Rafael Nadal

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.


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.

Twilight of the Teenage Tennis Queens


I saw Russian temptress Anna Kournikova play at Wimbledon once, and I’m pretty sure I was the only one focusing on the ball that day.

Later today, 14-year-old golfer Andy Zhang will tee off in the 112th US Open at San Francisco’s Olympic Club. As that well-known golfing organ The Mirror puts it, the Florida-based whizz-kid is “tipped to become the biggest thing since Tiger Woods”. Let’s hope he manages to stay out of bunkers — and car parks.

He may only be a 5000/1 shot for success this week, but rookie Zhang is a reminder of what tennis fans have been missing recently: new faces. What has happened to the sport that, as Martin Amis once observed, used to be all about “the latest double-fisted infant to be groomed for stardom”?

Once we had teenage queens — Tracy Austin, Steffi Graf, Monica Seles, Martina Hingis — generating headlines, courting controversy and grinding their geriatric opponents into the dust. But in the run-up to Wimbledon 2012, the only “drama queen” we’re hearing about is the limping Andy Murray, who’s attracted the ire of German pretty boy Tommy Haas.

When Amis wrote about women’s tennis for Vogue in 1988, fans barely had time to draw breath as one pubescent sensation succeeded another. Back then Graf was only 19, her future hubby Andre Agassi still had enough hair for both of them, and the long march to tennis immortality had begun. Monica “the Shrieker” Seles was a precocious 14-year-old, the tempestuous Jennifer Capriati was just over the horizon, while the metronomic Tracy Austin was embarking on her first comeback at the ripe old age of 26.

Not all these ladies were best known for their racket skills. Was it really her topspin backhand that made Argentina’s toothsome Gabriela Sabatini such a big hit on court in the 90s? I saw Russian temptress Anna Kournikova play at Wimbledon once, and I’m pretty sure I was the only one focusing on the ball that day.

While Steffi, Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova racked up titles, dollars and endorsements, you could always rely on some orthodontically challenged neophyte shaking things up a bit. In 1983 Martina was sensationally knocked out in the fourth round of the French Open by 17-year-old Kathy Horvath. That was the only match she lost that year. Horvath’s not exactly a household name these days, but Maria Sharapova is. The Russian provided what was perhaps the last truly jaw-dropping moment in women’s tennis, when she crushed Serena Williams in the 2004 Wimbledon final.

Are there any rising stars out there who are likely to emulate “Sharaposer” or Boris “Boom Boom” Becker at this year’s Wimbledon? I doubt it. Apart from Laura Robson, Aussie beanpole Bernard Tomic and the American Sloane Stephens, I’m struggling to think of many notable players who have yet to hit the giddy heights of 20.


Andrew Castle says there are 27 players in the men’s top 100 who are aged 30 or over. (The return of pensioner Barry Davies means the average age of the BBC commentary team has risen sharply, too.) When 2010 champion Francesca Schiavone played Japan’s Kimiko Date-Krumm in the first round of this year’s French Open, they had a combined age of 72. Twenty years ago the top five women probably would have added up to less than that — I’m talking about age not bra size.

The decline of the teenage wonderkids is often attributed to the game being more “physical”, especially since wooden rackets were consigned to the Wimbledon Museum. Of course that didn’t stop a musclebound Rafael Nadal from almost busting out of his pirate pants, when he won the 2005 French Open just days after turning 19.

In the mid-90s women’s tennis introduced age eligibility rules, partly in response to teen prodigy Jennifer Capriati’s sad and spectacular fall from grace. That kind of “court” appearance just isn’t good for the image of the game.

But perhaps the lack of young faces is down to the fact that it’s just too much like hard work for a generation hooked on the instant stardom of the internet. If Anna Kournikova was coming up now, I’d tell her to bypass the gymn, the practice courts and all that sweaty activity that ruins your makeup and gives you muscles in all the wrong places. If you’ve got a pretty face, an average backhand and a yearning for publicity, aim for a career in reality TV.

Ova Kill


“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.

Fed Up with Wimbledon

Fed Up with Wimbledon - Roger_Federer_&_Rafael_Nadal (pic Nick Step)

Spare us the running commentary

Good news for EastEnders fans: Andy Murray’s 4th-round match against Richard Gasquet at Wimbledon is scheduled first on Centre Court today. So unless the 4th seed and his French opponent get involved in a contest of truly Isner-esque proportions they won’t be playing havoc with BBC schedules this evening. The nail-biting drama and intemperate language on BBC1 tonight will be coming from Albert Square not SW19.

