Why Bernard Tomic is One to Watch

January 20, 2012

Bernard Tomic, the young Australian tennis star, won his third round match 4-6 7-6 7-6 2-6 6-3 at the Australian Open on Friday night in front of a packed Rod Laver Arena.  His opponent, the crafty Ukrainian Alexandr Dolgopolov, was a tough match up from the start – ‘it’s like playing myself in the mirror’ – but the Australian won through in 5 sets.

The play was evenly matched – total points won: Tomic 174, Dolgopolov 174 – but, thanks to a partisan crowd and stronger belief, it was Tomic who was able to win the critical points and pass relatively unscathed to the next on-court challenge.

He nows plays Roger Federer in the fourth round, being the first teenager to reach the fourth round of a slam since Marin Cilic in Melbourne in 2008; will he be the first teen to beat Federer since Nadal at Roland Garros in 2005?  No matter what the outcome, certainly Tomic will hope his tennis career trajectory proceeds in a similar fashion to the latter teenager.

What is more, whether the Australian wins or loses, his performance will certainly give Australians hope that they will once again have a presence at the top of the men’s  tennis game.

Tomic is an unconventional player, mixing up pace with spin and direction like almost no other player – apart from, perhaps, Dolgopolov.  He has what experts like to call ‘an excellent tennis brain’, meaning despite his young age, he is intelligent and tactical on the court.

It is Tomic’s ease when he strikes the ball, however, which is most startling – when he is on form, his racquet appears to sweep away the ball with as simple and effortless a stroke as swatting a fly, yet the ball covers the court with astonishing power and speed.

His one-handed backhand is almost as fluid, with plenty of vicious slice to get his opponent down low.  As the past greats of the game must think when they see him play: ‘this is how tennis should be’.

Needless to say, there are echoes of Federer here, as Tomic himself highlights.  Following his win against Dolgopolov and looking forward to his match with Federer, he concurred that Federer was a great inspiration, and his matches are those ‘you really want to sit down and watch’.

Tomic has already played against Federer in a Davis Cup tie on grass in Sydney, a match which Federer won with relative ease.  But for Tomic to play his idol at his home grand slam event in front of what will doubtless be a super-charged 15,000-strong crowd is another step altogether.  It will be both a steep learning curve, but also a great chance to show the world he really is one to watch.

This is not to say Tomic is flaky, however.  Tomic showed his first hand on the world tennis stage in the summer of 2011 by progressing to the quarterfinal of the Wimbledon Championships, being beaten by the ultimate champion of the tournament, Novak Djokovic.  With this he moved up 87 places in the world rankings, to number 71.

However, in his last tour match of 2011 at the Paris Bercy Masters, Tomic faltered against Frenchman Nicholas Muhut in a round of qualifying, in front of a small crowd and on what can only be described as a ‘peripheral’ court.  No television, no Australian crowd, no extended support group – just an opponent, who he should beat, across the net.

Despite showing he had the skills to outmanouvre the Frenchman from all quarters, his heart did not seem in it, as he shook his head after every errand shot from his racquet and every winner from his opponent’s.  To add insult to injury, his somewhat strong-willed father, John Tomic, walked out after the youngster was broken in just the first few games.

It just shows was surroundings can do for a player – or, rather, for that player’s support.  Fast forward to Melbourne, only two months later, and Tomic is the darling of the first grand slam of the year.  Same surface, same player, totally different response to adversity.

If Tomic is to succeed in the upper echelons of the game, he needs to be able to apply the same sort of strength as he has in Melbourne to matches like those in Bercy – learning to win in minor tournaments, and in early rounds, when only a few hundred people are watching.  Then, perhaps, Tomic will become the darling of tennis the world over.

Goodbye, Fwiends: Wossy’s Legacy

February 1, 2010

Restor­ing the old magic between Jonathan Ross and the BBC has proved immensely difficult since the scandals that beset the long standing partnership. So difficult, in fact, that the two will soon part ways completely.

Recently, the controversial presenter announced without warning that he would not renegotiate his substantial contract of two weekly television programmes and a weekend radio show after 13 years with the corporation.

For the BBC, the departure of one of its highest paid and most recognisable stars removes a £17 million rod from its back, a symbolic figure that was repeated endlessly in discussions over the organisation’s dealings with ratings-winning stars.

Nevertheless, in his statement, Ross commented that his decision “was not financially motivated. I signed my cur­rent contract with the BBC having turned down more lucrative offers from other channels because it was where I wanted to be and – as I have said before – would happily have stayed there for any fee they cared to offer, but there were other considerations.”

