A Sorry Sunday of Sport

One of the biggest disadvantages of being a multi sports fan is that sports inevitably clash.  However, on the plus side, by the law of averages someone somewhere should win and make yours truly a happy bunny.  Obviously the law of averages was out of sync today because everyone lost, apart from one favourite, who only won at the expense of another favourite.  Go figure.

Football:  It’s like being back in the 70s.  The Scousers look good and United are utter tripe.  Oh happy days now no one can accuse United fans of being glory hunters any more.  Oh happy days now away matches are all about the day out with your football mates.  Oh happy days to be able to drink to oblivion and not worry about being too blotto to remember that amazing performance, the goal glut, a goal scored from halfway line.  Oh happy days indeed…ugh.

Motor Racing:  If I was looking for sporting joy I wasn’t about to find it at the Singapore Grand Prix.  Lewis Hamilton was racing how I was feeling – meh.  The top 3 on the grid started Rosberg, Riccardo, Hamilton and the top 3 at the flag finished Rosberg, Riccardo, Hamilton.  In between, the race threatened to get interesting when Raikkonen passed Hamilton halfway through the race, triggering a three stop Mercedes strategy which allowed Hamilton to undercut Raikkonen and come out of the pit lane ahead of the Ferrari.  It inspired Red Bull to pit Riccardo and the Australian put on a late charge on fresh tyres to try and catch race leader Rosberg.  But it turned out to be much ado about nothing as Rosberg was able to hang on comfortably to the chequered flag despite suspected failing brakes.

Hamilton must be cursing the summer break for wrecking his momentum.  Before the hiatus, he had managed to turn round a 43 point deficit into a 19 point lead.  Since the resumption of racing, Rosberg has won every race unchallenged and has gone back into the lead for the driver’s title.  Hamilton, on the other hand, has gone into a funk.  The world champion needs to find his mojo again pronto because, right now, his season is veering a tad off course.

Tennis:  Overlapping with both the football and the motor racing was Britain’s Davis Cup semi final tie against Argentina.  There was never going to be any good sporting news to be found here.  Britain’s defence of the Davis Cup was over the moment Andy Murray lost his epic (does he play any other kind?) 5hr opening match against Juan Martin del Potro on Friday.  The rest was just detail.  Britain are a one man team.  It’s that simple.  If Andy wins both his singles, Britain win the tie.  If Andy loses one of his singles, Britain lose the tie.  Even though Argentina did everything they could to give Britain a chance by inexplicably allowing Del Potro to play in the doubles rather than saving him for the final singles rubber when they knew he was only fit enough to play one more match, Britain simply don’t have a second player good enough to take the gift.

It is notoriously difficult to come back from 0-2 down to win in the Davis Cup.  This year, only Croatia have achieved the feat, against the USA in the quarter finals back in July.  But that’s because Croatia have a number two in Borna Coric who can back his teammate up when the number one balls things up, as Marin Cilic did in their opening rubber.  From two sets up he lost the next three sets against Jack Sock to lose the match.  Coric also lost his tie to send Croatia 0-2 down.  Cilic commendably made up for his lapse by winning the doubles with Ivan Dodig and his reverse singles to level the tie at 2-2.  But it needed young pretender Coric to step up in the deciding rubber.  Fortunately for Croatia, Coric is a talented upcomer who, although ranked 54 in the world, comfortably defeated number 26 Jack Sock in four sets to propel Croatia into the semi finals.

Alas for GB, there is no one of Coric’s class in the British team.  Kyle Edmund, Britain’s own young upcomer, was more imposter than young pretender as he lost rather tamely in his tie against Guido Pella.  It was a very disappointing performance from someone who should be a competitive number two to Andy Murray.  Yes he is only 21, but then Coric is only 19.

It was entirely predictable that the Murray brothers would win the doubles on Saturday.  What was entirely unpredictable was seeing Del Potro at the other end.  It was a completely baffling decision considering his odds of beating the Murray brothers with partner Leo Mayer were minuscule to none, whilst his odds of beating Dan Evans, who was predicted to play the final rubber, were entirely on.  Argentina made a very risky call, but maybe they knew that Britain simply didn’t have a good enough number two.  Any one of the second string Argentinians could have won it for them.

The difference in class between Andy Murray and the rest was evident when, unlike Edmund, he had no trouble dispatching Guido Pella, despite being hampered by a thigh strain that required a medical time out early in the third set.  The only worry was whether the limping Murray would be able to play out the final few games.  Thankfully, the gulf in ability was too huge to threaten even a clearly injured Murray who won out in three easy sets 6-3, 6-2, 6-3.

