More balls than most

Adios Rafa?

Nadal wins in Paris in 2014 (pic By François GOGLINS (Own work)

‘Thank you very much’: Rafael Nadal conquers Paris in 2014 (pic by François GOGLINS (Own work)

Journalist and tennis fan William Skidelsky has written a book called Federer and Me: A Story of Obsession, which will be published next week. I don’t think I’ll bother reading it because I’m a Rafael Nadal fan, and life is just too short to waste time reading about some middle-aged guy’s obsession with the sporting superhero I like to call the Federator.

While you Fed fans are reading about Skidelsky’s desire to ‘luxuriate in the silky wondrousness of [Roger’s] play’, I’ll be mulling over the dimming prospects of ever getting my Rafael Nadal book off the ground. Can the tennis book market really stand a second volume of memoirs about a long-distance love affair with one of the game’s superstars? I fear that Skidelsky has stolen my thunder, just as Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and just about every other player of note has stolen the Spaniard’s thunder during his inglorious clay court campaign of 2015.

Skidelsky writes that ‘it wasn’t love at first sight’ when he first clapped eyes on the wondrous Roger Federer back in 2003. I can’t say I’m surprised because back then Rog was still sporting that ponytail and stubble, which made him look like a total dork (albeit one with great racket skills).

By contrast, I was totally smitten when I first saw Rafa on TV in 2006 playing at Roland Garros. It was the year he scooped his second French Open title (defeating Federer in the final) and he went on to lose in the Wimbledon final to (you guessed it) the imperious Monsieur Federer.

What was it about the young Spaniard that captured my imagination and has continued to do so during a decade of triumphs, disasters, debilitating injuries and fruitless attempts to get control of his sweaty underwear? I’ve got to be honest, it was the combination of his perma-tanned pirate look and his take-no-prisoners style of tennis.

With his biceps busting out of those day-glo sleeveless tops and flowing headbands worn with the same panache as the great Suzanne Lenglen, Rafa cut quite a dash as he topspin forehanded his way across the clay courts of Europe. Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Rome and Paris were all conquered as he rose to Number 2 in the rankings and then, in 2008, defeated King Roger in the gathering gloom on Centre Court at Wimbledon. Some called it the Greatest Tennis Match Ever Played. Others were dismayed that this tennis barbarian had brought down the Federator.

Other things I love about Rafa include his lack of facility with the English language. His interviews have never been as polished and articulate as those of Federer or Djokovic. He stumbles over his sentences and resorts almost as frequently to his stock phrase – ‘Thank you very much’ – as he does to running round his backhand or fiddling with his shorts.

Rafa’s never going to win any prizes for making victory speeches in fluent French either. It may bother the snooty crowds at Roland Garros, but I couldn’t care less. You don’t need words, witticisms or faux wisdom when you have the most expressive eyebrows in the history of tennis (during interviews they’re permanently at a downward angle of 45 degrees).

Talking of angles, commentators have spent an inordinate amount of time analysing how Nadal positions his drink bottles at the side of the court. They’ve dissected the growing number of tics that make up his lengthy pre-service routine and speculated on whether his game would implode if someone kicked over the bottles or gave him a time-violation warning.

Yes, Rafa Nadal is more than a little obsessive-compulsive. If he’d spent less time towelling off over the past decade I might actually have written that long-delayed novel or found time to learn another language. He’s not perfect and neither are his knees, back or wrist – any or all of which may bring his career to a premature end.

Sadly, it’s not just Rafa’s eyebrows that have been heading the wrong way lately. His ranking has plummeted (he’s currently 7 in the world) and his recent string of defeats has attracted even more analysis than Labour’s recent meltdown in the 2015 General Election. If he loses his French Open crown this fortnight will it be the beginning of the end for this Spanish superstar?

Timing is everything – both for sports stars and their fans. In hindsight I wish I’d gone out at the top and ‘retired’ from tennis fandom when Rafa won his ninth French Open crown in 2014. But I lingered too long and now the rot has set in for both of us. I’d love to be proved wrong but I can’t see him emerging victorious from a potential quarter-final dust-up with Novak Djokovic. That’s assuming he even gets to the second week.

I’ll spare myself more afternoons of sweaty-palmed misery watching him lose on the courts where he has reigned supreme for so long.

Adios Rafa and thanks for rocking my world.


Unsporting Sports Personalities of 2014

U09_Luis_Suárez_7523 (pic Ailura)

Hungry for World Cup glory? Luis Suárez
(pic Ailura)

As another year of sporting achievement draws to a close, the BBC is preparing to hand out the gongs at BBC Sports Personality of the Year 2014 on 14 December. Those who like acronyms will know this event as SPOTY, and I see that for fans of brevity it’s been shortened to SP14, which sounds like a tax form.

As readers of this blog may already know, I gave up watching SPOTY a few years ago. The endless montages, cheesy interviews and wall-to-wall sycophancy gave me a headache.

There’s not even much of a competition this year, with World Number One golfer Rory McIlroy seemingly a shoo-in to beat new Formula One World Champion Lewis Hamilton for Sports Personality of the Year 2014. That’s disappointing news for fans of the ever fertile Roger Federer, who’d argue that fathering a second set of twins is even more impressive than picking up two Majors.

