Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Manic Monday at Wimbledon

It says something about the equal dose of frustration and excitement that always ensues on Manic Monday that I managed to watch only four Round of 16 matches. Of all the matches lined up – many of them mouth-watering prospects, as is the norm with the second Monday – I was looking forward most to the first match on centre court. Andy Murray versus Richard Gasquet had a sense of history about it. Three years back, at the same stage, Murray flexed his right bicep after coming back from two sets to love down to seal a marvellous victory against Gasquet – the Frenchman whose unfulfilled talent never ceases to exasperate. The gruelling triumph, however, had taken much out of Murray, both physically and mentally. He fell in the quarterfinals to Rafael Nadal in straight sets, offering not even a smidgeon of competition.

This year, Murray, had cruised into the second week, not so much serenely, but without unduly worrying hiccups. Gasquet, the inscrutable genius blessed with the most divine backhand had had a hitherto more comfortable run, losing not a single set in the first three rounds and playing with an amalgam of panache and composure that is not always typical of him. Murray, though, not only needed to win, but also had to do so with a comfort that would ensure that he has enough left in the tank for potentially bigger challenges to come. This as both history and current form suggested would be no easy task.

But starting a whole hour or so earlier, on one of the show-courts was eighteen-year-old qualifier Bernard Tomic’s tie against Belgium’s Xavier Malisse – a talented stroke maker and former semi-finalist at Wimbledon. I’d seen Tomic dismantle Feliciano Lopez at the Australian Open this year with a blend of power and intelligence that belied a player of his age; before falling to Nadal in the third round in, what must be said, respectable fashion. Tomic – much to the dismay of the Australian tennis authorities – plays very little on the professional tour, with his father insisting that he be slowly nursed into the big stage. His service action is rudimentary at best, but through what is seemingly a strange happenstance, he finds both remarkable pace and angle on it. Especially on the deuce court to right handers, where he gets the ball to curve away from the receiver’s forehand, opening up the court beautifully for him to finish.

Although oozing with easy power, Tomic has the patience to work his way into points. He often uses little slices and dabs, runs his opponent ragged before pulling the trigger on what is usually a very flat and ferocious groundstroke. In the third round against Robin Soderling – one of the heaviest hitters on the tour – Tomic outmuscled him in the first set, before bizarrely changing his game plan in the second and third set only to be proved right. He frequently took the pace off his strokes, instead choosing to find particular spots on the court that would most trouble Soderling and waited either for an unforced error or the opportunity to unleash his own brand of the power game, one of which invariably occurred.

Against Malisse, Tomic was similarly impressive. An unconventional player blessed with the rare gift of timing, Tomic regularly made Malisse scamper across the court before finishing points with insouciant ease. For all his talents, however, what was most impressive about him was his poise on the big points. He never looked hurried, always giving the air of a man taking a gentle stroll on a promenade.

Having broken Malisse to pieces in a straight sets triumph, one would have thought the celebrations would be over-the-top, in line with modern-day practice, but Tomic seemed to consider the victory almost routine. Only Boris Becker, John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg have made the quarterfinals at Wimbledon at a younger age in the Open Era. Not bad company to keep.


Over then to the centre-court, where Murray and Gasquet played a high-quality first set, one which Gasquet dominated for most bits only to succumb in the tiebreak. In the early phases, Gasquet produced angle after angle of geometric brilliance, seemingly slicing Murray into dices, but the Scot kept at it, ensuring that he did enough to hold his serve. In the tiebreak, Murray upped his game, finding greater ferocity on his groundstrokes and in one rally at 4-3, he outplayed Gasquet on the backhand wing – no easy feat – alternating between delicate slices and his powerful two-hander and finding greater angle and greater depth with each stroke before muscling a winner into the open court. It was tactically superb and aesthetically even better. In the second and third set, Gasquet’s game unravelled, and Murray exhibited a greater sense of authority, breaking thrice in all, to take the match, 7-6, 6-3, 6-2.

Gasquet’s backhand is a thing of rare beauty. But his game, as is sometimes made to believe, isn’t only about the backhand. Admittedly he is comparatively frail on the forehand and has a serve that often lets him down, but he has an all-court game including fine volleying skills, which should ideally be helping him to win majors. But he lacks a champion’s edge, or more pertinently a champion’s mind, which as Louisa Thomas explains in this fine piece for Grantland is like having no mind at all.


On Court 1, immediately after Marion Bartoli had upset the odds with a victory over Serena Williams, Novak Djokovic took on France’s Michael Llodra, who continues to play a delightfully old-fashioned serve-and-volley game. But a style, which may have worked well against most opponents on grass, failed against Djokovic who is undoubtedly the finest return-of-server in the men’s game. Throughout the match, Djokovic looked like a player who could win the Championships this year – his movement was more assured with each passing point and his groundstrokes remained decidedly dazzling.

