Posts Tagged ‘Tennis’

Squash’s Olympic hurdle

In Sport on February 6, 2013 at 1:22 PM

UK Sport caused uproar in many quarters recently with its unforgiving approach to Olympic funding, which saw four sports have all their Rio 2016 funding cut, leading many to claim the organisation completely threw away the much-trumpeted ‘Olympic legacy’.

I don’t want to discuss the merits or deficiencies of this policy – that’s another debate – nor to diminish the efforts of the sportsmen involved, but at least they had some goal to have funding for.

Squash has no Olympic funding from UK Sport, because, despite great efforts, it is still not an Olympic sport – something most in the sport consider a travesty.

As such, squash receives no UK sport funding. It is true Sport England recently announced it – together with sister sport racketball – will receive up to a sizable £13.5m over the next four years.

When interviewed on this, Joe Magor, Kent County Men’s Captain and Kent SRA Tournament Officer, said: “England Squash & Racketball have done a great job securing funding and helping out county associations with information on several funding schemes to build squash or grassroots levels and to build communities around squash, and this boost in funding will no doubt help.”

However, all Olympic sports receive such finance in addition to any Olympic funding (a reason why the four aforementioned Olympic sports were given no UK Sport funding).

The money is certainly welcome, but what squash would really benefit from is the exposure and glamour afforded by the Olympics, just as UK cycling has grown not only through funding, great training and individual brilliance, but through being promoted to mainstream TV channels and sports supplement front pages.

For all the plaudits Andy Murray has been (rightly) getting for reaching finals recently, Brits Nick Matthew and fierce rival James Willstrop – after Sunday no. 2 and 3 respectively (Willstrop dropping from no. 1) – have been reaching, and winning, international finals for around a decade.

On the Olympics and getting “no recognition”, Willstrop said: “We’re English, we’re sitting there in July with the world number one and two, the numbers two and three women, and there’s a home Olympics – you just could not get any more depressing.”

“Had we been at the Olympics and won medals you can’t even imagine what that would have done for the profile of the sport.”

Also, squash is great way to keep fit – with Forbes Magazine rating squash the toughest cardiovascular sport – and very well suited to modern lifestyle, being short and not weather-dependent.

The 850-plus-strong UK squash club network has a great atmosphere around it too; competitive but fun at all levels, with a culture of team squash where busy people give up time to organise, cook, transport and coach teams, and a nice culture of home teams entertaining opponents, when they congratulate and commiserate with each other. Not dissimilar from Dave Cameron’s much-derided ‘big society’, in fact.

This is not to say squash is particularly British – being popular all over the Commonwealth and also in Europe and North America – a point made by Mr Magor in favour of Olympic inclusion.

He said: “Squash has a well-established pair of men’s and women’s professional tours with events over 50 countries over all the continents (except Antarctica!)”

And in some spectacular and unusual locations too, such as the forthcoming 16th Tournament of Champions.

Such points and more were raised in the Squash 2016 bid, which, despite much IOC praise, was ultimately unsuccessful – with golf and rugby sevens the chosen winners.

Yet many people’s suspicion is that golf and rugby sevens were chosen largely for their commercial interests – a point argued by George Mieras, WSF Olympic Bid Co-ordinator, in a letter to Olympic officials.

He referred to President Rogge’s statement that golf and rugby sevens would “bring extra value to the games” (his emphasis), and claims none of the other bidding sports could match these two sports’ “potential for bringing in spectators, sponsorship and TV”.

However, he added: “What this therefore represents is a significant shift on the part of the IOC, adding the need for such commercial value to the long established Olympiad criteria and ideals, which we certainly fulfilled so well.”

The squash community can only hope Olympic officials change their mind for the 2020 Olympics, so this sport – brutal, exhilarating and (small ‘o’) olympic – gets the recognition it deserves, here and elsewhere.

Joel Durston

Teardrops and Raindrops in SW19

In Sport on July 10, 2012 at 4:46 PM

The Wimbledon Men’s Singles Draw between Roger Federer and Andy Murray was notable for two types of falling water droplets. Firstly, the slightly less dramatic; the roof being closed due to the torrential downpour that hit SW19 at around 4pm, with the scores locked at 4-6 7-5 1-1. The second, far more unexpected: Andy Murray’s tears that greeted his heart-rending 4-6 7-5 6-3 6-4 loss to the new-number 1.

