Andy Murray

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.

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Olympic Tennis: Designed to Inspire

Court 1_Wimbledon_London 2012

Does the Olympics really need tennis? Until my visit to the All England Club yesterday, I’m one of those who would have questioned the point of holding an attenuated version of the world’s greatest tennis tournament so soon after Wimbledon 2012. Perhaps it was the rare appearance of the sun, or the sheer enthusiasm of all the 2012 volunteers, but I left SW19 feeling that “Inspire a Generation” might be more than just an empty slogan.

First up on Court 1 was reigning Wimbledon Champion, Roger Federer, against Uzbekistan’s most famous export, Denis Istomin. Other superheroes might wear a red cape or mask, but the “Federator” was sporting an elegant red shirt, with matching head and wristbands. I’m not Federer’s biggest admirer, but watching him in action must be somewhere on that list of 1001 things to do before you die. Bamboozling opponents with his spins, slices and unerring placement, Roger could be the tennis equivalent of the Taj Mahal. Not white marble perfection, but poetry in motion — and not a drop of sweat in sight.

You can’t really appreciate the genius of the man on TV, because you’re constantly distracted by the fawning commentary and the sight of Roger rearranging his well-tended locks so as not to obscure the sponsor’s “swoosh”. Unfortunately, it would have taken something much larger than Federer’s head to obscure that very uninspiring London 2012 logo, which is on display around Wimbledon this week. Nike’s ubiquitous “swoosh” is a design classic; the London 2012 logo is like a clumsy rearrangement of a second-rate Matisse cut-out, and it looks even worse in green than it does in pink.

Wimbledon has been subtly rebranded for the Olympic tennis event. With a three-set singles format (apart from the men’s final) and no third set in the mixed, there’s less chance of an Isneresque marathon. But it’s the colourful new look of the place and the hordes of young volunteers manning everything from security to the catering outlets that make this feel like a different event. They’re also pumping pop music into an arena that’s previously been the sole domain of Cliff Richard.

Centre Court is still wreathed in ivy and the courts look almost as pristine as Roger’s shoes — despite the recent wear and tear. But the classic Wimbledon green and purple palette has been replaced by something a bit brasher, and the players aren’t restricted to predominantly white attire. Radek Stepanek’s blue and red shoes fell foul of the tournament’s rules this year, but they were conservative compared with the gaudy green, yellow and red London 2012 footwear designed for India’s doubles maestro, Leander Paes.

Centre Court_Wimbledon_London 2012

Judging by the number of flags and brightly painted faces I saw, fans are embracing the fact that Olympic tennis is about more than just the year-round scramble for dollars and ranking points. Seeing Federer in fetching Swiss red or Andy Murray in patriotic shades of blue makes them more identifiable as representatives of their country. But I can’t work out what Istomin’s dreary black and white ensemble had to do with the Uzbekistan national colours.

Though the fans were loudly supporting their home nation, there was room for plenty more of them. The grounds were emptier and the queues shorter than on my previous visits to Wimbledon. It felt like another ticketing fiasco, but perhaps they’d all just migrated to the overstocked 2012 shop or to Murray Mount to watch Britain’s Number 1 in action on Centre Court.

Back on Court 1, top seed Victoria Azarenka was doing her best to “Inspire a Generation” by wearing down Russia’s Nadia Petrova. Like John McEnroe, I used to think that Azarenka was the most famous living sportswoman from Belarus. We were both wrong. “Mother of Gymnastics” Olga Korbut, who rivalled Mark Spitz as the superstar of the 1972 Munich Olympics, is also Belarusian.

But Vika7 (as she’s known on Twitter) was entertaining the younger fans not with her crushing baseline game but by the trademark “whoop” that accompanies every shot. After a few minutes I realised that the on-court racket was being copied — even mocked — by some of the kids in the stands. “Why is she making that noise?” asked the seven-year-old girl behind me. To his credit, her dad came up with a very plausible explanation about “effort”.

Azarenka went through to the semi-final today, beating Germany’s Angelique Kerber. If she wins a gold medal this weekend, I just hope it’s her tennis and not her extravagant vocal performance that echoes down the years and inspires a generation.

Roger Federer: It’s Hard to be Humble

Roger Federer 2010 (pic Esther Lim)

What really sets Roger Federer apart from his peers isn’t his bulging trophy cabinet or his breathtaking one-handed backhand, but his ability to be conceited in four languages.

Wimbledon 2012 is over and Roger Federer is once again on top of the world and the tennis rankings. Yesterday the Swiss precision instrument reduced Centre Court to a wad of damp tissues, runny mascara and broken dreams, as he beat Britain’s Andy Murray to secure his seventh Wimbledon title. Worshippers at the altar of King Roger have once again rushed to acclaim him as the GOAT (greatest of all time) and according to one hyperventilating headline writer he’s “nearly a saint”.