The contrasting styles of the two opponents, though, occasionally made for compelling viewing. Llodra picked many balls virtually off his shoelaces and placed them over the net like he was pitching a golf ball off a sand-bunker straight into the hole. Djokovic chased down balls with vigour and vitality before showcasing masterful racquet skills – proving yet again that there is no one better than him at turning defence into attack. Ultimately, the Serb proved too strong, emerging victorious in three straight sets, 6-3, 6-3, 6-3. Tomic, awaits in the quarterfinals.


Finally, over on centre court, World No. 1 Rafael Nadal was pitted against Juan Martin del Potro in, arguably, the fixture of the day. For much of the first set, the players muscled ball after ball from the baseline, Nadal’s hit with greater top spin, del Potro’s with greater savagery. All of this made for a wonderful exhibition, but when at 6-5 on set point, Nadal felt a twinge on one of his ankles, one expected del Potro to exert more authority. In the tiebreak that followed after a medical timeout, though, Nadal as is so often the case, found a way to win even in the most trying of circumstances.

The second set saw the gangly Argentine exert his will more; he found more punch off an already heavy forehand and I thought we had a classic on our hands. But Nadal is the old master at converting a potential classic into a damp squib, slowing down points by mixing his groundstrokes with potent amounts of spin and dip. He took the third set on a tiebreak before breaking at 3-2 in the fourth courtesy of a brace of astounding forehand returns. The solitary break was sufficient for the Spaniard as he served out at 5-4 for love. Nadal is due for an MRI on the injured ankle to see if he can continue, but regardless, as fine a player as Mardy Fish is on grass, I doubt he’ll give Nadal a sleepless night today.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Wimbledon 2011 - days one to four

Four days have passed by at Wimbledon and there have been lots of charming little sub-plots that have captured attention. The tournament is as much about these side stories that are weaved into the larger tale as it is about the ultimate victors.

Day one, though, was sedate enough, almost as if to ensure that our adrenaline is preserved for greater drama that will doubtless ensue later. Rafael Nadal, the defending men’s champion as tradition warrants, opened proceedings on centre court – although other matches had begun a whole hour earlier in the smaller arenas – against Michael Russell of the United States. Russell goes by the nickname Iron Mike due to his penchant for lifting heavy weights, but against Nadal the weight of his groundstrokes paled in comparison and he was imperiously knocked off in three straight sets. Nadal is now a two times champion at Wimbledon, but the improvements that he has made to his movement on the grass continues to amaze. He isn’t inherently suited for grass like Federer who glides across it with an air of majesty, but having adapted to the surface’s vagaries his pace across the court and his natural shot making ability sufficiently negate any intrinsic weaknesses.

Venus Williams, over on court two – not the old cursed court two which has now become court three – saw off Akgul Amanmuradova with ease. It wasn’t so much her tennis that caught the attention, though, but her attire, which the Telegraph’s Mark Hodgkinson said was the “closest that anyone has ever come to wearing a cut-off toga to this garden party.” You can judge for yourself.

Also on day one, Andy Murray – ‘carrying the weight of a nation on his shoulders’ – overcame a first set loss to oust Daniel Gimeno-Traver of Spain under the 100 million pound roof on Centre Court. Murray’s performance didn't caused the jaw to drop, but upon settling down his pleasing array of little lobs and drops were in abundant evidence.


Day two certainly saw an upscale in the story quotient. First on centre-court was Serena Williams, who hadn’t played a Grand Slam since winning Wimbledon last year. Bouts of depression followed and Serena says she went through a near-death experience four months back – suffering from pulmonary embolism in February with clots on both her lungs. Against France’s Aravane Rezai she was far from her best, but recovered, as she often tends to do after a first set loss, and powered her groundstrokes in characteristically domineering fashion. Her harrowing break began with an injury to the foot – the cause of which she herself is unaware of – and continued onto the surgery that was required to remove the clots on her lungs. Anyway, she’s back now and still looks the best player in the world. And with Venus in the other side of the draw, who’d say no to an all Williams clash in the final.

Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Maria Sharapova, in that order, followed Serena onto centre court and each enjoyed easy straight sets victories. It was the match fourth up on the new court three, though, that everyone was waiting for. John Isner and Nicholas Mahut having played a remarkable eleven-hour match last year that stretched over three days before Isner prevailed 70-68 in the fifth set had through a weird play of fate been drawn against each other. Isner came through yet again, though in far more normal circumstances, 7-6, 6-2, 7-6 – not the most engaging of contests, but its history certainly added to the fascination.


