So Many Proven Yangs

Marseilles, Final

(3) Gulbis d. (2) Tsonga, 7/6 6/4

It is a strange quirk that Ernests Gulbis, that least reliable of professional tennis players, somehow boasts a perfect record in tour finals, a record he kept intact today in Marseille. He has now won five ATP titles without losing one, a kind of scruffy yin to so many proven yangs, such as Gael Monfils or Julien Benneteau. Gulbis didn’t get to play either Monfils or Benneteau this week, though that wasn’t his fault, since the former wasn’t here and the latter was defeated early on in another part of the draw. Gulbis Marseilles 2014 -4As the truism goes, you don’t get to choose which Frenchmen you face in tennis. You can only defeat the ones who are placed in front of you.

It was, fittingly, a non-Frenchman Gulbis struggled with. His toughest test came against Roberto Bautista Agut in the second round, although this wasn’t strictly a surprise. (The surprise was that having eluded defeat the Latvian went on winning.) Bautista Agut has distinguished himself this season with several scrapping, aggressive and defiant efforts, though this week he also distinguished himself by being just about the only Spanish man with a tennis racquet not playing in Rio. Consider this: there were more Spaniards in Rafael Nadal’s half of the Rio draw than there were Frenchmen in the entire Marseille draw. Once Gulbis had survived that early round struggle, he set about beating any locals he could lay his hands on, starting with Nicolas Mahut, continuing with Richard Gasquet and concluding today with Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.

It wasn’t a particularly exciting final as these things are measured, and certainly not compared to last year’s decider between Tsonga and Tomas Berdych. As you’d imagine when two big men face each other on a fast indoor court, the service dominated, though better returning would have helped it dominate less. Gulbis had not been broken since the second round, and Tsonga today could engineer only two opportunities, which he characteristically flubbed. Gulbis on the other hand was in plenty of the Frenchman’s service games, although he was no more effective at converting break points, ending the match with a rather  memorable 1/11. The Frenchman generally saved them with muscular play, and managed to do the same with a few match points in the second tiebreak. Gulbis served it out with an ace, before commencing a victory routine from which he’d carefully expunged any trace of exaltation. It made Marat Safin’s celebrations look flamboyant by comparison. You’d think Gulbis wins these things every other week.

Actually, that’s not far off. He usually wins these things in this week every other year. Last year he won Delray Beach as a qualifier, and his maiden title came at that tournament in 2010. It may seem surprising that he hasn’t returned to Florida this year, but his failure to show up for title defences is another of the few infuriatingly consistent things about him. So far in his career he has never once graced a tournament the year after he has won it. Look for him in Rio next year, or at least anywhere but Marseille.

Rio de Janeiro, Final

(1) Nadal d. Dolgopolov, 6/3 7/6

Owing to a minor calendar shake-up, Nadal will next week find himself in the rare position of having two titles to defend, in Acapulco and Sao Paulo. Taking a leaf from Gulbis’ playbook, he has chosen to skip both, preferring instead to win this week’s inaugural Rio event. After all, opportunities to be the first name on a new trophy don’t come round every week, presuming there’s a trophy upon which names can be inscribed.

Nadal almost surprised us all by not winning the tournament, though got there in the end. The direst moment came against Pablo Andujar in the semifinal, a match that saw the world number one recover from a set down, and finally take it in a mighty third set tiebreak, saving a pair of match points along the way. For once the bromidic phrase ‘he found a way to win’, usually uttered at the first faint whiff of adversity, was actually merited. Usually the way he finds entails being better at tennis than his opponent, but against an inspired Andujar there were stretches of the match in which Nadal was emphatically outplayed. Indeed, Andujar won more points overall. Alas for him, he lacked either the savagery or the cold precision necessary to claim the points that mattered most. He has thus been relegated to a statistical anomaly – this was the first time Nadal has won from match point down since beating Troicki in Tokyo in 2010.

Alex Dolgopolov’s half of the Rio draw had, for a wonder, boasted only two Spaniards, but they were two of the toughest in David Ferrer and Nicolas Almagro, although the latter has lately learned to be as disappointing on South American clay as he perennially is on the European variety. Throw in Fabio Fognini, and plenty of reasons to be distracted by events back home, and Dolgopolov’s run to the Rio final proved to be a minor masterpiece of tightrope-sprinting. He’d been marvellous, in his dicey weird way. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that there’s no better player to watch when he’s on. Indeed, to say that would be to confess to fetishism. He has a game only a mother could love, but there’s no denying the excitement he delivers, especially for those of us drawn to unpredictable, aggressive tennis.

Regardless, the betting markets, history and the general opinion of the person on the street were unanimous in believing that it wouldn’t be enough to get by Nadal in the final. The only exceptions were those subsets of Nadal fandom which insisted that Nadal’s flat performance against Andujar would be sustained into the final: a passionately misguided belief in Nadal’s frangibility has meant some fans fail to absorb the lesson that he very rarely plays badly, and almost never plays badly twice in a row. As ever with Dolgopolov the interest lay in discovering whether the strobes of brilliance could be spaced with sufficient proximity so as to provide consistent luminescence. So far this week they had. His only real chance for the final, however, was to hope they joined up to form a band of light so incandescent it might sear the retinas from Nadal’s head. Dolgopolov lacks anything resembling a bread-and-butter game. Whether through technique or temperament, he appears incapable of sustaining discernible, or at any rate reliable, patterns of play. He is hell to play when he’s playing well. The trick, as far as I can tell, is to force him to have to play well or else, thus ensuring that he probably won’t.

Nadal, as ever, had the luxury of being able to achieve this by deploying any number of established patterns, knowing that most if not all of these would likely guarantee him victory. Today’s patterns involved nothing fancier than the judicious application of just enough pressure to provoke Dolgopolov into over-hitting. This was particularly apparent in the first set, in which Nadal himself hit only one winner, which was the ace he served to seal it. The Spaniard broke early in the second set (as he had in the first), and looked likely to coast it out. Dolgopolov, after all, had not broken Nadal, not merely in this match, but in any of the four other matches they’ve contested.

It therefore came as something of a surprise when an apparently nervous Nadal lost his way while trying to serve it out at 5/4, the break sealed with yet another scything Dolgopolov crosscourt backhand into the top seed’s forehand corner. I recall how effective this tactic was for Troicki in Tokyo three years ago, thus providing a lesson that Novak Djokovic subsequently learned by rote. You can go crosscourt to Nadal’s forehand, but you have to take the ball very early, and go there flat and with tremendous pace. Dolgopolov went there time and again today with great success, but it’s a dicey way to live, especially on clay, where Nadal is inexorable. He was certainly inexorable in the eventual tiebreak, and Dolgopolov’s proved all over again that risky tennis only looks good when it comes off. The flashes of light were now spaced too far apart, and soon they went out entirely.

Nadal won’t be the last Rio champion, but he’ll always be the first. The trophy, worthy of a European indoor event in its determination to reference anything but a trophy, was handed over by the universally beloved Gustavo Kuerten. It’s a kind of lattice-worked wave arrangement, and thus provided plenty of spots for Nadal’s teeth to find purchase. (Marseille, ironically, has a perfectly ordinary trophy, which Gulbis did not bite.) Both men brought up Ukraine’s current situation in their speeches, Nadal graciously and Dolgopolov with all his heart.

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Speechless Saying That

Australian Open, Final

(8) Wawrinka d. (1) Nadal, 6/3 6/2 3/6 6/3

Stanislas Wawrinka has won the 2014 Australian Open, thereby proving wrong those who’d maintained he couldn’t, a group in which he himself was often prominent. At a single broad stroke, which began in his coiled shoulders and uncurled through that mighty backhand, he has become a Major champion, soared into the top three, and stopped Rafael Nadal from becoming the first man in the Open Era to claim a career Grand Slam twice. Due in part to the circumstance and in part to the innate preposterousness of what he had achieved, Wawrinka’s initial reaction was one of muted disbelief, a response that he managed to sustain through the trophy ceremony, and the endless interviews he subsequently granted to all of the world’s main broadcasters. For all I know he is still wearing an expression of bemused incredulity. Scott Barbour/Getty Images AsiaPacHe wouldn’t be the only one. It was with unabashed wonder that Brad Gilbert on ESPN declared that Wawrinka actually was the Australian Open champion, adding that he was ‘still kinda speechless saying that.’

To say that Wawrinka was a little lucky is a little redundant. No one wins a Major without some luck, least of all those who aren’t lucky enough to be Roger Federer, Nadal, Novak Djokovic or Andy Murray, collectively known as the big four. Since the 2004 French Open, only three men besides those four have contrived to win a Major – a sequence of thirty-nine tournaments – and in no case was the eventual winner permitted to amble through a wide open draw. At the 2005 Australian Open Marat Safin defeated the first (Federer) and third (Hewitt) seeds. At the 2009 US Open, Juan Martin del Potro also beat the first (Federer) and third (Nadal) seeds. Wawrinka is the first man to see off the first (Nadal) and second (Djokovic) seeds to win a Major since Sergi Bruguera at the 1993 French Open.

Boris Becker insisted when probed that he would never concede any side of a draw is easier than the other, but then the words that tumble out of Becker’s mouth often bear no trace of a supervising intellect. Perhaps they should have probed him more thoroughly, or with a sharper implement. Wawrinka’s half of the draw was certainly friendlier than the other half, and he was unquestionably helped by a retirement in the first round (Golubev) and a walkover in the third (Pospisil), especially since it limited his exposure to the apocalyptic conditions of the first week. But that merely helped him survive the early rounds, and no draw is benign that brings one up against Djokovic, especially in Melbourne.

From the quarterfinal until the second set of the final, when events lurched into a strange place, Wawrinka was mostly majestic. As he did with Robin Soderling, Magnus Norman has performed wonders with Wawrinka, and in a relatively short time has ensconced himself among the coaching elite. Unfortunately, even Norman hadn’t anticipated the sharp dip the final would take – a slow turn through the S-bend – and thus couldn’t have known to prepare his charge accordingly. Perhaps he’d figured that the concept of hitting the ball away from an immobile opponent was too obvious to need saying. It turns out nothing is too obvious in a Slam final. It might have been worth a professional code violation to belatedly deliver this complicated message. Marching onto court and smacking Wawrinka upside the head probably would have risked a default, but Norman must have been sorely tempted. I know I was. I suspect even Nadal was by the end.

Nadal’s back injury inevitably obliges one to wonder what might have transpired had he remained fit, though I confess I don’t find such speculation worthwhile. There was one set in which both players looked fine, and Wawrinka dominated it, but this was his first Major final and there is little reason to think he could have sustained that level indefinitely. One suspects Nadal eventually would have pegged him back. In any case, Nadal’s injuries are a misted, shifting quagmire in which even well-provisioned expeditions are liable to be waylaid and careen over a precipice. Mountains spring from molehills, or at any rate, blisters become volcanoes. Writers who toil hard to maintain a veil of impartiality can fall to anxious weeping the moment Nadal stumbles. There was a moment when he might have twisted his ankle against Kei Nishikori. It soon turned out that he hadn’t, though not soon enough for some alleged professionals to demonstrate that there are in fact fifty-four stages of grief, and that they’re all boring. By the same token, those insisting that Nadal was not injured are certainly wrong, and in many cases have taken their insistence to contemptible lengths. They are also beyond convincing, being possessed by a special kind of mania. As I say, a quagmire, and not worth the trouble.