Federer’s tennis may be sublime, his shorts preternaturally crisp and his brow improbably sweat-free, but he’s not getting any more likeable — or humble — as the years roll by and the trophies pile up. Since Federer collected his 17th Grand Slam singles title on Sunday, “the Swiss” (as that Kraut Boris Becker likes to call him) has been hard to avoid. I don’t buy newspapers and I usually bypass the BBC big match build-up these days. There’s only so much fawning over Federer I can take before my blood pressure soars and I have to lie down in a darkened, Sue Barker-free room.

In the early hours of this morning he gatecrashed John Inverdale’s final Today at Wimbledon, forcing me to fast-forward to the closing montage. There he was again on today’s BBC News at One, modestly telling star-struck reporter Joe Wilson that he doesn’t feel like “the greatest of all time”, before giving us a quick reminder of his latest career milestones.

Sudafed relieves the symptoms of the common cold; @PseudoFed is a Twitter account that alleviates the irritation of listening to the GOAT being a pompous ass.

Yesterday’s tennis coverage also included the awesome sight of Roger admiring a showreel of his greatest Wimbledon moments. In a move that @DjokerNole would probably have admired, some joker at the Beeb had decided to include footage of Federer losing the epic 2008 Wimbledon final to Rafael Nadal. Unless I misunderstood him, Federer explained away that crushing disappointment as a matter of bad luck. (Try telling that to Rafa or his fans.) But we didn’t hear an explanation for that rather naff ponytail he sported in his younger, pre-GOAT days.

What really sets Roger Federer apart from his peers isn’t his bulging trophy cabinet or his breathtaking one-handed backhand, but his ability to be conceited in four languages. Despite speaking English better than most BBC commentators, Roger doesn’t seem to have grasped the concept of irony — that’s when you need a good dose of @PseudoFed. Sudafed relieves the symptoms of the common cold; @PseudoFed is a Twitter account that alleviates the irritation of listening to the GOAT being a pompous ass.

Not Roger Federer, a “humble tennis player, married to Mirky”, has been tweeting tirelessly from his FedBerry since September 2010 and has now branched out into blogging. In his Compare the Meerkat-style pidgin English, Federer’s alter ego gives us a glimpse into the ever-so-#humble life of a global sporting deity and reluctant love object for BBC presenter Sue Barker.

You won’t learn much about tennis by following @PseudoFed, but he does supply the warm, witty and self-mocking persona that is sadly missing from the real Roger Federer. Getting a tweet from @PseudoFed almost makes me forget that the real Roger is preening narcissist, who rearranges his hair almost as often as Rafa unscrambles his underwear.

I’m not going to add another chapter to the adulation of Roger Federer. Instead, here’s a tribute by Mac Davis to that monument to modesty, @PseudoFed. Stay humble.

Day of the Jackasses: Wimbledon 2012 Day 7

Andy Murray (pic johnwnguyen)

It takes up to 10 minutes to close the Centre Court roof — roughly the same amount of time that the dilatory Rafa Nadal wastes between serves.

To close or not to close? While Britain’s dodgy bankers and dithering politicians hog the headlines, there was another crisis brewing down in leafy SW19. Day 7 of Wimbledon 2012 should have brought a feast of tennis all over the grounds of the All England Club, with Andy Murray continuing his march towards the final. But this time it wasn’t just the soggy British weather raining on everyone’s parade — it was idiotic officials refusing to sanction extended opening hours under the Centre Court roof.

Before the Centre Court retractable roof was unveiled in 2009, tennis fans endured many frustrating afternoons during the Wimbledon Championships. If you were lucky enough to have Centre Court tickets you would sit freezing under the lowering skies, hoping against hope that Sir Cliff Richard wouldn’t grab the mic and start warbling. Meanwhile viewers on BBC1 or BBC2 would brace themselves for another trip down memory lane in the company of Sue Barker. Is the Borg vs McEnroe Wimbledon final of 1980 greater than the Federer vs Nadal smackdown of 2008? Who cares.

The new Centre Court roof cost up to £80 million (depending on which tabloid newspaper you read) and its vast web of steel trusses and glass is a thing of beauty. But the capacity to play on, whatever the weather, has become a focus for controversy. This court covering may be a masterpiece of engineering, but it’s not like a car roof — you can’t shut out the showers in an instant. It takes up to 10 minutes to close the Centre Court roof — roughly the same amount of time that the dilatory Rafa Nadal wastes between serves. Then there’s a further half hour delay while the Centre Court air management system creates the right environment for indoor play.

One of the more tedious aspects of this year’s Wimbledon has been the prevarication over whether to just start matches under the roof if there’s even a hint of rain in south west London. I’m sure most players would prefer to compete in a wind- and rain-free environment from the outset. (Serena Williams would just be happy if all her matches were scheduled on one of the two main show courts, instead of in a neighbouring borough.) In practice, matches like Nadal’s second-round encounter with giant-killer Lukas Rosol started outdoors and ended under the roof.

