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.

Stanimal Blasts Novak Off The Court – Again

Stan Wawrinka’s got the Indian Sign on Novak Djokovic.  He must be the only tennis player who loves seeing Djokovic staring down at him on the other side of the net.  Novak is his lucky charm.  A year ago, he famously destroyed Novak’s dreams of winning a career Grand Slam in the French Open final.  The previous year, he had defeated Novak in an epic 5 set quarter-final duel on his way to winning his first Grand Slam, the Australian Open, at the grand old age of 28.  On Sunday, he did it again.  He beat Djokovic in four sets to become the oldest man to win the US Open since Ken Roswell in 1970.

Stan the Man is now 3 out of 3 in Grand Slam finals.  That is some hit rate.  Especially, for someone who didn’t start winning Slams till he was nearly 29.  Wawrinka plays with the urgency of someone who’s taken a very long time to meet his destiny and who knows his time at the top is short.  Roger Federer casts a long shadow and for years Stan struggled to blossom in his illustrious teammate’s wake.

Stan has done in two years what Andy Murray toiled to accomplish in nearly a decade of trying.  Stan Wawrinka is the antithesis of Andy Murray.  Where the Scot is cautious, the Swiss throws caution to the wind.  Where the Scot pats a shot back and hopes for an error, the Swiss smashes a shot for a winner.  Stan’s exceptional hit rate is a testament to his high risk high reward style of play.  And that backhand.  A gloriously old fashioned, rip roaring, single handed bullet down the line.  Not as elegant as Frenchman Richard Gasquet’s graceful offering perhaps, but far more powerful and effective – it knocks holes through opponents.

How Novak must have cursed Britain’s Dan Evans for not taking that match point against Wawrinka in their third round encounter.  Unusually, it was a forehand volley that had saved Stan that day.  How many times does it happen in sport where a team or individual are on the verge of going out and then promptly end up winning the whole thing?  The moment he came back to beat Dan Evans, Stan’s name was on the trophy.

From then on, he made his way comfortably to the final.  Even though he had played twice as much tennis as Djokovic, whose own path to the final was rather surreal, with one opponent pulling out and two others retiring with injury mid match during the early rounds, the doubts concerned Djokovic’s fitness.  Although Djokovic won the opening set of the final, there was a feeling Wawrinka was just warming up.  After all, Wawrinka had dropped the opening set in both their previous two Grand Slam encounters, as well as during his quarter final and semi final matches.  Stan didn’t do opening sets.  They were just a warm up for the main action to come.

Once he had stared unleashing his groundstrokes, the winners flowed.  As usual, Wawrinka didn’t hold back.  The single backhand down the line money shot was motoring, the equally powerful bone crunching forehand was pushing Novak out of court, and crucially, he was bamboozling Djokovic, the best returner of serve in the game, with body serves and kickers.  Stan’s tennis is not subtle; it’s not pretty or delicate.  It’s not tennis for the purists, it’s tennis for adrenaline junkies.  If Novak thought that the new roof on Arthur Ashe Stadium meant he was protected against the elements, he was mistaken.  Stan Wawrinka was a one man tornado blowing and battering Djokovic into submission.  Novak’s powers of retrieval are legendary, but the tennis equivalent of The Road Runner had no answer to the sheer force of Wawrinka’s groundstrokes.

By the beginning of the fourth set, Novak’s toes were black, blue, blistering and bleeding from slipsliding side to side in increasingly desperate attempts to chase down machine gun bullets from Stan.  In despair, he had to ask for two medical time outs.  Now the cynics might have questioned the timing – when he was precariously close to losing the match and just before Stan had to serve – but the red stain blotched on Novak’s socks and the blood oozing out of one of his right toes confirmed the physical brutality of the contest and exonerated him.  He was suffering and wilting under Stan’s relentlessly powerful onslaught.  Though he fought valiantly, by the end he could barely gain any elevation on his serve and his movement was all but curtailed.  It was all he could do to ask the question of Stan in making him serve it out for the title.