To observers, it appears that the 2008 Sachsgate furore, where Ross joined Russell Brand in graphically taunting the actor Andrew Sachs on his answer machine during Brand’s radio show, has had a poisonous effect on the relationship between the presenter and the corporation.

As a TV producer summarised, “Sachsgate was a symptom of the general malaise that was already present. The most stupid thing he did was his remark about being worth 1,000 BBC journalists. He took the money and it was the beginning of a lengthy and slow death in his current BBC career.”

Since the Sachs event, BBC compliance managers have stifled Ross’s ‘mind to mouth’ antics by transferring Ross’s Radio 2 show from a live to a pre-recorded programme and numerous lawyers are on hand to double-check off-the-cuff comments that step over the line on all of his broadcasts.

The observable result is a Friday-night chat show that borders on sycophancy towards celebrity guests and visible censorship of his more vulgar comments – a far cry from the extravagant and outrageous escape it used to be. Ratings evidence, too, shows that audiences are unimpressed by the lacklustre nature of the ‘new and improved’ Ross. However, with the benefit of hindsight, surely the BBC knew that taking Ross on board would mean his programmes would tip close to the edge of broadcasting acceptability?

Ever since his rise from researcher to presenter, Ross’s style has been consistently punctuated by sexual references, expletives and controversial behaviour. His shenanigans provided a convenient focus for the BBC’s enemies, as well as his own. The inflated salary; the rude language; and the lewd interviews provided evidence of BBC profligacy, lack of moral standards and incapacity of regulators. Al­though the most ardent detractors will doubtless find other sticks with which to beat both parties, the departure of Ross from BBC programmes removes resonant weapons, especially crucial with a general election approaching.

Perhaps Ross will do better once he is out of the publicly funded spotlight for some time. He certainly has enough to busy himself with – his production company, called Hot Sauce, produces acclaimed television shows in the UK. An avid graphic novel enthusiast, Ross has also created his own comic book and is rumoured to be looking to turn the plotline into a feature film. Moreover, while his controversial talent is no longer welcome at the BBC, it is possible that he may express himself freely again on a commercial channel at some point in the future. The offers are doubtless arriving thick and fast.

As for the BBC, this departure meant that the broadcaster lost its second big popular entertainer – after Terry Wogan – in under a month. Whereas replacements for Wogan were lined up well before he left, Ross’s exit leaves three programmes without a presenter and no clear successors have yet materialised.

In 2006, Ross was an “irreplaceable asset”, according to Alan Yentob, the BBC creative director. Just over three years later, after a BBC Trust review of talent salaries, Sachsgate and the introduction of a new Editorial Policy, it appears that Ross is an asset the corporation can now afford to live without.

The deepest problem remaining – what will the BBC now offer in terms of successful, popular chat-show entertainment? One of the strengths of the corporation is its appeal across multiple audiences and demographics; with­out this, one of the central elements of the BBC’s existence is erased. Although the removal of Ross may have been a desired outcome, with the presenter only surviving until now due to contractual technicalities, the larger-than-life star leaves a gaping hole in the BBC’s entertainment repertoire.

Somehow the BBC needs to draw on its world class production talent, rather than giving mil­lions away to fly-by-night presenters, whilst simultaneously sustaining programmes with broad appeal and rebalancing its moral compass. That would require managers to rely on imagination rather than the draw of big names. In today’s celeb-saturated society, is this possible?

Roger Federer The Ultimate Champion Once Again As Andy Murray Falters

January 31, 2010

It was the sort of match that you knew, no matter what the final score line, would be tight.  A closely-fought battle between two natural talents of tennis.

Andy Murray, the young and feisty Briton who has been tipped for a Grand Slam victory for years, against the experienced campaigner and ultimate champion, Roger Federer.   For many tennis purists, a match as close to heaven as one can achieve in today’s slow, grinding game.

As experience goes, a player can’t be much wiser than Federer.  Fifteen Grand Slam victories, including triumphs at all four majors and on every surface in the game, plus the record-holder supreme of 23 consecutive Grand Slam semifinals, 22 Grand Slam finals and 237 consecutive weeks at No. 1, giving him a total of 268 weeks at the pinnacle of the men’s game.