Others have insisted they noticed something awry with Nadal early in the first set, if not in the hit-up. Perhaps I’m obtuse, or I was busy staring awestruck at the fearless guy up the other end, but I confess I didn’t see anything wrong. I did remark to my companions that Nadal appeared to have fallen into the trap he used to with David Nalbandian, which was to pay a famous backhand too much respect. Wawrinka’s backhand is, without doubt, a superb shot, one by which I am often reduced to envy. But his forehand remains the more potent shot, and it’s from that wing that most of his groundstroke winners originate. The semifinal was an especially fine showcase for this. Tomas Berdych heard countless forehands hum past. I suppose it hardly mattered, Wawrinka was fearsome from both sides through the first set. It’s worth remembering that this was the first set he ever took from Nadal, though he nearly didn’t. He fell down 0-40 while serving for it, halfway through a sequence of six missed first serves. Nadal then failed to put another second serve return into play, and it’s easy enough to believe his later claim that his back was already bothering him. Something was wrong somewhere.

The matched changed completely in the second set, which Wawrinka opened in grand fashion by breaking to love. It wasn’t long after this that Nadal evinced clear signs of distress, leaning over and clutching his back, and at 1/2 availed himself of a long off-court medical timeout. Wawrinka, left in the dark on the bright court, took his frustration out on Carlos Ramos, and was only slightly mollified when tournament referee Wayne McKewan emerged with an explanation. There was some concern that the Swiss was thereby squandering valuable energy. Magnus Norman looked on serenely. Nadal re-emerged, encountering lusty boos from the Rod Laver Arena crowd, behaviour that what won’t go down as its finest. (Nadal later said he understood their frustration, though unlike Bernard Tomic he didn’t call a separate press conference to explain himself.) Nadal’s face looked exactly the way it had in the 2011 Australian Open quarterfinal, when an injury early in the first set combined with a ruthless David Ferrer to destroy his chance at the ‘Rafa Slam’. Wawrinka worked out his vestigial frustration with a brace of aces, while Nadal commenced lobbing serves over at about 140kmh. Before long Wawrinka had won his second set against Nadal. There was speculation that Nadal would default. I didn’t think he would, but believed that the match was essentially over, assuming Wawrinka would do the smart thing and make the Spaniard run.

This turned out to be a rather large assumption to make. Although physicists have yet to isolate the mechanism by which this process works, injured players will sometimes transform into a kind of localised gravity-well, drawing every ball inexorably towards them. The only reliable way for the opponent to avoid this effect is to launch their shots ten feet out. For the next set and a half Wawrinka tried both these approaches, with limited success. It recalled Albert Montanes’ flailing and dispiriting loss to a crippled Fabio Fognini at Roland Garros three years ago, and Mikhail Kukushkin’s near-implosion against Gael Monfils at the Australian Open. In both cases the latter player could barely move, and was reduced to windmilling his arms at any ball that strayed within reach, generally to devastating effect. In much the same mood, Nadal hardly bothered running for any ball more than a few metres away, but swung lustily at any that landed nearby, which, somehow, was nearly all of them. Thus we discovered yet again that the world number one in a reckless mood is perfectly capable of striking fabulous winners off both sides from neutral balls, leaving some of us to wish that he’d play like this more often. Nadal still missed plenty, however, enabling Wawrinka to achieve multiple breakpoints in every other game, whereupon Wawrinka’s return would explore the bottom of the net or the unscuffed part of the court beyond the Melbourne sign. Nadal’s pace and mobility began gradually to improve, and he won the third set. Wawrinka took to shouting at himself, but not in English. Magnus Norman looked on serenely.

A match that began electrifyingly for Wawrinka, and continued dismally for Nadal, now spiralled into absurdity for both. Nadal, by his own admission, was mainly continuing for the fans who’d paid a lot of money to be there, but he must have wondered if he wouldn’t be doing them a kindness to end it immediately. Then again, I imagine by this time he was harbouring a few desperate dreams of victory. Aside from his first serve, which Wawrinka could barely return anyway, the Spaniard was starting to play a great deal better. On the other hand, Wawrinka, aside from his serve, had lost all coherence, and his eyes grew clouded with dread. The 2004 French Open final was invoked – always a sure sign that the ropes binding reality together had begun to fray. Jim Courier in commentary pointed out, astutely, that Wawrinka could have lost the final in straight sets and still regarded the tournament as a triumph, but to lose it from this point would be a fiasco. Wawrinka was playing like someone aware of no other fact. He somehow broke, but followed up this accomplishment, monumental in the circumstances, with the worst service game of the modern era, and lost his serve to love. He broke again, more decisively. The crowd went crazy – demented might be a better word – having stared once too often into the abyss. Wawrinka served it out to love, the way exactly no one assumed he would. In deference to his wounded opponent, his celebration was diffident. Magnus Norman leapt to his feet, exultant, and threw his arms around Severin Luthi. Nadal had been granted an unlooked-for hour on court to come to terms with the near-certainty of defeat, but he still looked quite stricken, a look he retained throughout the trophy ceremony.

Thomas Oh, Kia Motor’s ineffable representative, was so moved by what he’d seen that he kept his speech down to a few minutes, instead of its usual hour. Both players spoke well, though their efforts hardly compared to Li Na’s masterpiece from the night before. Where before they’d booed him, the RLA crowd now hurled their adoration down on Nadal, who fought to quell his tears but lost. Pete Sampras was on hand to dole out the silverware. The official reason for this was because it is the twentieth anniversary of his first Australian Open title. No one failed to grasp the deeper significance, however, which was that, had Nadal won, the world number one would have equalled the American’s Major tally of fourteen. It brought to mind the 2009 final, in which Federer failed to win his expected fourteenth Major. We were in turn reminded that the French Open is only months away. I doubt whether anyone believes Nadal won’t surpass Sampras before long.

For now, however, the important number isn’t fourteen, but one. Stan Wawrinka, who at some point regressed down the evolutionary chain from being ‘Stan the Man’ to become the ‘Stanimal’, has won his first Major, and has earned his place among the sport’s elite. I, too, feel kind of speechless saying that.

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An Emotional Feeling

Australian Open, Semifinal

(1) Nadal d. (6) Federer, 7/6 6/3 6/3

The Australian Open provides those of us who otherwise avoid commercial television with plenty of excellent reasons not to alter our viewing habits for the rest of the year. Sadly, infrequent exposure means we have built up little tolerance for the unrelenting vibe of ecstatic anticipation, whereby even mundane events must be imbued with an unrealistic level of excitement, like a North Korean parade.Nadal AO 2014 -15 More interesting events are treated as pivotal to world history. Tonight’s semifinal between Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer was promoted as the most unmissable spectacle since the Normandy landings.

Worse still are the promos for the dreadful shows the networks will inflict upon their loyal viewers in the coming weeks and months. My only exposure to these shows, or even these kinds of shows, comes at this time of year, therefore my grasp of their intricacies may be limited, assuming there are intricacies. Certainly the reality shows seem to feature arcane rule-sets, whilst conforming perfectly to the traditional mission of commercial TV, which is to bring people into your loungeroom that you wouldn’t otherwise allow in your house. Indeed, one of the shows – My Kitchen Rules, which sounds like a pun but might not be – bases its format on this very idea. Its conceit is to have a pair of contestants invite the other contestants and judges into their homes and serve them all a meal. We are thereby afforded the twin pleasures of watching people prepare food we’ll never eat, which is then consumed by people we’ll never meet. This last is a shame, because some of the table talk is sparkling. One guy does a serviceable impersonation of Jack Nicholson. There are some twins who by their own admission share a single brain, which seems an overgenerous appraisal. Last year’s champions described winning as ‘such an emotional feeling’.

Some of these contestants and judges periodically turn up in the crowd at the Australian Open, where they’re expertly picked out by cameramen trained for that purpose. Bruce McAveny and Todd Woodbridge clearly know which side their cross-promotional bread is buttered on, and are diligent in revealing who these non-entities are. Jim Courier does a serviceable job of feigning interest. His job isn’t to hype Australian television shows. His job is to hype the latest instalment of the rivalry between Nadal and Federer, a task he set to with gusto. They have now played thirty-three times, and Federer hasn’t won a match in any format in almost two years, and a match in this format since 2007. Nevertheless, a range of factors led nearly everyone to believe that their latest Grand Slam match might be closer. There was a sentimental desire in some quarters for an all-Swiss final. There was ecstatic concern elsewhere that Nadal’s blister was infinitely more severe than the blisters that the rest of us somehow put up with. There was Federer’s recent form, and Nadal’s indifferent performances against Kei Nishikori and Grigor Dimitrov. It was enough for Channel 7 to go berserk.

As is often the case, the betting markets told the real tale. Nadal was the clear favourite to win, despite early reports that money was flowing for Federer, some of it in response to speculation that the Rod Laver Arena roof might be closed. The widespread belief is that Federer, when insulated from the elements, transforms into an ungovernable colossus. Being in Melbourne, I had the advantage of being able to look out my window, and knew that rain was unlikely, and that the roof would therefore be open. News came through that the RLA roof had malfunctioned. It wouldn’t open, or had gained the capacity to love, or something. Leaden quips plummeted dangerously from the sky. Roger Rasheed suggested that Federer had deliberately broken the roof, and that Nadal was up there desperately trying to pry it open. The latest vapid trend on Twitter is to declare ‘you can’t make this up’ in reference to events that anyone with a modicum of imagination could make up quite easily. It turns out you can’t make up something as wondrous as a stadium roof getting stuck. (There’s conceivably a reference I’m missing, or a substratum of irony.) Anyway, the roof eventually did open, ensuring Federer stayed at a manageably human scale.

The breakdown of the Nadal – Federer matchup is by now so well-known that it barely requires reiteration. Nadal hits the ball with enormous topspin to Federer’s backhand, until Federer either makes an error or delivers a shot ball, which Nadal duly dispatches. Nadal has proven his capacity to sustain this pattern of play indefinitely without discernible risk. Meanwhile Federer can only break out of this pattern at enormous risk. This means that their matches are invariably played on Nadal’s terms. What is really remarkable is how rarely this dynamic has actually determined the outcome of their recent matches. What was surprising about tonight’s result was how readily it did. Even last year, a bad year, it was notable how well Federer’s backhand withstood the barrage. This fortnight, finally comfortable with his new racquet, his backhand has been as solid as one could hope for, without hoping for too much. Tonight, however, it was already falling apart when he arrived on court, and Nadal was masterful in denying Federer any opportunity to reassemble it.

Naturally this isn’t the only dynamic at play. Arguably as important is Nadal ability to ‘reset’ any rally that threatens to spiral away, especially if it looks like draining away through his forehand corner. Whenever Federer went hard into that corner, almost without exception Nadal would respond with a high looping forehand of his own, moderately paced but very deep, keeping his opponent pinned behind the baseline, and ensuring that Federer could gain no progress within the point. There was also the latent threat of Nadal’s forehand pass. The basic rule when coming to the net is that one should never approach to Nadal’s forehand if he can run at it, stand near it, sight it, or if he is lying handcuffed on a hospital bed in traction to the side of the court. There are no exceptions. All the coaching manuals agree on this. There is nothing wrong with his backhand pass, but at least there’s a chance he’ll miss it, and it lacks the ferocious spin of the forehand. Federer broke this cardinal rule a few times, including in the final game. Whenever he was in trouble in the early going, he approached solely to Nadal’s backhand, thus delaying disaster for a time.