Instead of watching SPOTY, I’d like to salute those players, managers and administrators across the sporting world who made the headlines in 2014 for all the wrong reasons.

Luis Suarez: big mouth strikes again

When you look back on the 2014 FIFA World Cup, what do you think of first? Is it the 5-1 rout of defending champions Spain by the Netherlands or Germany’s ruthless 7-1 semi-final annihilation of over-confident hosts Brazil? Of course not. It was Uruguay’s goal-hungry striker, Luis Suárez, apparently sinking his teeth into Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini that made headlines around the world and sent the British press into a feeding frenzy. Suárez had previous form – most recently an attempt to nibble Chelsea defender Branislav Ivanovic’s arm – so his four-month ban wasn’t a surprise. Love him or hate him, the orthodontically challenged Luis is a gift to sub-editors (“It had to be chew!”) and GIF-makers. Liverpool haven’t been the same since he left.

Phil Mickelson: a formula for failure

The British press had the knives out for veteran Phil Mickelson at the 2014 Ryder Cup. Both before and after his team’s 16 ½ to 11 ½ points defeat by Europe, Mickelson’s penchant for shooting his mouth off overshadowed the action. I’ve always found Phil’s swashbuckling style, expanding girth and incipient man boobs quite appealing. His “we also don’t litigate against each other” quip – referencing Rory McIlroy’s dispute with former management company Horizon was more innocuous than obnoxious.  Sadly not many people appreciated the candour of Mickelson’s “We have strayed from a winning formula” post-mortem on Tom Watson’s feeble captaincy. A case of bad timing?

MickelsonTPCAwardCeremony (pic minds-eye)

The prize for motor mouth 2014 goes to Phil Mickelson (pic minds-eye)

Kevin Pietersen: right to reply?

I’ve never been able to make up my mind whether Kevin Pietersen is a “maverick genius” or just another tattooed narcissist with too many trick shots. Following England’s disastrous Ashes tour last winter, the ECB terminated KP’s contract – some would say with extreme prejudice. His response was the imaginatively titled KP: The Autobiography, in which he lambasted the “bullying culture” supposedly fostered by former coach Andy Flower and senior England players like Graeme Swann and Matt Prior. No doubt the mutual mud-slinging helped KP shift lots of units, but it wasn’t what Alastair Cook’s beleaguered team needed.

Kevin_Pietersen_2014 (pic NAPARAZZI)

Swann song: Kevin Pietersen criticised several former team-mates in his autobiography (pic NAPARAZZI)

Shamil Tarpischev vs the Williams sisters

Shamil Tarpischev sounds like a girl’s name to me, but even if the president of the Russian Tennis Federation had an “ova” he’d still be no match for Serena and Venus Williams. That ill-judged reference to the “Williams brothers” during a Russian chat show appearance briefly made Tarpischev a household name. The WTA slapped him with a US$25,000 fine and a 12-month suspension. Serena Williams hit him with the triple-barrelled accusation of being “extremely sexist, racist and bullying”.

The ever popular Rio Ferdinand

Rio Ferdinand’s Twitter account was in the news again in 2014, following that ill-advised “sket” hashtag. The FA fined him £25,000 and banned him for three matches for introducing fans to this Caribbean slang for a loose woman. The FA took into account that @rioferdy5 has almost 6 million followers and is therefore held to a higher burden of responsibility as a prolific tweeter. In response he tweeted: “Is humour even allowed….I’m baffled! Ludicrous…. & I don’t mean the rapper.” 

Money talks & West Indies walk

In the 70s and 80s the West Indies test team were world-beating entertainers with the scariest fast bowling attack and Master Blaster batsman Viv Richards. In 2014 Dwayne Bravo’s team made the news for abandoning a tour of India in October because of a pay dispute. I don’t know who’s to blame: the West Indies Cricket Board (WICB), the West Indies Players’ Association (WIPA) or the players. I do know it’s a terrible advertisement for the game of cricket.


LA Stories: Lance Armstrong on Film

"<a href="">Lance Armstrong MidiLibre 2002</a>" by <a href="//" class="extiw" title="de:Benutzer:Hase">de:Benutzer:Hase</a> - Self-photographed. Licensed under <a title="Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0" href="">CC BY-SA 3.0</a> via <a href="//">Wikimedia Commons</a>.

Lance Armstrong hides those “lyin’ eyes” during the 2002 Grand Prix Midi Libre

The most glaring absence from The Armstrong Lie is the keen intellect and infallible bullshit detector of author, journalist and Teflon-coated anti-Lance crusader, David Walsh.

In the week that the Tour de France brought a triumphant splash of yellow to Britain’s roads, the BBC and Channel 4 served up two films illustrating the darker side of cycling’s recent history.

The Armstrong Lie (Channel 4) and BBC Four’s Storyville: Lance Armstrong: Stop at Nothing offered a fascinating compare and contrast experience for fans of movies, sport and conspiracies. As I’d recently read two books about the Lance Armstrong doping controversy (Tyler Hamilton and Daniel Coyle’s The Secret Race and David Walsh’s Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong), I didn’t need much persuasion to spend four hours mainlining Lance.