Yet the sun-soaked fortnight in Melbourne showed that Murray would be in no way just putting in an appearance on Sunday night.  Dropping only two sets in his run to the final, he produced awesome displays of his grit and talent in equal measure in his victories over John Isner, the towering American, and world No. 14 Marin Cilic.

After witnessing his dismantling of Rafael Nadal in the quarterfinals, a performance showcasing Murray’s determination, aggressiveness, and endurance and all the while highlighting Nadal’s increasing vulnerability against top ten players, many thought that a similar performance in the final against any opponent—even Federer—would be enough to crown the Scot the Australian Open Champion.

Before the tournament, there were whispers that Federer was not at his silky-smooth best.

After becoming father to two twins, getting married, and surpassing Pete Sampras’ 14-Slam haul at Wimbledon, many thought that the subconscious motivation to work that extra bit harder, both during tournaments and in practice, was just a little absent from the Swiss’ mind.

Shaky performances, too—well, at least by Federer’s elevated standards of play—against Russians Igor Andreev in the first round and Nikolay Davydenko in the quarterfinal increased the jitters among Federer fans that perhaps the champion didn’t have the optimum conditioning needed to win seven hard-fought matches in two weeks.

Nevertheless, a Grand Slam holds significant and unparalleled resonance within the Federer psyche.

A stunning victory against Lleyton Hewitt in the fourth round and an even more impressive, almost faultless display against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the semifinals set the perfect scene for a battle of mind and body in Rod Laver Arena on Sunday night.

And so it transpired.  From the offset, each service game was closely contested, with both Murray and Federer reaching deuce and breakpoints several times over.  Numerous close calls in the first set would have seen Murray go up a break—but with Murray’s serve faltering, instead it was Federer that gained the advantage, winning the first set 6-3.

A second set break to Federer shortly followed at 2-1, in a game where Federer orchestrated a stunning symphony of his all-court skills to reach 0-40 and then finish with the decisive break.

Chances were missed by both players, including some serious opportunities for Federer to increase his advantage to two breaks, but the first and only break of the set secured Federer’s second set win, 6-4.

By this stage Federer was firing on all cylinders; every shot was timed to perfection, hit with precision and power, forcing Murray to run incessantly from corner to corner of the baseline and forward into the net.

The Scot’s relentless—and increasing—power shots were swiftly and effortlessly swatted away by the Swiss magician with his magic wand.

As soon as Federer captured the second set from Murray’s grasp, the match looked to turn inevitably and uncontrollably in the Swiss’ direction.

A jaw-dropping 155-0 record in grand slam matches when Federer has been two sets to love up only cemented the feeling that another victory was on its way.

But still, Murray pushed and pushed for a crucial break, a swing in momentum, anything to turn the match back to his side, toward his dream.  He got it, at 3-2 in the third set, when Federer dropped his level slightly and mistimed several shots; nevertheless, like a true champion, Federer never panicked and broke back to even the set at 5-5.

A crucial third set tiebreak ensued.  The tension in Rod Laver Arena reached fever pitch as mini-breaks were exchanged throughout the early points.

After each and every point the crowd erupted into a cacophony of noise—screams, bellows, chants and sighs in equal measure—all in the hopes of lifting their respective idols.  A smorgasbord of red, white and blue faces, banners, clothes and flags coloured the entire stadium.

Everyone knew that should this tiebreak force a further set, the outcome of the match could be drastically altered in the underdog’s favour.

So the nail-biting continued.  After numerous missed set points and championship points, with increasing sighs and shouts from both the audience and the players, a further chance for Federer to seal the victory.

The crowd hushed; a service fault by Murray; gasps from the crowd; a second serve, return, forehand into the net.  Federer cried in delight; the victory was secured, 13-11 in the third set tiebreak.

Needless to say, Murray was disappointed at his loss, crushed by being so near, yet so far from his dream.  The raw emotions that spilled out in his runner-up speech showed the anguish of faltering once again in the high-stakes situation of a Grand Slam final.

But as ever, Federer was the ultimate champion.  He vanquished over the challenges posed from the other side of the net in each and every match during the fortnight, while simultaneously acting with grace, poise, and dignity.  Towards the media, towards his fans, towards the tournament organisers, he acted—and will continue to act—like a true champion.

As he walked around the stadium in his lap of honour, holding the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup trophy aloft and waving at his fans with unrelenting excitement and enjoyment, no one could refute the fact that this man is truly happy, unaffected by professional or personal regret or failure.  The happiness etched on centre of his heart radiated outwards to his luminous glow of success.

