame lies for the early-season slump because it seemed like a largely collective malaise. That being said, Joe Cole, admittedly plagued with injuries, seems a shadow of his former self and N’gog has yet to mature into anything resembling a world-class striker.

D+ (E in 2010, A in 2011)

3 of Liverpool's mid-season saviours: 'King' Kenny, Carroll and Suarez

3 of Liverpool's mid-season saviours: 'King' Kenny, Carroll and Suarez

Joel Durston

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The Recycla-ballers

In Culture, Opinion, Satire, Sport on June 20, 2011 at 1:27 PM
[Although used to fan mail, this letter bemused Patrick more than most.]

 

This week gave us the new ‘Premier League Free Transfer List’ – a list of all the out-of contract Premiership players . Indeed, the name is actually slightly misleading and may be more accurately termed ‘released players list’. It includes several players who are on the list as ‘free transfers’ as a mere bureaucratic necessity following their decision to retire. This season, examples of such include the revered Edwin Van Der Sar and Paul Scholes, as well as the slightly less revered Gary Neville. The majority of the 125 players on the list, however, are merely those whose contracts have run out and whose services are no longer deemed necessary by the club, or at least not worth the player’s asking price (for wages). Some of these are youngsters who haven’t quite lived up to the expectations of them in their younger years and many are older players who the club feel, essentially, can’t hack it anymore.

In light of the ridiculous sums being spent on players such as Torres and Carroll, the presence of ‘good’, and even some ‘great’(or, at least, once great) players in this list illustrates the strange, even dichotomous, nature of the transfer market. Having been brought up by a mother who often said the classic ‘what about the millions starving in the world’ line, not only to make me and my brother eat our greens, but also as a sincere declaration, the profligacy of the transfer market that the list demonstrates disappoints me a little. It is somewhat analogous to buying a load of shopping and forgetting about a lot of it, leaving it to go past its use by date (admittedly, the analogy falls down as players can be ‘re-used’).

Now, I understand the inherent difficulty of predicting necessary squad numbers and player form, not least in football where teams are so prone to injuries, and that it is unrealistic to ask clubs for too much good will in contracts and playing time for out-of-favour players, especially in these hard economic times. Nonetheless, this wastefulness seems a shame. So, with my dreams of top-flight football and my dear mother’s love of recycling in mind, I resolved to try to make the most of this situation by creating a team of such players, based around the great Patrick Vieira, as suggested by a friend. Thus, the idea for ‘The Recycla-ballers’ was born….

Joel Durston
Recycla-ballers Headquarters
34 Recycle Lane
Brighton
Sussex
BN1 1TR

Dear Patrick Vieira,
Let me start by me saying that, as a fan of Arsenal and indeed football, I am a great admirer of yours. Your constant talismanic presence and sometime leadership has been a joy and inspiration to watch, especially during your time in the ‘Invincibles’-era Arsenal team. Yes, there have been a few mistimed challenges which have resulted in early baths, but I’m sure these have all been honest attempts for the ball as I get the distinct impression you are a good sportsman and a positive role model. Indeed, it is because of your honourable humanitarian work and position as FAO Goodwill Ambassador that I believe you will find my new venture, ‘The Recycla-ballers’, of interest.

‘The Recycla-ballers’ is an idea that sprang from a conversation with a friend, and now business partner, Jamie Walker, about the new Premiership Free Transfer List, which I was shocked to see that you were on. However, I feel this idea may provide solace. After seeing great names on this list, we came up with the idea of creating a football team out of all these players, whose services have been deemed tragically no longer necessary by their erstwhile owners.

The reasons for this are threefold. Of course, I would be lying if I made out this venture was entirely selfless, as, like 95% of males, it has always been my dream to play top-flight football which this opportunity affords. The second reason is to revitalise the careers of great players such as yourself, which have been cut short in their twilight, seemingly just because their former owners are too short-sighted to see the simple truth that ‘form is temporary; class is permanent’. Perhaps most important though is the pioneering role (in football at least) the team will play in promoting sustainability. By its very nature, this team, if successful, will prove that clubs need not obtain new players through extortionate sums which have pushed top-flight football to breaking point and priced many honest fans out of the game. Furthermore, on a more general level, I envisage the team will promote the need for sustainability and recycling, which are of course both extremely important in our world, where global warming is unfortunately such an issue.