Stan has never been a consistent performer.  He is too mercurial, his tennis too high risk.  But he is renowned as a big match player.  He hangs tough when it matters most.  There was never a doubt that Stan would serve it out.  Just like the French Open final last year, Stan demolished Novak in four sets, winning 6-7, 6-4, 7-5, 6-3.  He is one Wimbledon away from completing a career Grand Slam of all four titles, an astonishing record for someone who only won his first Grand Slam two and a half years ago as a 28 years old.

Ironically, Stan’s journey to Grand Slam success started at the US Open in 2013, when he defeated defending champion Andy Murray in the quarter finals on his way to a best ever Grand Slam appearance in the semi final.  His evolution from Roger Federer’s gentleman in waiting to king of the courts began in the same year with the appointment of Magnus Norman as his coach.  Norman had been the coach of the ill-fated Robin Soderling, who famously in 2009 became the first man to defeat Rafa Nadal at the French Open.  Sadly Soderling’s career came to a cruelly premature end due to illness.  His misfortune helped to change Wawrink’s life.  Norman transformed Stan from a maverick journeyman with a jaw dropping, sometime firing lethal weapon of a backhand into a powerhouse with equal groundstrokes on both sides and a vicious serve, and imbued him with a self-belief to go for his shots with fearless confidence.

No patsy percentage play for Stan.  Andy Murray should take note.  Winners win matches.  They don’t wait for their opponents to throw matches away.  For all of Murray’s consistency, he has struggled to win on the highest stage against the biggest names.  For all of Wawrinka’s inconsistency, his go-for-broke mentality has paid richly deserved dividends in the big finals against the biggest names.

The ‘Big Four’ may be no more but say hello to the ‘Big Three’ – Novak, Andy and Stan.  The three winners of the four Grand Slams this year.  Usually, the changing of the guard involves the next generation stepping up.  Instead, tennis has a golden oldie stepping out from the shadows and into the starlight.  In tennis, old is the new young.  31 is the new 21.  Stan the Man gives us all hope that it is never too late to be what you might have been.

 

 

The Olympics: Day 9

Gymnastics:  Forget Super Saturday.  That’s so four years ago.  In Rio 2016, it’s all about Sensational Sunday.  Gold!  Gold!  Gold!  Max Whitlock Olympic Champion!  Now, we at Random Towers did say that young Max had the look of an Olympic champion about him, but that was on the pommel.  A floor medal was a possibility as he is the world silver medallist, bur with the Japanese Kenzo Shirai being able to throw out quadruple twists, a silver was the most that could have been expected.  But if you are going to do quad twists, you do still have to be able to land them cleanly.  That was the story of the floor final.  Max went out early and was clean, beautiful, elegant.  High degree of difficulty executed with easy brilliance and nailed on landings.  15.633.  Beat that if you can.  They couldn’t.  First Shirai.  Huge degree of difficulty executed with surprising tentativeness and wobbly landings.  The first one had bitten the dust.  Then, the very last competitor, Samuel Mikulak of the USA, the highest qualifier.  High degree of difficulty with…no!  Not happening.  Too many big hops on landings.  Max was the floor Olympic champion!  What what can I say?  I am floored (not a joke that will be doing the rounds, no).  Unexpected medals are such fun.  Unexpected golds are just…amazingly, mindblowingly brilliant.

Golf:  No silvers allowed today, Justin.  It’s Sensational Sunday.  Get with the programme.  Read the script.  A birdie putt to win on the 18th.  In the hole, sunshine.  Sofa coaching is so effective.  Justin Rose did not fluff his lines.  That’s an Oscar…oops, wrong kinda gold, I mean, the Olympic gold for Justin Rose.  Gold medal number 2.  Keep em’ coming people.  Keep em’ coming.

