Refs, Red Cards And Replays

It was a clear red.

it was never a red.

He could have broken his opponent’s leg.

He never touched him.

The studs were up.

The studs were down.

He was out of control.

He was pushed.

He had both feet off the ground.

He had both feet on the ground when he made the tackle.

It was a dangerous tackle.

He got the ball.

The ref was wrong not to send Rojo off for what looked like a two footed tackle.

The ref was wrong to send Vardy off for what didn’t look like a two footed tackle.

It’s ironic that football referees are constantly condemned for making wrong decisions that, even in hindsight, with the benefit of countless replays, the fans and pundits cannot agree on.

After yet another weekend of controversial decisions, from Jamie Vardy’s sending off for a two footed tackle by the same referee who didn’t send off Marcos Rojo on Wednesday for a two footed tackle, to two offsides in both of City’s goals against Arsenal, to Spurs’ Sissoko escaping a red card for a high tackle and going on to set up the winning goal, football officiating never seems to be off the back pages.

Ironically, video replays were used in competition for the first time last week at the Club World Cup, with FIFA president Gianni Infantino declaring the results “extremely positive”.  But if anyone thinks video replays are a panacea for football, they will be sorely disappointed.  Unfortunately for the sport, the majority of decisions in football are not clear-cut.  They are not about whether a ball is on the line or not, in line or moving away, or if a ball is caught or not.  Footballing decisions require interpretation of the rules and depend on individual judgment from the referee on the day.  Even with the benefit of video replays, a different referee could easy come to a different conclusion.

Of course, if the technology is available, it should be used, even if simply to clarify a decision.  But it’s not the whole answer and it never can be.  Controversy will always reign in football; which side of the fence you sit on will invariably depend on which team you support.  It is the joy and the frustration of football.  It is what makes football so eminently watchable.  Football is like an endless sporting soap opera.  An argument without end.  And, in truth, football fans wouldn’t have it otherwise.



United Boo-Boys Mar Much Needed Victory At Old Trafford

The panto season was in full swing judging by the amount of booing that was reverberating around Old Trafford on Sunday.  Whilst Manchester United were doing their usual routine of going 1-0 up and hanging on for dear life against Tottenham, their fans were getting into the Christmas spirit by exercising their vocal chords for the annual panto visit.  Initially, it was Spurs’ feisty full back Danny Rose who bore the brunt of their opprobrium with a cynical tackle on United’s exciting goal scorer Henrikh Mikhitaryan 10 minutes from the end.  Rose’s role as pantomime villain was understandable as his clumsy tackle looked to have seriously injured the best player on the pitch, who, worryingly, had to be carried off on a stretcher.

Less palatable was when a small minority of United fans started booing their own player, Marouane Fellaini, first as he was warming up, and later when he came on as substitute in the 97th minute.  The hapless Belgian is not currently in the United fans’ good books (not that he has ever been in their good books any other time) ever since he clumsily gave away a last-minute penalty in United’s previous league match against Everton, costing them a valuable win.  But booing a player simply because he’s not very good seems hardly fair.  It’s not his fault if the manager keeps playing him.

Some people have attempted to defend the fans’ disparaging behaviour, arguing that since fans pay the players’ wages with their money by buying season tickets and match tickets, they are entitled to vent their ire on their players as they choose.  This is an entirely fallacious argument because aside from the fact that it is the TV and commercial deals that fund the players’ inflated salaries, being paying fans does not entitle them to act like boors and bullies.  They have a right to be disgruntled, but singling out one player for abuse is classless.

Turning on their own players is not only disloyal, it’s frankly stupid in being counter-productive.  What exactly do the mockers think their vilification of their own player is likely to achieve?  It’s hardly going to help the player’s confidence, is it?  They are not going to play better if they are abused.  They are more likely to make mistakes if they feel their own fans are getting on their back.  How ironically futile to boo a player because he makes mistakes in the hope that he will improve!

Worse, it reinforces the endlessly regurgitated ABU myth of all United fans being classless prawn sandwich munching glory hunters.  United players get enough grief from opposition club fans and the media without their own fans turning on them.  Note the ceaseless disgraceful treatment of United players over the years by England fans, inflamed by a sensationalist media, from chanting ‘stand up if you hate Man U’ at Wembley, to burning effigies of David Beckham after his sending off in the 1998 World Cup, to the recent pillorying of Wayne Rooney for daring to enjoy himself at a fan’s wedding reception the night after an England game.  It was interesting how the rest of the squad going into town clubbing and enjoying themselves at insalubrious lap dancing clubs didn’t get a mention in the press.  They weren’t United players so clearly no one cared.  United fans should be countering this constant demonising of their players by being doubly protective and supportive of them – as Fergie was in the old days and Mourinho was on Sunday by dedicating the Spurs win to Fellaini.  The fans shouldn’t be doing the ABUs’ job for them.  They should reserve their rancour for fan message boards, website comment pages and radio phone ins.