Usually I’d be excited about the second Monday of Wimbledon and the prospect of wall-to-wall match-ups between the greatest tennis players in the world. But after more than 30 years of dedicated ball-watching I think I’ve finally had enough. Even the sight of Rafael Nadal’s digitally enhanced torso wrapped round last Friday’s edition of Metro didn’t reignite the flame.

It’s not the game itself that’s become a big turn-off for me. I’m not so decrepit that I can’t still leap out of my chair when Rafa bends one of his trademark forehands round the net or Federer disdainfully swats back an indifferent second serve. The problem is the BBC coverage, which has been in steady decline ever since someone decided that the world’s greatest tournament could be boiled down to the perennial question: “Can Andy Murray Win Wimbledon?” To be fair this tendency began with “Timbledon” in the 90s and Murray’s arrival has merely changed the accent slightly.

I have complained about this before — only to be rudely slapped down by posters who confuse my criticism of the British sports media with a lack of support for Murray himself. If I lived anywhere but the UK, I’d be free to enjoy the quality of Andy’s tennis without all the attendant hype. I may be wrong, but I suspect viewers in the US and Australia don’t have to watch reporter Garry Richardson’s teeth-grindingly awful post-practice encounters with the Scot. Murray, unshaven and dripping with sweat patiently endures a grilling over his pre-match preparations. But do we really care which film he watched on TV last night? Actually, Garry’s questions are so rambling that if he was in court (as opposed to on court), the opposing lawyer would be shouting “Relevance, Your Honour!”

The BBC’s role as self-appointed Andy Murray cheering squad is just one annoying aspect of today’s inferior tennis coverage. As an armchair spectator you’re totally at the mercy of Sue Barker, John Inverdale and the BBC’s army of commentators, experts and former players. Unless you choose to watch with the sound off (I frequently use the mute button these days), you can’t avoid being crushed under the weight of (irrelevant) statistics, oft-repeated anecdotes and sniggering comments about Nadal’s shirt-changing routine.

You might think that the increased court coverage and wide range of commentating talent would be good news for viewers, but I’m not so sure. If you have a “red button” you can now opt to watch the players you like — as opposed to joining the collective dismay over the early demise of Elena Baltacha, Anne Keothavong, et al. But thanks to the BBC’s (not-so) wonderful interactive service, I still missed the end of Andy Roddick’s third-round defeat by Feliciano Lopez, because the feed had cut away to Francesca Schiavone on Court 5!

The bigger question is how so many different people can all end up sounding exactly the same. I don’t mean, of course, that John McEnroe, Boris Becker and Pat Cash have the same accent. It’s more that they all seem to be spouting from what you might call The Big Book of Universal Truths About Tennis. These include:

  • The men’s game has never been better than it is now — thanks to the excellence of Roger, Rafa, Novak and Andy.
  • Men’s tennis is so lucky to have great sporting ambassadors like Roger and Rafa.
  • Roger is once again looking unbeatable.
  • Maria “Sharaposer” is back to her best — and not just in the shrieking department.
  • The Centre Court retractable roof is just marvellous. (Shame they didn’t put one on Court One, too.)
  • It’s great to see Serena Williams back — especially when she cries on court.

As a Nadal fan, I’m particularly amused by the fact that (as usual) he’s being written off in the rush to talk up Murray and Federer. The guy’s won four of the last five Grand Slams, yet there still seems to be only a grudging acceptance of his genius. I don’t care how imperious Federer looks in the early rounds — it’s what happens this week that counts. Should he and Rafa make it through to their fourth final here, my money is on the Spaniard.

Martina Navratilova’s opinions are usually worth hearing, but in today’s Times, she echoes The Guardian‘s Kevin Mitchell in declaring Fed the most likely winner. What really caught my eye, though, was her assertion that the top women players aren’t getting their fair share of time on the show courts. “Research shows that people turn up wanting to watch the men but when they leave the tournament is was the women they really enjoyed watching.”

In the words of John McEnroe, “You cannot be serious!” What kind of research was that, Martina? Not to be crude, but did you ask them whether it was the tennis or the acres of tanned flesh on display that they found most attractive? Admittedly I did enjoy watching the contest between Venus Williams and the Japanese veteran Kimiko Date-Krumm. This all-court encounter was a bit like stepping back in time — more emphasis on guile and less on grunting. What a shame the commentators ruined it by reminding me every five minutes that Date-Krumm is (wait for it) 40 years of age!