One doesn’t thereby wish to imply that Federer approached the net recklessly, or even particularly frequently. He was often given no opportunity to move forward, but even so one searched in vain for the new ideas Stefan Edberg has apparently brought with him. Federer was arguably more aggressive last season when facing Nadal, at least in Rome (suicidally so), Cincinnati (more judicious) and the World Tour Finals. Tonight’s match unfolded more or less like any number of their matches over the last half a decade, only more so, and with due allowance for their respective levels on the night.

Federer on the night played quite poorly, not quite at the subterranean level of the Brisbane final, but certainly not up to the standard he has maintained through this Australian Open. His serve in particular was less potent than he might have hoped, and all but deserted him in the first set tiebreak, though this more determined its shape than its outcome. Meanwhile Nadal played well – afterwards he conceded it was his best match of tournament – which meant that a match that was already his to lose didn’t detain us beyond three sets. There were of course many flashes of brilliance, the brightest of which was a reflexed sliced pass he produced after being wrong-footed by a fine Federer volley, which in turn shocked Federer into a coarse volley error. There were others, such as the backhand return winner in the final game, but what really drove the result wasn’t Nadal’s audacity but the long sequences of bread-and-butter rallying, in which the top seed could build pressure without ever growing incautious.

After the match Nadal said all the right things, including kind words about how much playing Federer still means to him. ‘When I go on court I have very, very emotional feelings,’ he declared, proving that facing down the mighty Swiss is about as thrilling as winning a reality cooking show. (In Nadal’s defence, English is not his first language, whereas My Kitchen Rules contestants merely speak like it isn’t.) He also neatly admonished Courier for implying that he’d already won the title. He’d watched Wawrinka and Tomas Berdych slug out the other semifinal last night, and was well aware that while both men had erred, it was never on the side of caution. Nadal takes special care to regard every opponent as an overwhelming threat, including, once, Jarkko Nieminen on clay. Positioning Wawrinka as a threat is no task at all, since Stan is striking the ball with supreme authority. He is also, for the first time, the Swiss number one. All the same, the reality is that the new Swiss number one typically fares even worse against Nadal than the old one does. Wawrinka has never taken a set from Nadal in twelve attempts. If, as Courier anticipates, Nadal does win the final, he’ll become the only man in the Open Era to win all four Majors twice. Imagine how emotional that feeling will be.

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A Lesson in Parental Fallibility

Australian Open, Quarterfinals

(8) Wawrinka d. (2) Djokovic, 2/6 6/4 6/2 3/6 9/7

It presumably surprised no one that Channel 7’s hype-department went into overdrive at the prospect of another blockbuster match between Novak Djokovic and Stanislas Wawrinka. As with all commercial television networks, Australia’s tennis broadcaster subscribes to the crude conceit that any memorable event must inevitably be repeated if even a few of its defining conditions are present. In this case the defining conditions were the players involved and the best-of-five format. These men played two five set classics last year, and according to Channel 7 this ensured their next effort was destined to be another. Being steadier and wiser, I wasted no opportunity to inform anyone near me – family members, buskers, stalkers – that there is more to professional tennis than the Majors, and that Djokovic easily dispatched Wawrinka twice at the end of last year, in Paris and London. Only an unredeemed ignoramus, I maintained, would expect another classic. Djokovic would win easily. My son, who has decided that he and Djokovic are going to become friends, was particularly thrilled by this news. As it transpired, the match was a classic. Mark Kolbe/Getty Images AsiaPacChannel 7 was right, and I was wrong. That may not be the hardest sentence I’ve ever had to write – ‘Mr Becker, I regret to inform you that your brain condition is inoperable.’ – but it’s certainly on the shortlist.

At least for the first set, it looked as though I’d be proved right. Djokovic was looking exactly like the guy who hadn’t lost a match of any kind since the US Open final in September, who was currently enjoying the second longest Grand Slam semifinal streak in the Open Era. Wawrinka meanwhile looked like he couldn’t quite work out where his baseline was, or why it was important that he position himself closer to it. He figured it out in the second set however, though it still came as a surprise to everyone in the stadium when he finally broke Djokovic, and served it out.

Crowd sympathy within Rod Laver Arena had slightly favoured Djokovic as the players sauntered on to court, though it could have been that the Serbian fans were more punctual. By the time Wawrinka broke in the third set, twice, there was no doubt which man the crowd preferred. Djokovic was too content to rally with the Swiss, especially crosscourt on the backhand, and rediscovered that this shot doesn’t break down the way other single-handers can. Nonetheless, Djokovic took the fourth comfortably, and broke at the start of the fifth. A reprise of their US Open appeared more likely than their extravagant 12/10 effort from Melbourne last year.

Then, for reasons ungraspable by rational minds, Djokovic compiled a service game of cosmic awfulness, sturdily mounted on four forehand errors, and was broken back. Both men settled into a long sequence of holds, interrupted briefly by a rain delay. Djokovic went back to holding comfortably. Wawrinka did it harder, but, somehow, legs and mind constricted, he did it. Blithely ignoring the concept of momentum, he finally broke Djokovic with the Serb serving to stay in the match for the fourth time, at 7/8. Djokovic’s brain-wave to serve-volley on match point down has already blossomed into legend. To volley was, to put it mildly, a rash choice, and it was rashly played. He swung at it, pushed it wide, and the three-time defending champion was out. He left the court to a wave of warm regard, which heated to radiant affection once Wawrinka’s took his chance to speak. He pronounced himself ‘very, very, very, very happy.’ He’d proved me wrong, but in the moment I found it hard to begrudge him his joy. My son was less impressed when I told him the result, but learned a vital first lesson in parental fallibility. It had to happen some time. I won’t complain if he gains something of Djokovic’s perfect grace in defeat, but I do dream he’ll somehow acquire a backhand like Wawrinka’s.

(1) Nadal d. (22) Dimitrov, 3/6 7/6 7/6 6/2

If he falls in with a bad crowd, he may end up with a backhand more like Grigor Dimitrov’s, a fate no parent would wish upon their child. For the first set of today’s match between Dimitrov and Rafael Nadal, the Bulgarian did an excellent job of shielding his backhand wing from the Spaniard’s merciless attention. Mostly he did this by breaking early and serving well.

This was an unusual match, easily the strangest of the round; not particularly enjoyable to watch, nor, from what I could tell, to play. It boasted little of the drama of Djokovic’s loss to Wawrinka, and none of the quality. Nadal began poorly and never hit full stride. Dimitrov began well, but immediately subsided into woeful inconsistency. He broke early, but thereafter could barely land a return, and saw out the first set on the strength of his first serve alone. Breaks were donated and whimsically regifted in the second set. Nadal sought to fire himself up, and succeeded in whipping the crowd into some sort of startled frenzy through the sheer force of his personality, or at any rate the lustiness of his bellows, which for duration and incongruity were a fitting homage to the departed Djokovic. Either man could have taken the second set, but naturally only Nadal did, with a lovely combination of passes.

The third set was more or less the second set with all the settings dialled up. Breaks each way, flailing inefficiency from both men – Nadal’s serve in particular was heavily affected by a blister on his left hand, which Channel 7 took great delight in showing in dynamic detail, with Spidercam swooping in – an expertly curated selection of beautifully framed forehands, and the inability of both men to sustain pressure. This point from the third set tiebreak encapsulates the overall dynamic quite perfectly: Dimitrov’s tweener lob is the brilliant moment fated to resonate, but observe how once he has re-established himself in the rally he undoes his good work with a sequence of weak, short backhands. Nevertheless, Dimitrov had three set points in total, including one on his own serve. It was a big serve, too – 205kph out wide – leaving him with an attractively pristine acre of court to hit into, or out of, as it transpired. That forehand miss will certainly stay with him for a long time. It was certainly still on his mind in the press conference, as he shed hot tears of frustration. Nadal later admitted to Jim Courier that he’d simply been lucky in that moment, with a relief that had hardly faded in the intervening hour. The fourth set saw Dimitrov fade in the usual manner. He hadn’t played especially well, though he had fought well, and his tournament was over. If he’d been able to land those forehands it might have been a different match, though probably not a different result. If he’d been able to regulate the depth on his backhand better, it certainly would have been.

(6) Federer d. (4) Murray, 6/3 6/4 6/7 6/3

Nadal will face Roger Federer in the second semifinal, another instalment in the most famous rivalry in the sport, an exalted status reflected in its recourse to roman numerals. This will be their XXXIIIth meeting. Whereas last year’s matches were dominated by Nadal, there is some reason to believe that Friday’s meeting will be more competitive. Federer, with his new racquet and mended back, is back to playing the kind of aggressive tennis he was once famed for, at least for the opening sets of each match. After that his boldness erodes sharply. Two rounds ago he tore through Blaz Kavcic in fearsome fashion, before the third set devolved into an unnecessary dogfight. The same pattern threatened to recur in the fourth round against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga; that it didn’t owed mostly to the Frenchman’s sense of timing, which is not commensurate with his sense of occasion. Tsonga left his run too late, and Federer was permitted to coast over the line. Andy Murray almost committed the same mistake, only coming truly to life as Federer served for the match at 5/4 in the third set.

Federer commenced in majestic fashion, his forehand and serve both devastating, his backhand impenetrable and his excursions into the forecourt frequent and decisive. Murray had ambled to the quarterfinals thanks to the most generous draw since, well, his last Australian Open. Federer was thus his first true test, not only of the tournament, but since last year’s US Open. He missed four months of tennis, and last night appeared fatally short of big match practice. I’m not sure anyone besides those ardent Federer fans who exist in a state perpetual anxiety truly expected Murray to maintain a high level for long enough, in perfect contrast to last year’s semifinal. On paper it was the most appealing of all the men’s quarterfinals, but when it came down to it the stakes somehow didn’t feel very high.

The Scot finally found his feet in the second set, like Wawrinka the night before forcing himself to venture up onto his baseline. Federer continued to be aggressive, and this was probably the best period in the match, until Murray threw in a poor game to be broken. We can put this lapse down to shortage of match play, but Djokovic had already proved that even the best players don’t really need a reason. Federer served out the set. The third was much the same, with the Swiss entirely untouchable on serve, at least until he stepped up to serve for the match, and thoughtfully reminded us that pressure has internal obligations of its own. Federer tried to coast over the line, but Murray, to his enormous credit, was having no part of it. Invited to step in, he did, heavily augmenting the pace on his groundstrokes, and forcing Federer into error. Federer gained a couple of match points in the tiebreak, and once more reverted into passivity, and was made to pay.

The fourth set began in much the same manner – Murray’s first service game lasted about a quarter of an hour, and saw Federer gain half a dozen break points, which he mistook for an ideal opportunity to work on his sliced forehand returns. His personal challenged appeared to be to see how many of them he could bunt onto Murray’s service line. It turned out to be a lot. Murray by this point was largely spent, his first serve shorn of pace, and his movement to the forehand corner sluggish. But he was rarely stretched, and made the most of his opportunities to move forward. Federer finally attacked a forehand return on a break point late in the set, and was presumably the only person surprised to learn that this markedly enhanced his chance of winning the subsequent rally. Obliged once more to serve it out, he fell quickly to 0-30, but extricated himself with a bold rally and a brave second serve, before taking the match a few points later.

Afterwards, forced to explain himself to Courier, he sounded about as relieved as Nadal had, though one was left to wonder if he realises just how weighed-down he lately seems by pressure. At times this tournament he has looked like his old self, not merely the statesman who returned to number one in 2012, but the reckless youth who dominated the world in 2006. At other times, however, he has looked exactly like a man who has learned by heart the lesson that all things must pass, that one’s moments of greatness don’t become less precious the more of them you’ve accumulated, but more precious the fewer of them you have left.