The United fans need to maintain a united front irrespective of their own personal feelings, particularly at a time when the club is going through a difficult period.  That’s when a club needs its fans to be loyal.  Not when they are winning trophy after trophy and basking in the plaudits of the footballing world, but when they are struggling to match up to former glories and everyone has gleefully consigned them to the dustbin of has-beens.

So the message from this United fan to the United boo-boys is: when in the stadium support your own and reserve your booing for cynical foulers like Danny Rose and rival players and rival teams.  Only then can you claim to be a proper United fan.  Not with a season ticket book in your pocket, but through absolute loyalty to the team on match day.



United Keep Drawing The Short Straw

If they gave out trophies in football for the most varied ways to draw matches, Jose Mourinho would already have won his first silverware for Manchester United.  No one has mastered the art of the draw quite as well as the current United team.  No matter what they do, no matter how they play, whether it’s home or away, top team or lower end strugglers, this United team will find a way to extract a draw.  They have played park the bus football (Liverpool); storm the Bastille football (Burnley, Stoke and West Ham); counter-attack football (Arsenal); more possession but low creativity football (Everton), and each time the outcome is the same.  A draw.

United’s latest draw against Everton at Goodison Park on Sunday was the 6th in their last 8 League games.  It doesn’t help that the team have acquired an unfortunate proclivity for conceding late goals.  Against Everton, they gave away a clumsy penalty in the 89th minute to throw away three points.  There used to be a time when it was United who were scoring last gasp goals and breaking opposition hearts.  This season, they have already dropped seven valuable points through goals conceded in the last 10 minutes.  When you are struggling to live up to past glories, every point counts, and every point dropped is an ideal excuse for United’s detractors to declare a state of emergency.

It is easy to consider Chelsea’s implosion under Mourinho last year, their current top-of-the-table resurgence under Antonio Conte, along with United’s inability to win matches, and consign Mourinho as a has-been well past his sell-by date.  But what should be heeded is that United are team on the decline after having enjoyed a prolonged period of success.  Had Antonio Conte been appointed United’s manager, who is to say he wouldn’t have struggled as well.   If it was easy to maintain success indefinitely why haven’t the Scousers won a league title for 27 years?  Jose Mourinho’s task at Old Trafford is a monumental one.  He is attempting to fight the tide of history.  Rebuilding an empire takes time.  Even Fergie took a whole 7 years to win his first league title.  Mourinho will be lucky to get 7 months.

The media and opposition fans want Jose Mourinho to fail because that means United will have failed.  After 23 years of unrelenting glory, this is revenge time for the long-suffering ABUs (aka Anyone but United), who are wilfully twisting early season teething issues into a crisis of relegation proportions.  In truth, Mourinho’s United are not doing that badly.  They are presently in 6th place with the season barely into December.  They are one place off where they finished last season under Louis Van Gaal.  They are in the semi finals of the League Cup and on the brink of qualifying for the last 32 of the Europa League.  Their football, irrespective of the outcome, is far more enticing and creative than anything played under Van Gaal or Moyes.  With a bit more luck in front of goal and a smidgen more grit in their defending, those frustrating draws could easily have become wins.

Given time, there is no reason why those draws cannot turn into wins in the future.  So long as the team keep creating chances, things will eventually click into place and the chances will start to go in.  United are traditionally stronger in the second half of the season, when results really start to matter.  United need to stay calm and most importantly, they need Jose to control his temper.  United’s cause is not helped by Mourinho’s permanently volatile state.  Leaving aside tax avoidance allegations, his constant petulant antics are giving the media and opposition fans far too much ammunition with which to attack the club.  Publicly criticising players, slagging off refs, kicking over bottles and getting sent off serves only to generate negative headlines and reinforce public perception that Mourinho has long since lost the plot.  At at time when United desperately need stability Mourinho’s combustible behaviour simply reaffirms the view that United made a fatal mistake in employing him.  Far from being United’s saviour he always appears one incident away from becoming their biggest liability.

The club cannot lose yet another manager.  United need Mourinho to keep his counsel and his dignity if he is to succeed, for the sake of the club and for his own redemption.  Likewise, United fans need to stay strong and support their manager, no matter what their personal opinions of him.  The club is bigger than any manager, any title and any fan feeling.  MUFC needs a manager to stick around.  It will, of course, help if Mourinho can win the League Cup (or EFL or whatever it’s called these days), even if it is a mickey mouse trophy.  Silverware is silverware, and at the very least it should buy Jose time.  As we know, time is a precious and much-needed commodity in football.


Rosberg Takes F1 Drivers’ Title As Time Runs Out On Hamilton

They say fortune favours the brave, but Formula 1 is such a procession these days that playing it safe has become the winning tactic.  Lewis Hamilton’s heartbreakingly unlucky engine blow up 11 laps from the end in Malaysia seven weeks ago ensured that there would be no dramatic head to head finale to the season for the Drivers’ title.  All Nico Rosberg has had to do for the last four races is to stay out of trouble and come second.  It seems rather fitting that the anodyne Rosberg should take the title by avoiding confrontation.

