Feathery Derangement

Indian Wells, Quarterfinals

(1) Djokovic d. (8) Tsonga, 6/3 6/1

(7) del Potro d. (3) Murray, 6/7 6/3 6/1

Idle hopes that the second pair of Indian Wells quarterfinals would prove more interesting than the first grew forlorn after today’s first match, although I suppose this depends on one’s definition of ‘interesting’.(AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill) If you’re fascinated by groups of highly partisan tennis fans losing their minds on social media, then last night’s disappointing encounter between Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer had it all. (I’m not particularly interested in that, although I will register dull wonder at how incensed some people become at the differing opinions of others around trivial matters.) Fans of public executions no doubt appreciated Novak Djokovic’s flawless fifty-four minute thrashing of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.

Sky Sports was my provider of choice for today’s matches, partly because their streams are of reasonable quality, but mostly due to Andy Murray’s presence on the order of play. My firm belief is that the spectacle of professional tennis is only heightened when it is accompanied by a deranged cheer-squad.

I don’t mean to suggest that Sky does nothing but cheer for Murray. After all, sometimes they’re obliged to show matches that don’t involve him. They’re careful to bring in a non-British commentator for these encounters, to lend the affair a suitably cosmopolitan feel. Peter Fleming had come all the way from America. Absolved of the need to be partisan, he could merely be inscrutable: ‘I don’t think Tsonga has done enough to throw caution to the wind. He’s just been a little reticent to throw everything at the wall.’ It was a hard point to argue with, at least until I’d deciphered it. I think it meant that Tsonga was too reluctant to be reckless. He needed to be more reckless about being reckless. Or perhaps he needed to be more reckless about that. It didn’t help that even as Fleming spoke Tsonga was ploughing a sequence of insufficiently reckless forehands into the lower half of the net. When your safe game is producing extravagant errors, there’s no reason to believe greater abandon is the key. Still, perhaps it was a question of intent.

Cutaway shots of Tsonga’s coach Roger Rasheed gave little away. I imagine he was preoccupied with the effort of distilling this debacle into a psychotically positive message. If anyone is going to manage it, he’s the man. (It’s a quality he shares with North Korea’s military regime.) You can always tell with him – it’s in his chewing. Today he clearly had his special tweeting gum in. His eyes remained hidden behind sunglasses, but I like to believe they were closed, enabling perfect stillness while he composed the perfect hashtag.

Fleming was the only one among Sky’s assembled luminaries who had much to say about the match at all. Marcus Buckland, who apparently lives in the Sky studio, didn’t bother with the link man’s usual job, which is to sustain interest even when the match turns out to be a dud: ‘Totally predictable so far,’ he remarked after the first set. He asked Mark Petchey if he thought it was totally predictable. Petch concurred that it was totally predictable. They were totally killing time until Andy Murray took the court. This wasn’t due to occur for another hour and a half, but they knew they could fill the gap with replays of the Scot’s past triumphs.

Djokovic thereafter grew only more magnificent, and finished with the astonishing ratio of twenty-one winners to just six errors. Sky was contractually obligated to provide some kind of post-match analysis, and hastily arrived at the conclusion that the result had hinged on Tsonga’s tactical shortcomings. Admittedly these are legion, but I’m not convinced they were decisive today. When the better tennis player plays as well as he can, he invariably wins, and right now Djokovic is unquestionably the best tennis player in the world. Tsonga could have channelled the enmeshed spirits of Napoleon and Hannibal, and he might have made it closer. But he would have done better to hit more of his forehands in, especially the reckless ones.

Having disposed of all this unpleasantness, Sky brought us some more in the form of Carlos Berlocq’s apparently notorious grunt. This was a clear improvement from their point of view, since it permitted them to express righteous outrage. Surprisingly their feelings on this tedious matter aligned perfectly with Murray’s, which was that the Argentine’s grunt is excessive. This ate up a bad ten minutes, and left enough time for an extended highlights package from the final of the 2009 Cincinnati Masters, between Murray and Juan Martin del Potro. Apparently the ideal way to prepare for an extended hardcourt tussle between two guys is by watching the same two guys on a different hardcourt several years earlier.

Eventually this gave way to live tennis, expertly narrated by Andrew Castle and Barry Cowan. By 3/3 in the first set Castle declared this to be the best of the Indian Wells quarterfinals, and you didn’t need to be British to agree. I seem to be in a minority of tennis fans in that I quite enjoy Castle’s work. His delivery is fine, he’s sufficiently opinionated and won’t let idle idiocy from his booth-mate pass by without interrogation, and his flights of fancy are generally well calculated.