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Forsaken Geometry

Australian Open, Fourth Round

The first week of the 2014 Australian Open was feverishly warm, generating liquid quick conditions that caused results to flow in all directions, and ensuring that reporters who’d spent too little of their off-season toiling on Agassi’s magic mountain could remain an appropriately high simmer. Renee McKay/Getty Images AsiaPacThe cool change that swept through Melbourne late on Friday night wrought a dramatic change, bringing kinder conditions, an abrupt lessening in the number of self-righteous articles about the tournament’s heat policy, and the return of Lleyton Hewitt to the Channel 7 commentary booth. On balance, I declare it a net positive.

Hewitt took longer than usual to turn up. Usually he turns up after a couple of days spent processing his latest early-round loss, but this year he tarried for almost a week. It’s conceivable he got lost, since Channel 7’s commentary booth has been relocated, and renamed. The previous iteration was known as the ‘bunker’, and consisted of a low wooden structure placed out on the court surface, just to the side of the entrance tunnel. It was cunningly painted the same blue as the surface, yet somehow failed to blend in, probably because it was still a shack on a tennis court. The new arrangement is more traditional, consisting of a booth partly recessed behind the back of the court, permitting commentators an unparalleled view of the linesman’s buttocks. The voices emanating from within this enclosure, you’ll be relieved to hear, have not changed. Channel 7’s commentary remains a special brand of magnificent.

Scornful of Tommy Robredo’s remote court positioning, Jim Courier remarked with a tone of faux-wonder that the Spaniard ‘was intentionally giving up geometry’. I once gave up physics for an afternoon, and can attest to the risks involved. Courier of course hails from a culture in which the right to maintain geometry is constitutionally enshrined, in which lunatic lobby groups famously insist that their beloved set-squares and protractors will have to be pried from their cold dead hands. Having forsaken geometry, Robredo lost to a rampant Stan Wawrinka, whom Channel 7 has cruelly nicknamed ‘The Stanimal’. Robredo mastered the heat for a while, but he’s cold news now. Hewitt’s return was accompanied by a sharp upswing in the use of the word ‘tremendous’ and the phrase ‘extremely well’. He can be an ornery character on court, but in commentary his contribution is invariably positive. Marvelling at Roger Federer’s continued excellence, he took care to highlight ‘the self-belief he has, not only in himself, but in his racquet as well.’ High praise, indeed. Bruce McAveny, famously so thorough in his research, persists in pronouncing David Ferrer as David Fer-ur, as in ‘urn’. He’s either incorrect, or knows something the rest of us don’t, including David Fer-ur.

It is generally the case that the narratives which consume the first week of a Major burn out by the second. Wimbledon has a rest day on its middle Sunday to ensure the break is literal, while the US Open starts to crank up its trusty hurricane machine, affectionately known as ‘Bessie’. The first week of this year’s Australian Open was clangourous with sound and fury, but ultimately it signified little. There were intriguing upsets, and new stars, fistfuls of retirements and Ivan Dodig’s assertion that he thought he would die (no article attacking the tournament organisers failed to include Dodig’s expert self-diagnosis, although they were reluctant to point out that he demonstrably did not die, and two days later won a doubles match). There was Tomic dragging down the host nation’s spirits, and Kyrgios and Kokkinakis to buoy them up again. Damir Dzumhur was the first Bosnian man to enter any main draw. Donald Young was the last American man to leave this particular main draw. Philipp Kohlschreiber’s withdrawal from the main draw provided an opening for Stephane Robert. He entered the main draw as a Lucky Loser, but left it as a kind of folk hero, and spent long minutes after his defeat to Andy Murray absorbing the admiration of the Hisense crowd.

Indeed, the Hisense crowd itself deserves a mention, since it is entirely a first week phenomenon. While it lasts, no crowd at Melbourne Park cheers louder and longer, its appreciation fuelled by a heartfelt sense of gratitude whenever a truly big name drops by. A ticket to Rod Laver Arena rarely represents a smart investment in the first week, unless you’re eager to witness elite players mete out rough justice on journeymen. You can watch the same spectacle on Hisense for considerably less money, but as often you’ll see a close match, or even an upset. Mostly, however, a simple grounds pass is all the average punter requires, especially in the early rounds. Holders of such tickets were privileged to watch Roberto Bautista-Agut tear through the draw, until he was halted yesterday by Grigor Dimitrov. Those same fans, or ones like them, were permitted to enjoy Dimitrov’s sterling victory over Milos Raonic the round before.

Aided by cooler conditions, the fourth round admirably served its intended purpose of bringing the hothouse lunacy to an abrupt halt, freezing in place a draw that had threatened perpetually to burst apart. Whereas early on men who knew no better conducted marathon contests in gruelling heat, no match in the fourth round lasted five sets, and few reached four. Players like Robert and Bautista-Agut set the first week alight, but none of them survived the round of sixteen. Indeed, for just the second time in the Open Era, the Australian Open men’s quarterfinals are comprised by seven of the eight top seeds. The sole exception is Dimitrov, the twenty-second seed, who gambolled through Juan Martin del Potro’s vacant section.

His gambolling days might well be done, however: he next faces Rafael Nadal, whose first week was mainly remarkable for how extravagantly its difficulty was overestimated by his fans. Tomic naturally helped matters by retiring wounded after a set, as did Gael Monfils by playing one of the least tactically astute matches imaginable; of all the dense particles in this year’s draw, Monfils was arguably the densest. Nadal’s sternest test came in the unlikely form of Kei Nishikori, who arrived equipped with a precise template of how to play the world number one, which was to never permit the Spaniard a forehand unless he was stretched or surprised. Nishikori’s eventual loss was as gallant and honourable as a straight sets loss can be, and an indirect rebuke to all those who’ve prematurely given up. Nadal’s victory was a testament to the fact that he is quite a lot better at tennis than his opponent. A good player can play him exactly the right way and still not win a set. Yesterday he was pressed, but always came up with precisely the right shot when it mattered, and closed the match with, of all things, a dominant serving display.

Kevin Anderson, for his sins, was obliged to face Tomas Berdych yet again. Two years ago they had never faced each other. Perhaps they’d never even met socially. They’ve now played ten times, and Anderson is yet to win. Sunday’s loss was among the most comprehensive. Berdych was superb, and has reached the quarterfinals of this tournament for the fourth straight year, this time without dropping serve. In previous quarterfinals he faced Djokovic twice and Nadal once, and lost each time. This year he’ll face Ferrer, a far more benign prospect. Ferrer’s quarter was weak to begin with, and only grew weaker as the rounds melted away. Berdych will be his first legitimate test. Channel 7’s helpful ‘Things You May Not Know’ box told us that Berdych has dated Lucie Safarova since 2011.

The most eagerly anticipated fourth round match was between Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Federer, which Channel 7, tireless in pursuit of an angle, billed as a grudge match. Their logic, to use the term generously, was that Federer defeated Tsonga in five sets here last year, though you’d imagine Tsonga’s straight sets dismissal of the Swiss at Roland Garros eased his pain somewhat. Whatever the case, Federer repaid the treatment last night, inflicting a comprehensive shellacking that one could term clinical, depending on the clinic. I’m partial to Tsonga, and had thus hoped for more, but Federer in this form – torrents of winners and enterprising net play – is as hard to begrudge as he was hard to gainsay. There were, as Robbie Koenig would say, innumerable oil painting forehands. Indeed, it was an oil painting of a match, and Tsonga shouldn’t be disparaged because he seemed resigned merely to stretch the canvas. He made too little of the few chances he had, but it wasn’t really his fault that those chances seldom came round. Undoubtedly Murray will create more chances in the next round, but it’s pointless to blame Tsonga for not being Murray. The Frenchman surged to life late in the third set, saving three break points in a manner that only he can, but alas it was too late. Federer was unstoppable by this time, brimming with self-belief for himself, at one with his vintage game, and his brand new frame.

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Ongoing Commitments

As intimated earlier in the week, one of the more fascinating battles going on this week has been waged not between players, but between the media and the English language. This has entailed an exhaustive quest for original ways to describe the prevailing atmospheric conditions. Renae Stubbs found a way, though it didn’t necessarily lead to victory: ‘Can she survive in this heat, which is extraordinarily hot?’ Rhetorically, we might generously call this a polyptoton, although it would exhaust generosity to call it a good one. On the other hand, Serena Williams’ assertion that the Australian Open is ‘a great start to the beginning of the year’ is just a tautology. That’s okay – words are not her business. Quinn Rooney/Getty Images AsiaPacHer business is winning tennis matches. Thankfully Darren Cahill was on hand to explain in simple terms how she not only continues to do so, but is actually getting better at it, in clear defiance of her age.

Today Williams faced Daniela Hantuchova, who several days ago achieved the rarest feat in tennis: prompting the commentators to add a new line item to her official fact sheet. In this case the new fact is that she can play the piano, an astonishing feat that was demonstrated to the gobsmacked Australian media several days ago, who summarily dubbed her ‘a concert pianist’. The fact sheet having been amended, there’s now a legal obligation to bring up her astounding musical prowess whenever she appears on screen. From today: ‘She’s so good at so many things: tennis, piano . . .’ The media love nothing more than celebrities – athletes, actors, US presidents – demonstrating hitherto unrevealed musical talents, no matter how meagre those talents truly are. The fact is, Hantuchova is a concert pianist in the same way that I am a professional tennis player. Youtube suggests her pianistic wizardry has been revealed many times before. For the record, Williams was out of sorts, but still won. Hantuchova played very well.

Of course, supplementary talents don’t have to be musical. Anything not directly related to tennis will do, down to and including functional literacy. More than once I’ve heard Janko Tipsarevic called a ‘borderline genius’ because he has read Dostoevsky. Perhaps Benjamin Becker should try that, since the poor guy’s fact sheet hasn’t been updated in nearly eight years, and still only features two items. Firstly, he isn’t related to Boris (Boris confirmed this personally in the Australian Open’s draw ceremony). Secondly, he was the guy up the other end in Andre Agassi’s last match (Boris also mentioned this, amply fulfilling his ongoing commitment to supply no insight whatsoever).

Speaking of Agassi, he’s back on Australian television screens this year, fulfilling his ongoing commitment to talk very slowly over thinly-disguised Jacob’s Creek commercials. The overall success of the campaign is apparent in this year’s expanded budget. This time the ads are shot on location, and feature an extended cast including Steffi Graf, Agassi’s brother Phil, his Dad Mike, and Gil Reyes (who was included last year, but this time has more to do). The glacial solemnity of the delivery and the intrusive soundtrack as ever lend Agassi’s inspirational words a slightly creepy edge. It’s no stretch to imagine the weapons-grade sentimentality of the opening film breaking tough prisoners at a secret torture facility. After that, however, something miraculous happens; the rest of the ads are actually pretty good. As far as I can tell they each reprise material already featured in Open, but that’s understandable; any anecdote worthy of a wine commercial shouldn’t be omitted from one’s autobiography. ‘Magic’, the fourth and final film, is a trifle overwrought, with a syrupy orchestral track and a ‘magic mountain’. This mountain is the one Agassi would famously toil upon in order to prepare for Australia’s cruel conditions, its magic evident in its efficacy. Few players have mastered those conditions more thoroughly. Thirteen years ago I watched Agassi run David Prinosil into the ground on a very hot Melbourne afternoon, until the German keeled over and couldn’t get up. Times were different, and I don’t recall that it was regarded as a moral issue. If Prinosil was still playing, no doubt it’d be on his fact sheet.