As such, the team will be non-profit. I envisage it will be financed by different companies and organisations who want to partner us in delivering our powerful message. We would probably have to start off in a low division in the Brighton, Hove & District Football League (where I am currently resident), but I am confident with the quality we would have we would rise up the leagues quickly. Indeed, my cousin’s team were only founded a few years ago and recently promoted several divisions due to the ease with which they were beating their rivals. As we do this, the awareness and support of ‘The Recycla-ballers’ would no doubt grow exponentially. Due to the project’s organic roots, I would be a liar if I said you would not have to take a bit of a pay cut from what you were on at Manchester City. I was hoping, however, you would want to do this for the unique, powerful message it could send the world of football and indeed the world in general. Besides, Brighton’s nearer to France and nicer than Manchester…

Well, now you’re probably thinking ‘that’s great ‘n’ all, but sacré bleu… who in Zidane’s name is gonna play?!’ Ah well dear Patrick, you will not be disappointed there. I am currently in the process of writing to other prospective players for what I am confident will be a great team. In goal we could have Richard Kingson – vice-captain and most capped player for Ghana. One can only assume he was released due to the usually spot-on Ian Holloway misattributing the blame for Blackpool’s recently leaky defence. In fact, Richard did very well to emerge from the season with his stellar reputation largely intact, considering.

At full-back we should have both Jlloyd Samuel and Ricardo Gardner; both very solid defenders short-sightedly overlooked in their twilight by Owen Coyle. As for centre back, I am in correspondence with Matthew Upson and Jonathan Woodgate; both superb centre-halves with strong domestic records and 29 England caps between them – a figure which would no doubt be much higher were it not for injuries which have unfortunately plagued both their careers, particularly Woodgate’s. Both are fighting fit now, however, and would provide a super-solid foundation to the team.

In midfield, we could have Zolta Gera and your good friend Robert Pires rolling back the years on the wings and myself and you in the middle of the park. Coming from an extremely competitive football hotbed as a kid, I was, alas, overlooked by professional scouts, but have since forged a successful domestic track record with great teams such as Inter Mias, The Business F.C and Gape Athletic. Being a team player, I have played in many different positions, even a season as keeper, but see myself best fitting in to ‘The Recyclables’ as a player-manager in the middle. I may not be the quickest, or even the strongest, but I have the vision, intelligence and also a bit of trickery á la one Juan Román Riquelme. With your fine self, in the words of the Ian Holloway, carrying the piano and myself playing it, we could forge a great partnership similar to the one you did with Freddie Ljunberg in the ‘Invincibles’ team.

As for the strikers, I was hoping to get Johan Elmander, but he went to Galatarasay. I am, though, hoping to get John Carew to partner the aforementioned Jamie Walker. I feel these two could form a great partnership, with John Carew’s strength and aerial presence a perfect foil for the self-proclaimed ‘short powerhouse of a goalscoring prodigy’ that Walker undoubtedly is. Hopefully, the remaining squad positions will be filled by Dean Kiely, Marcus Hahnemann, Jody Craddock, Danny Gabbidon, Jonathan Spector, Jason Koumas, James McFadden, Lee Bowyer, Nigel Reo-Coker, Sebastian Larsson, Kevin Phillips and Mwaruwari Benjani.

As I say, I am currently in correspondence with the players mentioned above and prospective media partners (which I cannot name at present for legal reasons), but I am writing to you Patrick in this project’s infancy because I feel you could act as a catalyst for this pioneering project. Your involvement in the team would of course be fantastic, but any help, contacts or advice you could offer would be invaluable too.

Yours sincerely,

Joel Durston.

If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Call on the Metaphorical Trainer…

In Opinion, Sport on June 19, 2011 at 1:04 PM

Sometime during Sabine Lisicki’s Quarter-final victory over Marion Bartoli at this year’s Wimbledon, plucky Bartoli hit an otherwise moderate first serve which Lisicki was so sure skimmed the top of the net (which results in a let – a replay of the serve) that she deigned to hit the shot. Despite Lisicki’s protestations, the call was upheld and she lost the point. As anyone familiar with football should know, Lisicki should have played (to) the proverbial whistle, especially since, in theory at least, all contact with the net cord should be picked up by the trusty ‘Cyclops’. In itself, this was a mere blemish in an otherwise commanding performance from Lisicki, but reminded me of some very thought-provoking suggestions for the game at large from the ever-controversial John McEnroe. Though I don’t always agree with him, I for one applaud McEnroe’s courage in speaking in his mind in an often achingly polite sport.