I might tune in later today to see whether Rafa can beat Juan-Martin del Potro. I’m sure the Spaniard won’t be guilty of underestimating del Potro. But even if he reaches Sunday’s final to play Federer again I’m already yawning at the prospect of being reminded about the last time they met in 2008. That final is now universally acknowledged to be Wimbledon’s Greatest Ever Match. If like me you disagree and still harbour fond memories of Borg vs Gerulaitis (1976) or Borg vs McEnroe (1980), just remember to turn down the volume on your set on Sunday — and keep it there for the duration.

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.

Marathon Man Comes Up Short

Rafael Nadal

The Rafael Nadal fan club was in session at the French Open this afternoon. BBC commentator Sam Smith was giving full vent to her adoration for the Spaniard and the way he conducts his life both on and off the court. As a Rafa supporter, who am I to argue? But when Sam spoke in reverential terms about the unassuming, publicity-shy man who (for now at least) still occupies tennis’s top spot, I did find myself doing the aural equivalent of a double take.

Sam, I have two words for you: Giorgio Armani. Unless you’ve been sequestered in your commentary box since January, you can hardly have failed to notice that Rafa’s underwear has been keeping the search engines buzzing again — this time for the right reasons. Only yesterday afternoon I saw a giant poster of the Spaniard’s oiled and digitally enhanced torso emblazoned on a London bus. Shy and retiring? Maybe, but when you choose to follow the likes of David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo as the sporting six-pack of the moment, you can hardly be described as a shrinking violet. Oh, and let’s not forget about that Shakira video.

Anyway, back to today’s first-round match against John Isner, in which Nadal’s towelling off and shorts-tugging act took second place to some high quality tennis. Outwardly nothing much seems to have changed at Roland Garros 2011. Courtside clusters of red geraniums. Check. Billboards for upmarket eyewear sponsors. Check. Nadal in action as the defending champion. Check. But after back-to-back losses to Djokovic in Madrid and Rome, the Spaniard was hardly arriving on the crest of a clay-court wave. All the talk, understandably, has been of Novak’s unbeaten run, which has seen him book a spot for this year’s ATP World Tour Finals already.

Even if Rafa’s annual canter across the clay courts of Europe has been “less than stellar”, his opponent came into the match with only 10 victories and 12 defeats this year. At a lofty 6’9″, Isner always looks to me as though he’s just wandered in from a kegger. As the Pyrrhic victor in last year’s Wimbledon snorefest against Nicolas Mahut, he shouldn’t have been too troubled by the prospect of a war of attrition with Nadal.

I didn’t rate Isner’s chances of detaining Nadal for too long on a surface that doesn’t traditionally favour big servers. But from the opening set, the American impressed me with his willingness to come to the net and avoid getting sucked into long baseline rallies. Time and again his dropshots and angled volleys put the ball out of reach of even the fleet-footed Spaniard. Nadal, though, won the first set pretty comfortably and when he went a break up in the second you felt Isner was destined to play second fiddle as so many others have done.

But Rafa lost the range on his groundstrokes and a poor service game let Isner back into the match. Receiving serve from so far behind the baseline that he was almost in the stands, Nadal was getting serves from Isner rearing up around his head. (In cricketing terms it would be something like a beamer.) What really shocked me was how poorly the Spaniard played the tiebreaks that ended the second and third sets. Isner won both by the emphatic score of 7-2 and Nadal admitted afterwards that he was “nervous”.

One of Nadal’s big strengths used to be that his body language rarely betrayed his anxiety — whatever the state of the match. Even when he blew a two-set lead against Federer in the 2008 Wimbledon Final I can’t remember him looking as rattled as he did today. You felt that if the fourth set went to a tiebreak, a huge first-round upset was on the cards. (Bear in mind that Nadal’s loss to the charmless Swedish hitman Robin Soderling in 2009 remains his only blemish in this tournament.)

Well, he pulled himself together and won the fourth set pretty convincingly by 6-2. Though Isner served first in the final set, Nadal was now finding the mark with his passing shots and he broke serve in the third game with some vintage service returns. Though we continued to hear a lot about Isner’s gigantic “wingspan”, his stranglehold on the match was over. A relieved Nadal celebrated his 6-4, 6-7, 6-7, 6-2, 6-4 win with almost as much gusto as his nine Grand Slam wins.