Argentina had been playing mind games with Britain by keeping them guessing about whether Delpo would be playing, although the Argentinian press were adamant that he would not.  Delpo had practiced briefly in the morning and was nowhere to be seen during Andy’s match.  But then neither was Leo Mayer.  And it was he who came out for the final rubber to face Dan Evans.  They say one of the worst things you can do to someone is give them hope.  Argentina had given Britain hope, and when Mayer came out way too hyped up with all guns blazing and spraying way too many balls out, Evans won the first set and the Argentinians must have wondered whether they really had shot themselves in the foot.

They hadn’t.  Any nascent hopes of an unlikely British victory were soon emphatically quashed as Mayer discovered his service rhythm and started serving bombs and thumping bone crunching forehands from the Del Potro school of bone crunching forehands.  Mayer has also suffered injuries from the Del Potro school of injuries, which has seen his ranking plummet to an unfortunate 114, but he was once number 21 in the world and he was playing like it.  Of course it helped that Dan Evans has no real weapons that could hurt his opponent, and his serve and general performance were wilting under the Argentinian’s relentless onslaught.  Del Potro was keeping a poker face on the support bench but he must have been feeling very relieved to see that Britain simply didn’t have a competitive second string.  Once Mayer had broken in the second set, the outcome of the match was never in doubt.

Ultimately, Argentina had deserved to win the tie, not only for Del Potro’s remarkable performance against Andy on Friday – Delpo is surely the de facto world number four – but also because they were able to play as a team.  The format of the Davis Cup enables a team with a big star player to win 3 matches and thus win his team the ties, but that is not really a fair reflection of the strength of the country.  Great Britain won the Davis Cup last year because Andy won all his matches in the quarters, semis and final.  Had Andy beaten Delpo, Britain would probably have retained the trophy.  But it is neither fair nor realistic to expect Andy to win everything, and in all honesty, this should be the last time Andy commits to the Davis Cup.  He turns 30 next year so his time at the top is short and there is still unfinished business with Grand Slams.  Let the others take on the Davis Cup burden that Andy has carried on his shoulders, by himself, for so long.  They need to try and step into Andy’s shoes even if those shoes may be far too big to fill.

Sometimes you can have too many favourites.  It leads to confusing emotions when they inevitably end up playing each other.  In the Davis Cup semis, I faced the nightmare scenario of having a favourite playing for each team!  Obviously Andy is the unequivocal number one, but I do have very soft spot for Delpo (who doesn’t?).  So it was a bittersweet moment when he defeated Andy as I couldn’t be completely gutted for Andy, but I couldn’t be completely happy for Delpo either!  Likewise, an even more ambiguous scenario was unfolding in the other semi final between Croatia and France, where closer favourites Marin Cilic and Richard Gasquet would be pitted against each other.  Both had won their opening rubbers, and then Marin had teamed up with Ivan Dodig once more to win the doubles.  Then came the dreaded first of the reverse singles, which could decide the outcome of the tie.  Marin vs Richard.  Whom did I want to win?  I couldn’t choose, but I had a sneaking suspicion about who I thought would win.  The tie was taking place in Croatia, Marin was on a roll and Richard had recently come back from a back injury, so I wasn’t sure that any supporting was required as I believed Marin would win.

The two semi finals were taking place simultaneously, and weirdly, the scores in both of the first rubbers mirrored each other.  Andy Murray won his first two sets 6-3, 6-2 and Marin Cilic won his first two sets 6-3, 6-2.  Marin then broke early, but then spoilt the symmetry by getting broken back.  Marin’s Achilles heel has always been his wobbly temperament under pressure and nervy tendency to lose matches he looks like he is cruising in, so these days I rarely consider any match of his over until he has won the final point (see this year’s Wimbledon quarter final against Roger Federer).  However, Richard has been equally biscuity (i.e. crumbling under pressure) of temperament himself in the past though he is tougher these days.  These days it is injuries that tend to scupper him, and it was no surprise that he couldn’t sustain his comeback.  Cilic has also been looking like the man ever since that aforementioned comeback against the USA post that humiliating defeat to Sock after being 2 sets up, and he was less likely to lose this match than Del Potro was to play in the final rubber.  Cilic won the third set 7-5 to send Croatia into the final.  After a sorry day when everyone else had lost (and Andy’s win counting for naught), finally someone I liked had won.  Well, it was one way of ensuring a win.  Have enough favourites and somebody you like is bound to win!

So it’s Delpo vs Marin in the Davis Cup final.  Who do I want to win?  The parallels between them are unnerving.  Both were born within a week of each other in 1988; both are 6ft 6 inches in height; both have one Grand Slam each, the US Open; both are trying to win their first Davis Cup, and I have a soft spot for both of them.  Of course, Delpo has the heart-rending fairy tale comeback narrative.  The crowd though will be with Cilic since the final will be played in, erm, Croatia.  Er, toss a coin?  I think I am going to go for the 6 ft 6 inch former US Open champion trying to win his first Davis Cup.

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