Monthly Archives: September 2012

Acceptance for Murray; from tennis and from Britain

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The things in sport that I never imagined I would see just keep happening.  I was lucky enough to attend an Olympics in my home country earlier this summer and now a British tennis player has won a Grand Slam.  When Roger Federer joked before his 2010 Australian Open final with Andy Murray that Britain had been waiting for a Grand Slam champion “for like 500 hundred years or something”, it hurt many British tennis fans.  Because it’s not funny when it’s true.  Most of us knew that Murray was the best tennis player the nation had produced in the 75 years since Fred Perry dominated the game but he was unfortunate to be around in the greatest of eras, destined to always be the usher and never the groom.  18 months ago, he seemed to be cast adrift behind the impregnable top 3 but ahead of the best of the rest. Something had to change.

And something did change.  Murray’s shift in career aim almost certainly directly resulted in this crowning glory in New York.  Late last year, the Scot stated that he was no longer in tennis to win Grand Slams but his primary aim was now to keep up with the game’s top triumvirate of Djokovic, Federer and Nadal –  the axis of awesomeness we could call them.  On first viewing, this new goal seemed ludicrous and defeatist.  But on closer inspection, this showed that Murray was finally made of the tough stuff.  This was him acknowledging that if he was to go down as one of the game’s better players, he needed to step up to the plate and take these guys on in the major tournaments.  Not for him winning a slam due to poor form or injury of the Top 3.  His form since teaming with Lendl has been nothing short of sensational.  If 2011 was Novak Djokovic’s superhuman year, then 2012 has to go down as Murray’s year.  He easily reached the semi-finals of his least favourite Slam in Paris, before going on to become the player of the summer.  A maiden Wimbledon final appearance was followed up with a ruthless execution of Roger Federer in the Olympics Gold Medal match.  And now he has rubber-stamped his superiority by outlasting marathon man Novak Djokovic in a 5-set match of the highest quality.

Yes, Murray has catapulted himself into what is now the Top 4.  He has taken over from Rafael Nadal as World Number 3, and you could make a case for him being the world’s best player right now.  But in order to strengthen that argument, he must go on from here and win multiple slams.  He will arrive in Melbourne in January full of confidence at a Slam where he has already reached the final on two separate occasions.  Right now, he stands as the man to beat in Australia.  None of the other three names at the top of tennis beat a Grand Slam champion to win their first major; Djokovic defeated Tsonga, Nadal beat Mariano Puerta and Federer breezed past Mark Philippoussis.  Murray had to dig deep and beat somebody who has been there, done it and got numerous Grand-Slam-winning t-shirts. And he did it. It is not just the fact that Murray has won one now that will make it easier for him to go on and win more.  The real reason that Murray will doubtless win several more Slams is that he is now good enough.  He was already too good to not win a Grand Slam in his career.  But since hooking up with Lendl, the rejuvenated Murray is now good enough to sit at the top table and pick up his fair share of titles alongside them.  He won’t win them all, that’s for sure.  But he will add to this championship. I am absolutely certain of that.

On a personal note, I loved staying up until 3am in the morning (I live in Belgium so am CET) to witness British sporting history being made.  It capped off a quite wonderful summer of British sporting success, which was started by Bradley Wiggins winning the Tour de France before the Olympics and Paralympics showcased everything that is good about our country. Job interviews the following day are ten-a-penny, British Grand Slam champions have proven to be slightly less regular.  It took me a long time to be won over by Andy Murray – his sulky on-court attitude enamoured him to me as little as his dour off-court persona.  But his perseverance to get to the top of his sport, allied with his outpouring of emotions in recent years, both in moments of success and failure, not to mention his at times breath-taking play, have made it increasingly difficult to fail to not only respect him but to begin to root for him and to actually like him. I started watching tennis 15 years ago when Tim Henman’s plucky Wimbledon runs were starting to capture the imagination of the British public.  I would have loved it to have been Tim that broke the long winless streak for British men’s tennis, but alas it wasn’t to be.  Tim had all the guts and fighting spirit in the world but ultimately his game fell short.  For Andy Murray, the fight to be loved by the British tennis media and public as a whole was a long and arduous one.  For some (I may or may not be guilty of this), this was because he simply wasn’t Tim Henman.  He wasn’t as likeable as Tim was and he wasn’t the plucky underdog we all love in Britain.  Now Andy Murray stands out on his own as the only British men’s tennis champion in the last three quarters of a century.  He stands as one of the Top 4 players in the world in the greatest era that tennis has ever seen. But more importantly, he’s probably come out of the shadow of Tiger Tim!

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Major changes needed at last major

Enough is enough – the USTA must act to prevent its flagship event becoming a permanent 3-week occasion.  For the 5th consecutive year, the men’s final will be played on at least Day 15.  The organisers will again seek to blame bad luck on account of the weather but they know what they are playing with.  When they built the unsustainable Arthur Ashe Stadium, they knew that the sheer size of it meant that a roof could not be possible.  They wanted to make the stadium bigger and better than anything the other three slams could offer.  They achieved the first of those two criteria; sadly it comes nowhere near to being the best tennis stadium in the world. Nowhere near.

It is true that a roof would not have helped on Saturday afternoon when the entire grounds had to be evacuated due to an impending tornado.  However, the organiser’s attempts to finish before the storm arrived were absolutely laughable if they weren’t so unfair on players.  Their decision to prevent Andy Murray from doing an on-court interview or throwing signed balls into the crowd will have saved all of three minutes.  They knew the storm was coming.  Why didn’t they simply schedule both of the men’s semis to take place simultaneously on separate courts? Far too logical.  So once again, we have one finalist with a clear physical advantage over the other.  A day’s rest at this stage of the tournament can make all the difference, and for me this puts Andy Murray as favourite no matter who his opponent.