First up on centre court on day three was, perhaps, the story of the tournament thus far. Forty-year-old – yes you read that right – Kimiko Date Krumm was up against Venus Williams in the second round. Date Krumm retired in 1996 – a year in which she reached the semi-finals of Wimbledon and a year in which she was still Kimiko Date. Since then, she has married German racer Michael Krumm before making a remarkable return to the game twelve years after her retirement.

In her earlier stint, I must admit, I was scarcely her fan , for the same reasons expounded in this lovely piece by Louisa Thomas in Grantland. Kimiko in 1996 played Steffi Graf in the semi-final and she had the audacity to take a set off Graf! Not something that went down well, I am sure, with most fans. Nonetheless, her display against Venus Williams – although she ultimately came a cropper in the deciding set – was amongst the most charming I’ve seen in quite some time. Not merely because of her ability to compete at her age, which is no doubt inspirational, but her style of tennis which was a throwback to a bygone era. She thrillingly served and volleyed, chipped, lobbed and dropped and left Venus befuddled in a first set, which she took through a tiebreaker. Ultimately her age and fitness meant that Venus’s game based on brute force – albeit a nous-filled one – would prevail. But it showed that there is still a place for the ‘old-fashioned’ style on grass and that it is a viable tactic even against the hardest of hitters.

Also on day three, Andy Roddick, Nadal, Murray and Tomas Berdych, all potential quarterfinalists sailed into the third round with little fuss. So too did Czech Petra Kvitova, who with her beautiful ball-striking abilities could be a dangerous opponent to encounter in the second week.


Lleyton Hewitt is well past his best. He isn’t anywhere near the force that he was when he won Wimbledon in 2002. But he remains a great competitor – forever plucky and tenacious. Against fifth seed Robin Soderling, yesterday, on day four, he pulled off the first two sets through typical counter-punching brilliance amid several screams of ‘come-on,’ which strangely have lost their annoying twang – maybe it’s because of my own tolerance of the aged contestant. In sets three, four and five, though, all of which were closely fought, Soderling prevailed, eventually finding depth, angle and timing on his extraordinarily fierce groundstrokes. This may be the last time we see Hewitt play on the hallowed grass of SW 19 and it was a performance that even if ultimately unsuccessful, glowingly displayed many of his admirable traits.

Hewitt-Soderling was followed by another match where character and guts were in plentiful display. Li Na, coming off her recent triumph at Roland Garros faced Germany’s wildcard entrant Sabine Lisicki. A quarterfinalist in 2009, Lisicki was seemingly destined to rise into the top echelons of the women’s game, but an ankle injury reduced her to walking on crutches for seven weeks and sent her ranking plummeting below 200. A victory at Birmingham leading up to Wimbledon saw her secure a wildcard, a decision, which now looks richly deserved. Li picked up the first set 6-3 and looked good for a simple victory, but a combination of huge serving – one of her aces was recorded at 122 miles per hour – and magnificent striking off the forehand wing saw Lisicki come back to take sets two and three 6-4, 8-6. This would usually be a cue for me to berate the quality of some of the top ranked women players, but this was an occasion on which the tennis, particularly in the latter phases, was of superb quality.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Of Wimbledon, Edberg, Chang and Ivaniševic

Wimbledon, which begins on Monday, somewhat peculiarly isn’t my favourite Grand Slam tournament. The honour belongs to Roland Garros for reasons explained in an earlier post. It represents, though, something more. It isn’t merely about the tennis currently on display but the tennis that was once on display. It provides an opportunity to reminisce about the past. In many ways, my life as a tennis fan can be chronicled through the history of the Wimbledon Championships.

It was at Wimbledon, after all, that I fell in love with Stefan Edberg. My family wasn’t tennis-crazy, but my Grandfather in those days watched the sport, and particularly Wimbledon with rapt devotion. It was a time when the Becker-Edberg rivalry was at its zenith. I was too young to have an idea about the mechanics of the sport, but a choice had to be made between the pair. I would be giving myself undeserved credit if I were to say that it was the regal elegance of the Swede’s play that made me chose him over the German, but I doubt I was prone to such aesthetic-minded decisions at that age. For some reason or the other, though, Edberg, playing in his classic Adidas kit, captured my imagination like none before or since. To this day, when I watch re-runs of Edberg playing, I am glad, and even proud, that I made the right choice – for no player more artistically pleasing has ever graced the sport. Somehow, my earliest memories of Edberg have nothing to do with his actual on-court skills, but the jump over the net that he made to greet his opponent who would surely have been slain with sinuous, easy grace.