The Armstrong Lie was made by Alex Gibney (Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God and Taxi to the Dark Side), while Lance Armstrong: Stop at Nothing was directed by Alex Holmes, writer/director of the 2004 miniseries House of Saddam. Both films recount how cancer survivor Lance Armstrong’s record seven Tour de France victories (1999-2005) were eventually revealed to be the work not of some two-wheeled messiah but of a power-crazed charlatan, boosted by EPO and blood transfusions. But though they often employ the same archive footage and interview the same people, the results feel very different.

Gibney’s film is the more “authored” piece, in which his own relationship with the Lance Armstrong Story takes centre stage. Gibney set out to make a movie about Lance’s comeback to cycling and his decision to compete in the 2009 Tour de France, riding for Astana. That project was derailed in the wake of Floyd Landis’s revelations about what really went on inside that all-conquering US Postal Service team. In October 2012 an investigation by the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) finally led to Lance being stripped of his yellow jerseys and banned for life.

When Gibney returned to the project, his main question was why Lance ever risked coming back to the sport and exposing what had been a remarkably effective cover-up of doping activities. Was he really riding “clean” in that comeback Tour? Gibney cuts between archive footage, material shot in 2009 and new interviews with his subject, to bring the story up to date. We drop in on Lance at home with the doping inspectors and see clips from his tête-à-tête with an unforgiving Oprah Winfrey in January 2013. A supposedly chastened Lance tells Gibney, “I didn’t live a lot of lies but I lived one big one”, and speculates on whether his cycling feats will remain expunged from the record books in decades to come.

The price of Gibney’s access to his subject is that The Armstrong Lie feels like a wholly undeserved opportunity for Lance have the final word — yet again. There is some eye-opening behind-the-scenes footage from the 2009 Tour de France, in which team director Johan Bruyneel fails to control Lance’s team-mate (and bitter rival) Alberto Contador. But can we expect any real insights or revelations when Armstrong himself keeps popping up every five minutes to offer his best impression of sincerity and contrition?

For me, Storyville: Lance Armstrong: Stop at Nothing is the far superior documentary because it allows Lance’s victims – and there are many – to have their say. The difference between the two films is best summed up with an incident from a 2009 press conference, in which Lance attacks Irish journalist and ex-cyclist Paul Kimmage for describing him as the “cancer” of the sport. “You’re not worth the chair that you’re sitting on,” he self-righteously declares, while more or less claiming to be the man who’s single-handedly ridding the world of that terrible disease. (It’s that messiah complex again.)

Gibney’s film then cuts to the grinning face of Lance’s former team-mate, George Hincapie, who was at that press conference and now seems to regard the hypocrisy as a bit of joke; Storyville shows us Kimmage’s angry riposte at the time. It’s significant because it emphasises that the BBC film is less concerned with myth-making and more focused on the voices of dissent that dogged this American “hero” throughout his glory years.

Lance’s former team-mate Frankie Andreu and his fearless and incorruptible wife Betsy (think Deputy Solverson from Fargo) are interviewed at length in both films. Frankie’s career was damaged and both suffered intimidation as a result of their refusal to adhere to the Armstrong “Omerta”. But in the Alex Holmes film we also hear from others who were traduced and thrown under the (team) bus, including former soigneur Emma O’Reilly, Tour de France winner Greg LeMond and the USADA’s Travis Tygart, who admits he received threats to his life. Tyler Hamilton gives us the lowdown on those blood transfusions, providing graphic detail that’s absent from the Gibney film.

The most glaring absence from The Armstrong Lie is the keen intellect and infallible bullshit detector of author, journalist and Teflon-coated anti-Lance crusader, David Walsh. In Storyville: Lance Armstrong: Stop at Nothing he highlights the stupidity of Armstrong not allowing the “ticking bomb” that was Floyd Landis back into his team, following Floyd’s two-year ban for doping in 2006. That decision pushed Landis towards his fateful decision to blow the whistle on Lance.

Walsh also points out that Lance’s demand that his accusers produce “extraordinary proof” of his doping reflected an unwavering belief that “different rules apply to the gods”.

As for why Lance Armstrong came back to the sport, Walsh calls it “the oldest theme in Hollywood”, comparing the cyclist’s high-octane career to that of a master jewel thief or an assassin, “They do their job brilliantly . . . someone says just one more job . . . they can’t resist”.

Courting controversy: Wimbledon’s all white obsession

Serena Williams, Wimbledon 2012 (pic Katherine Shann)

Serena Williams wasn’t in the pink at Wimbledon 2014 (pic Katherine Shann)

It’s not often I find myself in agreement with Roger Federer, but Wimbledon’s “all-white” rule is cretinous. Of course The Federator was far to polite to actually use that word, but he has spoken out against the All England Club’s decision to eliminate as much colour as possible from the players’ attire.

In recent years competitors have got away with jazzing up their pristine white attire with the odd splash of colour. So tennis queen Serena Williams was able to don a regal purple headband or highlight her posterior with an eye-catching pair of red shorts. Sadly, those hot pants failed to make the same impact as Venus’s infamous flesh-coloured drawers in 2010.

In 2013 Roger Federer was ticked off for taking to the court in a pair of Nikes with day-glo orange soles. They weren’t nearly as offensive to the eye as veteran Radek Stepanek’s banned red and blue footwear from 2012, but still unacceptable to those All England killjoys.