That is not to suggest that Rosberg doesn’t deserve the title for his consistency, and towards the end, a new-found grittiness and determination to make the most of his ascendant position.  Nevertheless, the season will be remembered more for Hamilton’s ups and downs; the mechanical failures, the troublesome starts, the grid penalties, the inexplicable lapses, the exciting comebacks and a disastrous engine fire, that made many people, including Hamilton, wonder whether there was a conspiracy at Mercedes to deliberately undermine him.

Cry conspiracy and images of grassy knolls and faked moon landings come to mind.  But Mercedes didn’t have to sabotage Lewis’s car to undermine him.  They only had to make him their ‘unofficial’ no. 2 driver, which is what appears have happened this season.  They swapped his mechanics, who had helped him to win two back-to-back titles, with Rosberg’s at the start of the season; they refused to give him undercutting, race winning tyre strategies; they gave him wrong engine settings, and they denied him technical assistance citing the radio ban yet blithely broke the rules for Rosberg.

If ever confirmation were required that Mercedes wanted Nico Rosberg to win the Drivers’ title, it came in the final laps of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix on Sunday.  Rosberg only had to finish third to win the title; Hamilton needed to win and ensure Rosberg finished fourth or lower, to retain it.  Contriving a 1-4 finish was always going to be a nigh on impossible task at a sterile, soulless, difficult-to-overtake modern racetrack like Yas Marina.  Red Bull’s team principal Christian Horner had mischievously suggested that grid leader Hamilton should drive purposely slow in order to back up Rosberg against his rivals.  It would have helped Hamilton’s cause if one of those rival drivers, Red Bull’s young hot head Max Verstappen – a boy who will not be told what to do by Mercedes head Toto Wolff, thank you very much – hadn’t spun himself into last place off the grid.  You can’t say lady luck has not been perched on Rosberg’s car all season.

Hamilton was caught in a difficult damned if he did, damned if he didn’t situation.  He had to win the race so couldn’t risk playing cat and mouse until his position at the front was secure.  Had Hamilton backed up Rosberg too soon, Mercedes could have tried to force an undercut on him, scuppering his title hopes entirely.  He could also have been overtaken by Vettel on fresher tyres, and again the title would have evaporated.  Hamilton had to leave it as late as possible to employ a strategy that he knew was unlikely to come off.  It would have relied on other drivers having the will, along with the car speed, to challenge Rosberg.  But, being the champion that he is, at least Hamilton had a go.

Mercedes had declared publicly that they would allow their drivers to race, and since both the Constructors’ title and Drivers’ title had already been secured by them, there was no reason for Mercedes to act otherwise.  Unless, of course, they had another agenda and were, in fact, backing Rosberg for the Drivers’ title.  Their dissembling became clear when Hamilton’s tactics began to take hold and the cars started to bunch up.  On crackled Hamilton’s radio with Mercedes race engineers pleading with their leading driver to speed up so Mercedes could get ‘the win’.  Lewis pointed out drily that he was ‘comfortably’ in the lead.

More unimpressive was champion-elect Rosberg’s reaction to his teammate’s wily tactics.  Rather than attempt to pass Hamilton if he felt the pace was too slow or simply grind it out, he went begging to the team to intervene.  Back came more of the same instructions to Hamilton.  They were dismissed disdainfully with the pert retort: ‘I suggest you just let us race.’  Clearly Mercedes needed someone with more authority to negotiate with the defiant Hamilton.  On came Paddy Lowe, the technical director, with the same demand to speed up and win the race.  Hamilton’s reply:  “Right now, I am losing the world championship, whether I win or lose this race.”  Obviously his team didn’t think he was losing it well enough.

In the end, neither of the other team’s drivers, Vettel or Verstappen behind him, appeared inclined to intervene so not only were Hamilton’s efforts in vain, but it made a mockery of Mercedes’ concerns about Vettel winning the race.  Vettel couldn’t have appeared less interested in helping Hamilton to win as many world titles as him!  But Hamilton’s competitive desire to hang on to his world title had revealed to the watching world, once and for all, what everyone had suspected all season: that Mercedes were not impartial.  They clearly favoured Rosberg and wanted Hamilton to play ball so their man could take the world title.

Hamilton’s resistance, rather than being seen as a legitimate attempt to fight for his world title, was condemned by Toto Wolff – he who likes to make phone calls to other drivers’ dads ordering their son to stay away from his drivers (we wonder which one?) – as ‘anarchy’.  Wolff has threatened to sanction Hamilton for disobeying team orders.  Considering he had publicly stated that he would allow the drivers to race, he has clearly been exposed as a liar.  Or perhaps what he actually meant was that he was happy for them to race so long as Lewis won the Grand Prix by a distance and allowed Nico to come home safely in second place and take the world title without having to ruffle his neatly coiffured blond hair.