They were the result of a tremendously spirited performance from the 25-year-old from Dunblane which still leaves him as the nearly-man of men’s tennis – despite his great efforts, without a Grand Slam title to his name. Murray has much to proud of from this tournament, especially considering he was somewhat written off before it, even branded a  ‘drama queen’, after a back problem reared its ugly head at the French. But from his straight sets victory over Cilic in the Last 16, after a few merely workmanlike wins – and a lucky break in Nadal’s exit – he gave performances at times majestic and at times resilient, often both at once. The Ferrer quarter-final is a particularly good case in point. Nicknamed the ‘Little Beast’ for his diminutive tenacity, Ferrer had been in brilliant form leading up to the match, having beaten a far-from abject Del Potro in straights the round before. Against Murray, the Spaniard took a tight first 7-5 in the breaker, and was 5-2 up in the second thanks to some impressive shotmaking and stunning running. But Murray dug deep in his reserves to pull the tie-break out of his arse, and went onto to, unusually for a player often derided as boring, completely hit his opponent off the court.

People may well decry yesterday’s tears as being of the crocodile variety, perhaps because Murray did play well (ignoring the fact that many of these detractors are the same ones who, hypocritically, declaim Murray a dull, dour, emotionless Scot). But it’s precisely for this reason that, paradoxically, the loss will be so hard to take. I’d venture it would actually be easier for him to take in some respects had he been beaten comfortably in straight sets; without the mix so poisonous to professional sports people, like Murray – victory so palpable yet unattainable.

That he got to the final and undoubtedly played well will likely be of little short-term consolation to Murray. Nor, I imagine, will the fact that he gets to go home to the lovely Kim Sears in their £5m Surrey home with another £575,000 in his pocket (he’d swap this sum in a heartbeat for the pure glory). This seeming contrast between his mood and his riches seems to be the source of much of the derision of Murray. But being unemotional doesn’t mean one’s unhappy or ungrateful. Fact is you don’t get to be 4thbest in the world at anything , much less a sport as individual and psychological as tennis, by accepting merely ‘good’ (even someone as ostensibly carefree as Tsonga is a bloody hard self-taskmaster). Basically by definition, any player in the top 10, will be pathologically perfectionist in their tennis. Surely it’s better that he won’t settle for second best.

The inevitable shoulda woulda couldas probably only hurt more when the alternative outcomes could reasonably have led to more than mere consolation sets. And they certainly could have yesterday. Had Murray converted either of the two break points he had at 2-2 in the second (or the pair at 4-4, or even held at 5-6 40-15), he would have in all likelihood opened up an imposing two-set lead. Also, he could have taken a few half-chances to break in the fourth. But he didn’t.

When the hurt subsides, Murray should take solace in the fact the reason he didn’t win was far more to do with Federer’s exquisite tennis under supreme pressure – the sign of a true champ – than it was him ‘bottling’ it. And he should be proud of the way his game has developed under Lendl’s tutelage. Admittedly, he didn’t serve brilliantly, but his second serve has really come on, while his first has remained a considerable weapon. He has added extra layers of physical ability and mental steel and he has become significantly more attacking, regularly hitting lines, which has added a different dimension to his game, as shown with him going toe-to-toe with Federer in some pounding, relentless baseline rallies.

Problem is, every time Murray steps his game up, some combination of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic are there, lurking ominously round the corner, ready to up their respective games to even more stratospheric levels. Let’s just hope they hit a ceiling sometime, so Murray can catch them up (or that there’s some kind of tennis equivalent of Lasagne-gate, poisoning Nadal, Federer and Djokovic for one Slam)…

Joel Durston

Wimbledon 2012 – The Fab Four

In Sport on June 25, 2012 at 4:37 PM

After the practically biennial disappointment of a 99% perspiration 1% inspiration England knockout-stage exit, at least Wimbledon has swooped in, all regal with its white polo shirts, strawberries and cream, Arabellas and Quentins and Murray-mania, to try and lift the nation’s spirits (and prevent, god forbid, two days without major sports on tv). And with three of world’s greatest players at the top of their game, and a hungry chasing pack not too far behind, this year looks possibly greater than ever. Here’s a look at the major runners and riders in the men’s draw.