A few years ago I remember commentator Pat Cash saying he would eat his hat if Tim Henman managed to win Wimbledon. Given “Tiger” Tim’s unerring ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, I thought Cashie was on pretty safe ground with that boast. But the straight-talking Aussie did come unstuck with his footwear this year during a veterans’ event, after failing to observe Point 8 of Wimbledon’s revised Clothing and Equipment guidelines “Shoes must be almost entirely white, including the soles.”

In a tradition that stretches back to Gussie Moran’s lace-trimmed knickers in the 1940s, there’s nothing the press loves more during Wimbledon fortnight than an opportunity to write about ladies’ underwear. It’s so much more rewarding (and photogenic) than speculating about Andy Murray’s latest cursing outburst.

So editors must have been cheering Wimbledon’s decision to make the ladies and their “unmentionables” even more high visibility this year. If anything is going to show up through that perspiration-soaked dress (or shirt) it “must also be completely white”.

Caroline Wozniacki was able to see right through the All England Club’s underwear fixation, declaring it “creepy”. But ceremonially setting fire to your (non-white) bra, as those pioneers of women’s tennis might have done in the early 70s, is not an option these days. Wimbledon decrees that “common standards of decency are required at all times”.

As you may have detected, I am a tennis fan but I am not an admirer of strict dress codes – either in sport or in any other walk of life. I do not respect institutions who cling on to their precious, and in this case utterly pointless, traditions at the expense of flexibility or common sense.

Has anyone ever felt tempted to walk off Centre Court because a player was wearing red knickers or had an excessive amount of colour trim on their shirt? I’d be much more irritated by the grunting, shrieking and excessive towelling-off that punctuates so many matches these days.

Many of the colour combinations at this year’s French Open ranged from the unflattering (Roger Federer’s grey top with red sleeves) to the downright hideous (Tomas Berdych’s floral ensemble). But at least it was easy to distinguish one badly dressed player from another.

Of course Wimbledon’s “all white” rule is just a dress code. For much of the 20th century a sign that said “Whites Only” had very different connotations if you lived in the US or in apartheid-era South Africa. Wimbledon isn’t being racist – it’s just being annoyingly petty, pointlessly traditional and utterly British. So let’s tear up the rule book and have more stripes, more colour and more fun.

Outspoken Sports Personality of 2013

Jose_Mourinho_(pic Steindy)

Rarely lost for words – coach Jose Mourinho
returned to Chelsea in 2013

We’re heading into end-of-the-year “gong” season again, and for sports fans that means BBC Sports Personality of the Year 2013 – helpfully shortened to SPOTY. On Sunday 15 December our finest athletes, coaches and managers will brave a barrage of BBC roving microphones and Gary Lineker’s aftershave to review a year of sporting triumphs and near-misses.

Though this is the 60th anniversary of the SPOTY awards, the show’s diamond jubilee will be missing a bit of sparkle. Sue Barker, for so long the jewel in the crown of BBC sports coverage, has opted to “downsize” her commitments and retire from her SPOTY duties after 19 glorious years. (Don’t worry, tennis fans, she’ll still be anchoring the BBC’s Wimbledon coverage and flirting with Tim Henman.) Her place will be taken by glamorous Gabby Logan, whose legs will share the limelight with Gary Lineker and Clare Balding.

After the gold rush of London 2012 there was a risk that 2013 might have fallen as flat as the much-touted Olympic legacy. Nothing could be further from the truth. The England cricket team’s summer Ashes campaign may have been unconvincing, but no one could doubt the quality of Ian Bell’s batting or fast bowler Stuart Broad’s unerring knack of getting up Aussie noses. Justin Rose triumphed at the US Open in June; Chris Froome made it back-to-back wins for Sky at the Tour de France in July.

The crowning glory in another Great British Summer of Sport was Andy Murray becoming the first British male to win a Wimbledon singles title since Fred Perry in 1936. If that doesn’t win him the SPOTY award for 2013, I’ll eat a haggis.

I’ll be giving SPOTY 2013 a miss, for reasons I outlined last year. Instead, I’d like to pay tribute to the sports personalities whose loose-lipped, gaffe-prone, foot-in-mouth antics have kept the headline writers busy over the past 12 months.

Pulling no punches – David Warner

In June 2013 pugnacious Aussie opening batsmen David Warner narrowly escaped being sent home from the Ashes tour, after attempting to punch England’s Joe Root during a bar-room altercation over an improvised wig. Much hilarity centred on the fact that Warner only “caught the outside edge” of the baby-faced Root’s face. Five months later Warner was on target as he delivered the coup de grâce to Jonathan Trott, describing the England batsman’s second innings dismissal in the Brisbane Test as “pretty poor and weak”. He wasn’t being malicious – just honest – but Warner didn’t know that Trott’s batting was crippled by a stress-related condition. Trott flew home; Warner got beaten up in the press by various Aussie legends and England captain Alistair Cook.

Ernests Gulbis – no more Mr Nice Guy

Latvian tennis player Ernests Gulbis has a name that looks like a typo and a penchant for shooting his mouth off. He made headlines during the French Open in May, by condemning the world’s leading stars – Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray – for their boring post-match interviews. He does have a point – these encounters between the press and the “Big Four” are masterclasses in the art of saying nothing controversial let alone confrontational. On the other hand, tennis careers are measured in trophies not bons mots. As this compilation shows, Gulbis (“I never practise that much”) is a top exponent of self-deprecating humour, but he’ll never win a Slam.