The internecine battle at Mercedes does highlight one of the biggest problems in F1: the inherent conflict in having both a constructor’s title and a driver’s title – having two drivers in the same team with a unifying goal to win the constructors’ title, but paradoxically, being each other’s biggest rival for the individual drivers’ title at the same time.  Is F1 about the team or is it about the individual?  It can’t be both without creating these kinds of polarising clashes.

But perhaps that’s what Bernie Ecclestone and his cronies in F1 want.  Controversy.  Controversy generates publicity.  As the old adage goes: ‘all publicity is good publicity.’  At a time when the racing as a spectacle has never been duller, with a single team dominance and barely any overtaking on insipid, sanitised tracks, a cynic (otherwise known as Bernie E) might argue that the sport could do with all the publicity it can get.  And if that means Mercedes getting into unedifying spats with their own drivers over surreptitious team orders, then so be it.  After all, the fall out from the race is proving to be far more interesting than the racing, or the lack of it, on the track.

With no other team capable of challenging Mercedes’ dominance this season, the outcome of almost every race has been predictable.  The only thing about this season that has been unpredictable is Lewis Hamilton.  Hamilton is pure box-office.  No one attracts as much drama as he does.  It is his travails, his misfortunes and his altercations with his own team and teammate that have made this season in any way memorable.  So in a strange way, the 2016 season has got the champion it deserves.  Not the colourful, adventurous, inconsistent, occasionally self-destructive, mostly spectacular, boy racer Hamilton, but a bland, orderly, calculated, cerebral, conscientious, consistent driver, who, with a lot of help from his Mercedes team, has maximised his potential by taking advantage of their dominance.  Rosberg epitomises the modern driver and his world title win reflects modern F1.  Safe, mechanised, processional, self-preserving and corporate.  But very little racing.

Actual racing requires combustible boy racers, monstrous cars and fierce competition from different teams.  Without competition sport has no purpose.  Without competition from drivers of other teams, the 2016 constructors’ title was a Mercedes procession and the drivers’ title was a Mercedes hegemony compromised by their internal team strategy.  If this is the best F1 can offer, why would any fan bother to turn up next year?

The only hope is that with new regulations coming into the sport in 2017, it will make the other teams such as Red Bull with their exciting drivers Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo, and Ferrari with world champions Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen, more competitive and we can finally get to see some honest racing again.


Davis Cup: Day 3 – Del Potro Heroics Help Argentina Win At Last

They were born within a week of each other.  They grew up on the junior circuit together.  They turned professional in the same year.  They are both 6 ft 6, both right-handed and they have both won a US Open Grand Slam.  They are tennis twins.  On Sunday afternoon, Marin Cilic and Juan Martin Del Potro met in the first reverse singles in a match that would effectively decide the outcome of the 2016 Davis Cup.

Argentina had taken a gamble and chosen to play Del Potro in Saturday’s doubles.  The gamble had not paid off, and for the first two sets in the singles it looked like it had actually backfired as Delpo appeared to be wilting under the onslaught of Cilic’s powerful groundstrokes.  Marin has rarely played better.  Inspired by his noisy home crowd, he was serving like a demon and hitting groundstrokes with power, accuracy and angles that was breathtaking.  But, sadly, Marin has an Achilles heel: an evil twin imposter (he has a lot of twins!) that takes over just when the pressure is on and a match gets into ‘squeaky bum time’ – to use a famous Fergie parlance.  All of a sudden, Marin goes from serving like a god to forgetting how to hit a first serve.  The serve goes and inexplicably silly mistakes creep into his game at just the wrong times.  In tennis, it is never about how many points you win, but about when you win them.

At first though, fortified by the noisy atmosphere, Cilic seemed to have survived his self-created crisis moments.  He gave back an early break of serve in the opening set but regained his composure enough to take the set on a tie-break.  It was Del Potro who was rattled, and Cilic ramped up the pressure to break in the second set.  Delpo’s struggles on his serve were not helped by the umpire giving him an unncessary time violation later on, which caused him to double fault and lose his serve again.  The second set was gone and Croatia were just one set away from winning the Davis Cup.

But in a five set match, being one set away from winning is like being a planet away from getting to the moon.  It can be quite straightforward to win two sets in a row in tennis; it is notoriously difficult to win three sets in a row, which is why five set matches are the ultimate test in tennis.  In the end, it was a moment of cheeky genius that turned the destiny of the match.  At 15-15 all in the third set on Del Potro’s serve, with Cilic toying with him, drawing him into the net and then lobbing him, Del Potro scrambled back to the baseline and with his back to the net, hit a tweener-lob between his legs that sailed diagonally over the Cilic’s head and landed plum in the left corner between the tram and baseline.  A shot worthy of winning the Davis Cup.