Let’s not forget that this was the man, the humanitarian, that organised the ‘Hit for Haiti’, enlisting the help of fellow tennis players and filling 15,000 seats in Rod Laver Arena, two weeks ago to the day.

Now, he stands as not only the human champion, but the sporting champion.

At a time when the greats of the global sporting stage are falling into disarray on account of transgressions, misfortunes and misconduct, there is a desire—no, need – for us to savour this great; arguably the greatest of them all.  Who knows when we will be delivered another like Federer.

Rafael Nadal’s Nagging Injuries: A Wounded Warrior

January 30, 2010

The Australian Open is always an interesting setting for the formulation and renewal of tennis storylines.

What effects will lag on from the previous season; which disasters will be erased from memory at the start of the new year; which players will come back reinvigorated, refreshed, renewed?

Which players will burst forth, which players will be upset?

But there was a disturbing familiarity to one of the biggest tales of the fortnight: Rafael Nadal’s fading invincibility, his wounded warrior status clear for all to see in his retirement against Andy Murray in the quarterfinals.  The notion that we’ve seen the best of his dramatic rivalry with Roger Federer, a rivalry that the Spaniard was dominating, drawing to a sad close.

Although Nadal started 2009 as he left 2008, with an epic five-set win over the Swiss in the Australian Open final (his sixth Slam—the first on a hardcourt—following wins at Wimbledon, the French Open, and the Olympics in 2008), 2009 slowly descended into injury heartbreak.

Nadal came to Melbourne this year without a tournament victory in eight months.

Within that period came a shocking defeat at the hands of Robin Soderling in the French Open, a withdrawal from the defence of his crown at Wimbledon, and poor shows at numerous other events including the World Tour Finals in London in November (where he lost all three of his round robin matches).  He has a 1-9 record in recent matches against Top 10 players.

Knee injuries and abdominal injuries were the main causes for concern in the 2009 season.

Now it’s the right knee again, inducing so much pain that he felt it necessary to retire in the third set of his quarterfinal, with Murray leading 6-3, 7-6 (2), 3-0.

This time, Nadal chose not to play through the pain, explaining that was what caused him to take such a long break from the tour in the middle of last year.

But what this latest display of the Spaniard’s vulnerability illustrates is an existing pattern.  Nadal has been punishing his body for years, proving himself as one of the most relentless competitors—and practice partners—in the sport’s history, consistently attaining a level of stamina and endurance that few thought possible on the tennis court.

Clearly the same determination and strength will be applied to his recovery.  It now appears that he will now take at least one month off to recover from this latest strain.

What remains to be seen, however, is how these persistent niggles will affect his Grand Slam chances and, most importantly, his tennis career.

[Published on Bleacher Report; 28th January 2010]

Has Top Gear Run Out Of Gas?

January 30, 2010

The now longstanding staple of Sunday night television, Top Gear, began its fourteenth series several weeks ago to somewhat subdued acclaim.

Having been forced to reschedule the motoring show to 9pm – rather than its traditional 8pm slot – due to what Executive Producer Andy Wilman calls ‘Simon Cowell and the X-Factor on storming form’, the programme continues to showcase three middle-aged men acting out their boyhood dreams on a weekly basis.  With international locations, expensive supercars and celebrity guests as the foundation of the BBC show, the transparent Top Gear fantasy world continues to expand exponentially, transfixing over 350 million viewers in over 100 countries worldwide.

There is seemingly universal adulation over the two words ‘Top Gear’ among young and old, male and female.  It is the show that everyone seems to love; the show that is everyone’s guilty secret.  For many, it is a drug in broadcasting form.  Once you give in to its simple charms, its indulgent nature, you are hooked.

But is the show, slowly but surely, running out of gas?

Everyone is by now aware that vast components of the show are scripted, the dialogue being frequently punctuated with cleverly constructed word play, innuendos and quips.

Now that the show is in its seventh year, and having broadcast over 120 episodes, it is clearly becoming harder and harder for the programme to maintain the spontaneous, enthralling banter that the greying triumvirate of Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond so fluidly established at the beginning of their presenting era.

The secrets of the production itself are also loosing their lustre.  The Stig, once a magnetic attraction of the show, has now become so omnipresent in the Top Gear enterprise that the man-machine’s exclusivity and unique appeal is constantly diminishing.  ‘Who is the Stig?’ was for a long time the cry from a captivated and somewhat confused audience; yet it is now difficult not to believe the substantial rumours and mounting evidence surrounding the character’s true identity.