The Murray vs Baghdatis encounter on Saturday night was played in an atmosphere of feverish excitement as a new “beat the clock” element came into play. Wimbledon has to observe a curfew of 11pm for play under the Centre Court roof. Apparently Merton Council is worried about the possibility of marauding tennis fans turning the borough into an outpost of Wembley.

Wimbledon has been at pains to emphasise that it is “a traditional daytime, outdoor event”. So rather than move Andy Murray’s rain-affected Court One match with Marin Cilic to Centre Court yesterday evening, the powers that be decided to shut up shop for the night. “Murray Madness” shouted the Daily Telegraph’s headline this morning. I’m sure the players, spectators and TV broadcasters would have been thrilled if play had continued for another three hours under the roof. But the inflexible, minor public school bureaucrats who run Wimbledon didn’t get where they are today by giving people what they want.

A few weeks ago the British press sneered at the organisers of the French Open because the Nadal-Djokovic final had to be carried over to a second day. The issue then wasn’t just the weather but the 3pm Sunday start time, which was designed to accommodate US TV schedules. But we can hardly call roofless Roland Garros a “laughing stock” when Wimbledon refuses to play on the middle Sunday or after 11pm, and when matches on the two main show courts invariably begin at 1pm.

We do like to look down our noses at those garlic-chewing foreigners, with their potted geraniums and acres of uncovered red clay. Wimbledon sends Radek Stepanek off court for having the temerity to breach the “all-white” rule with his natty red and blue shoes. But it’s OK for Serena Williams to wear those eye-catching pink shorts and matching headband: that’s within the rules.

Wimbledon has a huge (retractable) roof but it really doesn’t know what to do with it. Let’s throw out the rule book and have some common sense. While we’re at it, could the BBC please impose a quota on those endless slo-mo replays of Andy Murray and others shaking their fists like over-excited toddlers every time they win a point. It’s not big and it’s not clever.

Ova Kill

Maria_Sharapova,_with_2006_Acura_Classic_cup

“Are we in danger or focusing on the negatives of Murray and not accentuating the positives of Nadal, who is brilliant.” (John Inverdale, Today at Wimbledon, 1 July 2011)

For a country that’s been losing at tennis for so many years, we’re not very good at it, are we? I’m not criticising Andy Murray, who was typically gracious after losing to Rafa Nadal in their Wimbledon semi-final on Friday. No, I’m referring to the broadcasters and journalists who’d spent the previous fortnight feverishly building up everyone’s hopes.

Well, not everyone. I don’t give a toss whether Murray wins Wimbledon or any of the other Slams. I also don’t feel the need to apologise to anyone for my lack of sporting patriotism. I’m just not buying into what my Twitter buddy, Marco, has accurately described as the “false reality” that the commentators and journalists have spun around Murray, Federer, Sharapova and the rest of their favourites. To put it bluntly, they’re so entrenched in their bullshit, they cannot see how ridiculous they’re being.

That’s why John Inverdale’s belated and rather lame attempt to redress the balance of the post-match coverage made me laugh. Actually, I was so astonished that I had to rewind and make sure he’d really said that. Earlier in the day, commentator Andrew Castle had bravely broken ranks and suggested (I’m paraphrasing here) that the sad truth was that Murray might never be quite good enough.

I know this is hard to accept, but the rush to focus on Murray’s missed forehand in the fourth game of the second set might just be beside the point. Yes, it would have given the Scot two break points — instead he lost seven games in a row. But would losing that game really have signalled the end of Nadal’s challenge? It’s like the widely accepted belief that (unpatriotic) rain robbed Tim Henman of a Wimbledon title back in 2001. Has it occurred to anyone that even if Henman had beaten big-serving Goran Ivanisevic in the semis, he might then have lost to Pat Rafter (a double US Open champion) in the final? Of course not, because that doesn’t fit their warped narrative of recent Wimbledon history.

Nadal and Djokovic, by some distance the two best tennis players in the world, will face each other in this afternoon’s Wimbledon final. “Nole” has already taken Rafa’s Number 1 ranking, thanks to a year of almost uninterrupted success. Yet strangely, this contest seems to be of less interest to British journalists than the ongoing post-mortem on Murray’s latest defeat. The pre-match build-up is completely overshadowed by headlines like:

“Andy Murray must find the answers to lift the burden of expectation” (clumsily titled blog by The Guardian’s Kevin Mitchell)

“Andy Murray: I may have got the balance wrong against Rafael Nadal” (that was from Friday’s Guardian)

“Andy Murray must retain his resolve ahead of US Open” (Oliver Brown writing in The Telegraph yesterday)

So it goes on, ad nauseam. Wimbledon is not even over yet and we’re already talking about Murray’s chances at the US Open! Please let me catch my breath and reflect on someone who did win a Wimbledon title this year, the magnificent Petra Kvitova. The Czech left-hander beat the much-fancied Maria Sharapova 6-3, 6-4, in front of a crowd that included her heroine Martina Navratilova. (The BBC kept describing her as Kvitova’s “hero”, but as far as I’m aware Martina’s had cancer not gender reassignment.)