From the BBC commentary box where he waxes lyrical, ‘Mac’ asserted that that whole confusion would be erased were the tennis powers-that-be to eliminate let cords (meaning that play would continue after serves that hit the net cord, so long as they are hit behind the baseline and land in the appropriate service box). This is just one of tennis’s elder statesman’s many contentious ideas on the state of tennis and how it may be changed. This, along with 9 nine other suggestions, is outlined at the back of his really rather good autobiography ‘Serious’, in his ‘Top Ten Recommendations for Improving Tennis in the 21st Century’. Because the book was published in 2002, he was probably formulating these ideas at the turn of the century, so I assess if they are still relevant and, indeed, if I feel they ever were.

1. ‘Tennis should have a commissioner. Baseball, football and basketball all do; why not our sport (I’m available…)’. N.B. By ‘football’, McEnroe refers to what Brits typically deem ‘American football’.

This suggestion has yet to really come to fruition and I feel with good reason. I am by no means an expert on the ‘big three’ American sports McEnroe cites as shining lights, but I get the impression that they are very different sports to tennis, rendering the analogy facile. Obviously, tennis is different in terms of being an individual sport (in the dominant singles category anyway), but also the format and marketing are very different. All teams in the ‘big three’ American sports opt to compete in centrally organised leagues (at the highest level: the NBA, NFL and MBL), almost exclusively in one country, safe in the knowledge that this is financially viable and that their team has a strong enough ‘roster’ (squad) to complete the season. Generally speaking too, these sports particularly in America are presented much more as mere entertainment, rather than as athletic spectacle. As such, it makes sense for more central organisation of the sport and for there to be commissioner to oversee this and for general promotion of the game.

Tennis, however, is a whole different proverbial ball park. Because the game is individual, players will, to an extent, pick and choose tournaments, especially smaller ones, depending on fitness and individual preference, with the WTA and ATP wielding considerably less power. If a tennis player gets injured they cannot call for a substitution, remember. Especially since very few players snub the larger tournaments, I see little problem with this. All of the grand slam tournaments are played pretty much according to the specific organisers’ discretion. For example, Wimbledon keeps advertising to a minimum and insists on tennis whites. This relative independence allows different tournaments to foster truly unique, not to mention marketable atmospheres. I fear these may be lost with a central commissioner of tennis as, as FIFA’s (mis?)management of football shows, central organisation of professional sports can bring with it many conflicts of interest, even corruption.

If Mac envisioned the commissioner’s role to be more for the promotion of the sport in the manner Don King-esque figure, I think the game is popular enough to not need such drastic life support measures. Viewing figures for this country certainly suggest this, with the Beeb often recording 8-figure viewing figures.

Call: terrible call, completely disregarding the nature of tennis.

2. (paraphrased) ‘A National Tennis Academy in America for Americans who could be brought in with scholarships and developed (I’m available too)’.

I don’t know that much about the set up for youth tennis in the States, but this sounds like a good idea and one that, if the research I did proves correct, is still not in existence. The notorious Nick Bolletieri Tennis Academy, named after its larger-than-life owner and founder, does pretty much fulfil this purpose however, albeit privately, as it can count Agassi, Sampras, Borg, Courier, Hingis, Sharapova, the Williams sisters and many more among its alumni. One idea that has been suggested, notably by Andy Murray (in reference to supposedly generous LTA funding), is that giving players a lot of money to develop can actually mean there is a lack of incentive which can lead to complacency and mediocre results. Indeed, it has even been suggested that a relative lack of money in Eastern bloc countries is a primary reason for the emergence of so many great tennis players (particularly female) from the region since the turn of the century.

Call: Reasonable call from what I can tell.

3. ‘Players need to be more accessible to fans and the media (did I really just say that?), the way NASCAR drivers are’.