Equally the never-changing format of challenges and reviews, while differently arranged and with varying content in each new episode, is fundamentally the same as it was in the very first series.  While the phrase ‘if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it’ is valuable gospel here, it is nevertheless incredibly difficult to tell the difference between a new episode of Top Gear and a 2004 repeat.

That features and stories have to be even more extreme in their content, even more unusual in their location (Romania, Bolivia, anyone?), only fuels the argument that Top Gear producers are scraping the barrel to keep the broad viewing demographic largely contented.  Will the ideas pot run out soon?

Additionally, there is only so much that a BBC programme, restricted by health and safety, recessionary budgets and editorial policy, can do with cars and car-related activities.  But, perhaps, Top Gear surpassed that niche and honest content a long time ago.

This leads critics to another issue.  The show is frequently under investigation by the broadcasting regulator, Ofcom, due to its provocative – often offensive – content, language and opinion.

Within the past month the regulator deemed the last episode of the thirteenth series, which was shown on BBC2 in late July, to be offensive and inappropriate for the time and audience (the show featured a ‘home-made’ car advertisement showing a man commit suicide).  This show also came under fire from Polish authorities after its World War II-related joke that a car could travel from ‘Berlin to Warsaw on one tank’.

Other incidents to come under severe scrutiny have included presenters May and Clarkson drinking a gin and tonic while driving to the North Pole; naming lorry drivers’ chief occupation as murdering prostitutes; and setting fire to a caravan on a camping holiday.

In attempting to push the boundaries of the show, has the increasing frequency of complaints and issues regarding the programme finally overstepped a line?  Has even Top Gear, notorious for its ignorance of editorial rules, now gone too far?

Others take offense at the current show’s co-creator and chief presenter, Jeremy Clarkson, and his left-field delivery and comments that frequently test the limits of responsible and acceptable television.  Many argue that his politically incorrect, patriarchal and off-kilter presenting style is infusible with twenty-first century society.

How ironic it is that the BBC’s greatest money-spinner is a politically incorrect, independent, free-spirited, gas-guzzling automotive show.  Will there be a time when executives take a stand?

But, on the other hand, it is precisely this politically incorrect, escapist and exotic world that makes the show so unrelentingly alluring to its millions of avid viewers.

From the frozen Arctic to America’s Mid-West, from making amphibious cars to denouncing car manufacturers, there is nowhere, nor no subject, that Top Gear and its producers are afraid to penetrate.  This freedom permits the show to experiment, innovate and evolve in a way that no other show can, thus maintaining its prime slot in the hearts and minds of its obsequious fans.

There is clearly unpretentious precision, planning and intelligence beneath the surface of the production that keeps the show ticking over, and more often than not, teetering on the acceptable edge of broadcasting.

Crucially, that the presenters, and producers, don’t give a damn about saying the wrong thing any more – listen to the nationwide sharp intake of breath when Clarkson makes awful jokes about Gordon Brown – ensures the show is always entertaining, always cutting edge and always brave enough to ignore the critics.

Arguably, we need the honesty and freedom of Clarkson, May and Hammond now more than ever.

Published December 2009

Winning Performances of 2009: Roger Federer, Masters Madrid

December 9, 2009

It was the victory about which the ramifications were to reverberate around the tennis world for months.

After a few despairing and desolate months at the beginning of 2009, including Grand Slam defeat, the continued unattainability of the No.1 position and the much media-scrutinised racquet-smashing, it seemed that Roger Federer had truly lost his tennis mojo.

Yet the Madrid Masters final was the triumph that acted as the trigger for ultimate supremacy.

In comprehensively defeating Rafael Nadal in straight sets in the clay-court final, Federer seemed to find and unleash the power and skill that had seemingly been laid dormant for months.

In the weeks that followed, Federer won the French Open – his first victory at Roland Garros, his fourteenth Slam overall (equalling Pete Sampras) and achieved him a Career Grand Slam – and Wimbledon, where he won his record-breaking fifteenth Grand Slam by beating Andy Roddick in an epic 5-set final.

Of course, on the Sunday in May when Federer won in Madrid, these events were yet to be uncovered, yet to be dreamed.

But even looking at the event individually, it was clear that the tide was turning for the Swiss.

With personal life settled – Federer and ‘his Mirka’ married in April – and injury woes abating, Federer was able to revert back to his perfectly relaxed self on the tennis court.