No, wait, I seem to have missed the point of that story, too. According to Richard Williams’s nauseating piece in The Guardian, the emphasis should be on Maria’s return to the top of the game after crippling shoulder problems. On a day when “Sharaposer” was comprehensively outplayed by her younger rival, Williams chooses to end his shoddy excuse for an article like this: “But you would have to be crazy to bet against her making it to another Wimbledon final before she takes her place in the Royal Box as the most regal former champion of them all.”

“Crazy”? I must be, to keep reading our so-called quality newspapers. This stuff’s not worthy of wrapping paper for fish and chips. I would happily bet on Sharapova not being in another Wimbledon final, because I still think Serena Williams has a few more chances of landing the biggest prize of them all. When he says “regal”, is he dazzled most by those diamond earrings, the legs that go on forever, or the general air of superiority? Take your mid-life crisis and grubby little fantasies somewhere else, Mr Williams. As one reader correctly suggested, this piece was obviously written in the expectation of Maria winning the final. She’s not the story here: Kvitova is.

Whoever wins today (and I hope it’s Rafa), we’ll have a Wimbledon winner who’s worthy of the title and the massive cheque that goes with it. It remains to be seen whether the British press can get their heads out of their backsides long enough to appreciate what this game is really all about.

Down to Earth: Rafa Hits Roger for Six

Rafael Nadal (pic Yann Caradec)

“Self-praise is for losers. Be a winner. Stand for something. Always have class, and be humble” The first & last part are incorrect no? (John Madden quoted by @PseudoFed, 4 June 2011)

Does Roger Federer ever write himself a “to do” list before squaring up to his greatest rival, Rafael Nadal? If he’s anything like his Twitter alter ego, the unashamedly egocentric @PseudoFed, he probably has an assistant to do that for him. But according to the BBC commentators at yesterday’s French Open Final, Roger’s list should probably boil down to: “Win first set; win second set; win third set.” But the Big Swiss Cheese failed on the first two counts — Nadal triumphed 7-5, 7-6, 5-7, 6-1, to claim his sixth French Open title.

I’ve always found Federer’s imperious tennis more admirable than his sometimes dismissive attitude towards opponents. To be fair to him, he does have to put up with a lot of stupid questions from journalists with short memories and even shorter attention spans. But to say, as he did after yesterday’s match: “So it’s always me who’s going to dictate play and decide how the outcome is going to be. If I play well, I will most likely win” strikes me as deluded. Federer did play very well yesterday, though perhaps not quite as impressively as in his semi-final against Djokovic. But over five sets — on any surface — Nadal’s game beats Federer’s.

Roger Federer (pic Esther Lim)

After 15 days of tweeting, tennis and unbearable tension I too am in need of a serious reality check. PseudoFed’s stream of consciousness on Twitter has been only marginally less ridiculous than some of the pronouncements from the BBC commentary team in Paris. I lost count of the number of times that Sam Smith informed us that Roger’s mum won’t sit next to his chatterbox dad, Robert, during matches. It was like having to smile politely at Christmas while an elderly relative regales you with an anecdote you’ve heard every year since 1975.

When I winced at the attempts at humour from Andrew Cotter during January’s Australian Open, I forgot that the BBC had an even more scary weapon up its sleeve — Andrew Castle. This ex-player and former breakfast TV presenter appears to be a really affable chap. Unfortunately when you stick him in behind a mike and ask him to talk about the game he used to play, the results are less than stellar.

To borrow Radio Times TV critic Alison Graham’s description of The Tudors, Castle’s commentaries are “a towering pile of nonsense”. When he’s not reacting with a Sharapova-like shriek to a particularly exciting rally, he’s throwing out inaccurate statements and retracting them seconds later. Claiming, as he did yesterday, that Federer and Nadal had only ever lost to each other in Grand Slam finals must been surprising news to the many fans of 2009 US Open Champion Juan Martin del Potro. A little later a shot of the Eiffel Tower had him excitedly announcing that Roland Garros was the only Slam venue close to a city centre, before remembering that Melbourne Park isn’t exactly out in “the bush” either.

Though both Castle and Sam Smith moaned about the sheer volume of stats that were handed out to broadcasters at this year’s event, I think they would really benefit from a Post-It bearing the words “Think before you open your gob.” That advice might also apply to British Number 1 Andy Murray. (Though I hesitate to offer any criticism of him here, for fear of attracting vituperation from internet trolls.)