Again, not an expert on NASCAR, but I would venture that this is no longer an issue, if it was even an issue in the first place. Fans feel they can relate to the majority of the top players and hence have their favourites. 99% of the time, players seem happy to give interviews, even making jokey impressions videos as Djokovic does or hijacking interviews as Wozniacki recently did with a Djokovic interview. Certainly, the men’s game is lucky to have a group of players at the top who are not only great players but come off as decent blokes off court too. The supersonic rise of social media such as Facebook and Twitter have also facilitated accessibility to fans which many players such as Murray and Lisicki make great use of.

Also, players nowadays make great efforts to learn different languages in order to reach their fans (though obviously it does no harm to prospects of commercial endorsement either). It is almost unheard of that a player needs a translator at any of the three Grand Slam tournaments held in English speaking countries and many players are far more than bilingual. For example, by most accounts, Federer and Djokovic can speak four languages fluently and dabble in more.

Call: Good call, but already happening.

4. (paraphrased) A mandatory return to wooden rackets. All but the first paragraph also apply to McEnroe’s 8th suggestion that (paraphrased) the ‘service line should be moved three to six inches closer to the net (to prevent) boring serve-a-thons’.

McEnroe believes (or at least, believed) this would mark a huge improvement in the modern game because ‘wood has glamour’, wooden rackets ‘require greater expertise’ and would thus result in the return of ‘strategy and technique’. This suggestion may seem utterly ridiculous to some but it’s worth bearing in mind that the game at the turn of the century professional tennis was oft-bemoaned as being a mere power-game, dominated by aggressive, unsubtle, even ‘ugly’ serving and groundstrokes.

There were so many dominant serve and volley-ers in the men’s game at the turn of the century, such as Sampras, Phillipousis, Rafter, Ivanisevic and Henman, that counterpunchers such as Hewitt and Agassi were almost viewed as anomalies. In the women’s game the Williams sisters were figuratively bullying many a poor girl into submission on the court (at least in McEnroe’s opinion). Not too far behind them were players such as Capriati, Mauresmo and Clijsters (ranked in that order after the Williamses in 2002) who were no shrinking violets either. In such company, more aesthetically pleasing players, such as the slight, but feisty Justine Henin (she of the beautiful single-handed backhand), were a rarity at the top of the women’s game.

One only needs to look at the dark patches of courts at Wimbledon to see that much has changed in this respect. As Tracy Austin recently commented in this year’s Women’s semi final between Kvitova and Azarenka, “look at how green it is up there; no one wants to tread anywhere near the net”. Only one of the players in the men’s top 10 ( http://www.atpworldtour.com/Rankings/Singles.aspx ), Andy Roddick, employs the serve and volley tactic much. Also, the women’s game is less dominated by a few powerhouses.

This shift is often attributed to the supposedly slower courts, especially at Wimbledon. This is no doubt true to an extent, but I think more important are the advances in racket technology and player fitness. Rackets are so sophisticated now (and of course the players’ ability to get the best out of them) that the time between hits has reduced. This means that prospective serve and volleyers have less time to get to the net, forcing them into tough volleys at their feet. Yes, serves have got quicker for both sexes, with the fastest an Ivo Karlovic bullet clocked at a staggering 155mph, and there are many aces (no need for a volley there of course), but now players have the rackets and lightning-quick reactions to return, with interest too, even the most powerful serves. Many players in the modern game, most notably the masterful Federer, also manage to exhibit breathtaking flair with these ‘ultra thick clubs’ supposedly ‘big enough to kill somebody with’.

The proposed shortening of the service box would obviously diminish the importance of the serve, but, as aforementioned, this has since largely happened anyway, as personally tennis has transformed into a very balanced, varied game. It is no longer sufficient to have a huge serve and a few other half-decent shots, as testified by Andy Roddick’s recent form and Ivo Karlovic’s unspectacular career. The shortening would also mark a radical change which would set the quality of the game back incalculably in the short-term, if not the long-term too. That’s completely disregarding the inevitable opposition it would face from players, and probably fans and officials too.

For these reasons, I see absolutely no reason why we should go out of our way to contain the brilliance of the game with line changes and rackets which are, let’s face it, inferior.

Call: Kind of understandable in the context of the game at time, but a ridiculous call in the context of the game as it is today.