Sir Alex Ferguson wields a blow torch

In case you hadn’t heard, Sir Alex Ferguson (aka “SAF”) retired as Manchester United manager after steering the club to a 20th league title in April 2013. Fergie may have hung up his “hairdryer” for good, but he returned to put the boot into his former players with the literary equivalent of a blow torch. “David Beckham will feel like he has been ambushed, mugged and beaten up” claimed one newspaper as Fergie’s imaginatively titled Alex Ferguson My Autobiography lambasted Becks for putting celebrity haircuts before his footballing career.

Why 2013 sucked for Sir Bradley Wiggins

After the glory and adulation of 2012, cycling’s “modfather” Wiggo fell off his pedestal in 2013, losing his titles and his dignity. From his premature exit at the Giro d’Italia in May, to his ignominious retirement at the World Championships in September, Sir Brad was generally out of form and out of luck. As his feud with team-mate Chris Froome rumbled on, Wiggo put the finishing touches on his Annus Horribilis with an ill-timed sex quip at a Barnardo’s charity event. The Firecracker Ball was in aid of victims of child abuse but no one was feeling charitable about the cyclist’s lewd comment to the auctioneer. Sorry, Wiggo, but you’re the one who sucks.

Assem Allam puts his mouth where
his money is

They admire plain speaking in Yorkshire, but Hull City owner Assem Allam’s “I don’t mind them singing ‘City till we die’. They can die as soon as they want,” riposte at protesting supporters went down like a lead balloon. Assam, who’s sunk more than £60 million into the club, believes renaming it Hull Tigers will signify “power” and increased marketability. Perhaps he should take his cues from Chelsea boss Roman Abramovich, who keeps his gob shut when the peasants are revolting and leaves the quips to Jose Mourinho.

Howzat! Kerry Packer’s War

Dennis_Keith_Lillee_(pic Eva Rinaldi)

Fast bowling legend Dennis Lillee

Kerry Packer is an unstoppable force of nature, who spews out expletives and dispenses wads of cash at an equally alarming rate.

BBC presenter John Inverdale continues to attract almost as many column inches as our new Wimbledon Champion, Andy Murray. The Guardian alone could probably fill a 24-page supplement with scathing condemnations of the man who obviously felt Marion Bartoli wasn’t slim, glamorous or sufficiently Eastern European to grace Centre Court last Saturday. To borrow a withering put-down from Judi Dench’s “M”, Inverdale is a “sexist, misogynist dinosaur”. But those who think it should be “all ova” for him at the Beeb are going to be disappointed. He’ll be flaunting his reptilian charm, “helmet” hair and dubious taste in shirts on the BBC’s coverage of Wimbledon 2014.

Inverdale would probably have fitted in well at Kerry Packer’s Channel Nine, back in the even more sexist, misogynist and prehistoric 1970s. As the Great British Summer of Sport rolled into the Ashes series, Howzat! Kerry Packer’s War, smashed its way onto BBC4, a channel usually associated with high-minded documentaries and subtitled movies.

This two-part Australian miniseries covers a turbulent period in the history of cricket, when overbearing, foul-mouthed media tycoon Kerry Packer (played by Lachy Hulme) went to war over TV rights with the stuffed-shirt administrators running the game. He procured the services of top players like Ian and Greg Chappell, Rodney Marsh and England captain Tony Grieg, with promises of big financial rewards. In doing so, he created the short-lived World Series Cricket – a brash, lucrative and star-studded rival to the existing international cricket competitions.

You don’t have to know much about cricket – let alone Australian cricket – to appreciate this show as low-budget sporting melodrama of the highest order. Lachy Hulme summons the spirit of the late Larry Hagman in the role of the TV mogul everyone loved to hate. Backed into a corner by a cadre of national cricket boards and the ICC, Packer is an unstoppable force of nature, who spews out expletives and dispenses wads of cash at an equally alarming rate. Sir Alex Ferguson’s “hairdryer” treatment would look like a mild dressing down compared with watching Packer go ballistic at his business partners John Cornell (Abe Forsythe) and Austin Robertson (Nicholas Coghlan). I’ve never seen a salad tossed (or hurled) with quite so much venom either.

Talking of dressing, lovers of 70s fashion will revel in the parade of big collars and even bigger moustaches on display in almost every scene. Packer was clean-shaven, but just about every major Aussie cricketer of that era had an impressive thatch sprouting above his upper lip, through which he sucked prodigious quantities of beer. The problem is that the ‘taches and the dodgy wigs become indistinguishable after a while. Apart from Brendan Cowell (The Slap), who plays wicket keeper Rod Marsh, none of the actors Howzat! in were familiar to me. Thank goodness Tony Grieg had a South African accent (ironically he’s played by an actor called Alexander England), otherwise I might have been even more confused.

Kerry Packer may have been generous with his cash, but it looks as though the producers of Howzat! were on a much more restricted budget. Though the drama hops between Sydney, Melbourne and London, even the most inattentive viewer will be laughing at the clumsy transitions into archive footage, to give the impression that real locations have been used. I particularly enjoyed a sequence at “Lord’s”, where we cut between close-ups of Packer and his cronies to long-shot footage of some other blokes having a chat in the middle of the hallowed turf. Numerous shots of London buses are supposed to add to the authenticity, but look as unconvincing as the (new) £10 note that Grieg hands to an irate taxi driver.