Delpo, sensing a change in momentum, soon had Cilic in trouble with two break points.  But, unusually, Marin held his nerve and the set stayed on serve until 5-6.  Croatia were within touching distance if Marin could take it to a tie-break.  The Argentinian fans, who had been making themselves hoarse with their incessant noise and unrelenting support, sensed they were on last chance saloon and cranked up the atmosphere one more notch.  It was ‘squeaky bum time’ all round.  Marin had done surprisingly well in saving numerous break points in the match, but he always appeared just a wobble away from yielding.  Delpo at times looked like he was on the wrong end of a heavyweight boxing bout, yet somehow found reserves of strength to hang in there with some outstanding defending.  In a battle of wills and sheer bloody-mindedness, there was only going to be one winner.  Marin’s slacker twin was back with a vengeance and he had lost the set 5-7.

Yet, to his credit, Marin’s head did not go down.  He stayed strong in the fourth set, and it looked like he might outlast Delpo, who was now showing visible signs of fatigue.  He was slowing down noticeably and Cilic had got him to deuce at 4-4 in the fourth set.  Delpo won the next point to get advantage.  And then, there was another one of those pivotal incidents that change the course of a match.  The umpire once again chose an inopportune moment to give Del Potro a time violation.  As it was his second, he lost his first serve.  Del Potro was furious.  Cilic was confused.  And the crowd started going bananas.  A lengthy delay ensued during which the referee was called and argued with by everybody.  Once all the steam was let off, the play resumed, but with a different Del Potro.  A raging Del Potro.  The perceived injustice of the time warning, rather than having a detrimental impact, acted only to reignite his fire, intensify his determination and harden his resolve.  There was only going to be one outcome of the second serve.  Bang.  A winner.  Once more, Marin was serving to stay in the set.  Once more, come pressure time, he was found wanting.  A fired up Del Potro was not to be denied and the match would go down to the fifth and deciding set.

The match was already a thriller with more twists, turns and red herrings than an Agatha Christie crime novel.  But there was more to come.  Against the run of play, Del Potro was broken in the very first game of the fifth set.  The break, though, merely increased Del Potro’s determination, whereas Cilic again failed to raise his level in response and hold on to his serve.  Still, he reacted well to the setback and had Del Potro at deuce in the following game, when yet another controversial incident occurred.  A Del Potro forehand appeared to have gone long and a shout made Cilic stop playing momentarily thinking it was the line judge calling it out.  But it was a shout from the crowd and Cilic was forced to play a hasty shot in reply and the point was lost.  He flung his racquet to the ground in anger and his feelings were exacerbated when Del Potro won the next point to hold.  Though Marin held his next two service games, there was an air of inevitability about the outcome.

Twice this season Marin has lost after being two sets up.  Against Federer in the quarter finals at Wimbledon, he also squandered three match points in the third set before losing in five.  He subsequently lost in the first Davis Cup quarter final rubber against Jack Sock of the USA after being two sets up.  Fortunately, he had youngster Borna Coric to save him by winning the deciding fifth rubber to take Croatia through.  But there would be no Borna Coric in the fifth rubber here to save his blushes this time.  Croatia were going to win or lose with Marin Cilic.  Marin had nearly lost from two sets up in the first rubber against Federico Delbonis before he regrouped himself.  He has always been vulnerable under pressure, and in sport, vulnerability under pressure is fatal.

Predictably, Marin’s biggest weapon, his serve, crumbled once more when it was needed most.  Delpo, tennis’s greatest comeback kid, had done it once again, coming back from two sets down and a break down in the fifth to win a quite extraordinary match 6-7, 2-6, 7-5, 6-4, 6-3.  The quality of the match and the standard of shot making was so high, and the atmosphere so intense, it deserves to go down as one of the greatest Davis Cup matches, and probably the match of the season.  It had been so, so close; ultimately, the difference between the tennis twins was that Delpo was able to raise his game under pressure, while Marin’s game capitulated.  It was not the better man who had won, but the stronger man.  The one with the stiffer sinew and the bigger heart.

Even though there was a fifth and final rubber to come, without Borna Coric Croatia had no more aces to play.  Ivo Karlovic, though ranked 20th the world to his opponent Federico Delbonis’s 41, was a servebot with practically no tennis ability.  The outcome was never in doubt.  Delbonis destroyed him, and Argentina had finally won the Davis Cup at their fifth attempt.  Delpo and Delbo were their heroes, backed up by a crazy, raucous, fervid band of supporters that deserved as much accolade as their players.  After all the heartache of years lost and career wrecked through endless injuries, numerous surgeries and several failed comebacks, no one deserved to fight his way to victory more than Delpo.  It was a triumph for persistence, perseverance and sheer blind faith.

As for yours truly, it was a bittersweet moment.  I was happy for Delpo, sad for Marin.  I wanted Marin to win as he is one rung above Delpo on my favourites’ list.  I knew he was good enough to win – he played so well he surprised even me by the quality of his tennis.  I knew he was good, but even I didn’t realise he could be this good.  But his inability to deal with pressure has always been his constant, and in sport, it is a player’s ability to handle pressure that determines who wins.  Delpo, like all natural-born winners, is at his best when things are at their worst.  Pressure brings out the best in him; it ignites his competitive spirit and strengthens his resolve.