5. Like other sports, tennis should have a season. McEnroe would recommend February to October.

There is in fact a tennis season now. It starts in the height (and heat) of Southern hemisphere summer in the last fortnight of January at the Australian Open and runs through to final Masters event at the end of November. Since 2009 this has been named the ATP World Tour Finals and held at the O2 Arena in London. It’s true that the current season does not give much time for recuperation for players and fans alike which McEnroe calls for. It may also provide a solution to players such as the Williams sisters ‘picking and choosing’ tournaments in between injuries/’injuries’, movie premieres and catwalk shows; something McEnroe has decried (http://abcnews.go.com/Sports/story?id=100522&page=1 ).

Again though, I think such an ultimate centralised diktat restricts players’ individualism, which I feel is necessary for tennis to be ‘healthy’. Arrogant as the Williams sister’s attitude may be, it’s a ‘free country’, so they should be allowed to act as such. Furthermore, there are many genuine injuries and extenuating circumstances for which the current system works well, giving the players a chance to make case-by-case decisions on what events to play and what not to play. Also, as there is a fairly steep drop off of prize money as one descends the rankings, many players would not be able to consider being out of work essentially for around three months a luxury.

Call: bad call

6. (paraphrased) ‘The Davis Cup’s schedule also has to be into the real world.. (possibly) a week every other year like Golf’s Ryder Cup’.

For those unaware, the Davis Cup, alike the Fed Cup, is a tennis competition in which professional players compete in teams for their countries. For many reasons mentioned in the discussion of the above point, it is often regarded as a much maligned event, seriously lacking the prestige of the ‘slams’. As such, it is somewhat analogous to England football friendlies, as many players pull out for individual events due to dubious ‘injuries’, if not rule themselves out of consideration completely to focus on individual careers. Because The Davis Cup is held quite frequently, holding it less frequently and taking heed of the extremely popular format of the Ryder Cup could very well ‘re-interest tennis’s top players in participating in this event’ and boost its popularity and prestige.

Call: Good call.

7. (paraphrased)‘Only tennis’s top notch amateurs should be allowed to compete in the Olympics’.

As with recommendation number 2, I am not an expert on the nuances of the tennis funding, coaching and development in America, but this seems like a good idea which could be implemented. McEnroe asserts that the ‘lure of a gold medal would encourage young players to stay in college and wait longer to turn pro’ (it’s worth noting at this point that much more budding pros go through ‘college’ – university – in the States). This, I can only assume, it would probably do and it would be no huge brunt for professionals to bear. McEnroe I’m sure knows better than me but I assume that many, many players try wholeheartedly to make it as a pro when they are not quite ready for the extremely competitive demanding world of professional tennis; a situation this recommendation may go some way to rectifying. To this end, one can look at the success of boxing in the Olympics, which is as an very motivating factor for amateurs and often acts as a springboard for the careers of successful Olympians such as Amir Khan. McEnroe’s declaration that it would make the Olympics more ‘pure’ is, however, more debatable I feel.

Call: good call.

8. See recommendation 4.

9. ‘Let cords should be eliminated. Having to play all let serves would speed up the game and make it more exciting’.

It is undoubtedly true that this would speed up the game, but delays in play because of let cords are fairly negligible (it is hard to tell if the rule who the rule would benefit, but I would venture servers very slightly). Besides, let cords can also provide much drama which McEnroe and many more crave (including myself). For example, in the nervy time between second serves at break point down.

If McEnroe were to rewrite the recommendations, I think he would try and speed up the game by different means. In his commentary for Wimbledon this year he outlandishly claimed that he would like to see players go straight into matches, sans warm-up, like boxing. There are many parallels that can be drawn between tennis and boxing (the one-on-one battle, mindgames etc), but personally this recommendation is faintly ridiculous. Not only would it in all likelihood reduce the quality of the matches in their initial stages, the recommendation is also very impractical, ignoring as it does the fundamental nature of each sport.

Boxing is fundamentally a contact sport, whereas tennis is inherently not. As such the worst that can happen in a tennis warm-up is that someone hits the ball too hard, soft or waywardly and their opponent takes another ball and starts another rally. Ignoring the obvious considerations of ‘drama’, a huge reason there is no ‘sparring’ warm-up in boxing is that when someone hits too hard or soft they could do themselves or their opponent serious damage which could threaten the fight itself. I for one would rather wait a mere ten minutes, safe in the knowledge that both players are ‘warm’ enough to allow them to play great tennis right from the ‘get-go’, as John Mac might say.