Gymnastics Part II:  The Pommel Horse.  The bonus gold.  Britain were having such a, erm, sensational day that we had the luxury of bonus golds.  In gymnastics.  Who would have thunk it?  After all the excitement of the floor, the first thing we all had to do was calm down.  Which was quite difficult with all these golds reigning down on us.  Statement from the sofa to the others: you are all fighting for the bronze.  You are not touching gold and silver.  End of.  Typically, the American refused to listen.  Alexander Naddour scored 15.700.  What?!  That was a big score.  A threat.  Next up was Oleg Verniaiev, the all around silver medallist.  The only other possible threat.  He was listening and mucked up early.  He looked drained after his all around efforts.  So that was him out.  Next!  Our Louis.  Order to Louis: stay on the bloomin’ horse!   He did!  15.833.  In the lead!  Get in there.  Next up the European champion from Armenia, Harutyun Merdinyan.  He was looking really good until…that pesky dismount.  Next!  Our Max.  Order to Max: bring home the gold, son.  Unbelievable!  Ok, a little ragged on the Busnari, but huge difficulty.  15.966!  Get in there!  The final gymnast to go.  David Belyavskiy of Russia, who Max edged for the bronze in the all around.  The highest he had ever scored was 15.300.  So could he really threaten?  A big error at the start.  Bad.  Then two Busnaris.  Good.  Dismount middling.  No.  Louis’s silver was safe, and Max was the Olympic champion again!  Max mine a double (yeah, yeah, terrible).  Right, who’s next?!

Track Cycling:  The cyclists – who else?  Where else could GB be guaranteed a gold medal?  So, men’s sprint final.  It was going to be a gold for GB.  Or it was going to be a gold for GB.  Ah, how relaxing.  How stress free.  Thank you track cyclists.  About the only lot who show any consideration for the state of our tickers.  So would it be Jason or Callum was the real question.  Answer?  There was only ever going to be one outcome.  King Kenny had it in the bag.  2-0.  It was gold medal number 4 of the day for GB and gold medal number 5 for Jason Kenny.  Jason is fast becoming Britain’s Michael Phelps.  Arise Sir Jason?  Right, next!

Tennis:  When doesn’t the track cycling clash with the tennis?  Andy Murray was taking on Juan Martin Del Potro in the gold medal match.  Now I love Delpo.  If I could be happy for anyone to beat my favourite tennis player, it would be him.  But I just couldn’t see it.  I couldn’t envisage him beating Andy over 5 sets.  If the final had been 3 sets, then yes, Delpo had a punter’s chance.  But unlike the previous rounds, the final was best of 5, which gave Andy a huge advantage.

In theory.  Andy never makes life easy for us – or himself.  He broke Del Potro in his opening game, but promptly lost his serve.  No problem.  Break him again.  Problem – he got broken again straight away.  What was going on in Andy’s head?  Taking control and then giving it way.  This was going to be another gruelling epic.  Over 45 minutes gone and only 8 games played.  We were going to be here all night at this rate.  The momentum looked like it was firmly with Delpo now, but tennis does strange things to a player’s psychology.  From nowhere, by dint of serving first, Andy earned a couple of set points on Del Potro’s serve.  And took it on the second.  7-5.  One set up.  Quite how he had won the set with a first serve percentage of 39% only he will ever know.

On to the second set.  Goodness knows what new crisis would befall Andy.  In both his previous matches, he had won the first set comfortably, only to falter in the second.  The pattern seemed destined to repeat itself as inexplicable inconsistency led to a loss of the opening game.  Example – a gorgeous backhand down the line, followed by a delicate drop shot, followed by an unforced error.  It was like a battle between good and evil for Andy’s tennis soul.  Del Potro continued holding on to his advantage and won the set 6-4, sending the Argentinian fans wild.  After 2 hours and 15 minutes, it was one set all.  It was going to be a really, really long night.  Not good.  Had they not seen the schedule?  Did they not know Usain was running tonight?

Andy really needed to improve his first serve percentage, but at 2-3 in the third set, it was Delpo who struggled with his serve, hitting two double faults.  Andy grabbed his chance, breaking on the second break point (why does he never break on the first?).  It was clear Delpo’s level had gone down, which was hardly surprising considering they had been playing for 3 hours and they were still in the middle of the third set!  Some weary forehand errors from Del Potro and good Murray pressure earned Andy 3 set points.  He fluffed the first with an unforced error (quel surprise), but made no mistake with the next, a driving crosscourt return of serve to win the set 6-2.  Come on Andy!  One more set to go.  We might just be in time for Usain!