Of course even great competitors can be beaten, but they will never beat themselves.  Those with more fragile mentalities like Marin will always have to struggle with their own demons in order to succeed.  However, true winners are not those who have no weaknesses, but those who manage to overcome their weaknesses.  As Delpo so amply demonstrated, fortune can be persuaded to smile on the comeback kid.


Davis Cup: Day 2 – Croatia Take Doubles As Del Potro Gamble Fails

Have sightings of Diego Maradona in the Zagreb Arena made fans at the Davis Cup think they were attending a football match between Croatia and Argentina?  Judging by the fervid and raucous old school football terrace atmosphere they were obviously hoping that Maradona might excitedly jump onto the court and start kicking a ball about!

His countrymen could certainly have done with a tennis doubles specialist of his ability for Saturday afternoon’s crucial doubles match against Croatia.  Instead, they had to take a gamble and play Juan Martin Del Potro again, a risky move given the fact he was still playing himself into this season after such a long injury layoff and numerous wrist surgeries.  Is he realistically capable of playing three best-of-five set matches three days running?

The danger of playing him in the doubles was that he might be too tired for his big showdown with Croatian number 1 Marin Cilic tomorrow.  Clearly Argentina weren’t entirely confident of winning both their reverse singles, so decided to throw Delpo in to the doubles even if they were never really likely to win.  Both Delpo and his partner Leo Mayer are singles players who prefer to stick like glue to the baseline, whereas Croatia boasted a doubles specialist in Ivan Dodig, alongside Marin Cilic, who is perfectly comfortable at the net.

Delpo’s presence in the doubles would also mean seeing my two favourite players now facing each other twice, which was not going to be fun.  But since servebot Ivo Karlovic was safely sat on the sidelines for this match, I could support Croatia freely.  The first set was extremely tight with a lot of tension in the air to go with the boisterous atmosphere.  Everyone knew that whoever won this match would get a very strong hand on the trophy (in as much as any one can get their hands on the Davis Cup trophy because it is huge!).  The Argentinians looked to have made a better start as they were winning their games more easily, but come the tie break the Croatians’ better doubles play gave them the advantage and they took the set.

The momentum was with the Croats and they broke in the very first game of the second set.  The Argentinians were starting to look like two singles players who had just met in the bar and decided to have a hit together; Delpo didn’t appear remotely comfortable out there and Mayer was struggling to hold serve.  A two set lead for the Croatians and surely it was game over.  With the score 4-3 all Marin and Ivan had to do was hold one service game each and Croatia would go two sets up.  Surely Marin wouldn’t be the one dropping serve here?  Of course he would.  This is Mr Jekyll and Hyde we are talking about.  There is inevitably one moment in a Cilic match where US Open champion Marin will go walkabout and his useless twin, hacker Marin, will mysteriously take over and suddenly Marin’s serve will go doolally.  Cue a whole game of nothing but tentative second serves, which was not helped by Dodig crossing over enthusiastically at the net several times and missing.  Parity restored.

If it’s a certainty that Marin will be inconsistent at some point during a match, it is also a truism that players who don’t manage to hold their serves when ahead and go to a tie break tend to win them.  Tie breaks give them an opportunity to regroup, and the Croatian boys quickly rediscovered their mojo, helped by some slack doubles play from Delpo and Mayer, to take the second on a tie break as well.  There was no way back for Argentina now no matter how intensely the fervent crowd chanted for their team.  Mayer was soon in trouble again in the third, and perhaps wisely Delpo was conserving his energies for Sunday’s reverse singles.  The Croatians had the break, and soon, Marin was serving for the match.  Marin has been known to wobble when having to close out, but here, amidst the din of his own exhorting fans, there was no way he was going to mess up.  A straightforward win in the end for the home favourites 7-6, 7-6, 6-3.  Advantage Croatia.

It’s not over yet for Argentina.  Not with Delpo in their corner.  But they must be praying their gamble hasn’t backfired and he remains fit and fresh for the singles.  Croatia will be hoping that it is USO Marin and not his slacker twin brother hacker Marin who turns up for the match and doesn’t go awol at any time.  And I will be wishing that, despite having to pick one favourite over another, Marin does the job for Croatia even though it will be at the expense of Delpo.  Because, should the match go to the final rubber, I cannot bring myself to support a servebot.  It is one dilemma I would like to avoid, thank you very much.

So don’t let me down, Marin.  Never mind about Croatia.  I am not supporting you so you can be the hero for Croatia.  I am supporting you so I don’t have to suffer the indignity of watching a servebot try to win the Davis Cup for Croatia.  Think of my aesthetic sensibilities.  And leave your slacker twin at home.  This is no time for imposters.  Only proper tennis players required, thank you very much.

Davis Cup: Day 1 – All Square

I have a confession to make.  I know what you are thinking: go see a priest.  It’s not that kind of a confession.