Jimmy Connors famously read a letter from his mother, Gloria, during changeovers at Wimbledon. I think Murray might find this more constructive than constantly bawling at poor Judy and his team during his on-court struggles. It would also relieve Andrew Castle of the tedious duty of having to apologise for those expletives during a pre-watershed broadcast. The commentators were right to say that Andy’s emoting sends the wrong message to his opponents. If he wants examples of really intimidating “game faces” to imitate he need look no further than the world’s top three players — Nadal, Federer and Djokovic.

Of course tennis isn’t simply about good looks. If it was then Maria Sharapova (dubbed “Sharaposer” by her detractors) would have completed her set of Grand Slam titles last week. But though I remain a big Rafa fan I do understand why Parisians have taken the immaculately dressed and well-coiffed Federer to their hearts. There could hardly be a greater physical contrast between the way the super-cool Swiss glides around the court and the sweaty exertions of the unshaven Spaniard. Roger’s elegance translates well to TV, and its current obsession with super slo-mo shots. Watching a drop of perspiration fall from Rafa’s nose is, I’ll admit, a less appealing sight than Federer’s forehand in full flight.

I know this makes no sense at all, but following @PseudoFed has given me a new respect — even affection — for the real Roger Federer. Hearing about his wife “Murky”, his beauty routines and his thoughts on how to beat Djokovic, added a new dimension to this year’s French Open. But when it comes to the heated battle of Grand Slam encounters — particularly on clay — the humbling reality for Federer is that Nadal remains a hard man to beat.


I’ll be tweeting throughout Wimbledon (@Susannah63) and I expect @PseudoFed will be doing the same — when he’s not on court or having his hair blow-dried.

Bad Timing

“How does Murray deal with another disappointment?” wailed the BBC’s Sue Barker, moments after Novak Djokovic had nailed his second Australian Open title by the convincing margin of 6-4, 6-2, 6-3. Luckily, the host broadcaster Channel 7 had already lined up an instant distraction for jaded viewers. As Sue launched into her familiar Murray post-mortem routine, I enjoyed the instant replay of Djokovic’s victory strip-tease. After ripping off his soggy Tacchini shirt and tossing it into the crowd, he did the same with his red and blue shoes. The shorts remained in place, to the obvious disappointment of pundit Boris Becker.

So here we were again: another Sunday morning date with destiny. The BBC bumped The Andrew Marr Show to BBC2 so that Sue could lead us all in (yet) another chorus of “Wishin and Hopin”. Budgets may be tight, but the Corporation still thought it was worth stirring Boris Becker and Tim Henman from their beds, to provide expert analysis from the studio in London. Over in Melbourne, commentator Andrew Cotter prepared to count double faults and delve into his locker of tennis clichés, since he clearly isn’t capable of anything approaching analysis or insight. He should definitely stick to golf.

Yesterday, The Guardian lined up a roster of experts to offer their predictions about today’s final. Caroline Wozniacki’s opinions were about as convincing as her current tenure as World No. 1: “It’s going to be an exciting one, definitely two great players in the final so it’s going to be a tough one.” But former Wimbledon champion John Newcombe summed it up neatly: “Unless Murray brings his A game he doesn’t have a chance.”

Like most spectators, I imagine “Newk” was left slack-jawed by Djokovic’s semi-final demolition of Roger Federer. The ferocity of his opponent’s groundstrokes and his sheer composure reduced the normally unflappable Federer to whinging about the noisy Serbs in the crowd. I don’t know how anyone who watched Murray’s error-strewn display of kvetching against David Ferrer could have been impressed. Yes, he did pull himself together just as Ferrer was about to grab the second set. But it looked absolutely clear that the Scot had, yet again, peaked too early in the tournament.

If there’s one thing we still do really well in Britain, it is counting our chickens before they hatch. So just as 12 Oscar nominations for The King’s Speech signals a blitz of gold statuettes on 27 February, a final without Nadal or Federer must betoken a first Murray Grand Slam title. After two losing finals against Federer, this just had to be the Scot’s year, didn’t it? Sadly, someone forgot to tell Djokovic (nicknamed “Nole”) that he was supposed to be nothing more than a supporting player in the latest instalment of the “Can Andy Murray Win a Major?” saga. Fresh from leading Serbia to a Davis Cup win last month, Djokovic was definitely in the mood to win his second Major.

The final was not great viewing for tennis connoisseurs. For that you need a genuine contrast of styles, and Murray and Djokovic have a very similar approach to smacking balls from the back of the court. They’re both great counter punchers and some of Djokovic’s retrieving reached Nadal-like levels of athleticism, but there wasn’t a lot of finesse or variety on display.