Novak Djokovic – 7/4
‘Nole’ has really come to prominence in the past year and half, starting with his amazing 43-match winning streak which began with his native Serbia’s Davis Cup Finals win in December 2010, encompassed his 2011 Australian Open win, and continued right up to Federer’s spectacular semi-final victory over him in that year’s French. A principal difference is the psychological strength he has gained. He was by no means ever a shrinking violet, but had developed a bit of reputation for not quite having the requisite minerals to win that huge break point against the Federers and Nadals of the world, and had been criticised by some for – admittedly probably sensible – decisions to retire in big games with only minor injuries. But since, he has basically become the iron man of tennis, as evidenced particularly in this year’s Australian Open. Just two days after his incredible 5-hour, 5-set Australian Open semi against Murray – in which, according to many (including yours truly), the Scot played the game of his life and still lost – Djokovic beat Nadal in a game in which both were playing superhuman tennis well into the sixth hour of the longest match ever in the Aussie Open (also the longest final in Open-era history). It would be a brave man who bets against him this time.

Rafael Nadal – 2/1
Fresh from clinching his 7th slam on the clay of Roland Garros – an imperious record, at just 26, to match Sampras’ infamous Wimbledon record – Nadal will be looking to avenge damaging defeats to Djokovic in this year’s Aussie Open and last year’s Wimbledon, in what is fast replacing his and Federer’s to become a classic tennis rivalry (and allegedly one with a little edge to it in the dressing room). Due to a combination of a more attacking game and slightly slower Wimbledon grass (some say, on a hot day, there is very little difference in the way Roland Garros and Wimbledon’s surfaces play now), Nadal has well and truly shaken off the tag of ‘just another Spaniard who can’t play on grass’, having won two of the last four Wimbledon titles. Remarkably, given the pounding his body takes due to his ultra-physical game, he still seems in peak condition. So, when coupled with his indomitable mentality, it’s safe to say that, though Djokovic is slight favourite, Rafa won’t go down without a massive fight.

Roger Federer – 7/2
In this humble viewer’s opinion the greatest player to have played the game, Roger Federer will be looking to match Sampras’ record of the most Wimbledon titles (7) this summer. With the out-of-this-world tennis being played by Djokovic and Nadal, the dream is fading a little, having not won a grand slam since 2010’s Australian Open. He is, though, still in good physical shape – his graceful, effortless movement and smooth hitting, in contrast to big-stomping Nadal and stretch-armstrong Djokovic, have evidently not taken a great deal of physical toll. And he is still capable of rolling back the years, as he did in last year’s four-set victory against Djokovic in the French semi final. However, he has lost the aura of invincibility of being able to regularly do this three times in five days. Expect a few of these great performances, perhaps against Almagro (12) and Berdych (6), but a four-set semi-final exit to Djokovic.

Andy Murray 13/2
Andy Murray’s career to date has, unfortunately for fans such as myself, seemed comparable to the travails of a teenage lad gallantly attempting to lose his v-plates. He puts in all the groundwork and does most of the right things to get second and third base much of the time – but, in his quest to go the distance, is hampered a little bit by lack of reserve but mostly by unfortunate circumstance, typically that of slightly more attractive kids with a cooler cars swooping in to steal the prize that seemed rightfully his. (In grand slams in the past one-and-a-half seasons, he has been in one final, four semis and a quarter-final.) To this end, he recruited former world no. 1 Ivan Lendl as his coach just before this year’s Aussie Open, who has worked on making Murray more attacking, ruthless and as superhumanly fit as Djokovic and Nadal. The early signs from performances and the camp are that it is working. He has added to his typical counter-punching game by significantly improving his ability to hit lines and attack the net. And though he has only reached a semi and a quarter this year, he was only prevented from going further in Melbourne by an imperious Djokovic performance and the French never was his best surface, let alone with a (supposed) injury like this year. That said, whenever Murray ups his game, Nadal, Djokovic and, formerly at least, Federer always seem to up their game to even more extraordinary levels. So, alas, it will probably be another debilitating, if tight, defeat to Nadal in the semis.

Joel Durston

The Alternative Wimbledon Round-up

In Sport on July 7, 2011 at 2:24 PM

With Djokovic’s and Kvitova’s somewhat surprising wins, so comes to pass another Wimbledon Championships. As usual, it showcased out-of-this-world tennis and much more: shock upsets, drama, redemption, exciting youngsters, acrobatics, hijacked interviews, tantrums and great sportsmanship. TAY details the good, the bad and the ugly of this year’s tournament…

Men’s champion: Novak Djokovic – A little overlooked by some despite his stellar record this season, Djokovic surprised many to take his first Wimbledon title. The second seed’s ultra-solid game built a great return of serve and dogged defence proved too much for all comers, even Nadal, as he swept to an emotional Wimbledon victory without being taken the distance in the entire tournament.