To me Edberg’s tennis epitomised beauty. His classical service action – which is now used as the Australian Open’s logo – I tried replicating on the courts on many occasions, only for the attempts to end in glorious failure. His single-handed backhand was again a thing of beauty – often hit with the perfect amalgam of power, timing and placement. It was at the net, though, that he was at his finest. A more competent, finessed volley-er you will not see. He struck volleys on both wings with crisp ease that they were bizarrely both imperious and languid. To me the numbers matter little. Perhaps, his six Grand Slam titles do little justice to his talents, but it was his style of play that I was in thrall with. In fact, very soon after I became an Edberg fan, he was on the decline – he won the last of his Grand Slams in 1992 at Flushing Meadows, a tournament which I remember even if not vividly with much fondness.

The era of the Americans – Pete Sampras, Jim Courier and Andre Agassi – had arrived. Outlandishly, though, it wasn’t anyone from this triumvirate that I supported, but it was the other American Michael Chang who caught my fancy. I am not as proud of this choice for Chang was but a baseline slugger. He retrieved balls from every corner of the court and counter-punched with magnificent vigour. His game was scarcely suited to the serene grass of Wimbledon and as I was not old enough to watch him win at Roland Garros in 1989 – ironically he defeated Edberg in the final – my time as his fan never saw him win anything substantial.

Sampras had, by now, begun to dominate tennis, and particularly Wimbledon, with tedious, yet impeccable excellence. Those around me were left in awe by the American’s play, but I remained dogged in my opposition – excellence isn’t necessarily a trait that one identifies with when growing up. I needed a player to counter his machine-like efficiency and again my choice was curious. The enigmatic Goran Ivanišević was a popular player, but one who was ultimately flawed. He could serve with monstrous power and remarkable accuracy, but his game was otherwise limited. The Croat lost in the final at Wimbledon in 1992 to Agassi – in a five set humdinger – and in 1994 and 1998 to Sampras who polished him off during the big-points like he was swatting a fly.

Tragedy and Ivanišević rarely seemed too far apart, but his tennis had a magnetic pull to it. One wanted to be attached to his solitude, to feel the catastrophe of his losses. There was something innately human about him, as much as there was something robotic about Sampras. And when in 2001, the Croat, as a wildcard entrant, hiccupped his way into the final against Patrick Rafter, the stage was set for the ultimate tennis story. After five sets of gruelling, heart-wrenching tennis, Ivanišević clinched his first and only Wimbledon, 9-7 in the decider. It was a titanic struggle, but the victory was amongst the sweetest I have experienced as a fan of the sport.

This, the last paragraph from Guardian’s game-by-game report of the 2001 final captures beautifully the concluding moments and the sweet joy of Ivanišević’s victory:

“Drama, drama. This game encapsulates Goran. A bad decision sees him go 0-15. Then a double-fault to take it to 15-30. Then a second service ace at 116mph. 30-30: he calls for the same ball. He aces it to give him championship point. The crowd have gone ballistic. Goran is weeping. Boom. Is it an ace? No, it’s out. And then he double-faults. On match point! Deuce. A big serve gives him the advantage. Guess what? Yup – another double-fault! Rafter pushes one down the line. But it’s out and Goran goes to his knees and lifts his eyes to heaven. He kisses the ball. But what nerve and presence of mind from Rafter to lob from there. And so perfectly. Deuce. But another chance for Goran. He asks for the same ball again. Rafter puts it into the net. GORAN’S WON.”

Monday, June 13, 2011

The Michael Jordan Problem

Sporting immortality, greatness and a positive answer to the ‘Michael Jordan question’ will have to wait at least another season for LeBron James. This was supposed to be his year. The year when having moved from the Cleveland Cavaliers – in hugely controversial circumstances – to join Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to form a triumvirate talented enough to win him the NBA title, James would fulfil his destiny with the Miami Heat.

Having charged into the Final to meet the Dallas Mavericks – themselves a motley group of talented yet seemingly unfulfilled basketball players including the thirty-eight-year-old Jason Kidd and the thirty-two-year-old Dirk Nowitzki – the Miami Heat were the overwhelming favourites. And after game one, in which the Heat cruised to a 92-84 win, one thought the series was all but sealed – a run to victory that wouldn’t need James to parade his dazzling array of skills. The Jordan question would have been left unanswered, but for different reasons. The victory for Heat would have been simple. There would have been no need for fourth-quarter-seventh-game heroics from James.