Reaching the Madrid final with ease, Nadal, the clay court king, was outclassed from the baseline and the net with stunning cross-court, down-the-line and net winners.  Despite Federer’s recent woes, and historical match-ups in favour of the Spaniard, Nadal just couldn’t keep up with Federer’s power, precision and poise.

The final in Madrid was the start of something huge for Federer and the tennis community, signalling the eve of another new era.

ATP World Tour Finals In London: Lessons Learned From Shanghai

November 30, 2009

The World Tour Finals, the ATP Tour’s year-end championships, which has now been completed following Nikolay Davydenko’s singles victory, has re-established itself as the ATP’s premium tournament following its premiere in its new home of London’s O2 Arena.

The Shanghai experiment (the Tennis Masters Cup—the Finals’ previous name—was played there for the past four years) now looks like a woefully unsuccessful misadventure, a notion underlined by the fact that the ATP pulled the plug on the event one year before the original contract expired in favour of the newly sponsored and newly organised event in London.

The mainland Chinese made a good effort to get up to speed with state-of-the-art, Western-style sports promotion, particularly with tennis. With team-based sports already popular in Asia (football being a clear example), individual sports were the next emerging area.

The likes of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal already had huge fanbases, as well as sponsorship, in China, and it was hoped that staging the Tennis Masters Cup in a cosmopolitan and accepting Chinese city like Shanghai would capitalise on this interest.

A brand new arena, introduced solely for the Tennis Masters Cup, was inaugurated in 2005 by Federer (the “lucky” 8-leaf, magnolia-shaped roof does not seem so lucky anymore).

But despite Shanghai’s—and the ATP’s—best efforts, certain difficulties remained insurmountable. The most significant of these was the painful reality that the Chinese equivalent of a “typical” tennis fan didn’t have the disposable income, or free time, to buy a ticket.

Equally, for the majority of overseas fans, China seemed just too far to travel even to see the best tennis players.

The event, in its innovative stadium and with presidential-like benefits, seemed like a futuristic novelty for the majority of its prospective visitors.

From the offset, it was different in London’s O2. Hosting other events such as unique music concerts, gymnastic championships, and exhibitions, the location is already well-known as a prestigious location for the world’s best entertainment.

As soon as tickets were released for the World Tour Finals in February, sessions began selling out. By August, only 20,000 of 250,000 tickets remained available.

An unstoppable hype machine, combined with a thrilling 2009 tennis season and, most crucially, an enormous, long-established, and relatively affluent Western fanbase whose constituents are already familiar with the sport, made the move to London profitable before the event even started.

The media presence in Shanghai was also limited; organisations that usually send reporters abroad found the lack of activity in Shanghai a reason for home reports instead. The time difference only compounded issues for broadcasters, reporters, newspapers, and fans alike.

London, on the other hand, is well positioned geographically and chronologically for the broadest range of countries and individuals. Who wouldn’t jump at the chance to visit and report from London, one of the financial and cultural hubs of the world?

The sheer number of accreditation passes hanging around the necks of those who wandered the O2′s alleys provided the evidence that this event would be comprehensively documented by the world’s media.

The ATP positioned the move to Shanghai as a (incredibly) forward-looking gamble based on China’s booming economy and growing interest in tennis. A progressive mood was in the air, especially as this event is second only to Grand Slams in terms of importance. Shanghai seemed like the perfect location to compound the global aspirations of the widespread ATP tour.

Although it is advantageous to maximise the market for tennis by taking the sport to emerging or exurban regions, there is no doubt that the most important event should be held in mature markets and big cities, purely because of the limited style and duration of the event.

The Shanghai event was out of sight, out of mind.

How many neutral television viewers were around at two a.m. GMT to flick to the TMC and suddenly find an interest in tennis? This shortsightedness has cost the ATP in the long term and is why it is even more crucial that the event is taking place in such a global, high-octane centre such as London.

The TMC events held in New York in the 1980s have always been the benchmark, and perhaps the reason why only a city like London can come close to that success.

From all accounts, it appears that the past week’s World Tour Finals at the O2 Arena has well and truly achieved that.

The London event was a stunning success, with the quality of the tennis providing an uplifting end to the 2009 season.

The crowds were unexpectedly huge, the staging was brave and innovative, and, most importantly, the players gave absolutely everything to what has now been acknowledged as one of their favourite locations and events.