An idea Mac may be better served promoting may be that of quickening up time taken between points. There is much discussion on the time that is allowed/acceptable for the server to take, but many believe some players consistently take far too long. Nadal and Del Potro are often deemed guilty parties. Indeed in this pair’s recent Wimbledon Quarter Final, the umpire took the radical step to caution Nadal for timewasting; a move that was met with surprise from nearly all and disapproval from both players. Most notable in this regard though is Novak Djokovic – he of the trademark seemingly infinite ball-bouncing. If something is to be done to speed up the modern game, I would suggest more strictly and uniformly enforcing a time limit between serves.

Call: bad call.

10. (paraphrased) ‘Tennis players should be far more involved in charity work’.

I am not entirely sure on the charitable efforts of players at the time McEnroe was writing, but from what I can gather, the vast majority of players today are personable, approachable and responsible role models who do significant philanthropic work. For example, Serena Williams, Nadal, Federer just a few examples of those who have their own philanthropic foundations/schools/trusts, the latter even being named as a 2010 Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum in recognition of his leadership, accomplishments and contributions to society. Roger Federer set up a very successful event called Hit For Haiti, in which Serena Williams, Federer, Hewitt, Stosur, Nadal, Djokovic, Roddick and Clijsters forwent the last day of their warm-up for the Australian Open to play an exhibition match from which all profits went towards the earthquake relief effort. Furthermore, authorities also make a lot of money for charity, notably Wimbledon through all the money from resold tickets. However, although I wholeheartedly endorse the promotion of charity, I think people have to be wary of enforcing this as this fundamentally stops it being ‘charity’ and turns it into a ‘tax’.

Call: Reasonable call, but already happening.

So, overall, I would venture that on the recommendations that have not become dated, McEnroe is often wide of the mark. It is of course easy to say with hindsight, but what McEnroe would have been really visionary to call for would be the introduction of technology and indoor tennis. For the former, I speak of course of ‘Hawk Eye’. This is the revolutionary laser-guided technology that allows players to challenge line calls they deem to be erroneous. By almost all accounts, it has brought about a fairer game, but also retained, even heightened, the drama implicit in human decision making (it also demonstrates the quality of the line judges).

Indoor tennis has boomed in the 21st century. This is due to the rise in popularity of the ATP Tour World Finals (formerly ‘masters’) now held with razzmatazz at the O2 and the installation of Wimbledon’s Centre Court roof (in 2009). The latter has been a great success allowing for play in the rain and at night, both hitherto impossible. Such is the success, the possibility of matches specifically scheduled for night is being bandied about (currently matches are only played at night if showcourt play has overrun and/or the match has already started).

The men’s game is certainly in great health, with a classic rivalry between, for my money (I’m by no means alone either), the two greatest players of the game ever. Whatever your opinion of him, Djokovic also seems to be joining those lofty heights and Murray is not too far behind. Beneath Murray, the ‘chasing pack’, if you will, also exhibit fast, exciting, skilful and super-athletic tennis and are more than capable of upsets, such as Tsonga’s recent quarter-final victory over Federer. The women’s game isn’t quite in such good health, as it is frequently bemoaned for its lack of ‘great’ players (the classic statistic is that Caroline Wozniacki is number 1 despite having never won a slam), but arguably this means the game is refreshingly open and unpredictable. Besides, many complained about the Williams sisters’ once aggressive duopoly of the game, so there is no pleasing some. Moreover gate receipts and TV viewing figures for both sexes are often hitting all time highs too.

Tennis is alive and hitting, so there is no need to call for a medical timeout….

In Praise of ‘Apprenticisms’

In Culture, Satire on June 15, 2011 at 2:53 PM

So, another impending summer..and with it, as sure as death and taxes, a new series of The Apprentice. The 7th in fact, of what is, for better or for worse, becoming a British institution, as weekly, millions react with an intoxicating maelstrom of despair, desire, dislike, lust, laughs, even occasional respect, to the latest incumbents fawning, fighting and fabricating their way into the affections of the self-righteous “Lord”, Alan.