Men's champion - Novak Djokovic

Men's champion - Novak Djokovic

Women’s champion: Petra Kvitova – 21-year-old Kvitova firmly cemented her place as the rising star of women’s tennis with her victory at Wimbledon, in the process, becoming the first female leftie to do so since her idol and compatriot Martina Navratilova in 1990. With a great all-round game, notably a huge serve and forehand, she swept away Sharapova in straight sets in the final and won many admirers.

The Goran Ivanisevic good bloke award Pt1. – Fan’s favourite: Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. The Frenchman’s big game and big heart won over nearly all neutrals this year. He has a real ‘go big or go home’ style, with humungous, high-risk groundstrokes, the cliché of ‘good touch for a big man’ and spectacular diving acrobatics. What endeared this Muhammad Ali lookalike just as much though was his winning smile, exuberant celebrations and sense of sportsmanship (more later). So much so that for once the crowd were probably against the great Federer during Tsonga’s remarkable Quarter Final comeback against him (more later too).

The comeback of the century award: Though Kvitova won the hearts of many, semi-finalist Lisicki perhaps won more for her incredible story. She had shown her promise as a 19-year-old by getting to the Wimbledon quarters two years previously, but in between had been plagued by a recurring ankle injury to the point of having to learn to walk again. Allied with a big game and some unerring drop shots, this year she reached the semi-finals in a nice moment of circularity, her cheerful and emotional return from injury making it all the more sweet. Indeed, such is her upbeat nature, she even often smiles after losing a point. When asked about this, Becker said that he couldn’t do that and simultaneously be a champion. Whether Lisicki can is a question for years to come…

Fan's favourite, Lisicki

Fan's favourite, Lisicki

Best match (men’s): Though there was some great tennis on display in the semis and the final, I doubt posterity will have it that any of them go down in Wimbledon folklore as a classic. A match that might though is Tsonga’s amazing, quarter final comeback from 2 sets down against Federer, especially if it goes on to mark the swansong (‘swanTsong’?) of Federer’s glittering career. Tsonga became the first player in 179 attempts to beat Federer from 2 down with a breathtaking array of tennis in going for the lines and diving round the court as if it was a bouncy castle.

Best match (women’s): As with the men’s games, many of the ‘best’ women’s game came in the earlier rounds. My picks of the bunch would be either Bartoli’s Fourth Round victory over Serena Williams or her loss to Lisicki in the quarter finals. For all of the exhilarating tennis in the former, my pick would probably have to be the latter, in which Lisicki won 6-4, 6-7 (4-7), 6-1. The match had a strange atmosphere as it was played on centre court which sounded eerily quiet aside for the seemingly apocalyptic rain blocked out by the roof. Bartoli also proves an odd, yet intriguing spectacle on court, with all her bouncing around and mimicking of shots; Andrew Castle even felt it necessary to assure viewers that she is in fact “perfectly well adjusted”! Nothing odd about the tennis though, as Lisicki’s power-game and Bartoli’s plucky double-handed shots provided a thrilling contrast of styles.

Men’s dark Horse: Qualifier Bernard Tomic leapt onto the men’s tennis scene with a hugely impressive tournament that saw him reach the quarters. On his way, he dispatched Andreev in five and Davydenko, Soderling and Malisse in straight sets. Most impressive was his third round victory over 5th seed Soderling. Admittedly, Soderling was feeling the effects of earlier Diarrhoea, but Tomic’s big, flat forehand and tireless running would have tested Soderling or any of the top 10 at their best. As indeed Tomic did against Djokovic, before eventually succumbing to the Serbian’s iron-will in the 3rd and 4th sets.Certainly one to watch…

Female dark horse: Could easily be Kvitova or Lisicki for reasons already discussed, but honourable mention needs to go to the Japanese Kimiko Date-Krumm who, at the grand old age of 40 and three quarters, was by some distance the oldest player in the women’s draw. Her presence at Wimbledon is even more remarkable when it’s considered that she retired at a relatively youthful 26, only unexpectedly returning to professional tennis twelve years later in April 2008. After beating ‘our own’ Katie O’Brien in straight sets in the first round, she fought gallantly against the power of Venus Williams, eventually losing 8-6 in the third, but winning many fans in the process.