As with the British media’s coverage of Wimbledon 2013, Howzat! is resolutely male chauvinist in its outlook. Women are there solely to look decorative, answer phones and fetch snacks. When, like Packer’s long-suffering secretary, they only achieve a Marion Bartoli level of attractiveness, the boss is not impressed.

Kerry Packer may have started a revolution in the cricketing world, but I’m not so sure attitudes towards women have moved on much since the mustachioed mid-70s.

No Love Lost between Wimbledon’s Ladies

Billie_Jean_King_(pic Jonathan Exley)

A game to love? Women’s tennis owes
everything to Billie Jean King.

In honour of its 40th anniversary, the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) has come up with a great slogan “40 Love”. It’s a shame that in those “Forty years of breaking barriers”, some of the game’s top players haven’t mastered the art of being civil to each other – on or off the court.

Yesterday’s Wimbledon semi-final between fourth seed Agnieszka Radwanska and the marauding German Sabine Lisicki was one of the most exciting, high-quality women’s matches I’ve seen for years. Mind you, that’s not saying a lot. As the women’s game has cranked up the volume in recent years, I find the incessant yelping has a detrimental effect on my health. But the Radwanska/Lisicki had all the ingredients you need for a great tennis contest – contrasting styles, fluctuating fortunes and mid-match meltdown by the German that was painful to behold. The only soundtrack was provided by enthusiastic spectators on Centre Court, who were enjoying the rare sight of a women’s match that didn’t suck.

Lisicki eventually prevailed in a 9-7 third set. She was (understandably) jubilant about reaching her first Major final. In the BBC commentary box, an excited Simon Reed demonstrated that he understood the concept of impartiality almost as well as his older brother Ollie Reed used to master the art of sobriety. Unfortunately, the aftermath of a memorable semi-final was soured by Radwanska’s grudging handshake and rapid departure from Centre Court. She had lost; she was disappointed; she wanted to be back in the locker room.

The bad news for Radwanska is that in this age of Trial by Twitter, an ungracious exit can hurt you almost as much as a double-fault or a service return that sails over the baseline. So it wasn’t long before their brief moment at the net was being disseminated, dissected and condemned by fans, tennis insiders and those who just can’t resist a good cat fight.

On BBC2’s Today at Wimbledon, Lindsay Davenport described Radwanska’s reaction as “unsportsmanlike”, while Martina Navratilova said it was “disappointing” and recalled that she’d never avoided looking her conqueror in the eye. Radwanska’s own misfiring attempt at sarcasm when questioned about the end of the match – “Should I just be there and dance?” – didn’t help her cause either.

The news cycle and the tennis world will quickly move on to other triumphs and disasters. In today’s men’s semi-finals we’ll be clocking the speed of Jerzy Janowicz’s service not measuring the froideur at the net. The big story will be about the continuing dominance of Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, or perhaps a breakthrough for Janowicz or Del Potro.

The message seems clear: men’s tennis is about athletic achievement, while the women’s game is just a sideshow to all the bitching, backstabbing and possible gamesmanship. Earlier this year, Victoria Azarenka’s Australian Open victory was overshadowed by her apparent panic attack during her controversial semi-final match against Sloane Stephens. The build-up to Wimbledon was accompanied by a spat between Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova over comments that the American made in an interview with Rolling Stone. Was Serena having a pop at Maria’s relationship with Grigor Dimitrov? Who cares.

Watching the other Wimbledon semi-final yesterday, between Marion Bartoli and Kirsten Flipkens, was Bartoli’s new coach, Amelie Mauresmo. In a perfect world, Mauresmo would be remembered for her glorious one-handed backhand and for being one of the most stylish exponents of the women’s game. Sadly, the 2006 Wimbledon champion’s name is also synonymous with some thoughtless comments made by Martina Hingis in 1999. Perhaps something got lost in translation, but German reporters suggested that Hingis had said of the openly gay Mauresmo “she is half a man”.

Maria, Serena, Victoria, Agnieszka and the rest enjoy the vast financial rewards of a game that was put on the map by Billie Jean King and the other pioneers of professional tennis. Now it’s time they grew up and showed some professionalism and respect in their rivalries. They’re being paid like the men, so they should take a good look at how champions like Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray behave when the battle is over. Otherwise the slogan for the much vaunted WTA should read: “40 Love/Hate”.

Sabine Lisicki Wows Wimbledon with a Smile

Sabine_Lisicki (pic Christian Mesiano)

Three years ago during the French Open I wrote a blog about how unappealing women’s tennis had become. I stand by those comments. With their one-dimensional games, celebrity boyfriends and multi-octave shrieking, the likes of Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka make me want to run screaming from the room. Now at last there’s a ray of hope on the tennis horizon. The early exits of the “Gruesome Twosome” made the Wimbledon 2013 quarter-final line-up more interesting than usual, with Germany’s Sabine Lisicki the new favourite with crowds and bookies.

Watching Lisicki outmanoeuvre the seemingly unbeatable Serena Williams on Centre Court yesterday was fun. (Not for Serena, obviously, though at least she didn’t resort to one of those limp, no-eye-contact handshakes at the net afterwards.) Like the American, the German has that rare combination in women’s tennis of power and variety in that huge “Boom Boom” serve. It’s not often you see Serena get aced on a second serve.