When it comes to proficiency in verbal self-flagellation, Murray is certainly approaching the heights attained by John McEnroe in his heyday.

Thank goodness for Channel 7’s imaginative use of the super slo-mo camera, which has been such a feature of this year’s event. I must say I was dubious about the merits of this technology when they wheeled it out at Wimbledon a couple of years ago. Can I really grasp the magnificence of the Federer backhand only when I’ve seen it slowed down to a snail’s pace? Then the BBC was lambasted during last year’s Championship for all those lingering, voyeuristic shots of spectators licking ice creams and, in some cases, their loved ones. Middle England declared itself well and truly disgusted.

But the Aussies have now demonstrated the full potential of super slo-mo by ruthlessly training it on the players’ mouths as they shout, swear and moan at themselves, their coaches and those capricious tennis gods. If you’re multi-lingual and a practised lip-reader, you will have had a field day trying to figure out exactly what China’s Li Na was saying to herself during yesterday’s final against Kim Clijsters.

When it comes to proficiency in verbal self-flagellation, Murray is certainly approaching the heights attained by John McEnroe in his heyday. I lost count of the time I spent last week watching Murray wrapping his lips around yet another volley of expletives. The slo-mo effect really added to the thrill of watching a man losing his rag, over and over again. Occasionally, he would smack himself on the head with his racquet, which is probably not the best way to test the string tension.

Let’s be honest: Djokovic is also a bit of a drama queen on court. Not content with chest beating and making the sign of the Cross, he took his routine to new heights at Wimbledon 2010 by tearing off his shirt in a Hulk-like display of unbridled masculinity. He was positively restrained after beating Murray today: perhaps a sign of a quieter, more mature version of the player once dubbed “Chokovic”. Now that is a scary prospect for Rafa, Roger and the elite of men’s tennis.

Fate and Ferrer slam the door on Rafa

There may be tears on Rod Laver Arena tomorrow if drama queen Vera Zvonareva loses her Australian Open semi-final against Kim Clijsters. But today I was the one weeping into my coffee as Rafael Nadal lost his battle with illness, injury and fellow Spaniard David Ferrer. The No. 1 seed went down 6-4, 6-2, 6-3 in their quarter-final, ending hopes of a Rafa Slam in 2011.

After all the copious sweating and shirt-changing during Saturday’s encounter with Bernard Tomic, Nadal fans prayed that his physical problems at this year’s event were over. I even entertained a hope that loquacious BBC commentator Andrew Cotter might get his tiny mind off the “puddle of sweat” and actually talk about the tennis. Fat chance. After taking 20 minutes to play just two games, it became clear that Nadal was in trouble — and not just because 7th seed Ferrer had an aggressive game plan to keep the points short and Rafa on the ropes.

Rafa left the court for an injury time out after three games. It was distressing for his millions of fans and, I imagine, pretty galling for Ferrer. In decades past, players either limped on or defaulted immediately. There was none of this cloak and dagger stuff, with people disappearing off to the dressing rooms while their opponents are forced to stand around on the sidelines. Within minutes Rod Laver Arena was buzzing with speculation, rumour and counter-rumour about the cause of Rafa’s distress.

I applaud Rafa’s decision to play on to the bitter end, and he has done his best to deflect the inevitable questions in his post-match face-off with the press. But when you’re the World’s No. 1 tennis player and gleaming torso of the moment for Emporio Armani briefs and jeans, people will just carry on talking and looking and speculating.

It’s only 12 months since Nadal’s last premature exit from this tournament. In 2010 injury forced him to retire at the same stage during his match against Andy Murray. Obituaries were penned then for the Spaniard as they have been every time he gets injured. What else are columnists going to write about? Steve Tignor writes eloquently today of how it’s Nadal’s fragility that makes him so appealing and compelling to his many fans: “More than any other legendary athlete I can think of, even as he’s winning, he holds out the possibility of disaster. He plays matches on razor’s edges and always seems one lunge away from his next injury.”

Until the French Open rolls around in May I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed for yet another Rafa revival and, of course, thanking Emporio Armani for finding a man to more than adequately fill Cristiano Ronaldo’s briefs.

Andy Murray delivered the right result for all his supporters and for those commentators who think that the name Alexandr Dolgopolov is just too hard to get your tongue round at this late stage of the tournament. (Does anyone else remember Slobodan Zivojinovic?) Dolgopolov eventually lost in four sets, and his tennis was a lot more pleasing to the eye than the Alice band he wears on court. This was not a good look on Ronnie O’Sullivan or David Beckham, either.

Though Nadal and Dolgopolov will be back to fight another day, there was sad news of a former Australian Open champion who is now hanging up her racquet. Justine Henin, who enjoyed such a successful return from her first retirement by reaching last year’s final, has decided to quit — for good.