It is time that the tennis authorities held serious discussions about the timing of the season’s final slam.  Why must we continually schedule it in hurricane season?  Year after year, our top players are let down by the scheduling in New York.  There are other parts of the year that have similarly warm conditions in the Big Apple but without the threat of tropical storms.  The powers-that-be have proven themselves not to be immovable by putting Wimbledon back by one week from the 2015 season.  A similar move needs to be made for the US Open as the farce just keeps on getting worse and worse.  They cannot keep on giving advantage to one finalist or another.  It is simply not fair and prevents the public from seeing classic finals in this the greatest era in the history of men’s tennis.

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The end of an era

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At the time of writing, only one glittering career has officially ended in New York this past week, but at least one more is imminent and two others appear to be nearing their denouement.  Laura Robson has burst onto the major scene by ending Kim Clijsters’ career for good in an incredibly high standard two sets of tennis.  Kim seemed quite relieved to have it all over and done with – I was privileged enough to be in the stands to witness it, and we all wish her the best in the rest of her life – tennis will miss her smile.  The hard-hitting Robson has added movement to her game now and whilst it would be wrong to put too much pressure on her young shoulders, this may not be the last time we see her in the latter stages of a Slam.  She showed all of her best fighting qualities to see off another major winner in the following round when she battled to a 3-set victory over Na Li – an amazing result to follow up on the best win of her career with arguably an even better one.

Elsewhere in the women’s draw, there was serene progress for Serena, Sharapova and Azarenka who have barely dropped a handful of games each.  I saw Serena’s match against Coco Vandeweghe and it was painful to witness – the gulf in class frightening.  The pre-match interview with Vandeweghe suggested that her serve would be better than her opponent’s – I think in reality she served about ten double faults in seven games. Sharapova was equally ruthless in her demolition of Melinda Czink.  I didn’t get a chance to see Vika but her results seem just as emphatic.  Petra Kvitova and Agnieszka Radwanska seemed unseasonably off-colour in their victories over Pauline Parmentier and Carla Suarez-Navarro respectively; it is no surprise to see that they are not featuring in the second week.  The opportunity to check on Angelique Kerber didn’t present itself, but she may have also effectively ended the Grand Slam career of Venus Williams.  if, as I suspect, the sport loses Clijsters and the elder Williams in quick succession, major draws will have an unfamiliar look about the for a while.  Their successes will always be remembered, but time waits for no woman.

And nor does it wait for any man.  Andy Roddick has chosen to follow Kim Clijsters’ example and retire on his own terms.  His announcement that this will be his final tournament is fitting, coming at the place of his only Grand Slam victory, way back in 2003.  History will prove that Andy’s peak came at exactly the wrong time, coinciding with Roger Federer’s dominant years.  If it hadn’t been for Roger, Roddick would be a 3-time Wimbledon champion but Federer always had the American’s number even in the epic 2009 final when A-Rod famously professed that he hadn’t just thrown the kitchen sink at the Swiss maestro, but had thrown “the whole damn kitchen at him”.  Roddick’s respectable showing in New York means he bows out with his head held high.

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Lleyton Hewitt’s Last 32 showing proves that the 2-time Slam winner can still live with the best on his best day.  However, the fact that he has had to rely on wildcard entry to all four majors this season certifies that his best days are few and far between these days.  Whilst his fighting spirit will never die, the smart money would be on the former World #1 hanging up his racquet at the end of the 2013 Australian Open.  Again, Hewitt is unfortunate to have played in Federer’s era but he is somebody who fulfilled every bit of potential in his career.  If he is to follow Roddick into retirment, the game will have lost two very popular characters in a short space of time.

As for the contenders, I stick by my tip for the title.  Andy Murray may not have set the world alight in Week One, but the old adage rings true – you can’t win the title in the first week, only lose it.  His run has been tough and he stepped up the level of his play against Milos Raonic in the last 16.  Federer was imperious in the first week, but nobody seemed willing to really get at him.  Murray will do so in the Last 4. I have not seen a single shot of Djokovic’s tournament so far, but results-wise I have seen nothing yet to change my view that it will be the 25-year-old Brit who lifts the trophy aloft on Sunday night, weather permitting of course.

A word on my overall thoughts on the US Open experience.  Firstly, the bad stuff: Arthur Ashe Stadium.  It is is unsustainable at its current size.  From the cheap seats, you are so far away from the action that it is hard to get involved in a contest.  Huge swathes of empty seats greet the day sessions.  The music from Ashe can be heard on all outside courts, which surely does not offer courtesy to the other competitors.  Above all, the USTA’s over-reliance on its so-called marquee names meant that the same players appeared over and over again on the main court during the first week in ridiculously mismatched, uncompetitive encounters. Take Clijsters v Robson and Malisse v Isner out of the equation and the average set score on Ashe in the first five days was 6-2.  Not good value. Onto the good stuff though, and there is plenty.  The most lively Grand Slam I have been to (I haven’t yet been to Melbourne) with ample crowd capacity on all outside courts.  Ticketing is easy, security is quick (although no body scan/search is conducted, which is worrying given tennis’ history), the transport links are excellent and a ground pass represents excellent value  with $72 giving you access to all courts other than Ashe.  A resounding thumbs-up for the US open from me!

The things that make a Slam special though are the things that may mean nothing to the next person – watching my favourite player Nadia Petrova win three on the spin, watching my favourite male player Fabio Fognini win in the long shadows of a Grand Slam sunset and getting my photo taken with one of my faves,  2009 US Open Junior champ Heather Watson, who proved herself to be approachable and pleasant.  All in all, a great week at Flushing!

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