For better or worse, I can hardly recall the titanic climax of the 2008 Wimbledon Final’s fourth set tiebreaker, as Nadal then Federer produced outrageous shots to gain then save championship point, without hearing Castle’s response: ‘The two best passing shots of the tournament – without doubt ­­– have just taken place on the last two points. It’s eight-all. What’s next?’ He started out solidly today, easily talking rings around Cowan, although his equanimity sagged as del Potro gained a break in the second set, and displayed no interest in giving it back: ‘He’s not choking; he’s not getting uptight! Why not?!’ Though probably intended ironically, it sounded a trifle petulant. Cowan, who’d astutely backed the Argentine, offered no answer.

It was the first time Murray and del Potro had faced each other since the end of 2009, and this is the first tournament the Scot has played since the Australian Open. Nevertheless, the belief was fairly widespread that he’d win. This belief seemed justified as he claimed a densely-textured first set, winning the key points by targeting del Potro’s backhand. The Argentine was unusually reluctant to bring his mighty forehand into play. This changed in the second set, and he started to venture forward more. Indeed they both did, although back in the Sky studio they made it clear that only their man had any business up there. Petchey later delivered the entirely backhanded compliment that del Potro ‘volleys well when he can get his racquet on the ball’. He got his racquet on enough. By the third set still hadn’t faced a break point, owing mostly to prowess off the ground, since his serve numbers were hardly stellar.

Murray finally achieved a couple of break points early in the third, but didn’t appear to realise how valuable they were, leaving them untended, whereupon a gleeful del Potro snatched them back. Murray was broken in the following game, and it was hard to say it wasn’t a mental let down, and that he hadn’t been distracted by the missed opportunity, a feather on the soul. Murray was broken again to close the match, sealing it with a double fault. It was still the best of the quarterfinals, but for a match that had started out so strongly, it was strange for the way it just melted into air. The issue was probably match-play, which Murray sorely lacks, and del Potro’s forehand, which grew almost uncounterable as the match wore down. ‘He has a big game,’ remarked Murray in his press conference, ‘and when he strings it together he’s a top, top player.’

‘Probably not the result we were all looking for,’ admitted Buckland back in the studio. The Sky coverage presumably wasn’t going to Argentina.

During the final set, querulous messages appeared from several senior British journalists on Twitter. Firstly David Law remarked that: ‘Following Twitter during big televised matches I’m learning commentators can’t say anything right.’ Richard Evans responded: ‘Commentators are such easy targets for people who have never done the job.’ I have no idea whose comments they were responding to (certainly not mine), but I’ll still make some general points, since it has a bearing on the theme of today’s post, which is nationalism in commentary.

Firstly, it’s worth pointing out that social media, and Twitter in particular, entertains a very heavy selection bias in this respect (and in all respects, which is why it is so questionable as a metric for measuring popularity, let alone value). The nature of the medium is such that you are far more likely to hear about bad commentary than good. Ninety-five per cent of commentary is at worst unremarkable, but it is the remaining five per cent that will be aggregated onto your timeline. People are more likely to praise a commentator or coverage overall, but will only very rarely relay a specific moment of commentary they liked.

To an extent this perception is compounded because most of the people who are likely to be commenting on Twitter during a professional tennis match probably have little need for commentary anyway. They would certainly miss it if it wasn’t there, since it has become part of the furniture of sports coverage, but it provides little informational value for those who know the game well. Tennis isn’t that complicated, and there is usually broad agreement about what is going on most of the time. The knowledgeable often only notice commentary when it’s missing, or when the commentators are wrong or biased. Indeed, this is the reason why I seek it out.

Secondly, just because most people have never or will never commentate doesn’t disqualify them from having an opinion. If that were the case then bad commentary would drift almost beyond reproach. Especially in an age of specialisation, the contention that you shouldn’t criticise someone because you couldn’t do their job better is specious. Thirdly, the validity of criticism is not predicated on how easy or hard it was to make. Yes, it is indeed easy to criticise.

I am not accusing Sky Sports of patriotic bias towards Murray. Surely the matter is beyond question, and I cannot imagine their coverage is intended to sound any other way. They know their market, and their market is British. They are currently running a poll in which viewers are invited to name the male tennis player they miss most. Tim Henman is the clear number one (although I’m deeply impressed to see that Fabrice Santoro is at number six). Indeed, I imagine that any effort towards greater neutrality would be looked on unkindly by management. I’m not suggesting it is even especially cynical – although it might be – merely that those speaking on air are permitted the ful  range of their pleasure or disappointment when the local hope triumphs or loses. Like it or not, such policies are unlikely to change.

I don’t particularly like it, and I will go on poking fun.

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