It’s refreshing to see a powerful woman who does more with all that “oomph” than just yell, pump her fist and blast the ball down the middle of the court until her opponent falls over. Instead Lisicki advances to the net and goes for the drop shot almost as often as the prodigiously sweaty Rafa Nadal goes for the towel. Despatching Estonia’s statuesque Kaia Kanepi 6-3, 6-3 in today’s quarter-final, she often left her opponent floundering behind the baseline with shots neatly deposited halfway up the service box.

Watching the likeable German reach her second Wimbledon semi-final was venerable BBC commentator, Barry Davies, a man who appreciates that there’s more to good tennis than diamond earrings and a fistful of endorsements. Last week Barry suggested that Spain’s Nicolas Almagro had been “marmalised” during his third round defeat to Polish beanpole Jerzy Janowicz. (As The Guardian’s more prosaic headline put it, “Jerzy Janowicz biffs his way past Nicolás Almagro.”)

Unlike some of his colleagues, Barry dates from that long-forgotten era when insight and eloquence were more valued qualities in sports commentary than just “personality”. Also in the commentary box was Martina Navratilova, who once ruled these courts with a game that was as formidable Lisicki’s, though her personality was a good deal less sunny most of the time.

Though I’ve been genuinely excited to see players like Lisicki, Li Na and Agnieszka Radwańska going for their shots, others have been focusing elsewhere. Like their counterparts in other sports, female tennis players cannot escape the relentless scrutiny of their looks and demeanour. (That must be why Radwańska goes on court caked in enough mascara for all the other seven quarter-finalists put together.) So journalists and fans soon noted that Sabine’s secret weapon wasn’t so much her kick serve as her uncanny ability to smile in the face of adversity.

It is one of the more absurd laws of modern tennis that allows players to take lengthy “injury” time-outs when the momentum is going against them or they feel nervous. Azarenka was accused of gamesmanship when she did this in her semi-final against Sloane Stephens at this year’s Australian Open. Radwańska also sought medical attention at a key point in today’s quarter-final, before going on to win. But yesterday Sabine stayed on court and kept smiling through a morale-sapping period in which she lost nine games in a row against Serena. For most players that would be curtains.

Questioned by intrepid BBC reporter Garry Richardson after today’s quarter-final, a still-grinning Lisicki patiently responded, “I’m just passionate about the sport.” It was the kind of stock answer that Ernests Gulbis would doubtless describe as “boring”, but I found it endearing.

I don’t usually bother watching the Women’s Final at Wimbledon, but if the name Sabine Lisicki is inscribed on that famous Venus Rosewater Dish on Saturday then I might be smiling too.

If you’re a fan of tennis fashion (and history), you might enjoy my Pinterest board “Tennis’s Greatest Headbands”.

Giving Argentina a Sporting Chance

Cardinal Jorge M. Bergoglio SJ (Pope Francis I)

The transition from avid Pope watching to fervent Argie bashing was almost seamless. Less than 24 hours after Pope Francis I (the one-lunged Pontiff) made his first balcony appearance in Saint Peter’s Square, the British press was reminding us of supposedly inflammatory comments he made 12 months ago about the Falkland Islands. Speaking on the 30th anniversary of the start of the Falklands War, Jorge Bergoglio (as he was then), led prayers for the fallen and referenced the disputed territory as “the country that is theirs and they were usurped”.

Meanwhile, The Guardian had its own axe to grind, delving into the murky history of the Argentine junta in the 70s and 80s and Bergoglio’s role as part of the discredited Catholic hierarchy of that era.

Not to be outdone, The Sun weighed in with its “Hand of God” headline – a none-to-subtle reference to Diego Maradona’s controversial “goal” for Argentina against England in the 1986 World Cup quarter-final. By tonight, I fully expect to be reading that the new Pope Francis cheats at cards and has been caught riding the bus in Buenos Aires without paying.

I’m not a Catholic but I am a sports fan, and the real story here seems to be Britain’s longstanding antipathy towards lying, cheating Argies of all shapes and sizes. On the same night that Pope Francis was elected, Andy Murray was having a run in with Argentina’s Carlos Berlocq at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells. The Scot eventually won their fourth-round match 7-6, 6-4, but he was enraged by his opponent’s “extremely, extremely loud” grunting at key moments during the match.

“Murray annoyed at stupid grunt”, claims The Sun, in what by that paper’s high standards is a rather limp headline. I’d have gone with something a bit more indignant – “Muzza blasts grunting Argie”. That might strike a chord with the Telegraph reader who quipped earlier today in reference to Pope Francis, “I thought we’d sunk the General Bergoglio”.

Having listened to the brief clip on the paper’s website, I think Muzza does have legitimate cause for complaint. As far as I know, Andy’s never criticised his good friend and rival Rafael Nadal for inappropriate on-court noises. That’s probably because the Spaniard keeps his grunting at a consistent level throughout – much like his legendary whipped topspin forehand. So let’s hope that Berlocq doesn’t team up with Victoria Azarenka or Maria Sharapova for mixed doubles, or the decibel count will be well off the Larcher de Brito scale.