Now, my favourite player in the entire universe and beyond is, of course, our Andy.  That would be Andy Murray, world number 1.  I may have mentioned that once or twice in my recent blogs.  What do mean you haven’t noticed?  Shame on you.  Anyhow, behind him – not literally, it’s not panto season yet – in the tennis pecking order, there is a motley crew of players that I follow.  The drawback of following a motley crew of players is that, most inconveniently, they do tend to play each other now and then.

So it is that two of these said favourite players are playing each other in this weekend’s Davis Cup final between Croatia and Argentina in Zagreb.  I confess to being conflicted (knew we’d get there eventually).  I happen to have had a soft spot for Croatia ever since the Goran Ivanisevic days, plus Marin Cilic is one rung higher on the motley crew list than Juan Martin Del Potro for Argentina (and not just because Delpo defeated Andy and GB in the semi finals, honest).  So I guess I am supporting Croatia, or at least I would be unequivocally if only young Borna Coric had been able to play as the second singles player.  Alas, he is injured, which not only puts a big dent in Croatia’s chances of winning the Davis Cup, but he has been replaced by a servebot who can’t play tennis!

His name is Ivo Karlovic.  He’s 6 ft 11.  Yes, that’s 6 ft 11.  Surely nobody that height should be entitled to play anything other than basketball or do high jump.  They really should have a height limit in tennis.  It’s not on for these tallies to ruin the game.  They clearly have an unfair advantage by sheer dint of their height.  Nobody over 6 ft 6 should be allowed to play tennis because there is no point.  It would just turn into a tedious serve fest, like turning up to a football match for 90 minutes of penalty shootouts.  Who wants to pay to see that?  These servebots are like those ball machines that blast a barrage of balls at you – and that’s it.  Machines that have no other function.  Servebots are like that – they simply churn out aces or, when they miss, double faults.  They cannot actually play tennis.

I have another confession to take.  No, still not of the kind requiring priests.  I am a tennis purist and proud of it.  I believe a person has no right be playing professionally on a tennis court if they can’t actually play tennis.  It makes a mockery of the game.  So I was going to be damned before I would support Ivo Karlovic, let alone against a favourite.  Worse, his inclusion meant that all the burden would now be on Croatia’s number 1 player Marin Cilic, current world number 6, who would have to play and win 3 matches in a row to do the job for them.  Even Andy couldn’t manage that against Argentina in the semi finals.  Marin would have his work cut out just like Andy did to get past Delpo, a man who, once upon a time – back when he had wrists – had beaten defending champion Roger Federer from a set down and two sets to one down, to win the US Open as a mere babe…oh, ok, as a 20 year old.  That’s how good Delpo is; good enough to have once got the better of peak-Federer.  So either Marin was going to have to beat him after having played two other matches beforehand, or Karlovic would have to get a point.

That was highly unlikely in the first place (did I mention he can’t actually play tennis?), even if he was ranked 20th in the world – how??!! oh yeah, the aces – nevertheless, I couldn’t bring myself to support a player (and I use that word very loosely) who went against everything I believed in.  So unless Marin were to win all three of his matches (or lose two out of three to give Argentina a clear win), I would be facing the prospect of going against Croatia in the final winner takes all reverse rubber.  Argh!

At least on day one things would be a little more straightforward with Marin playing the second Argentinian, Federico Delbonis, and Karlovic taking on the mighty Delpo, and there was no way I was supporting anyone other than Juan Martin, thank you very much.  Talk about a case of split loyalties.

At least with Marin’s match I knew exactly who I wanted to win.  And for 2 sets he was winning….and then he went walkabout for the next two sets.  Maybe he was thinking about where he would be going for his winter sun beach holiday.  Who knows where Marin goes when he disappears in matches.  Marin is a classic Jekyll and Hyde.  Like Andy, he has an evil twin who inexplicably takes over at the most inopportune times and turns him, in a flash, from a US Open Grand Slam winning champion into a myopic council court hacker.  So, for the first two sets he was USO Marin, the player who has also had the distinction of having taken out Federer at a US Open, in the semi final on his way to winning it.  He was all big serves, big groundstrokes, big winners.  In the 3rd set, hacker twin Marin takes over and suddenly Marin couldn’t buy a first serve for love nor trophy.  A service percentage in the 70s suddenly plummeted to the 30s.  Even if your serve isn’t your primary weapon, that’s a losing stat.  If your serve is your primary weapon, it’s disastrous.

Before you could say jeez, aren’t the Argentinians a noisy bunch, it was two sets all.  Marin had gone from being a player who had beaten Andy Murray in a Masters final, and Novak Djokovic three weeks ago, to being wobblier than a mound of jelly.  After running out of invectives against his midget mentality (a most apt description of him which I have shamelessly stolen from another fan), I reasoned that he really, really wasn’t going to lose in front of his home fans to a world number 41 after having been two sets ahead, and effectively lose Croatia the Davis Cup in the opening rubber.  It didn’t matter how much of a head case Marin was, it wasn’t going to happen.