As it has turned out, though, it is Nowitzki who has left an indelible mark on the game. Consistent, searing displays of excellence, in spite of nursing an injured left thumb and suffering from bouts of high fever, saw the gangly German secure the Ring that his talents have undoubtedly deserved. Every question asked of him he answered with glorious certainty. Whenever the Mavs were in need of a big play, Nowitzki demanded the ball and made things happen, either by driving to the basket or fading away and shooting with unerring accuracy from the paint. After game three, he lashed out at Jason Terry for failing to step up to the occasion. Since then Terry has been electric, scoring 17 points in game four, 21 in game five and 27 in the series-sealing game six. Not only did Nowitzki elevate himself – rising way above his seven-foot frame – but in the manner of a true champion he inspired those around him to greater deeds.

Curiously, though, in spite of Nowitzki’s heroics – which won him the Final’s Most Valuable Player award – the focus will remain squarely on LeBron James, the ‘anointed’ successor to Michael Jordan. This of course has little to do with James himself as Josh Levin argues in this piece for Slate. It isn’t James’s fault that Jordan was so unquestionably great, that his aura continues to haunt every player with palpably rich skills who has graced a basketball court since. Jordan was one of a kind – a player possessed of supreme talent and the ability to perform under the severest of pressure.

In the 1998 final, when Jordan put the Chicago Bulls in the lead with 5 seconds to play of their deciding game seven against Utah Jazz, he transcended all boundaries of greatness. It was not merely a great play, but a legend-defining one, a play that elevated Jordan to the very top of the pantheon. (The moment is described beautifully in this piece by David Halberstam in the New Yorker) Since then, Kobe Bryant has won five titles with the L.A. Lakers, the first three in the company of Shaquille O’Neal. Bryant, no doubt, possesses his own claims to greatness, but unhappily for him he doesn’t quite possess a Jordan-esque moment, again due to no fault of his own. But trailing Jordan by only one ring, Bryant has time to raise himself even further, maybe reach echelons of greatness that will make him and not Jordan the standard. It will certainly put an end to the dreary Michael Jordan problem and create a new Kobe Bryant problem that may fascinate briefly even if proving to be ultimately monotonous – a bit like this piece.

Anyway, coming back to James, when he was questioned after game three for ‘shrinking’ in the fourth quarter, he said: “I think you’re concentrating on one side of the floor. All you’re looking at is the stat sheet…. You should watch the film again and see what I did defensively.” This represents the prime concern with judging a basketball player. American sport has always relied heavily on statistics. The number of points, the assists, the rebounds, the steals, and the blocks that a player makes is what he is judged on. James even while ticking many of these boxes, failed to score heavily enough in the fourth quarter – often it was Wade who was making the play in crunch situations. But, what about the intangibles? His movement, his presence and his ability to use the ball intelligently even if not resulting in a direct assist or a direct point goes virtually unnoticed. No doubt, in the ultimate analysis, James’s failure to make himself counted in the fourth quarter played a huge role in the Mavs victory. But the sad irony is that even if the Heat had won, perhaps, due to a combination of excellence from James, Wade and Bosh, James may still have faced criticism for a lack of fourth-quarter brilliance. After all, he is always going to be judged by the exalted standards set by Jordan.

This brings us back to James’s move to Miami. At Cleveland, he was clearly the top dog. Success for the Cavaliers depended solely on James. Reaching the final, which he did in 2007 with the Cavs was by itself a great achievement. That the San Antonio Spurs swept them away with nonchalance was not James’s fault. He hadn’t the support that Jordan had with the Bulls or Bryant had with the Lakers. This is the reason why he left Cleveland for Miami, a quest for titles. At the Heat, though, he doesn’t merely have a support cast, but in Wade a competitor for the main-man status. As a result, any title won is unlikely to go down as his own. In other words, the Michael Jordan problem will never be resolved. He’d rather have remained at Cleveland, soldiered on for glory, heroically even if ultimately a failure. This would have provided James with his own clutch over greatness – even if of a different kind from the one that Jordan imperiously owns.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Five things we learned from Roland Garros

1. Roger Federer isn’t yet the greatest of all time:

It is nigh on impossible, I believe to make such an assertion in the first place, and in any event Roger Federer’s record against his chief rival, Rafael Nadal ridicules the suggestion. Of course, Federer is statistically the most successful player in Grand Slam tennis history and he wins by playing in a beautiful, easy style. But Nadal has beaten Federer in 17 of their 25 meetings and in 6 of their 8 contests in Grand Slam finals, putting in rich perspective the fallacy in the argument that Federer is the greatest to have wielded a tennis racquet. No doubt, the Swiss belongs in a pantheon that comprises Bjorn Borg, Pete Sampras, Rod Laver and a few others, but to place him indisputably on top of that list is incorrect, to put it mildly.