The first episode had the two teams of supposed recession-rescuers essentially shoving into the faces of unwitting Londoners extortionately-priced food they had produced with the £250 given to them by “Lord” (I refuse to not parenthesise) Alan. As is the norm with The Apprentice, this task itself provided much televisual gold with many eminently quotable catchphrases on exhibit. For example, Edward’s inane (and often inappropriate) endlessly repeated “rolling with punches” and his boardroom tautology so watertight it could be used as an example of the concept to budding logicians: “when I was producing, it was production”. Though the latter quote undeniably demonstrated the logic of ‘Team Logic’, his zealous over-spending on produce did not, and represented a ridiculous over-compensation for being in his words a mere “humble accountant”  and “the youngest AND smallest in the team”.

But before this, there was The Apprentice equivalent of the peacock pluming its feathers as the contestants indulged in the seemingly customary braggadocio, which has brought so many classic TV sound bites in recent years such as one-of-a-kind Stuart Baggs’ “everything I touch turns to SOLD”.

This year was no different, with Helen Milligan claiming “social life, friends, family…they mean nothing to me” and, pick of the bunch, Melody Hossaini declaring: “don’t tell me ‘the sky’s the limit’ when there’s footprints on the moon”. This was in addition to her working “with an understanding that there is..ACTUALLY (who’d av thunk it?!) a purpose greater than (herself)” and being “trained by Al Gore and personally taught by Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama”. Naturally.

It got me pondering what brilliant nonsense could come next. So I came up with a few ‘Apprentic e-isms’ of my own. Feel free to join in at home, folks. Turns outs it’s actually quite fun getting into the ‘twat’ mindset….

 

A few rather standard ones, perhaps already consigned to the budding apprentice’s/twat’s proverbial dustbin:

“Audacity is my middle name.”

“I ALWAYS make sure I get my five a day: aspiration, assertion, audacity, achievement, alpha-male status.”

And basically any sentence of this ‘I am a champion’ American Football battle-cry of speech, which is so ‘Hollywood’ in its style, I don’t know whether to laugh or roar: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yX39J_YyKbs . For example: “I do not understand when things go wrong. I do not understand mistakes. But I do understand victory and never surrendering!”

 

A few where the imagined apprentice/twat has actually managed to step outside of their own self-absorbed bubble for just long enough to consume some pop culture…only for it to confirm their supposed brilliance and subsequently return to their narcissism:

“If I’d have been in any way connected to the production of Jerry Maguire film, it probably wouldn’t have got made ‘cos I would have shown Rod Tidwell the money long ago.”

“Don’t tell me ‘the sky’s the limit’ when Emile Heskey has played for England 62 times”.

“If I’d have been Ian Brown, The Stone Roses would never have released I wanna be adored ‘cos I’ve always been adored, even in the womb”.

“I’ve got so much drive I make the Duracell Bunny look narcoleptic.” (Risque, but then why should apprentices care about the feelings of anybody but themselves?!)

 

A few where the hypothetical apprentice/twat has, to be fair to him/her, displayed a dextrous grasp of the nuances of the English language. To similarly cheesy effect, though:

“The only difference between ‘try’ and ‘triumph’ is a bit of ‘OOOOMPH.”

“I’m not a businessman…I’m a business…, man.” (O.K, as much as I’d like to, I admit I can’t take credit for those two, the former being from a friend, the latter; a Jay-Z line).

 

A couple where the apprentice/twat has, strangely, considered for a second at least the possibility that someone other than him/herself is, in fact, God and subsequently glanced at some Theology, albeit with spurious appropriation:

“I’m not just the best businesswoman in this world…I’m the best businesswoman in ALL POSSIBLE WORLDS”.

“In all honesty, I don’t really see the need for Christianity because, clearly, I am all three faces of everything great: entrepreneur, salesman and marketer, yet still, just one entity…MIKE!”

 

And, my favourite of all, which I will be sure to use just for shits and giggles (unless, god forbid, I get eaten up by the proverbial ‘man’) in the extremely unlikely event of me being on The Apprentice:

“I inhale mediocrity, excrete worthlessness, exude purpose and exhale brilliance”.

Quite proud of that, if I say so myself. Maybe I would make a decent apprentice. Or at least I could walk the proverbial walk…