Archive for January, 2010

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