For the longest time, networks kept their fact sheets safely out of sight, but no longer. Channel 7, in line with its ‘ongoing commitment to the evolution of tennis coverage’, has recently taken to sharing selected titbits before each match. A box pops up on screen, titled ‘Things You May Not Know’. For example, did you know that Sam Stosur loves to play ‘Bejewled Blitz’ on her phone? I hope not. Did you know that Hantuchova loves the film Gladiator? Of course you did: she’s a professional tennis player, and they all do. Apparently Benoit Paire is called ‘‘The Stork’ because he is tall and thin.’ Just in case you assumed it was because he is a qualified midwife. Last night he recovered from two sets down, running Nick Kyrgios into the ground on a very hot Melbourne evening. It was tremendous entertainment, initially contoured by the Frenchman’s forehand, which for long periods barely worked at all, and later by the Australian’s legs, which gave out entirely. Given his technical issues, it was a commendably patient performance from Paire, laced with just enough of his characteristic lunacy to keep things interesting. Kyrgios is the image of untrammelled youth on court, but afterwards was as gracious and thoughtful as you could hope for.

Juan Martin del Potro last night contrived to lose to a laudably determined (and surprisingly inspired) Roberto Bautista-Agut. Del Potro was considered a pre-tournament favourite, or at any rate represented the sole reason to believe Rafael Nadal wouldn’t reach the semifinals unhindered. Nadal wasn’t significantly hindered by Thanasi Kokkinakis, conceding just eight games, although those eight games were accumulated with sufficient panache that Australians now feel some reason to maintain hope for the future, a rare sensation in these Tomic times. Andy Murray was completely untroubled by Vincent Millot, even, it turned out, when he trailed 1/5 in the third set. Roger Federer was imperious against Blaz Kavcic for two sets, then merely good enough for one more. The main interest, apparently, was that Federer was scheduled to play on Hisense Arena, the first time this has occurred since Gladiator appeared on DVD, to the collective ecstasy of both professional tours. Britain’s The Telegraph contended that this reflected Federer’s ‘current status among the also-rans of the top 10’, although they failed to address what this says about Murray, who as of the third round will have played on Hisense twice. Interviewed after the match, Federer gave every impression that he didn’t much care where he played, though the Hisense crowd couldn’t have been more delirious in their appreciation that he’d played right there in front of them.

Gilles Simon followed up his complicated five set victory against Daniel Brands with another against Marin Cilic, all on a broken foot. Details have been slow to emerge, but it seems Cilic served for every set at least fifteen times, and that at one stage play was suspended when an escaped panther wandered onto court. Simon will next face Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Florian Mayer beat Jerzy Janowicz in straight sets today, a stunning upset that more or less everyone expected. Janowicz’s form convinced no one this week, and after losing he conceded he hadn’t spent sufficient time on Magic Mountain, mostly due to injury. He struggled mightily in the heat, but insisted it was his own fault, an unpopular attitude that will certainly go unreported. Mayer will next face David Ferrer, whose quarter is so short on marketable quality that he has already played twice in Rod Laver Arena. It could be, per The Telegraph, that this merely reflects his exalted position among the elite, but I doubt whether anyone truly believes that. If he’d been drawn in the top half, one doubts whether he’d see the inside of Laver before the quarterfinals. He’d be confined to Hisense, in much the same way that Javier Piles once confined him to an extraordinarily hot ball-closet for shirking his piano practice. Or so it says on his official fact sheet.

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Un-Australian Heat

Australian Open, Days 1 -3

The persistent theme through the first three days of the 2014 Australian Open was heat, evident in the desperate struggles of all players to complete their assigned matches, and the even mightier struggle of the attendant press corps to come up with more evocative descriptions for the conditions than ‘brutal’ and ‘searing’. Quinn Rooney/Getty Images AsiaPacMercifully Bernard Tomic was on hand, permitting the assembled hacks to deploy other cherished adjectives such as ‘un-Australian’ and ‘disappointing’.

So far ten matches have concluded in retirement, including nine in the first round, which equalled the record set at the US Open in 2011. Unfortunately for the prevailing narrative, few of the retirements occurred due to the heat, the brutality of which has, to be sure, been searing. Ivan Dodig is probably the only one: today he retired from cramps against Damir Dzumhur while leading two sets to one, and afterwards proposed a revised schedule for the tournament, which shockingly didn’t set aside its existing protocols on the suggestion of one ailing journeyman. Dzumhur may well have voiced similar complaints, but they were drowned out by his Bosnian supporters, who’d earlier celebrated each won game with closely harmonised chanting, and his lone victorious set with a passionate accordion solo. Frank Dancevic yesterday passed out from heat stroke, but soon came round, although not round far enough to elude imminent defeat. It was worth pushing on, however; if anyone could manage to lose from two sets up to a semi-comatose opponent, Benoit Paire is the one.

Aside from Dodig, the men who did retire were Alex Bogomolov Jr, Andrei Golubev, Tommy Haas, John Isner, Julian Reister, Radek Stepanek, Tomic, and Robin Haase. (Philipp Kohlschreiber also withdrew before his first round match, replaced by Lucky Loser Stephane Robert, who celebrated his good fortune by submitting Aljaz Bedene to one of the more comprehensive hidings of the opening round.) The real wonder is that Gilles Simon isn’t among them. Having seriously injured his foot at Kooyong the other day, he was instructed by his doctor not to play for four to six weeks, though he apparently failed to hear, or at any rate heed, the word ‘not’. He instead scampered about for four to six hours yesterday, eventually finishing off Daniel Brands 16/14 in the fifth set. He’ll next face Marin Cilic, who tarried barely three hours in divesting the singles draw of Marcel Granollers. Meanwhile the only five setter today was Florian Mayer’s serpentine defeat of Mikhail Youzhny. Simon Briggs in The Telegraph slyly wondered whether today’s lack of five-setters was down to the searingly brutal heat: ‘could players be folding, even subconsciously, rather than fighting to stay out in the heat for another 40 minutes?’ It’s clearly a statement masquerading as a question – a hack journalist staple as tiresome as the meaningless phrases ‘questions have been asked’ and ‘officials have not ruled out’ – but let’s answer it anyway: No. Yesterday was if anything hotter, and there were plenty of five set matches. (Tomorrow, incidentally, will be hotter still. I suspect the Extreme Heat Policy will be enforced.)

The most widely anticipated match of the first round was between Tomic and Rafael Nadal, or as Channel 7 billed it, a showdown between the world’s best twenty-one year old and the world’s best player. Would Tomic’s first round record remain intact, they demanded breathlessly. (The Australian, you see, had never lost in the first round in Melbourne, which is commendable, but largely speaks to his good fortune. He has never run afoul of a truly elite player first up, unlike, say, Ryan Harrison, who lost handily yesterday to Gael Monfils.) As it happened, Tomic pulled out after a reasonable first set, instantly transforming it into the most disappointing match of the round, and damning himself for eternity. He ill-deserved the opprobrium the Rod Laver Arena crowd flung his way, or perhaps he did deserve it, but not for judiciously retiring with a legitimate and pre-existing injury. The crowd probably just hoped for a better spectacle, or at any rate a longer one. Nadal looked suitably crestfallen that he wouldn’t have to spend a few more hours toiling in the apocalyptic heat.

Public excoriation of Tomic is a thriving industry here in Australia, and no one has ever lost followers by lashing into him on social media, including semi-literate fuckwits from the AFL. We’d earlier been informed that Tomic’s performance last night was ‘a moratorium’ on Australia’s collective attitude to the world’s best twenty-one year old tennis player. A determined effort would ensure all prior transgressions were forgiven. Anything less would be the final nail in the cliché’s coffin, the straw that broke its hackneyed back. He retired, and that was that. The Herald Sun summarily declared that he has at last ‘wasted the nation’s goodwill’. (Back broken and buried alive, Tomic presumably ignored some good advice to lay low, and instead called a press conference today to explain that he’d been misunderstood. It turned out he is injured: scans confirmed a groin tear. Expert medical advice vindicated his decision to retire by concurring that his injury might have been exacerbated had he continued. The Herald Sun’s response was a typically garbled disaster, going to tortuous lengths not to admit it had been wrong: ‘The most unfortunate aspect of Tomic’s latest faux pas is that he was legitimately injured.’)†

Tomic’s retirement brought to a close a sorry yesterday for the locals on Rod Laver Arena, the dramatic centrepiece of which was Lleyton Hewitt’s five-set defeat to Andreas Seppi. Being Hewitt, it unfolded almost exactly how you’d expect it to: a stirring scrabble out of a two set pit, a recovered break in each of the last three sets, a match point on the Italian’s serve, saved, then a weak late game to be broken. Hewitt has lately enjoyed his finest form for half a decade, yet in the tournament that matters most he still managed to eke out a heroic loss more or less indistinguishable from all the others. Seppi, however, deserved nothing less than victory, especially given his execrable recent form. His reward is a soft second round against Donald Young, who progressed when Haase retired. Earlier Roger Federer wasted neither energy nor time beating James Duckworth, though he took a while to work out why Duckworth kept serving from the doubles alley. There was undoubtedly a plan, but it was a bad plan.

There’ll come a day when Nick Kyrgios and Thanasi Kokkinakis aren’t mentioned in the same breath, but, as Aragorn reminds us, it is not this day. Scheduled consecutively on Court 3, both teenagers assembled tremendous four set victories against experienced professionals in Benjamin Becker and Igor Sijsling respectively. Channel 7 immediately anointed them ‘Greek gods in the making’. Tomorrow the younger of the Greek gods, Kokkinakis, gets to face Nadal in the savage immensity of mid-afternoon. Whatever happens, you can bet he won’t retire. Not if he knows what’s good for him. If he wins a set, he’ll be fast-tracked into the Pantheon.

On Monday Matt Ebden expertly manoeuvred himself into a two set lead, a position in which he often finds himself in the Australian Open’s first round, invariably as a prelude to losing in five. He lost the next two sets, as per the script, but then startled everyone by comprehensively outplaying Nicolas Mahut in the fifth. The heat was already apocalyptic, but this portended doom. As I write Ebden is headlining the least thrilling prime time line up on Rod Laver Arena in living memory – in keeping with the tournament’s policy to limit the viewing public’s exposure to David Ferrer – although the kinds of Australians who use the term ‘un-Australian’ without blushing in shame are no doubt thrilled. Perhaps they’d be even more thrilled to discover that the regular season affords many more opportunities to watch Ebden. They were probably less pleased by the result, which was that their man contrived somehow to lose to Vasek Pospisil, who for extended periods in the match could barely move. It only gradually dawned on the commentators that Ebden wouldn’t win by default, and even longer to sink in that he might not win at all. In the end his defeat was a testament to his incapacity to seize an opportunity that had been carefully affixed to his hands with industrial adhesive, a monument to tactical ineptitude. But no one has ever been called un-Australian for playing a stupid match, and Pospisil, who ignored every opportunity to quit, showed us that no match is truly unwinnable.

The Herald Sun enjoys the highest circulation of any newspaper in Australia, providing a useful corrective to the view that Australia is some kind of journalism nirvana. Their tennis correspondent is Leo Schlink. This sentence is representative of his usual standard: ‘Invaiarably, Bernie Tomic is regarded lowly by many.’ You can correct the typo, but nothing short of amputation will fix a tin ear.

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Magical Moments

Kooyong, Day One

Australian Open Qualifying, Day One

‘Thompson is once again on the precipice of a magical moment in Australian tennis.’