Roger Federer is nothing short of a sporting deity in these parts. I suspect that if you cut a French tennis fan in half you’d find the initials “RF” running all the way through. An early Rafa exit would have made them happy, but it’s Andy Murray who really would have benefitted. He won easily today against the unfortunately named local boy, Eric Prodon and will be hoping that Nadal’s frailties persist into the second week. My money’s on the man John McEnroe insists on calling “JOKEvic” winning his first French Open.

(Article first published as French Open 2011: Marathon Man Comes Up Short on Blogcritics.)

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.

Wet t-shirts, dry humour and a phantom pregnancy

“Nadal looks like he’s wrapped in red cling film” quipped Andrew Cotter, the BBC’s latest smarmy recruit to the commentary box at the 2011 Australian Open. Cotter was referring (yet again), to the prodigious amounts of sweat pouring off the Spaniard during his 6-2, 7-5, 6-3 victory over Australian beanpole Bernard Tomic.

The way Cotter was droning on, you would have thought that Rafa’s top — described as an “optimistic red shirt” by those nice people at Nike — was the main talking point during this tightly contested match. He even decided to keep tally of the World No 1’s shirt changes, as though he couldn’t quite believe how quickly the Spaniard’s attire was becoming drenched.

To add insult to injury, Cotter even suggested — incorrectly — that Rafa had put one of the wringing wet shirts back on during his second set struggle. No doubt Rafa’s bag was full of fresh attire, whereas Cotter’s head was devoid of anything remotely insightful. My view was confirmed by a quick trip to his website, which promises “Blog articles will appear here as soon as I think of something interesting to say.” Come back Chris Bailey, Mark Petchey and Sam Smith: your country needs you.

If you were watching that match, you would have been impressed with tyro Tomic’s capacity to outhit Nadal from the baseline, with a combination of huge, flat forehands and acute angles. His calm demeanour — even after he squandered a 4-0 lead in the second set — was also impressive from an 18-year-old. But he didn’t look so good moving forward and when Rafa figured that out, the match was his for the taking.

Nike won’t thank me for saying this, but the much-vaunted “dry fit fabric” in Rafa’s shirt does have the unfortunate effect of making him look as though he’s just stood under a shower. I don’t think this is quite what Caroline Wozniacki had in mind when she held forth to a roomful of baffled reporters earlier in the week: “When you take a shower, don’t stay there for half an hour. Two minutes is enough.”

Women’s World No. 1 Wozniacki was responding to criticism that she is “boring” by going freestyle in a press conference and answering all those dumb questions before the reporters had a chance to open their mouths. After she’d done that, Denmark’s pin-up girl had a crack at more challenging subjects like global warming.

I’m sure Wozniacki is not alone in finding these sessions with the world’s press rather predictable, but that’s the downside of her multi-million dollar profession. If you’re a tennis hottie (ugly phrase, I know), you will inevitably have to endure nosy questions about boyfriends every time you bat your eyelashes at a professional sportsman. Of course, if your name is Anna Kournikova you could forget the whole messy, sweaty business of trying to be a champion and just enjoy being the centre of attention.

It’s a good thing that Clijsters has such a well-developed sense of humour to go with her enlarged mammaries.

Also this week, Kim Clijsters stared into the ugly face of male chauvinism — Aussie commentator Todd Woodbridge — and emerged smelling of roses. I can’t really sum it up any better than Patrick Carlyon did in the Herald Sun: “NEVER innocently ask a woman if she’s pregnant.” The three-times US Open Champion got wind of a text Woodbridge had sent the previous week, saying: “She looks grumpy and her boobs are bigger.”

Like an idiot, Woodbridge followed up with a direct question during one of those cringe-making on-court interviews. It’s a good thing that Clijsters has such a well-developed sense of humour to go with her enlarged mammaries. Serena Williams might have punched the former doubles champion on the nose, and he would have richly deserved it.

I can’t remember when this trend for grilling players both before and immediately after matches began. Perhaps it’s a corollary of our obsession with reality TV: cameras and microphones must be everywhere at all times. It surprises me that the cameras don’t follow the players back into the changing room during their mid-match “comfort breaks”. During the 2002 Australian Open final between Martina Hingis and Jennifer Capriati an “extreme heat” break saw the American retreat briefly to the tunnel, in a desperate attempt to get out of the sun. She couldn’t get away from the all-seeing eye, though.

As a spectator or a TV viewer I really don’t need to see sweaty and exhausted players forced to trot out yet more clichés before they’re allowed to leave the court. A victory wave, a smile and a few autographs for the fans really should be enough.

(Article first published as Wet T-Shirts, Dry Humor and a Phantom Pregnancy on Blogcritics.)