The Goran Ivanisevic good bloke award Pt2. – Sportsmanship: Tsonga’s tight four-set second round victory over Bulgarian youngster Grigor Dimitrov ended with the Bulgarian youngster flat out on the floor in exhaustion and despair after a very Tsonga-esque diving volley. In a show of sportsmanship reminiscent of Freddie Flintoff’s to Brett Lee, Tsonga hurdled the net to help pick Dimitrov up literally and metaphorically, with encouraging words and a warm embrace. So quintessentially ‘tennis’ that it could warm even the coldest heart.

The John McEnroe rage award (Men’s): Following a long, typically slip-sliding rally which ended with a slightly over-hit backhand slice from Djokovic, the Serbian proceeded to give his racket three almighty smacks against the ground. Needless to say, the racket broke and he is in line for a fine, but it shouldn’t cause too much of a dent (ahem) in his tournament winnings of £1,100,000.

The John McEnroe rage award (Women’s): Always known for not being everyone’s cup of tea, Serena Williams was in the papers again for her off-court thoughts this year. First, she bemoaned not being put on centre or no. 1 court and on her fourth-round exit to Bartoli, displaying very British sarcasm, she gave a very curt answer to an interviewer who had the temerity to ask if it was good thing for the women’s game that she lost given her lengthy absence: “Yeh, I’m super happy that I lost..go tennis *rolls her eyes*”.

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 ( ), 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 ( ).

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….

Sport in 2020

In Sport on January 7, 2010 at 8:14 PM

After reading an interesting article in this week’s Observer Sport magazine predicting what sport will be like in 2020. As well as agreeing with a lot of their predictions, I disagreed with a lot too, as the article shows. I also decided to make a few predictions of my own. Maybe in  a decade’s time we can look back at these predictions with appropriate pride at our foresight or shame/laughter at how misguided we were…

The 10 things they think will have happened and my thoughts (for what they’re worth!):

1.‘All sport will revolve around the T.V viewer’
Probably largely right as the this is certainly the way the sport is going at the moment. One needs to look no further than the meteoric rise of Sky Sports, especially since the inception of the Premiership, and the strangehold they now have on sport in the UK. Therefore, it is perfectly feasible that sport will become more ‘entertainment’ as the Americans cover sport, which will no doubt bring many benefits, but will in my opinion be of detriment to sport in general.

2. ‘China will take gold at rugby’
I do not think this will happen because, for a country with a very poor team (by international standards) at time of writing to quickly go to world beaters in a sport, is a massive undertaking. In any sport, having the infrastructure in terms of coaching, funding, stadia and world-class domestic leagues etc. is of vital importance to inspiring and bringing through the next generation of budding sports men or women. This is especially true of a sport such as Rugby where tactics and coaching are so fundamental.  Furthermore, of course this is a huge crass generalisation, but typically Chinese people are not the biggest, which could hamper the development of Rugby in the country, especially in today’s game where the pack is so important

3. ‘Twitter replaces the press conference’.
Can’t see this happening. The press conference is too much of a staple of sporting tradition. People will still have papers to sell/shows to fill/websites to blog on (for one, what would happen to Sky Sports News?!). Also, the press conference captures emotion and body language (or a notable lack of it), such as a cheeky grin or hint of anger, that inherently cannot be captured to the same extent with an Iphone and Twitter .nYes, these may come to complement the backstage of sport more than they currently do, but if the press conference was abolished all together, viewers would miss the drama of Haye/Harrison verbal sparring, Ferguson/Benitez mind-games, Ian Holloway rants, Kevin Keegan breakdowns (technically an interview, yes), the genius of people like Brian Clough and the list goes on…

4. ‘Football’s old guard will resist technology’.
I can see this happening. It has happened so far despite being used to, what the vast majority would say is a success, in cricket, tennis, rugby and others. The article perceived this resistance as ill-judged and ‘Luddite’ but, call me a stupid, stubborn, traditionalist if you will, I think it is a positive move (or, rather, ‘non-move’). Although it can be very harsh on the victim/s of terrible decisions, football’s human nature is what gets people talking in the pubs, sells papers and gives football a lot of interest…’romance’ if you will. Would anyone remember the ‘Russian Linesman, the “hand of God” or Henry’s basketballing antics if the officials had made the correct decision? I, for one, doubt it. But because, for better or worse, they made the incorrect decision, they’ve gone down in football history.

5. ‘Snooker will die; F1 and skiing on life support’
Snooker’s current format will seriously wane I think, but I think a new format may revitalise it (more later). I think F1 will being doing o.k. The appetite is there, there is always new superstars (often with playboy charisma attractive to the viewer) behind the corner, almost literally, and there always seems to be playboy millionaires and advertising giants to fund this luxury sport. Having said that, its success will be related to how well and quickly the world comes out of this recession. I think The Observer are spot on in their prediction of skiing as interest already seems to be in the descendant.