Jordan Thompson twice came within a point of defeating Richard Gasquet at Kooyong’s AAMI Classic today, a magical result, according to the commentator, that would have equalled Lleyton Hewitt’s defeat of Andre Agassi at the Adelaide International in 1998. He didn’t precisely come out and say that victory for Thompson would have established the youngster on a course leading inevitably to the world number one ranking, but I like to think he implieIMG_3209d it. Alas, though it was a fine performance from Thompson – memorable, even, if not magical – he lost. He’ll have to get to number one the hard way.

Channel 7 works hard to promulgate the idea that the AAMI Classic is something more than a mere exhibition. Their coverage deliberately makes no distinction between the action occurring in Sydney, an officially endorsed tour event, and Kooyong, a round robin exhibition event conducted in a perennial gale that no one involved seems to take very seriously. A few years ago Bernard Tomic stole an umpire’s shoe during a match; another magical moment in Australian tennis. The year before that I think he beat Novak Djokovic, a result that clearly rocked the Serb to his core.

A strong performance at Kooyong historically serves as no sort of form guide for the Australian Open, let alone for the tennis fortunes of an entire nation. Recall how Andy Roddick beat Roger Federer in the Kooyong final in 2007, but was then famously drubbed by him two weeks later at Melbourne Park? Hewitt won Kooyong three years ago yet subsequently lost in the first round of the Open. Of course, I disapprove of ‘exhibition’ as a blanket term, since it obscures more than it reveals. The Hopman Cup boasts neither APT nor WTA approval, but it’s still a weightier affair than, say, Federer’s charity match with Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in Rod Laver Arena tonight. For importance, Kooyong is positioned nearer the former than the latter, but that doesn’t mean any of the players necessarily care if they lose. At worst they shrug at the gusting breeze. Usually they just smile with withering wryness.

The eagerness to unearth future champions is consuming for the local broadcaster, and if potential is what you’re determined to uncover it’s inevitable you’ll find it everywhere. The exception, today, was at the Australian Open qualifying, which for seriousness leaves even the Hopman Cup behind. While Thompson was almost saving Australian men’s tennis across town, only one of ten Australian men had so far progressed past the first round of qualifying. This one, for the record, was Andrew Harris; he played a fine match to see off Italian Simone Vagnozzi in straight sets. Later on John-Patrick Smith also moved through, albeit by defeating fellow-Queenslander Ben Mitchell. Marc Polmans was roughly schooled by Paul-Henri Mathieu, which is appropriate since the Australian is still school-aged, though this doesn’t justify his rocking a legionnaire’s cap. Both Alex Bolt and Luke Saville contrived to lose 11/9 in third sets, to Axel Michon and Paul Capdeville respectively. Capdeville was one of the few non-Australians to enjoy vociferous support today, with a respectable Chilean contingent thoughtfully redoubling their exhortations after he hurled his guts onto court.

Otherwise, nationalistic fervour rarely attained more than a low simmer. When Yuki Bhambri saved a match point against Potito Starace the resultant applause was far too thin even to be termed a smattering, and it faded to nothing once the Italian actually won. James McGee had a small Irish contingent on hand, and did his best to reward their support by wearing patriotic wristbands, and by putting up a terrific fight against Jimmy Wang. Ruben Bemelmans easily saw off Filip Peliwo, watched over by a surprisingly unconcerned David Goffin – it transpired he’d already withdrawn – and Xavier Malisse, whom retirement seems to be treating well. I’ve hardly seen Bemelmans hit the ball better, though mostly he just had to keep it deep, secure in the knowledge that Peliwo’s flashes of brilliance, though frequent, were unlikely to coalesce into a real threat. It was never a long wait before the Canadian risked everything. Oscar Hernandez pulled off the rare feat of making Pere Riba look (comparatively) like a big hitter, but not the rare feat of winning a professional tennis match. Ricardas Berankis won his first round comfortably, but then he always does. Diminutive stature and too many injuries have conspired to grant his ranking neutral buoyancy, and he is at risk of becoming a qualifying fixture. Flavio Cipolla sliced Filip Krajinovic to shreds, gradually and noisily.

Amir Weintraub reached the second round of the Australian Open main draw last year, but today lost in the first round of qualifying to Pierre-Hugues Herbert. His ranking will consequently drop out of the top two hundred. Weintraub was a clear class above Herbert in the first set, his lovely backhand equal parts lethal and secure. He was driven on by a lone fan in the stand, a fan whose voice nonetheless boasted the dulcet resonance of a foghorn. Some in the crowd appeared irritated by these passionate imprecations, but I thought they imparted a little atmosphere to the match that too many other matches were lacking, and set up a lovely call-and-response with the service line judge, a full-chested baritone whom one suspects would make an admirable Lear.

Alas, the owner of the lone voice moved on just as I did, presumably to refurbish his tonsils. I left to watch Mikhail Youzhny practice, a guilty pleasure, under the hawk-like gaze of Boris Sobkin, whose posture is now such that you could serve high tea on his shoulders. (On a related note, I can thoroughly recommend the Grand Slam practice courts for any aficionados of the male hand-clasp; perhaps if you’re compiling a coffee-table book. Every time new players arrive at their designated court, the departing players, their coaches and any sundry support staff apparently make a point of clasping the arm of every other male present. It looked exhausting, personally, but I understand its value as an internationally understood gesture. The ATP is a confederacy built on the willingness of very fit men to grasp each other’s hands with apparent sincerity, and to go on doing it indefinitely.)

By the time I returned to Weintraub and Herbert, the latter was up a break in the third, his superior serve dominant. The encouragement flowing from the stands was now all French. Weintraub nonetheless broke back with a mighty effort, and the score reached 6/6, with the Israeli to serve. Herbert won the first point, whereupon he was intrigued to discover there was no tiebreak in the final set of Australian Open qualifying. All the confusion was French: ‘No tiebreak? No tiebreak?!’ If he was dismayed by this, though, he didn’t let on; he quickly broke to 15, and served it out. The two men clasped hands, one exultant, the other stricken. Unlike Kooyong, where the magical moments mean little, this meant a great deal to both. It means a great deal to all the men here. This is their life, whether that life is based here or far away.

But it doesn’t mean everything. As he left the court Weintraub was met by his fiancée, her pretty face resplendent with a consoling grin. She took his hand, he smiled back, and that’s how they walked away.

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Yuletide Bling

Brisbane, Quarterfinals

The professional tennis season seems to commence earlier every year, which is to say, less late in the previous year. Eight elite men endorsed by the International Management Group were already darting through Abu Dhabi’s liquid air while the less athletically ambitious among us still metabolised our lazy Christmas feasts. I assume someone won the Mubadala World Tennis Championship, though I wouldn’t be surprised to hear the whole thing evaporated in a haze of irrelevance.† Federer Mahut Brisbane 2014 -1It was over before I knew it, and certainly before I bothered to tuned in. I’d barely begun searching for chocolate in the unopened panels of my children’s advent calendars before meaningful play was under way in Chennai, Doha and Brisbane.

For many Australians, Christmas represents merely the most concentrated expression of the perennial fantasy that we are a small, cold county in the United Kingdom, and not a hot, dry continent located in the southern Pacific Ocean. A disembodied and dislocated Bing Crosby extols the benefits of a white Christmas in every department store. Vast artificial pine trees, festooned with yuletide bling, conveniently obstruct shopper’s views of the outside world, where eucalypts sag in the heat, sap dribbling away. School children are organised into ad hoc choirs, forced to pipe movingly about an unexplained feast (Stephen) where a king they’ve never heard of (Wenceslas) slogs through a substance they’ve never touched (snow). (There is only one well-known Australian Christmas ‘carol’ – well-known in Australia, that is – called Six White Boomers, which rousingly recounts that famous occasion when Santa’s reindeer were replaced by half a dozen kangaroos.) Trapped by December’s dull immensity and two centuries of cultural inertia, we gorge on imported turkey, hide superseded currency in hot puddings, and bunt our homes in tinsel. The best times, the ones that unite the nation, come when we beat the English at cricket.

Sport is one of the few areas where Australia’s strident declarations of global relevance don’t mask crippling insecurity. This is not to imply the sporting declarations aren’t bombastic and delusional, merely that they aren’t born from the cringing assumption that everyone else does everything better. As a nation we legitimately believe that we should win at any sport we turn our hand to, excepting those events conducted on ice or snow, and possibly gymnastics. That we aren’t dominating baseball or hurling merely speaks to the fact that we haven’t got around to them yet. It also means that the sporting public can be slow to cotton on if our dominance wanes. When our swim team doesn’t win all the gold medals, we launch exhaustive reviews to uncover structural flaws, barely pausing to consider that we might just lack the best swimmers.

As I write the Australian cricket team is seeking to complete a 5-0 series demolition of England’s cricket team, which I won’t deny has been a treat to watch. Before the current series, however, Australia had barely won an international cricket match all year, and hadn’t beaten England in a Test series since 2007. Australia at present is far from the best cricket team in the world, but for a very long time it knew no peer. Given the substantial lag-time between events occurring and their significance penetrating the general consciousness, recent poor results were treated as an aberration rather than the new norm. Thus the current resurgence hasn’t been greeted with relief so much as satisfaction at the resumption of normal service. Meanwhile the English press, long-inured to abject losses, have found their best fears confirmed, thus enabling their favourite pastime, which is excoriating their cricketers. Cultures of victory and defeat originate in reality, but they always leave it behind.

It’s much the same with tennis. Those who know only a little still assume Roger Federer will win every tournament he enters. Certainly the good burghers attending the Brisbane International aren’t discouraged in this assumption, nor are television viewers. Vision of him cradling koalas and promos for his upcoming charity night fills whatever space is left over once the commentators finish extolling the local talent. To be fair, there’s no good reason to think Federer won’t win it. The draw wasn’t strong even when it was still intact, and it broke apart almost immediately. He has reached the semifinals by defeating Jarkko Nieminen and Marinko Matosevic without any discernible effort, though Matosevic looked like collapsing by the end of the second set, after less than an hour on court. Nor has Federer’s new, larger Wilson frame caused a problem. His serve has regained its erstwhile effectiveness – last year it proved a useful barometer of the state of his back – while the famed forehand, John Fitzgerald reassures us, still boasts ‘plenty of trajectory’. More entertainingly, he has partnered with Nicolas Mahut in doubles, and their matches have so far produced the best tennis of the tournament. Yesterday’s victory over Grigor Dimitrov and Jeremy Chardy, secured 11-9 in the match tiebreak, was great fun.

The dream final, from the perspective of the Brisbane organisers, the official broadcaster, and locals who’ve secured tickets, would be for Federer to face Lleyton Hewitt, who today pushed through to the semifinal with a comfortable victory over Marius Copil. Word is that the Australian hardcourts are considerably faster this year than they’ve been in a long time, with the speed of Pat Rafter Arena more in line with the kind of court Pat Rafter once thrived on. Rafter himself, interviewed courtside, suggested that Federer will enjoy himself this year. He also admitted that it’s still weird to enter an arena with your own name on it. (Having just renamed my house the Jesse Pentecost Coliseum, I can sympathise.) Australians are still encouraged to believe Hewitt is a legitimate contender for major tournaments, based on the fact that he was a top player a decade ago, and always tries very hard. , As I say, the culture of winning dies hard. The exception comes when he faces Federer, who has instilled in the Australian public by rote the knowledge that some battles just cannot be won, no matter how hard you try. Hewitt will next face Kei Nishikori, who beat Marin Cilic. Federer will play Chardy, who beat Sam Groth.