2. Nadal’s greatest attribute is his ability to win ugly:

I doubt anyone in the history of the sport has been better than Nadal at winning ugly when required to. This is not to suggest that he cannot win beautifully. Indeed when he is at the top of his game, he is as imperious and as handsome a sight as any other. But even when his game isn’t quite up to scratch, Nadal finds a way through irrespective of the demands of his opponent. On Sunday, Federer was at his mesmerizing best in the first set, seemingly killing Nadal with his sinuous, entrancing grace. Down 2-5, the Spaniard had no right to win the set. He was being enthralled into submission. His groundstrokes were meek, his serves were devoid of punch and he looked a shadow of his usually commanding self. Yet, he came-back to win five games in a row to seal the set and effectively kill any hopes of an upset. Not, though, by finding rhythm in his strokes, but by chasing Federer’s shots down with vigour and vitality and stunning the Swiss into compliance through sheer force of will. Before the Djokovic-Federer semifinal, Nadal commented that the match pitted the "best player at the moment against the best player in history". Where does it leave him then?

3. All-court players are on the rise:

Rarely in Grand Slams do the top four seeds of the men’s game qualify for the semi-finals. This is rarer still at the French Open, for historically many top players have been ill suited to the red clay in Paris. In recent times, though, players have become increasingly more comfortable on all surfaces. I would imagine that the causes for the phenomenon are essentially two-fold: (a) The surfaces at all four of the Grand Slams are coming closer to each other in terms of their overall play. The clay at Paris has become quicker, the grass at Wimbledon slower and the hard courts in Melbourne Park and Flushing Meadows have gravitated towards each other in terms of their constituents. (b) Concomitantly, players no longer shape their styles to suit a certain surface. Romantics crave for the return of the serve-and-volley game, but when one can win Wimbledon by playing from the baseline in a style that will also predominantly suit the clay at Roland Garros, players would be foolish to model themselves on an Edberg or a Sampras. Equally, though, the clay-court specialist, the slugger from the baseline, is also no longer in abundant evidence. The top players are capable of winning any of the four Grand Slams by merely tweaking certain aspects of their game without altering its foundations.

4. Brit when he wins; Scot when he loses:

Had he been competing in any other era, Andy Murray would, perhaps, have been a Grand Slam champion by now. That he is fourth in the list of a truly outstanding quartet is no disgrace for his talents are nonetheless deserving of a Grand Slam title. Fred Perry was the last Briton to win a Slam (the 1936 US Open) and the pressures of this void had weighed heavily, first, on Tim Henman – a player infinitely less talented than Murray – and now weigh heavily on the Scotsman who has reached three Grand Slam finals without success. In evidence, though, at Roland Garros was an attribute, which should continue to brighten the hopes of the British. In his third round match against Michael Berrer, Murray turned his ankle, injuring it critically, and yet soldiered to victory in four sets. A lesser man would have withdrawn from the match and the tournament. Murray, however, battled hard, defeated Victor Troicki in five grueling sets in the fourth round before cruising past Juan Ignacio Chela to set up a duel with Rafael Nadal. Against the Spaniard, admittedly Murray came a cropper in three straight sets, but for much of the match, Murray was the better player. It would be pure conjecture to suggest that he may well have beaten Nadal, if not for his weak ankle, but in fighting the Spaniard and running him close – which he certainly did in spite of the suggestions of the scoreboard – Murray showcased that he has the requisite skills to, one day, win a Grand Slam.

5. The Women’s game is in a bit of a shambles:

We all love an underdog success, but in women’s tennis, the world number 1 is often the underdog. Caroline Wozniacki, the twenty-year-old Dane, has held the position for 32 weeks now, and yet hasn’t a single Grand Slam title to show. In fact, she has reached only a solitary final, the 2009 US Open. This of course raises questions on the ranking system, as it rightly should. But the malaise in the women’s tour runs deeper. Serena Williams, unquestionably the finest player produced since the days of Steffi Graf and Monica Seles, hasn’t played a tournament since Wimbledon last year owing to injury and even when fit restricts her appearances to Grand Slams and a few other high-profile tournaments. The other top players in recent times, Wozniacki, Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic fell early at Roland Garros as they have tended to do in recent times. So too did Kim Clijsters, Victoria Azarenka and Vera Zvonareva, the more consistent of the higher ranked players, leaving the no. 6 seed, Li Na and the No. 8 seed, Francesca Schiavone to contest the final. This preponderance of ‘upsets’ though must not be confused with depth of talent. In the absence of Serena Williams, and since the retirement of Justine Henin, the women’s game not only lacks a predominant power-base, but is also devoid of quality at the top. ‘Quality’ though must not be interpreted as mere physical and technical abilities. The likes of Wozniacki and Azarenka, perhaps, have the requisite technical attributes for Grand Slam success, but as history has showed us, sustained success at the level takes more than just that. The fact that the draw at Roland Garros was wider than ever before wasn’t indicative of depth but the lack of a single outstanding candidate.