6. ‘NFL takes up a London residency’
Some small American football teams are struggling to fill their stadiums and there is a fairly big appetite for American football in the UK. So, I can see a small club coming to London, because American fans, for better or for worse, don’t have an obsession with loyalty to one’s hometown team and aversion to big money/globalisation as  many in the UK do (see the furore over the proposed, but ill-fated 39th premier league game).

7. ‘Sportsmen and women will run their own teams’
I do not think this is a realistic prediction because top players (the ones who would do this) are earning a lot of money for their clubs and nearly all feel some sort of affinity to the club they play for, because, let’s be honest,  if they don’t feel this affinity they largely have the ‘player power’ to manufacture a move to a club where they will/do have this. Also, although players earn astronomical amounts, a quick look at any football rich list will reveal how this pales in comparison to the owners of the clubs. The money necessary to adequately fund a football team/league is extraordinary and it would take an world-shatteringly big move by a number of players to make this prediction reality. I feel it is too improbable.

8. ‘Swimming goes slow’
This is eminently possible as Phelps cannot keep on being superhuman and beating his own ridiculous records. I think the same applies to sprinting and its lightning-quick mascot, Usain Bolt.

My predictions:
1. More ‘rebel’ leagues
In a similar vein to Twenty20 cricket, I think millionaire promoters will come in and shake up a few ‘tired formats’ of sport. Specifically, maybe snooker and rugby. As the ‘observer’ predicts, snooker seems to be on the way out, but I don’t think it is terminal. It is perfectly within the realms of possibility that a rich promoter shakes things up with quicker, shorter matches (fewer frames and a time limit for shots), more exhibition snooker (fast games, huge breaks, trick shot competitions etc) and encouragement for more atmosphere. Indeed, this trend has started with the introduction of  ‘Powerball’ snooker, which was generally regarded as a success, albeit a novelty one.

Rugby today seems to be increasingly a tactical kicking game, especially with new rucking and mauling rules which cut runners little to no slack. Also, the international game is in good health but there is far less interest in the domestic leagues (compare the Zurich premiership to ‘the’ premiership). Given this, I can envisaged a wealthy promoter creating a rebel league roughly equivalent to rebel Twenty20 leagues with the best domestic teams/players from all over the world and with emphasis on quick attacking running play. To encourage the latter, perhaps an extra point for a try and/or one fewer point for a penalty or drop goal.

2. Salary caps in football
…At something like £100-150k a week because it’s getting slightly ridiculous now, especially with chairmen such as  certain unnamed Arab oil tycoons who make a certain unnamed Russian one, look like a mere peasant. It would, however, have to be a universal decision by UEFA and/or FIFA because if one particular F.A. imposed it, all the world-class players would just go to the other top footballing nations. Also I envision quotas for home-grown players coming in a bit more (bad news for me as a Gunner!).

3. Brand teams
While I don’t think players have the power to create their own teams, I can see brands creating teams for one off tournaments. As ridiculous as it sounds, the ‘98 World Cup final was dubbed the ‘Nike vs Adidas final’ (Brazil and France, respectively). As players are only very grudgingly released for international friendlies nowadays, I don’t imagine clubs will be very happy about this situation though, so there would probably ve considerable resistance to this scenario should it emerge.

4. The land of the rising sport
While I don’t think China will become world beaters at rugby, I think they will become a lot better at other mainstream sports such as tennis and football because, to generalise, they’ve got the money (in the right places in a sporting respect, at least), the political motivation, the infrastructure and, by God, they’ve got determination and work ethic! Also, to an extent other East Asian countries such as Japan and South Korea will progress.

5. The return of the single-handed backhand
Maybe a bit of a personal one this because I have a single-handed backhand, but I think there will be a bit of a reaction against the double- handed backhand which so dominates tennis today. Now I realise that the pros hit the ball A LOT harder than myself and therefore might need the little bit of extra power the double-handed backhand affords, but I’m just (wishfully) thinking that more players might come through with a single because, when mastered, it can be just as good, gives the player more options and reach but, most importantly, is just a thing of beauty for the viewer when played right! Compare, Federer’s elegant, fleet-flooted, single-backhand to Nadal’s, equally effective..don’t get me wrong, big-fat-stomp-then-wollop-and-grunt double-handed backhand.

Joel Durston