Believe in the Stars

Olympic Games, Day Four

(2) Djokovic d. Roddick, 6/2 6/1

“’Believe in the stars’ . . . It’s like that doesn’t even mean anything anymore.”

The disillusioned words of Kenneth Ellen Parcell rang in my ears as Andy Roddick’s celestially spangled footwear trudged resignedly towards the net. Galactically-themed sneakers had not been sufficient to lighten an earthbound game, nor to extend a painfully one-sided contest: Novak Djokovic won his 53rd and final point in the 54th and final minute of the match. Certain American commentators, believing perhaps a little too fervently in their faded stars, had earlier dubbed this a ‘popcorn match’. If they didn’t share my low opinion of popcorn before, one assumes they do now.

It is undeniable that Roddick no longer operates at the level he once did, but even in his largely forgotten prime he never attained the stratospheric plane upon which Djokovic today manoeuvred. At his reckless and callow best, the American might have snared a few more games, but that would have been all. Djokovic was quite incredible. He punished anything loose, as we’d known he would. But the Serb was equally as merciless in dealing with first serves – Roddick landed just 60%, which is modest by his standards, and only won 54% of those – and devastating whenever he himself was permitted to iniate the point. Djokovic served 14 aces to Roddick’s five, struck 34 winners to six unforced errors, and achieved a perfect 4/4 on breakpoints. It hardly gets better than that. And if it does get better, awkward questions are inevitably asked.

Elsewhere in London a Chinese teenager named Shiwen Ye found this out, or has been found out, depend on which school of thought you’re enrolled at. She was obliged to face up to a spikily-armoured and steadily-advancing media phalanx, and explain how she had contrived to swim the second fastest lap of a 400IM ever, faster even than Ryan Lochte had earlier managed in taking out the men’s gold medal. She was usefully reminded that this is first time in Olympic history that a woman has swum faster in any lap than a male gold medallist, and quickly disabused of the notion that this is an achievement to take pride in. The implication, lest you missed it, is that she’s doped to the gills. Most of the questions put to her assumed this at some level, especially the ones that flat out asked it. ‘How do you respond to allegations that you’re using banned substances?’ – an accusation artlessly suffixed by a question mark, a standard practice in this field. She maintained her composure, and her innocence. She is only sixteen. At some level innocence is all she has.

On Australian television, Grant Hackett rose heroically to the challenge of not rising to the bait repeatedly proffered by Channel Nine, no matter how enticingly they dangled it. He refused to agree that Shiwen Ye was doping, and instead contended that some athletes just really come on at that age. Other pundits proved less circumspect, and less restrained in their condemnation. There are therefore two schools of thought colliding here, one suggesting that there’s a first time for everything, the other insisting that no, there isn’t. But two schools is nothing. Mao Zedong once grandly decreed ‘let a hundred schools of thought contend’, as a prelude to executing everyone caught subscribing to the ninety-nine incorrect ones. Hopefully a kinder fate awaits Shiwen Ye if she’s guilty, and caught.

(3) Murray d. Nieminen, 6/2 6/4

Jarkko Nieminen was probably fortunate to escape similar scrutiny about his second serve. Never before has a male player deployed a serve that is categorically worse than all of the women’s serves at an Olympic Games, even the women contesting beach volleyball. It seems a clear cut case of performance diminishing drugs at work, although to what end I cannot say. It certainly had Murray stumped. The Scot is among the best returners of difficult serves in the sport – he is notoriously hard to ace – but with the degree of difficulty dialled so low, it took him a while to figure out what to do. Merely getting the serve back – the very essence of ‘returning’ – was not the problem. He blasted returns out, and bunted them back short. Some of Nieminen’s serves were so slow that Murray was compelled to lunge for them, and took to standing almost on the service line.

Fortunately Murray was superior in every other aspect of the game, with the possible exception of left-handedness. Had Djokovic not eclipsed it immediately afterwards, the Brit’s comprehensive victory would have been considered the premiere shellacking of the day, which is an important accolade I just invented. Still, it was good enough for the locals, thickening the close air of the closed Centre Court with a fearsome din. It was also good enough for Andrew Castle and Tim Henman, commentating on the BBC. No one does smugness quite like the English when Murray is in the process of dismantling an opponent. The tone very quickly grows magnanimous, as they airily dole out advice to Murray’s hapless victim, in order that the poor foreigner might perhaps cushion their buttocks against the full force of Murray’s boot.

(WC) Hewitt d. (13) Cilic, 6/4 7/5

Of course, Australian commentators are no slouches when it comes to smugness, even though they’ve had considerably fewer opportunities to stay in practice lately. Sadly none of Hewitt’s compatriots were available to call his quite stirring win over Marin Cilic – I offered my services but have heard nothing – although the leathery British voice supplied by the BBC sounded sufficiently impressed. The wearying tale of Hewitt’s long twilight has been that the spirit remains indomitable even as the flesh endlessly submits to the surgeon’s knife. It was a rare experience today to see Hewitt unimpeded by anything but age, with the result that he was still far too quick for an audibly displeased Cilic. His spryness saw him break late in the first set, and earn a number of break points through the second. His other primary weapons included a willingness to target the Croatian’s forehand with flat drives, and his brain with lucky overrules. Thus pressed, Cilic’s forehand and brain duly disintegrated.

Afterward Hewitt surprised us all by failing to announce he will undergo surgery next week, and as a consequence might not miss the remainder of the season. Surprise turned to bewilderment when he insisted he actually felt quite good, and that it was a rare treat to feel so little pain. This was dangerous talk. Bewilderment became consternation when we realised he next faces Djokovic, although Hewitt himself appeared typically upbeat at the prospect. Now we ‘Strayans don’t know what to expect. Dare we hope? Will Our Lleyton do it for us? Will it be a popcorn match? One thing is for sure: anything is possible, if you just believe in the stars. Or else.

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