The Henin backhand (pic Glenn Thomas)

When you sit through a Grand Slam these days there are always enough medical dramas to fill a whole season of Grey’s Anatomy. So when Henin fell on her elbow during her match with Clijsters at Wimbledon 2010, it didn’t look that serious to me. But now it really is the end for the most stylish player in the women’s game. She’ll never get the chance to win Wimbledon and set the seal on what was a glittering career. Still, Justine can be proud of the contribution she and Kim have made to nullifying that “name a famous Belgian” gag.

Let’s hope that somewhere out there is another one-handed backhand that can stand up to the rigours of the modern game. If its owner also happens to look like a cross between Maria Sharapova and Anna Kournikova, I’m sure the sponsors will be lining up from here to Moscow.

Damp squib in Delhi?

With less than week to go before the start of the XIX Commonwealth Games in Delhi, all I can think about is bathrooms. Images of the insanitary facilities at the Athletes Village have been splashed all over the world’s media, as India’s very own DIY disaster unfolds. I’m not a fan of soap operas (“continuing dramas” as they’re known in TV circles) but this compelling saga of organisational ineptitude and political points-scoring really takes some beating. Then there’s the outbreak of schadenfreude that could prove even more dangerous to the Games than the dengue fever that’s laid low a couple of Indian cyclists. If they awarded medals for sabotaging sporting events, administrators, politicians, and reporters would have the mosquitoes beaten hands down.

Let’s be honest, paw prints and unidentified brown substances in the athletes’ quarters are the least of the problems affecting these Games. Last week a footbridge linking a car park with Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium collapsed, injuring more than 20 people. Now analysts at Control Risks have warned visitors of a heightened security threat in the rest of the country, because resources have been deployed to protect the main Games venues.

With Her Majesty the Queen otherwise engaged, does anyone really care whether these Games should be officially opened by Prince Charles, or India’s President Pratibha Devisingh Patil? Instead of squabbling about protocol, they might as well get someone to dress up like Shera, the cartoon tiger who’s the official mascot for the event. According to the official website, “Shera is also a large-hearted gentleman who loves making friends and enthusing people to come out and play.” To me, he looks like a slightly more timid version of Tony, the ebullient cartoon cat who adorns cartons of Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes.

Surely the elephant (or the tiger) in the room here, is whether there’s still a place for these “friendly games” in an increasingly crowded sporting calendar. Watching sport in the 70s, it still felt as though the pursuit of Olympic gold was a really big deal. Now we live in an age in which World Championships in one sport or another seem to be an almost weekly occurrence. For me, the blue riband events in any Olympics have always been swimming and track and field. But since 1993 FINA (“Water is Our World”) has been holding the short course World Championships every two years, while the IAAF’s World Championships in Athletics started as a four yearly event in 1983 and are now held biennially.

By generating so much negative publicity, Delhi has neatly avoided the ignominy of being totally overlooked in favour of this weekend’s Ryder Cup clash. But when the teams are luxuriating in their clean(ish) new bathrooms and the search for scapegoats is over, will there be anything else to get excited about?

The Commonwealth Games won’t be welcoming the monarch, but it will be graced by the presence of Scotland’s Willie Wood — the doyen of lawn bowls. This is one event you won’t see at the Olympics, so the prospect of watching the 72-year-old competing in his eighth Games since 1974 is one that should thrill sports fans everywhere. Wood, author of the irresistibly titled manual A Bias to Bowls is a genuine “golden oldie” But his claim that the introduction of coloured balls is making the game seem more attractive to younger players seems rather fanciful to me.

Then there’s the ladies netball event. A couple of years ago, Prime Minister Gordon Brown made a shameless attempt to get more netball fans to vote Labour by calling for the sport to be included in the 2012 Olympics. It’s only been part of the Commonwealth Games since 1998, and I suspect that anyone who likes basketball will question the point of a sedate, non-contact version of the game, in which players can’t travel with the ball or move out of their zone. That’s right, it’s basketball for killjoys, with arch rivals Australia and New Zealand duking it out for the title of big girl’s blouse.

But the really big news is that tennis is making its maiden appearance at the Delhi Games. Though I cheered Rafael Nadal’s gold medal in Beijing, I’ve never thought that tennis needed the Olympics — or visa versa. Given that most of the game’s top players are from Continental Europe, a Commonwealth tennis event does seem largely irrelevant. Sadly, the one tennis luminary who might have benefited — Scotland’s Andy Murray — will not be there to cut a swathe through the modest opposition. Delhi will just have to make do with his big brother, Jamie, a decidedly inferior specimen.

Yet despite this rather eccentric selection of sports, the big-name absentees and (yes) those mucky-looking bathrooms, I’m still feeling upbeat about the Games. In 2002, when Manchester was the host city, I was gripped by Australian freestyle swimmer Ian Thorpe’s pursuit of seven gold medals. The Thorpedo failed to emulate Mark Spitz’s seven-gold haul in the pool at the Munich Olympics, but six golds and a silver was a pretty good effort. Since then both have been eclipsed by the medal-winning marvel that is Michael Phelps.