(Inspired by The Guardian's Five Things We Learned series)

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Djokovic ousted; Federer regains a touch of the old aura

As much as people may try telling you otherwise, no one really saw this coming. Roger Federer, crushed in three straight sets by Novak Djokovic in the Australian Open earlier this year, produced four imperious sets of tennis to defeat the Serb in the semi-finals of Roland Garros and brought to an end one of the most glorious winning streaks in the history of the sport. Djokovic, a victory away from equalling John McEnroe’s record of forty-two consecutive wins at the beginning of a year was pummeled into submission by a display of tennis that was as brutal as it was artistic.

In the first two sets, in particular, Federer was at his liquid best. Every movement of his was as close to perfection as one is likely to see. He defended Djokovic’s blistering groundstrokes with the regal ease of a hungry lion chasing a poor gazelle, ripped his forehands with magical accuracy – almost always finding the most acute of angles – and more than anything else, served like a dream. When Federer is at his best, his serve rarely falters and yesterday almost every time he was in need of a big point, his serve rose to the occasion with a sense of majesty.

Perhaps, Djokovic can be criticized for a failure to launch a concerted attack on the Federer backhand – more than ever before his Achilles heal. But on the slower surface in Paris, the Swiss was able to get inside of those attempts and easily stroke the ball with his forehand. Federer did most things right yesterday. He moved with speed and purpose, mixed the pace of his groundstrokes, never allowing Djokovic to settle into any kind of hitting rhythm and constantly found acute angles on the court, which only a player possessed of supreme nous is capable of. His serves were guileful and were almost always hit with the perfect amalgam of timing and placement.

The match had everything that a spectator could ask for. In terms of pure narrative it was extraordinarily engaging. With Federer’s aura having seemingly dissipated and Djokovic on a winning steak for the ages, the tension in the air could be felt long and far. In terms of the quality of tennis, few sets have been better than the first won by Federer via a tiebreaker. In it, both players had their serves broken once, but the number of times that Djokovic found himself 0-40 on his serve was certainly telling. Nonetheless, the Serb played his part in what was an astonishing set of tennis and was only a point away from securing it. That Federer won the set in the tiebreaker exemplified his ability to play the big points with greater ease and confidence.

Going into the second set, considering the significant exertions up until the point, the prevailing opinion was that Federer would blink first, that his levels were certain to drop. Instead it was Djokovic who faltered. The Serb cut a forlorn figure in the set, constantly whined to his box, and struggled to find depth on his usually dependent groundstrokes. There was a feeling of resignation as Djokovic simply failed to match the levels of Federer who was thumping his strokes with rare artistic flourish. It is quite conceivable that Federer’s forehand has never reached a more superior level than it did in the second set. He was finding angles of such geometric brilliance, playing like Pythagoras with a tennis racquet. There was, after all, magic still left in the racquet that he brandishes like a wand.

But the new Novak Djokovic does not go without a fight. He gave it all that he could in the third set and expectedly, Federer who had invested so much into the opening phases of the game found himself faltering. A single break of serve sufficed as the Serb closed the set 6-3 even as the light in Paris slowly began to fade. There was, though, time left for another set of stirring tennis.

Both players held serve until Djokovic took the first advantage, gaining the right to serve for the set at 5-4. Federer, however, found a sudden surge of brilliance. True greatness could never have been more palpable. He raised his game, as he so often tends to do in the most trying of circumstances, and leveled the set at five games each. The clock though had been turned and perhaps the last sail was knocked out of Djokovic’s wind. In the tiebreaker played in near darkness, Federer regained a regal rhythm to his groundstrokes and had three match points, the first two of which were saved by Djokovic on his serve. The third, however, had a sense of inevitability about it. Federer produced a majestic, rousing down-the-middle ace and waved his finger in delight. One of the hottest winning steaks had been broken and how!

(Also posted at: http://www.criticaltwenties.in/sport/djokovic-ousted-federer-regains-a-touch-of-the-old-aura)

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Thank You Scholesy!

It had to happen someday, but Paul Scholes’s retirement – announced yesterday – has stricken me beyond imagination. Sport has been my getaway for as long as I can remember, and no sportsperson has provided me as much joy as Scholes has. It is the end of an epoch, not merely from a sporting sense, but from a personal standpoint, too.