† Apparently Novak Djokovic won Abu Dhabi, defeating David Ferrer.

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Small Height Situation

‘We’ve talked about Darcis and his small height situation . . .’

There were many issues facing Steve Darcis in the first round of this year’s Wimbledon Championship, though his small height situation was among the least of them. A more looming concern was incarnated by the man across the net, known in the business as the big Nadal situation. For those of us watching at home the real issue was the commentary, delivered by men whose enthusiasm for tennis wasn’t matched by a commensurate command of the English language. Goodall Koenig WTF 2013 -1As ever the urge to sound clever yielded pompous verbiage. Couldn’t they just say Darcis was short?

Of course, Darcis, who hails from the region of Western Europe known for its Belgian situation, ended up winning. His Nadal situation proved less parlous than had been forecast. The rest of us weren’t so lucky. Whereas a routine Nadal victory would have resulted in merely forgettable commentary, the upset of the year inspired the more ambitious commentators to go for baroque. Their instinct was to match spectacular visuals with coruscating wordplay. It was not necessarily a bad instinct to have, and in some cases worked out to everyone’s benefit, except perhaps Nadal’s. The best commentators rose heroically to the occasion, because they are the best talkers. In too many other cases, however, sound instinct was undone by bad technique.

One’s eagerness to poke fun at poor commentary should not be construed as a comment upon the relative difficulty of the task. This should go without saying, but sadly cannot. The most common defence of bad commentary is that it is harder than the armchair critics fondly believe. This may well be true, and indeed we are afforded daily proof that commentary is the hardest task in the world to get right. But this in turn begs the question of why, if it is so hard, so many patently unqualified people are employed to do it and why so many blithely assume they can do it well. Maybe they were misled. I’m sure Barry Cowan didn’t think it a particularly taxing gig when Sky Sports offered it to him. I suspect he still doesn’t find it very taxing. Perhaps that’s the problem.

Either commentating is easy and anyone can do it, or it’s hard and few can. I don’t see how you can have it both ways. That being said, I’m also not convinced it matters, because, whatever the case, there’s no reason to put up with professionals doing it badly. Nor does its putative difficulty render it immune to critique from listeners. Proficiency at a given task is not a prerequisite for noting when it isn’t done well. If a tradesman does a shoddy job repairing my washing machine, he isn’t above reproach simply because I cannot do a better job. No doubt any attempt to fix it myself would instil a heightened respect for the complexity of the task, but it wouldn’t alter the fact that repairing white goods is something that can be done well, and that a more competent repairman would have left me with a working appliance. The existence of good commentary proves that bad commentary isn’t necessary, despite strong evidence to the contrary.

Commentary is a little like tennis, in that some are more suited to it than others. The key difference is that bad tennis is self-correcting. Players who underperform typically lose matches, and consequently see their ranking decline. Weak commentators get a pay rise. Of course one’s view of what constitutes weak commentary is ultimately a matter of preference: one person’s Robbie Koenig will be another’s Cliff Drysdale. (I’ll leave to one side the tendency of various fan-bases to organise themselves tribally according to perceptions of bias, measured with instruments so hypersensitive they leave the James Webb telescope looking like a dowsing rod.) Ultimately there’s no use arguing matters of taste. I understand that my preferences aren’t likely to be shared by others, especially since I place no importance on whatever opinions the commentators happen to hold. I don’t care which players they favour, so long as whatever they have to say is said well. Sometimes I’d prefer it if they didn’t talk about tennis at all. I invariably enjoy listening to Craig Willis on AO Radio more than any ‘proper’ commentator, and he only ever mentions the tennis when the person sharing the booth shoves their elbow into his ribs. But perhaps he isn’t to everyone’s tastes.

Some fans love Boris Becker. I find him tiresome and obvious. It has been pointed out elsewhere that many viewers initially like John McEnroe, but find him harder and harder to take as they grow more familiar with the sport. Lines that seem insightful at first sound platitudinous after a while, his inclination to self-promote can be wearying, and his ignorance of players ranked beyond the top twenty is deplorable. Apparently there are Americans who enjoy Brad Gilbert’s work, but then there are Americans who enjoy spray-on cheese. Conversely some viewers cannot abide Mats Wilander, but I think he’s okay. I appreciate the way he doesn’t feel a serious point must be freighted down with excessive solemnity.

Granting for the moment the near-insurmountable difficulty of the job, surely we can conclude that the skillset required for a good commentator is not the same as the one required to be a great tennis player. Achieving renown as a player certainly doesn’t preclude a talent for calling matches, but nor does it guarantee one. Why then do television networks fall over themselves to hire ex-players? It probably comes down to trust, and the fact that most people watching coverage of a tennis match (or any sport) probably don’t know all that much about it. For viewers who regard the basic rules as inscrutable arcana, there’s doubtless a measure of reassurance in having those rules explained by a well-known champion. Wedded to this is the assumption that the well-known champion boasts a deeper insight into what the players on court are currently thinking and feeling, having been there and done it themselves. All ex-pros believe they possess this special power, though only McEnroe seems convinced he is clairvoyant.

It is the natural conceit of all disciplines that their inner workings are impenetrable to the mere layperson, a conceit often propagated by a clergy intent on making its presence essential. In the case of theoretical physics this assumption is justified. In other cases, such as tennis, it isn’t. Networks naturally milk this assumption for all it’s worth, and they aren’t wrong to do so. When Channel 7 brings in Lleyton Hewitt to commentate at the Australian Open – he usually enters the booth one round after he has exited the main draw – they always cut a promo in which he promises us plebeians that we’ll be vouchsafed a unique glimpse into the workings of each player’s mind. For those of us who’ve both watched and played a great deal of tennis, Hewitt’s insight usually turns out to be less unique than advertised. Mostly he says the same stuff as the other commentators, although I hasten to concede that there’s enough original material to justify his spot.

It is in the specific details that players like Hewitt add real value. When, during David Ferrer’s abject loss to Novak Djokovic at this year’s Australian Open, Hewitt revealed precisely how he himself had responded in a near-identical situation the year before, he was providing a level of insight available nowhere else. It was excellent commentary. In his first year with Channel 7 he mentioned that he and Nadal often play golf, and that the Spaniard is just as competitive on the course as he is on the court. Again, it was specific detail, and fascinating. Koenig is another with a tremendous memory for the key facts, often acquired personally. What a treat it was to hear him discuss Radek Stepanek’s early days on tour, and how the Czech had grown so disillusioned he’d almost quit. I’d never heard that anywhere else, but even if I had it’d be worth hearing it again from someone who’d seen it firsthand. Koenig was there.

But no one can sound like that all the time. There’s only so much to say. Even Darren Cahill, who I consider to be the best commentator going around, has to repeat himself from time to time. He is right to do so, since his material isn’t infinite and he cannot assume that today’s viewers are yesterday’s. Most commentary is merely filler, and it is here that the real pros earn their salary. This is the moment when weak commentary becomes helplessly mired in cliché – the essence of which is not falsity but lifelessness – and homilies. The capacity to make a general point in an interesting way is one that we am bound to consider exceptional among ex-champions. The colour guy is there to supply just that, but the backbone of the call must be provided by those with an assured command of language, such as Jason Goodall or Gigi Salmon. One mustn’t necessarily speak flawless Queen’s English, like Frew McMillan; again, Cahill’s conversational style is fine, as is Peter Fleming’s. All share the ability to convey serious points with a light tone, and to let the tennis speak for itself when it can.

The real problem comes from those giftless orators convinced they are Cato the Younger, especially the type who believes that ‘small height situation’ is an improvement on ‘short’. Becker has some notoriety in this area, and Roger Rasheed’s passion for jargon is unsurpassed. For me, however, the exemplar remains the transcendentally pretentious John Alexander, now mercifully retired. It is always worse for a commentator to overestimate his or her stylistic mastery than to be ignorant of style at all. For anyone who works with language, including writers, an awareness of the power of words is lethal when possessed by those ill-equipped to harness it. At least those innocent of linguistic intricacy will occasionally stumble out of their own way while they make a useful point. The overwrought stylist will never do that, though, since they instinctively know that key moments should be accompanied by the most incandescent displays of technique. Thus it is that a merely workmanlike commentator such as John Fitzgerald is far preferable to a portentous buffoon like Alexander.

Alexander, or JA as he was called by those forced to work with him, was without question the worst commentator I have ever heard across any sport. His dark gift was to combine a narrow and dated knowledge of tennis with a delivery so relentlessly grating that you were left to wonder (and regret) how phrases that lacerated your brain could somehow leave your eardrums intact. Temporary deafness would have been a mercy. Apparently unaware that television differs from radio in its ability to transmit images, Alexander’s most reliable trick was to very slowly recount the point everyone had just watched, in granular detail and a reverential murmur, as though he was narrating Napoleon’s coronation.

The early stages of Jim Courier’s current tenure with Channel 7 were a fraught time for the American, quite aside from the moment he first laid eyes on the anchor Joanna Griggs and inquired on air who ‘that bimbo’ was. He clearly felt nothing but contempt for Alexander, a feeling that was apparently reciprocated. Channel 7, subscribing to the dirt-common belief that mutual animosity might generate memorable frisson, ensured they always shared the commentary booth. Alexander’s knowledge of tennis more or less atrophied in 1986, while Courier as an elite player popularised the tactic of running around the backhand to unload on the off forehand, one of the pillars of the modern game. Thus would Alexander roundly admonish any player who ran around his backhand for leaving the court open, while Courier would wearily point out that this is how tennis is now played. Alexander felt it was too risky. Indeed, he was a passionate advocate for caution, believing that everyone should ‘play within himself’. This was a common phrase of his, along with ‘he measured the ball, and hit it for what it was worth.’ He would condemn qualifiers who over-hit against Nadal for not playing within themselves. Courier, his patience at an end, would try to point out that their only chance was to go for everything and hope it went in. JA wouldn’t hear of it. Courier told JA he sounded like a broken record, in a tone of voice that suggested he was willing to rearrange JA’s face to match. He clearly wanted to hit JA for what he was worth.

We are sometimes cautioned that sports and politics should not mix, in the naïve belief that sport could remain free of politics even if it wanted to. Thankfully politics does intervene from time to time. In 2010 Alexander became a member of Australia’s federal parliament, winning the seat of Bennelong as a conservative candidate – his platform was radically progressive compared to his approach to tennis – defeating the immensely capable Maxine McKew. It was a shame McKew had to go, but it was probably worth it to get JA off my television. His politics aren’t mine, but long may he serve.

If you believe, as I do, that the means by which professional tennis is transmitted to the general public cannot be usefully subtracted from the overall package – i.e. that television is not tangential to the sport’s function as entertainment, but fundamental to it – then it follows that the commentary matters. I have always written about it as if it does. Nevertheless, I’ve no desire to grade a list of all the commentators to whom I’ve ever been subjected. Even if there was space there would be no point. I’ve probably mentioned most of them over the years. Suffice it to say that there are a couple more whose work I enjoy, and many more whose efforts I find ridiculous, yet still enjoy. There are hardly any from whom I can derive no value at all, and mostly those few sin through being dull rather than wrong. Invariably their dullness reflects a degree of verbal poverty – people who don’t speak well tend to sound the same – which is mostly the result of a mistaken assumption that their business is tennis and not words. The result is not the end of the world, however, merely tedium, or as some would have it: a boring talking situation. But such cases are rare. Most commentators manage to be interesting at least some of the time, if only by accident, and the truth is that bad commentary only makes writing about tennis more fun.