But Andy is Andy.  If you thought he was on easy street now, hah, you haven’t watched enough Murray matches.  For those of us who have, it was same old, same old.  Took his eye off the ball and lost his opening service game.  Not wise to give away a free game to a mental giant like Delpo.  This is a man who, if it wasn’t for those horrible injuries, would have been a member of the Big Four, or perhaps made a Big Five.  Make no mistake Andy, you were messing with a champion.  But, boy, does Andy loves a fight.  Get into hole.  Get out of it.  Get broken?  Break back.  But Andy was still struggling to get rhythm on his serve.  Break again.  Bad.  Break back.  Good.  4 breaks in a row and we were level.

By now, Delpo looked like he was really starting to suffer.  He had been clutching his thigh and grimacing during the previous service game, and looked like he was just hanging on with those get-out-of-jail bludgeoning forehands.  At the next break, Delpo had his thigh massaged.  There must have been some magic in the oil because it seemed to revive him.  He held his service game to love with a plethora of thunderous forehands.  What a lionheart.  This really was a battle of attrition.  Gruelling.  Grinding.  Draining.  An incredible mental and physical effort from both players.  Suddenly Delpo seemed to be back in the groove, and looking ominous.  Andy was back to struggling on his serve and Delpo only needed one break point to go 4-3 up.  Soon, it was 5-3.  Although Andy finally held his next service game comfortably, Del Potro would be serving to take the match into a fifth set.  Time to give on seeing Usain.  In fact, forget Usain.  At this rate, they would still be playing at the closing ceremony.

Andy was back in that hole.  And there is only one thing he does when he’s there.  He grits and grinds his way out of it.  Gets break points and mucks them up.  Too easy.  Need to do more work.  More unbelievable defending.  An unreal epic rally somehow won by Andy brought up another break point and had the crowd on its feet, raucously applauding both players.  Poor Delpo had to rest on the net to recover.  But if you thought he was done, forget it.  What a first serve to save it!  What champions they were!  “This is macho tennis,” said the awed commentator, and, boy, was he right.  A cruel drop shot from Andy which Delpo somehow got to – how?! – but Andy was able to hit the winner past him.  Break point number 4.  Come on Andy!  Get it done.  In the end, stamina did it for Andy.  Delpo just couldn’t give any more, and a weary forehand into the net meant we were level.  Now could Andy hold his serve?  There was a feeling that if he held his serve, this might be all over.  But this being Andy, it was hardly going to be straightforward, since Del Potro wasn’t giving up without a herculean final effort.

Andy was soon 0-30 down to yet another forehand onslaught from Delpo, and a wondrous backhand winner down the line (a heartening sight considering those debilitating left wrist injuries) gave him two break back points.  Andy saved the first, and finally hit an ace to save the second.  Another ace!  Wow!  Now it was advantage Andy.  Come on, one more.  One more.  Yes!  At last, he held.

3h 53 mins played.  Delpo was serving to stay in the final.  Come on Andy, time to give it over to Usain.  Finish it off.  The sofa coach was knackered watching from the sofa.  Sofa coach needed a lie down.  Another brutal forehand winner from Delpo, cancelled out by a great return and follow up volley from Andy.  15-15.  A return of serve long from Andy redeemed by a great forehand from him to draw an error from Delpo.  30-30.  The momentum swings were dizzying.  Andy was now two points away from victory.  The tension was gut wrenching and the partisan crowd could barely contain themselves.  A great return from Andy to Delpo’s backhand drew a short ball, but just as Andy was about to put away a winner, someone shouted out from the crowd and put him off.  Idiot!  Andy looked too exhausted to do anything but glower in frustration.  Game point Del Potro.  Another great return from Andy to Delpo’s backhand to draw an error.  Deuce.

Then, more drama as the play was suddenly stopped.  A rowdy Argentinian, wearing a very silly Jester hat in his country’s pale blue and white colours, and his mate were ejected from the arena, but not before he had waved goodbye to everyone in the crowd – talk about milking it – to boos, jeers and cheers.  After that prolonged delay, and with the crowd in a frenzy, the umpire somehow, eventually, managed to get the crowd to be pin drop quiet.  Let’s play.  A rally and missed cross court forehand from Delpo!  Match point Andy!  Come on!  The clock had hit 4 hours.  Could Andy do it?  No!  Return into the net.  Argh!  Deuce again.  Better return to Delpo’s backhand, and Delpo netted!  Match point number two.  Another rally, another final weary backhand into the net from Delpo!