Strikingly, the tributes to Scholes with which the Internet is awash are all juxtaposed with comments from footballers, current and past, ranging from Xavi to Zidane, and Guardiola to Lippi, as though Scholes’s ability does not speak for itself. The high regard that Scholes was held in by the footballing fraternity marks a good starting point, but it fails to convey the pure joy of watching him play. Indeed, he was a great player, but that is only given when one considers the sheer numbers: ten league titles, three FA Cups, two Champions League titles – 1999 can by no means be excluded – in a career spanning seventeen years, is quite remarkable by any account. That he played 675 times for Manchester United in its most successful era is enough vindication of his greatness and the numbers will see through it that his name remains firmly etched in the sands of time.

But what the statistics will never transport is the pristine joy that one – or at least I – obtained from watching him play. His understanding of time and space was peerless. Today, we marvel at Barcelona’s mastery over possession, but Scholes was the old master at retaining the ball. He played the sport like a game of chess. Always a few moves ahead of the opponents, he was acutely aware of what was around him. If you had observed his play closely, you would have seen him scanning the entire compass and moving to free spaces before receiving the ball with a touch as immaculate as a newborn’s caring mother. And once in possession, his passing range – second to none – would assume control. He could keep it both neat and tidy, pinging one-twos with those close to him, play raking diagonal balls to either wing with the accuracy of an ace marksman, or rip apart the heart of the opposition’s defence with eye-of-the-needle precision.

Everything Scholes did on a football pitch – sans, perhaps, his tackling – was done with shimmering joie de vivre. Even in the most trying of circumstances, he made the game look like what it was – a game. Football, Bill Shankly famous said was not a matter of life and death, but more than that. The truism of the statement, bathed in irony, has been debated with extensive monotony. Indeed, when Scholes got on to a football pitch, his commitment suggested he himself viewed the game thus, but in reality it was but a job for him, albeit one that he took immense pleasure in. It was about those ninety minutes on the pitch and nothing else. But within the dimensions of the playing area, the skill, the intelligence and the nous that the displayed were unequalled in their generation of thrill and delight.

In his early days, Scholes belonged to one of those ever-so-rare breeds of footballers – a box-to-box goalscoring, playmaking midfielder. In spite of being asthmatic, he showcased plenteous energy, rushing up and down the midfield with both vitality and intelligence. He had the gift of timing, and he would arrive late into the box unnoticed and finish more often than not with power and precision. For a small man – Scholes is only 170 metres tall – he was excellent in the air, netting scores of goals with his head including the famous stoppage-time winner in the Manchester Derby last year. This he achieved through a combination of timing and technique. His ability to arrive in dangerous areas at the most opportune of occasions meant that he found himself with more chances to head on goal than most players his size. But, once presented with an opportunity, there were few better than him at finding the goal.

Perhaps, the feature of his game that Scholes will most fondly be remembered for is his long-range shooting, which in his pomp he displayed with remarkable regularity. Again, there have been numerous finishes of astounding power and accuracy, including a rasping volley at Villa-Park, the famous goal against Barcelona in the 2008 Champions League semi-final, a top-corner effort of astounding magnificence against Middleborough, to name a few amongst a multitude. But the one that stands out is a volley straight off a David Beckham corner against Bradford City at the Valley Parade ground. One moment, Scholes was sauntering near the edge of the box, scratching his head, and next moment, he unleashed a ferocious volley that ripped through a stream of City players and into the back of the net. It was an exhibition of rare ingenuity and even rarer technique.

It is difficult to look back upon my time watching Scholes play to pick particular moments of brilliance, for he really has been bounteous in that regard. There was a Champions League goal against Panathinaikos when Scholes completed a thirty-five-pass move with a chip over the goalkeeper that was as imperious as it was impudent. There was the ‘assist’, to use the modern-day terminology, to Wayne Rooney against AC Milan, which simply reeked of class – matchless vision combined with wonderful execution. But singular moments do not an ounce of justice to Scholes’s mastery over the game. I could watch whole games not taking my eyes off him, only to see his command over the football pitch and his ability to keep the ball moving with marvellous simplicity and grace.

In recent years, Scholes had transformed himself into a deep lying midfielder, an Italian style regista – he hadn’t the energy to pace up and down the pitch. But his footballing nous and his appreciation of space saw him excel in a position that was new to him. Technically so proficient, he was able to dictate the pace and tempo of games with wonderful efficiency. But a decline in speed, even if his footballing brain has remained as shrewd as ever, meant that the retirement was not unexpected. And also on expected lines was the manner of the announcement – Scholes, a player utterly devoid of modern-day football’s celebrity trappings was already on holiday when the declaration was made via a press release.

They don’t make them like him anymore and indeed they haven’t for a while now. From a personal standpoint, this brings to an end many years of watching him play and marvelling at his supreme technique, which rarely failed to inspire awe. As they say all good things do come to an end, and sadly I will be left only to reminisce at what was a golden era – one, which belonged to the great Paul Scholes.