From the first ball, this was a classy competition, ambitiously staged by the tournament directors. The light shows and emotive musical introductions created chilling pre-match hype, and the practice court in the middle of the public walkway added to the fan experience.

An early criticism related to the lateness of the match finishes. Some of the evening singles sessions ended close to midnight, a spectacle that would normally be appreciated if it were not for the lack of public transport from the East London location at a late hour on chilly, rainy November evenings.

The atmosphere would change completely if the evening session started earlier, even by half an hour, so that all fans could stay until the conclusion of the final match without worrying about missing transport connections.

The only real disappointment of the week was the farcical indecision of Thursday night, at the conclusion of Group A singles matches, when dithering ATP officials failed to announce the two winners of the group to the players and spectators.

Given the nature of the event—the same layout, and same rules, remain every year—the situation should have been thought through properly, especially as one who had even basic computer spreadsheet competency could have disclosed the result immediately following the evening match.

All in all, there are plenty of reasons to celebrate the World Tour Finals’ new home in London. We have plenty to look forward to next year…

(Published on Bleacher Report; 30th November 2009)

Serena Williams And The Final Result Of Her US Open Outburst

November 30, 2009

Serena Williams, the world No. 1 in female tennis, has been fined and given a suspended three-year ban from the US Open for her tirade at a line judge at the US Open in Flushing Meadows.

The American verbally abused a line judge official at a crucial point in her semi-final against Belgian Kim Clijsters in September.  A foot-fault on a second serve gave Clijsters a match point—a point she subsequently won after Williams’ outburst was punished by a further point penalty.

As the American walked over to the official, she used her racket to gesture angrily as she verbally abused the official.  The official reported what she had heard to the umpire, and Williams was given the point penalty by Brian Earley, US Open tournament referee, who came onto the court.

Williams will incur the ban if she commits any further “major offence” before the end of 2011.  If this is the case, her fine will also double to £106,000.

After the match, Williams was fined £6,000—which has been included in the latest penalty of £53,000.

This is a quarter of the £212,000 Williams received for reaching the semi-finals.  Many believe that this fine is fairly lenient given Williams’ prize money, but that the ban will be a huge incentive for Williams to curb her behaviour.

The fine still tops the previous highest Grand Slam fine of £38,000 given to Jeff Tarango in 1995.

After the incident, Williams released an initial statement, which did not include a straight apology, but later said she wanted to “sincerely apologise” for her behaviour.

The International Tennis Federation’s Grand Slam Committee met last week to agree on a punishment. It found her guilty of “the Grand Slam major offence of aggravated behaviour.”

(Published on Bleacher Report: 30th November 2009)

Evening Sessions Become Late Night Sessions At The O2 Arena

November 25, 2009

The day started well enough. In fact, the whole tournament started splendidly.

A highly successful first Sunday with plenty of top players in action (Andy Murray’s and Roger Federer’s wins being the notable highlights).

On Monday, a day session with enough upset (Soderling beating Nadal in straight sets in a repeat of this year’s French Open fourth round) satisfied tennis fans, neutrals and journalists. A session that ended with time aplenty to grab a bite to eat and settle down for a doubles-singles match duo in the evening.

But then the trouble started to mount. We heard rumblings from the Media Centre about the previous evening’s exploits and the horror that Roger Federer’s press conference would commence at midnight. Oh well, fans thought. Journalists have to do their (very privileged) job. What does it matter to them that they have to share taxis, instead of ride the tube, to get home?

However, on Monday night, journalists’ worries extended to the mass crowd. After a slightly late-running doubles match, the hotly anticipated singles match between Novak Djokovic and Nikolay Davydenko (a rematch of last year’s final) started at around 9pm. Both counter-punchers clearly wanted to win, and how; in 30 minutes, a period in which a set can often be complete, the Serb and Russian had only played four games.

For many spectators, their travel arrangements only extended until midnight—and, given the tenacity and endurance of the two players, a long night was predicted.

In fact, many spectators had to leave at 11:30pm in order to secure transport home. Some were even forced to leave at 9:45pm to ensure getting home safely. Many ended up being stranded in East London after staying on to applaud Djokovic’s victory over Davydenko, with tubes into Central London stopping at midnight.

Not good, especially when a session only comprises one doubles and one singles match, the latter being the most favoured for the majority.

Clearly, this isn’t good for the audience—and nor for the players, who must dislike playing in front of a half-capacity crowd at such an important event.

Can anything be done? Well, somehow, London transport authorities must know that such events, with effectively late-night conclusion certainty, are due to take place. Can connections from the O2 Arena and North Greenwich be improved for such occasions?