At last, at long, long last, Andy had done it.  Four exhausting hours, and he was the Olympic champion again.  In a touching moment at the net, both men were hugging and crying on each other’s shoulder, such was the emotion.  It was a pity there had to be a loser, because neither player had given an inch.  Neither player deserved to lose.  It may have been Sensational Sunday for Britain and Andy Murray, but it was also a sensational silver for tennis’s lost champion.

So, Andy’s epic, marathon win made it 5 gold medals and 1 gold pending in the sailing, plus 3 silvers, for Team GB on Sensational Sunday.  8 medals in one day.  What a remarkable day of sport for Britain.

Athletics:  Finally, after four thrilling, but energy sapping, hours of tennis, we could get to the athletics.  Fortunately, with Andy’s impeccable sense of timing, he had managed to win the final just in time to be able to catch Usain Bolt’s 100m semi-final.  Another cruise to victory in 9.86 seconds, and a stroll into yet another Olympic final.  It really is a foregone conclusion, isn’t it?

It wasn’t just the tennis and Sensational Sunday for Team GB that was threatening to overshadow the Bolt show.  An amazing world record in the 400m from Wayde van Niekerk of South Africa, who smashed Michael Johnson’s record, to win the Olympic gold in 43.03 from lane 8.  MJ’s record had stood since 1999 but van Nierkerk bettered it by 0.15 secs, and a new star was born.  Beat that, Bolt.

Who is trying to steal my thunder, Usain might have asked.  Don’t they know I am the Lightening Bolt?  The king of the track.  Waves and claps to the crowd even as he was preparing for the race.  A smile and point to the camera.  Ever the showman.  Really, the only thing that was going to steal the show was Usain not winning.  And that was never going to happen.  Not even with his usual atrocious start.  Too damn tall.  Not even with public villain number one, Justin Gatlin’s, brilliant start.  Not even with a big gap to overcome.  For a split second of a moment we might have wondered…and then he powered through to the finish line in his customary first place.  Nothing spectacular this time; no world record.  A solid 9.81.  He had to work for it.  But he was still easing up as he was pounding his chest in his trademark victory salute.  No wonder Gatlin had to resort to drugs.  Even then, he has never been able to get anywhere near him.  Don’t bother Justin.  You are in the presence of greatness.

Usain is a man of the people.  He interacts with the crowd: smiling, waving, kissing, hand slapping.  He takes selfies with the heptathletes.  Usain and Jess – what a photo.  He takes off his shoes and stands up on the boarding so he can get to his Jamaican team mates.  Handshakes and thanks.  Then, the money shot.  The lightening bolt pose for the photographers.  He soaks up the adulation of the crowd.  They chant his name as though he is a gladiator.  Forget gladiator.  He is the emperor of athletics.  A hug for the young pretender van Nierkerk, who dared to steal his thunder with a world record.  But no one can take the attention away from Usain.  He is too compelling to watch.  If sport is entertainment, Usain is your man.  If sport is pushing the limit of human endeavour, Usain is your man.  The fastest man on earth.  A running god.  A Man United fan (he has good taste).  Winner.  Hero.  Legend.

The Olympics: Day 6

Rowing:  After a glut of bronzes and a couple of golds yesterday, there was one colour of medal missing.  That oversight was rectified early today when Katherine Grainger and Vicky Thornley won silver in the double sculls.  They had been leading the race and the gold looked a possibility but the Polish boat slowly inched past them towards the end to win by 0.95 secs.  If coming 4th is the worst possible place, then surely silver must be the most bittersweet position.  Is it a gold lost or a silver won?  That is the question.  For Katherine Grainger, it made her the most successful British female Olympian with five medals, four of them silver, to go with the gold she won at London 2012.  Considering Grainger is 40 years old and the pair weren’t even initially in the Olympic team before getting a reprieve, it is an incredible achievement and certainly a silver won.

Canoe Slalom C2:  Another silver won – or was it gold lost?  At one point, just like our rowers, the team of David Florence and Richard Hounslow were leading during their run and appeared destined for gold, but unfortunately, they struggled through the final two gates, and lost out by a whisker to Slovakian cousins Ladislaw and Peter Skantar.  It was, though, a redemption for David Florence after the disaster of the C1, even if he and his partner could not improve on the silver they won in London 2012.