Closer to home, another Argentine we love to hate is in trouble yet again this week. Manchester City striker Carlos Tevez has been charged with driving his white Porsche while disqualified and without insurance. If found guilty he could face a jail sentence, a fine, or even an ASBO, though probably not a lengthy spell in manager Roberto Mancini’s bad books. Unlike the British press, Mancini has been notable for his forgiving attitude towards Tevez – whatever the provocation. Last weekend he joked “I hope that the police can stop him every day”, after Carlos celebrated his arrest by scoring a hat-trick against Barnsley in the FA Cup.

But there are some Argentine sportsmen who enjoy an unsullied reputation. In the 70s we marvelled at the muscular tennis player Guillermo Vilas, whose successes in the mid-70s have been rather overshadowed by those of Bjorn Borg. A few years later, there was Gabriela Sabatini, whose film-star looks are now ideal for promoting her own range of perfumes.

Formula One fans still revere Juan Manuel Fangio, who won five world championships, survived a kidnapping and heart surgery and lived to the ripe old age of 84.

But perhaps the greatest Argentine sports star is the man who was dominating the headlines 24 hours before Pope Francis. The majestic Lionel Messi scored two goals on Tuesday night, to help Barcelona beat AC Milan 4-0 in the second leg of their Champions League tie. Carlos Tevez may struggle with tricky English words like “constabulary”, but for the prolific Messi, “phenomenal” and “fantastic” don’t really need translating.

Outspoken Sports Personality of the Year 2012

In this year of extraordinary sporting achievement, the voters have got their work cut out trying to pick a winner of BBC Sports Personality of the Year 2012. Bradley Wiggins, Andy Murray, Jessica Ennis, Mo Farah and all the shortlisted candidates have left a trail of hyperventilating commentators and pundits in their relentless march to glory. No kids, that’s not a chocolate coin hanging on the Christmas tree this year, it’s an Olympic gold medal!

I wish all the candidates good luck tonight. I hope the evening isn’t marred by audible swearing, embarrassing wardrobe malfunctions, or ladies being overcome by the combination of testosterone and fumes from Gary Lineker’s aftershave. I would like Wiggo to win, but I won’t be tuning in to watch the event at London’s ExCel Centre because I agree with The Evening Standard’s Dan Jones that it’s just a “spangly festival of pukey montages, twee sentimentality and bad shirts”. For sporting superstars weighed down by truckloads of medals, trophies, world records and untold riches, this BBC poll seems almost as pointless as last month’s Police Commissioner elections.

So instead of reflecting on Britain’s golden generation, let’s celebrate another area in which our sports stars regularly make a splash. When it comes to intemperate tweets, ill-advised texts and mouthing off to all and sundry, Britain has once again led the world in 2012. Here are some of my favourites.

How to push Lewis Hamilton’s button

On his Twitter account the now ex-McLaren driver declares “Life is a journey & i wanna share mine with you”. In October he mistakenly shared his dismay that team-mate Jenson Button had “unfollowed” him on the microblogging site, claiming this showed a lack of respect. @LewisHamilton had earlier blundered by tweeting confidential team data before the Belgian Grand Prix. Clearly, navigating Twitter is almost as dangerous for narcissists and egomaniacs as piloting an F1 car.

613px-Hamilton_2011_British_GP (pic Nick Webb)

Kevin Pietersen: some “doos” and don’ts

Everyone knows there’s no “I” in team, but significantly there are two in the name of England’s most swashbuckling and controversial batsman. In an up-and-down season, KP retired from one-day cricket and slagged off the now-retired captain Andrew Strauss in text messages sent to the South Africa team. “Doos” apparently has a very rude meaning in Afrikaans. Without KP, England subsequently lost the series, the World Number 1 ranking and the services of Strauss. Though re-integration is another of those dangerous words with two “I’s”, KP did find his way back into the England squad.

Ashley Cole shoots his mouth off

In 2011 the Chelsea left-back was in trouble for shooting a student with an air gun. This year he was taking a pop at the FA – through Twitter, of course. In the bitter fall-out from the John Terry racism case, Cole lashed out at football’s governing body for questioning the veracity of his testimony. He dismissed them as a bunch of t***s. I guess it takes one to know one, Ashley.

Mind your language with Joey Barton

To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, nothing in life can be said to be certain, except death, taxes and QPR’s Joey Barton dropping F-bombs all over the place. After being sent off in the match against Manchester City in May, Joey railed against his Match of the Day critics (mainly slaphead Alan Shearer) from the lofty position of his Twitter account. Now on loan to Marseille, Joey’s latest weapon against detractors is addressing journalists in an Inspector Clouseau comedy French accent. C’est formidable, n’est-ce pas?

Straight talking from Bradley Wiggins

If the SPOTY award really was about personality, then Olympic Time Trial gold medallist and 2012 Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins would be even more of an odds-on favourite. During his triumphal progress through France, Wiggo lost his cool with some journalists who questioned whether fans really were seeing a “clean” race this time. Let’s be clear: Wiggins is not Lance Armstrong and Team Sky’s zero tolerance policy towards former dopers is the right way forward for the sport. Over the season, Wiggins hit the world’s media with a choice array of expletives and the odd one-fingered gesture. Unlike Joey Barton, he didn’t bother employing a French accent.

Bradley_Wiggins_CD_2011 (pic Petit Brun)