26 November, 2013

‘We’ve talked about Darcis and his small height situation . . .’

There were many issues facing Steve Darcis in the first round of this year’s Wimbledon Championship, though his small height situation was among the least of them. A more looming concern was incarnated by the man across the net, known in the business as the big Nadal situation. For those of us watching at home the real issue was the commentary, delivered by men whose enthusiasm for tennis wasn’t matched by a commensurate command of the English language. As ever the urge to sound clever yielded pompous verbiage. Couldn’t they just say Darcis was short?

Of course, Darcis, who hails from the region of Western Europe known for its Belgian situation, ended up winning. His Nadal situation proved less parlous than had been forecast. The rest of us weren’t so lucky. Whereas a routine Nadal victory would have resulted in merely forgettable commentary, the upset of the year inspired the more ambitious commentators to go for broke. Their instinct was to match spectacular visuals with coruscating wordplay. It was not necessarily a bad instinct to have, and in some cases worked out to everyone’s benefit, except perhaps Nadal’s. The best commentators rose heroically to the occasion, because they are the best talkers. In too many other cases, however, the sure instinct was undone by bad technique.

One’s eagerness to poke fun at poor commentary should not be construed as a comment upon the relative difficulty of the task. This should go without saying, but sadly cannot. The most common defence of bad commentary is that it is harder than the armchair critics fondly believe. This may well be true, and indeed we are afforded daily proof that commentary is the hardest task in the world to get right. But this in turn begs the question of why, if it is so hard, so many patently unqualified people are employed to do it and why so many blithely assume they can do it well. Maybe they were misled. I’m sure Barry Cowan didn’t think it a particularly taxing gig when Sky Sports offered it to him. I suspect he still doesn’t find it very taxing. Perhaps that’s the problem.

Either commentating is easy and anyone can do it, or it’s hard and few can. I don’t see how you can have it both ways. That being said, I’m also not convinced it matters, because, whatever the case, there’s no reason to put up with professionals doing it badly. Nor does its putative difficulty render it immune to critique from listeners. Proficiency at a given task is not a prerequisite for noting when it isn’t done well. If a tradesman does a shoddy job repairing my washing machine, he isn’t above reproach simply because I cannot do a better job. No doubt any attempt to fix it myself would instil a heightened respect for the complexity of the task, but it wouldn’t alter the fact that repairing white goods is something that can be done well, and that a more competent repairman would have left me with a working appliance. The existence of good commentary proves that bad commentary isn’t necessary, despite strong evidence to the contrary.

Commentary is a little like tennis, in that some are more suited to it than others. The key difference is that bad tennis is self-correcting. Players who underperform typically lose matches, and consequently see their ranking decline. Weak commentators get a pay rise. Of course one’s view of what constitutes weak commentary is ultimately a matter of preference: one person’s Robbie Koenig will be another’s Cliff Drysdale. (I’ll leave to one side the tendency of various fan-bases to organise themselves tribally according to perceptions of bias, measured with instruments so hypersensitive they leave the James Webb telescope looking like a dowsing rod.) Ultimately there’s no use arguing matters of taste. I understand that my preferences aren’t likely to be shared by others, especially since I place no importance on whatever opinions the commentators happen to hold. I don’t care which players they favour, so long as whatever they have to say is said well. Sometimes I’d prefer it if they didn’t talk about tennis at all. I invariably enjoy listening to Craig Willis on AO Radio more than any ‘proper’ commentator, and he only ever mentions the tennis when the person sharing the booth shoves their elbow into his ribs. But perhaps he isn’t to everyone’s tastes.

Some fans love Boris Becker. I find him tiresome and obvious. It has been pointed out elsewhere that many viewers initially like John McEnroe, but find him harder and harder to take as they grow more familiar with the sport. Lines that seem insightful at first sound platitudinous after a while, his inclination to self-promote can be wearying, and his ignorance of players ranked beyond the top twenty is deplorable. Apparently there are Americans who enjoy Brad Gilbert’s work, but then there are Americans who enjoy spray-on cheese. Conversely some viewers cannot abide Mats Wilander, but I think he’s okay. I appreciate the way he doesn’t feel a serious point must be freighted down with excessive solemnity.

Granting for the moment the near-insurmountable difficulty of the job, surely we can conclude that the skillset required for a good commentator is not the same as the one required to be a great tennis player. Achieving renown as a player certainly doesn’t preclude a talent for calling matches, but nor does it guarantee one. Why then do television networks fall over themselves to hire ex-players? It probably comes down to trust, and the fact that most people watching coverage of a tennis match (or any sport) probably don’t know all that much about it. For viewers who regard the basic rules as inscrutable arcana, there’s doubtless a measure of reassurance in having those rules explained by a well-known champion. Wedded to this is the assumption that the well-known champion boasts a deeper insight into what the players on court are currently thinking and feeling, having been there and done it themselves. All ex-pros believe they possess this special power, though only McEnroe seems convinced he is clairvoyant.

It is the natural conceit of all disciplines that their inner workings are impenetrable to the mere layperson, a conceit often propagated by a clergy intent on making its presence essential. In the case of theoretical physics this assumption is justified. In other cases, such as tennis, it isn’t. Networks naturally milk this assumption for all it’s worth, and they aren’t wrong to do so. When Channel 7 brings in Lleyton Hewitt to commentate at the Australian Open – he usually enters the booth one round after he has exited the main draw – they always cut a promo in which he promises us plebeians that we’ll be vouchsafed a unique glimpse into the workings of each player’s mind. For those of us who’ve both watched and played a great deal of tennis, Hewitt’s insight usually turns out to be less unique than advertised. Mostly he says the same stuff as the other commentators, although I hasten to concede that there’s enough original material to justify his spot.

It is in the specific details that players like Hewitt add real value. When, during David Ferrer’s abject loss to Novak Djokovic at this year’s Australian Open, Hewitt revealed precisely how he himself had responded in a near-identical situation the year before, he was providing a level of insight available nowhere else. It was excellent commentary. In his first year with Channel 7 he mentioned that he and Nadal often play golf, and that the Spaniard is just as competitive on the course as he is on the court. Again, it was specific detail, and fascinating. Koenig is another with a tremendous memory for the key facts, often acquired personally. What a treat it was to hear him discuss Radek Stepanek’s early days on tour, and how the Czech had grown so disillusioned he’d almost quit. I’d never heard that anywhere else, but even if I had it’d be worth hearing it again from someone who’d seen it firsthand. Koenig was there.

But no one can sound like that all the time. There’s only so much to say. Even Darren Cahill, who I consider to be the best commentator going around, has to repeat himself from time to time. He is right to do so, since his material isn’t infinite and he cannot assume that today’s viewers are yesterday’s. Most commentary is merely filler, and it is here that the real pros earn their salary. This is the moment when weak commentary becomes helplessly mired in cliché – the essence of which is not falsity but lifelessness – and homilies. The capacity to make a general point in an interesting way is one that we am bound to consider exceptional among ex-champions. The colour guy is there to supply just that, but the backbone of the call must be provided by those with an assured command of language, such as Jason Goodall or Gigi Salmon. One mustn’t necessarily speak flawless Queen’s English, like Frew McMillan; again, Cahill’s conversational style is fine, as is Peter Fleming’s. All share the ability to convey serious points with a light tone, and to let the tennis speak for itself when it can.

The real problem comes from those giftless orators convinced they are Cato the Younger, especially the type who believes that ‘small height situation’ is an improvement on ‘short’. Becker has some notoriety in this area, and Roger Rasheed’s passion for jargon is unsurpassed. For me, however, the exemplar remains the transcendentally pretentious John Alexander, now mercifully retired. It is always worse for a commentator to overestimate his or her stylistic mastery than to be ignorant of style at all. For anyone who works with language, including writers, an awareness of the power of words is lethal when possessed by those ill-equipped to harness it. At least those innocent of linguistic intricacy will occasionally stumble out of their own way while they make a useful point. The overwrought stylist will never do that, though, since they instinctively know that key moments should be accompanied by the most incandescent displays of technique. Thus it is that a merely workmanlike commentator such as John Fitzgerald is far preferable to a portentous buffoon like Alexander.

Alexander, or JA as he was called by those forced to work with him, was without question the worst commentator I have ever heard across any sport. His dark gift was to combine a narrow and dated knowledge of tennis with a delivery so relentlessly grating that you were left to wonder (and regret) how phrases that lacerated your brain could somehow leave your eardrums intact. Temporary deafness would have been a mercy. Apparently unaware that television differs from radio in its ability to transmit images, Alexander’s most reliable trick was to very slowly recount the point everyone had just watched, in granular detail and a reverential murmur, as though he was narrating Napoleon’s coronation.

The early stages of Jim Courier’s current tenure with Channel 7 were a fraught time for the American, quite aside from the moment he first laid eyes on the anchor Joanna Griggs and inquired on air who ‘that bimbo’ was. He clearly felt nothing but contempt for Alexander, a feeling that was apparently reciprocated. Channel 7, subscribing to the dirt-common belief that mutual animosity might generate memorable frisson, ensured they always shared the commentary booth. Alexander’s knowledge of tennis more or less atrophied in 1986, while Courier as an elite player popularised the tactic of running around the backhand to unload on the off forehand, one of the pillars of the modern game. Thus would Alexander roundly admonish any player who ran around his backhand for leaving the court open, while Courier would wearily point out that this is how tennis is now played. Alexander felt it was too risky. Indeed, he was a passionate advocate for caution, believing that everyone should ‘play within himself’. This was a common phrase of his, along with ‘he measured the ball, and hit it for what it was worth.’ He would condemn qualifiers who over-hit against Nadal for not playing within themselves. Courier, his patience at an end, would try to point out that their only chance was to go for everything and hope it went in. JA wouldn’t hear of it. Courier told JA he sounded like a broken record, in a tone of voice that suggested he was willing to rearrange JA’s face to match. He clearly wanted to hit JA for what he was worth.

We are sometimes cautioned that sports and politics should not mix, in the naïve belief that sport could remain free of politics even if it wanted to. Thankfully politics does intervene from time to time. In 2010 Alexander became a member of Australia’s federal parliament, winning the seat of Bennelong as a conservative candidate – his platform was radically progressive compared to his approach to tennis – defeating the immensely capable Maxine McKew. It was a shame McKew had to go, but it was probably worth it to get JA off my television. His politics aren’t mine, but long may he serve.

If you believe, as I do, that the means by which professional tennis is transmitted to the general public cannot be usefully subtracted from the overall package – i.e. that television is not tangential to the sport’s function as entertainment, but fundamental to it – then it follows that the commentary matters. I have always written about it as if it does. Nevertheless, I’ve no desire to grade a list of all the commentators to whom I’ve ever been subjected. Even if there was space there would be no point. I’ve probably mentioned most of them over the years. Suffice it to say that there are a couple more whose work I enjoy, and many more whose efforts I find ridiculous, yet still enjoy. There are hardly any from whom I can derive no value at all, and mostly those few sin through being dull rather than wrong. Invariably their dullness reflects a degree of verbal poverty – people who don’t speak well tend to sound the same – which is mostly the result of a mistaken assumption that their business is tennis and not words. The result is not the end of the world, however, merely tedium, or as some would have it: a boring talking situation. But such cases are rare. Most commentators manage to be interesting at least some of the time, if only by accident, and the truth is that bad commentary only makes writing about tennis more fun.

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