Television schedules, too, could bring some common sense to proceedings.  Tennis approaching midnight in the UK, while being advantageous for those in North America, is not necessarily what the public wants to watch on a weekday night when they have to get up for work early the next morning.

Of course, the obvious answer is to commence the evening session a little earlier. Even a 30 minute advance in scheduling could make the difference between worry and enjoyment for the crowd, players and even sponsors.

For this event to continue in the utterly successful manner in which it started, surely such an improvement must be made for future years.

(Published on Bleacher Report; November 24th, 2009)

ATP World Tour Finals: First Impressions Of A Truly Impressive Event

November 25, 2009

Well, the Barclay’s ATP World Tour Finals got underway in London. And what a spectacle!

This is an event in the truest sense of the word.  London’s architecturally stunning O2 arena has been transformed into a gladiatorial tennis arena—a setting to inspire, or perhaps intimidate, the world’s best tennis stars. The spotlight is on the players, a one-on-one, week-long fight for the title—let’s hope they shine the entire week.

The view from the bleachers is just as spectacular as the court itself. Each of the 17,000 seats have a brilliant view of the court, in an atmospheric, theatre-like environment. The cheers and electricity emanating from the many thousands of fans to the players on court is addictive. Tennis in Great Britain is alive and well.

What a first day it was. The event kicked off in style with practically a full house observing the first match between No. 1 in doubles, Daniel Nestor and Nenad Zimonjic, and No. 8 seeds Mariusz Fyrstenberg and Marcin Matkowski.  To spice up the proceedings, an upset was duly served, with the eighth-ranked Poles beating the seasoned veterans.

The atmosphere only grew when No. 1 Brit in singles, Andy Murray, took to the stage against 2009 U.S. Open champion Juan Martin Del Potro. Predictions expected the match would be tight—the world Nos. 4 and 5, a Slam Champion and potential future Slam Champion, battling on their favourite surface.

For the passionate home crowd, Murray did not disappoint. The match, full of blinding rallies, fast serves and awe-inspiring talent, culminated in a Murray victory that sent the crowd into a frenzy.

The conclusion of the day session gave the many fans a chance to relax, recharge and get ready for an eventful evening. The alleyways around the arena became full of chatter and excitement, the electricity overflowing from the tennis court.

There are plenty of food and drinks outlets to satisfy every taste. But beware of the horrendous queues.

Being such an open, important and publicity-packed event, people-spotting is a great activity to make the time fly by. From ex-players, to umpires, to commentators, to journalists, all variety of tennis enthusiasts mingle with the crowds. It’s a true tennis fan heaven under one roof.

More capacity-crowd doubles commenced during the evening session. This time, it was an expected win from No. 3 seeds Mark Knowles and Mahesh Bhupathi.

At 8:45 p.m., however, the “real” match started—Roger Federer against Fernando Verdasco.

The tension mounted until the two greats made their way to the court—a tension that was so greatly exacerbated by dramatic music, emotive video montages and player interviews being broadcast on the big screens.

This event certainly is epic in all its elements.

When Federer arrived, the applause was thunderous, the atmosphere intense. We all knew we were in for a good show.

The Spaniard started on a blinder, pummeling every shot and serve. Federer seemed unnerved at times, yet remained calm, knowing that his chance would come. And it did.

While Verdasco continued his successful shot-making, with a little encouragement from the audience Roger found his groove and started to retaliate. Cross-court forehands, volleys and drop shots all found their mark and soon, Roger was well in control in the third set.

Not even a few scoreboard glitches—Federer became Spanish for three minutes and the big screen went partially black for a significant part of the third set—could dampen the fresh, exciting mood of the first evening singles match to be held in London.

At 11:05 p.m., a thoroughly energised, but hoarse, collection of tennis fans emerged from the O2 arena fully satisfied—the home favourite was triumphant, as was the sentimental favourite. But given the success and enjoyment of the day, the thousands of people swarming about the arena appeared to be craving another dose of high-quality, high-drama tennis on the best, brightest stage.

ATP, we salute you. After an only semi-successful Shanghai venture, we worried if the over-commercialised, over-publicised and over-sponsored season-ending finale in London would be a media and fan nightmare.

But all fears were in vain. You chose the city, you chose the venue and we cannot thank you enough.

Let the Battles Commence.

(Published on Bleacher Report; November 24th, 2009)


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