After losing the 4th set by embarrassingly missing a conventional overhead that was easier to hit in than to hit out, Marin disappeared for a bathroom break.  When he returned he broke Delbonis in the opening game.  Welcome back, USO Marin.  It was like a tennis version of Clark Kent disappearing into a phone booth – or bathroom, in this case – and coming out as Superman.  I wonder whether Marin was wearing red underpants beneath his shorts…Another break of serve and it was all over.  6-3, 7-5, 3-6, 1-6, 2-6.  Danger averted.  It had only taken him 3 hrs and 30 minutes.  But that was ok; it wasn’t like he had any other matches to play this weekend.

That was supposed to have been the straightforward match.  Next up was the other one.  You know who against Delpo.  What to do?  Who to support?  I wasn’t going to support a servebot.  Certainly not against a player of Juan Martin’s calibre.  I knew it would be a horrible match to watch.  Tedious to watch ace after ace, double fault after double fault, and painful to see Karlovic lumbering around clumsily mis-hitting shots a junior boy would dispatch with panache.  I wanted Delpo to get this over with and win the match as quickly as possible and put us all out of our miseries.  Including himself, because he didn’t exactly look happy out there.  How could he be?  He wasn’t participating in a tennis match.  It was either an ace or a double fault from the giant Croatian.  Karlovic had started wretchedly by losing his opening service game so it looked like I would get my wish as Delpo easily held his serve to win the set 6-4.

The pattern continued in the 2nd set.  Ace or double fault from Karlovic.  Irritation from Delpo as he couldn’t capitalise because every chance he got from a poor serve would be wiped out by an unreturnable one.  It was tennis with a jagged, ragged edge.  Inevitably, they went to a tie break.  Now Delpo had his chance.  Two set points.  Suddenly, out of nowhere, Karlovic was overcome with an overwhelming urge to play tennis.  WTF?!  Perhaps it was because he was playing in front of his own fans, but he managed to elevate his level to the point where he actually hit a few groundstrokes in a row – otherwise known as a rally – and seemed to shock his opponent into making mistakes.  Delpo probably couldn’t believe how Karlovic, after being so rubbish, had suddenly figured out how to play a bit.  He was so shell-shocked it seemed to put him completely off his game.  After saving a set point on Delpo’s serve with his best play of the match, Karlovic took the next three points to win the tie break and steal the set.  One set all.

This was torture.  As the match wore on, even the crowd started to get restless and the atmosphere was becoming very tetchy, with exuberant fans frequently disrupting the players’ serves and causing them to stop their service motion.  Towards the end things had got so heated some fans had to be ejected.  Well, that’s what happens when you don’t distract them with some actual tennis.  Not that Diego Maradona seemed to care.  He was there as a supporter rather than ex-player and was behaving more like one of his typical football fans on the terraces as opposed to a VIP guest at a tennis match.  He shouted, screamed, gestured and jumped up and down more enthusiastically than the most hardcore Argentinian supporter there – and that was saying something.  Frankly, he was more entertaining to watch than the tennis.

Thankfully Delpo managed to contain his frustrations with the crowd and the disruptive rhythm of the match sufficiently to break and take the third set.  He then held his serve through the 4th before breaking late on to go 6-5 up.  Unsurprisingly, Delpo hadn’t faced a single break point in the match so, to the blessed relief of everybody, he had no trouble serving out and putting us all out of our misery.  4-6, 6-7, 6-3, 7-5.  After he hit the winning shot, a clearly relieved Delpo turned towards his raucous Argentinian supporters, fists clenched by his side, and soaked in their adulation.  It’s heartening the way Delpo always loves to share his winning moment with his fans.

So, as predicted, it’s 1 point each in the tie, but delivered in a very unpredictable way.  Doubles next.  This is what Croatia will be gambling on.  For the successful partnership of Marin and doubles specialist Ivan Dodig to bring in that crucial point to put Croatia 2-1 up going into the reverse singles on Sunday.  Though Marin is not currently listed as playing, he certainly will start, as he and Dodig have a far better chance of getting a point in the doubles than Marin does of beating Delpo in the singles, which would be 50-50 at best.  They are a formidable pairing who defeated the legendary Bryan brothers and the world number 2 pairing of Herbert and Mahut in the quarter and semi finals, so should be favourites to win.

What is not certain is whether Argentina will risk playing Delpo in the doubles as they did against GB in the semi, or whether they even need to.  Against GB, once Delpo had beaten Andy, it was game over so Argentina didn’t need to worry about playing Delpo in the reverse singles.  But here, they will need him, and need him fresh to take on Marin in the second singles, so it will be a gamble to play Delpo, especially with his injury history.  It may make more sense to save him – and those fragile wrists – for the reverse singles.

And what about poor me?  If my two favs play each other twice, that’s a double conflict of interest.  I really must try to have less favourites!  Before anyone suggests the obvious, it’s not a win-win; it’s a lose-lose.

Ah well, may the best man win.  Whoever he may be.  So long as he can play tennis.