Now Thorpe is back in Commonwealth action as part of the BBC poolside commentary team which also includes former British swimmer, Mark Foster, who sports an Olympic rings tattoo above his left nipple. Whatever happens elsewhere, I’m hoping that the Thorpedo will bring wit, erudition, impartiality and the minimum of hysteria to his new role. The last thing these Games need is for the mammoth Aussie to be the commentating equivalent of a beached whale.

(Article first published as Damp Squib In Delhi? on Blogcritics.)

Fatal distraction

Will Andy Murray ever win Wimbledon? Does Tracy Austin — once affectionately dubbed “the mini Austin” by the British press — have a bit of a crush on fellow commentator John McEnroe? Does anyone ever drink the Robinsons Barley Water so prominently displayed on Centre Court? These, and many other questions, will not be answered any time soon, but that won’t stop the indefatigable Sue Barker and her BBC colleagues from conducting yet another lengthy post mortem on our 74-year wait for a successor to Fred Perry.

It was all looking so promising. With England out of the World Cup and Roger Federer unceremoniously dumped out of Wimbledon, the stage was set for Murray to restore national pride by claiming his first Grand Slam title. The Swiss maestro was a spent force, Andy Roddick had been carved up by the Man from Chinese Taipei, and Nadal was carelessly dropping sets all over the place. Surely a Murray victory was the only logical conclusion.

Or was it? When it comes to tennis punditry, the need to follow the official line — “plucky Brit will triumph” — is hard to escape. Over the years I have watched with amusement as outspoken big hitters like Boris Becker, Martina Navratilova and (yes) John McEnroe have been lured into BBC studios and commentary boxes and made to trot out the same unconvincing lines. Nearly a decade ago I was stunned to see Martina backtracking about Henman’s chances, after she’d written a newspaper column in which she (correctly) concluded that the British Number 1 didn’t have any big weapons.

But the night before the Murray vs Nadal semi-final, rookie Lindsay Davenport pluckily broke with protocol on the BBC and announced that her picks were Tomas Berdych and Nadal. A smirking Tracy Austin declared that she “liked Murray”. Had she actually watched Rafa make mincemeat of Robin Soderling in their quarter-final clash? I suspect that having to share space in the “Pimm’s and Pundits Corner” with laconic Lindsay instead of the mercurial John McEnroe had thrown the normally shrewd Ms Austin off her game.

In truth, there have been a lot of distractions at this year’s Wimbledon. There was the Isner vs Mahut yawnfest, which fooled the uninitiated into thinking that a tennis match lasting 11 hours is good news for the sport. More recently, blundering commentator David Mercer made some ill-received comments about Laura Robson’s “puppy fat”. Presumably he’d be happier if she looked more like Daniela Hantuchova, a woman once described as having as much body fat as a paper clip.

But even the return of tennis’s so-called Spice Girls, Anna Kournikova and Martina Hingis, couldn’t compete with the presence on Friday of Mr Posh Spice himself, soccer legend David Beckham. Fresh from presiding over England’s demise in the World Cup, Becks and son Brooklyn jetted over from Nice to offer their support to the Murray camp on Centre Court.

As cameras pointed again and again at the tabloid-friendly features of the former England captain, Rafael Nadal got on with the business of dashing Murray’s hopes of Wimbledon glory. The Spaniard, it seems, is not one to be distracted. He even turned down a chance to meet the Queen during her visit last week, ostensibly because he wanted to prepare for his second-round match.

Murray played very well — at times he was inspired. Yet even as the commentators announced that he’d won more points than Rafa, or that he was serving better than expected, he just kept falling further behind. It turns out that all the expert analysis, the hunches, and the discussion of Nadal’s weaknesses was just a load of hot air. Andy Murray lost 6-4, 7-6, 6-4 to a man who outran him and outplayed him on the points that really mattered.

The BBC was, of course, determined to wring every last drop out of the drama, the pathos and the sheer unfairness of it all. Back in the studio, mourner-in-chief Sue Barker was wearing that doleful expression she used to reserve for that black day every year when Henman exited the tournament and “Timbledon” once again reverted to being just Wimbledon. The following morning it was still going on, as Murray’s former coach, Mark Petchey, and Bjorn Borg dutifully affirmed that the Scot can improve and that he’s still got plenty more years to win that elusive Slam.

Perhaps he will do it next year. In the mean time I don’t need any of the BBC’s galaxy of former champions to tell me that Nadal is a very strong favourite to beat Berdych and secure his second Wimbledon title. Once that’s over, we can get right down to the wishing and hoping business again. It’s only 50 weeks until Wimbledon 2011 begins.