Rugby Sevens:  GB were playing Fiji in the final.  Sevens is Fiji’s spiritual sport.  They are the best.  They were the top seeds.  The hot favourites.  There was only ever going to be one outcome.  It was a question of by how many.  The answer was a whopping 43 points to 7.  It was Fiji’s first ever Olympic medal, and they will be dancing in the streets of Suva tonight.

Track Cycling:  Silver service seemed to be the order of the day.  Until we entered the Velodrome.  Team GB don’t do any colour but gold in the track cycling.  8 golds in London.  7 golds in Beijing.  So it’s simply going to be a question of how many, and which event?  Gold numero uno in Rio – team sprint.  Philip Hindes, Jason Kenny and Callum Skinner kicked off the quest with an Olympic record to beat NZ by a tenth of a second.  Strangely, it was something of a surprise win as the team was without the legendary Chris Hoy, now retired, and had been performing poorly.  But cometh the Olympics, wineth the gold.  It was also Jason Kenny’s fourth Olympic gold, putting him third in the all time British list behind Sir Chris Hoy and Sir Steve Redgrave.  He will still have two more opportunities to add to his tally.  And if he does, will it be Sir Jason Kenny?

Jason Kenny’s missus-to-be was also keen to get in on the winning act.  Laura Trott has a couple of gold medals herself and looks odds on to add to her haul, after the pursuit team set a world record in qualifying.  So if gold is your colour, and GB is your team, the Velodrome is the only place to be.

Tennis:  I may have mentioned once or twice that I believe tennis should not be in the Olympics.  But as a diehard fan it is near impossible to resist watching one of my favourite sports.  Especially as my favourite player is the defending Olympic champion and the reigning Wimbledon champion.  And favourite for gold.  But life with Andy Murray is anything but straightforward.  He likes to make his fans sweat.  He was playing Fabio Fognini, fabulous and frustrating in equal measure.  It was frustrating Fabio in the first set as he made error upon error to gift Andy the set.  An early break to Murray in the second set and it seemed an early bath all round.  But did I mention that Andy doesn’t do straightforward?  From winning at a canter he seemed to lose concentration in the blustery and glaringly sunny conditions, as Fognini suddenly remembered how to be fabulous.  He reeled off 8 games in a row to level the match and go a break up himself in the final set.  It looked like game over.  But Andy rather enjoys battles of attrition – a little too much for my liking – and broke back in the nick of time.  There was only one winner now.  Andy finally prevailed 6-1, 2-6, 6-3.  But it had been close, too close.

Swimming:  It was all about the mighty Michael Phelps once more (when isn’t it about the supreme swimming god?) and his showdown with team mate Ryan Lochte in the 200m Individual Medley.  Things looked a little friendlier backstage than they had been between Phelps and Chad le Clos before the Butterfly – there were no Darth Maul death stares – but the rivalry was deadly, and the crowd were going bonkers as the swimmers took their marks.  Ryan Lochte was the world champion and world record holder, but Michael Phelps was a gold medal winning machine.  So who would prevail?  Did you really need to ask?!  Phelps absolutely destroyed the field as Lochte was nowhere to be seen.  Phelps seemed utterly nonplussed at winning yet another gold, and who could blame him?  He wins gold medals the way others have hot dinners.  It was his fourth gold medal of the Rio games and his 22nd – yes, that’s right, 22nd! – gold overall.  Is there really any point in anyone else turning up when he is racing?

And still he wasn’t finished.  There was the 100m Butterfly semi-final to go.  Race.  Win gold.  Get medal.  Sing national anthem.  Kiss family.  Race.  Qualify for next final.  That is the Phelps swimming schedule.  I am exhausted writing it.

Men’s Table Tennis:  Guess which country won the gold?  Guess which country won the silver?  It’s a toughie.  I will give you a few minutes to think about it.

 

 

Murray’s Moment of Destiny

Andy Murray needs an epiphany.

Or alternatively, he could watch last night’s episode of Today at Wimbledon and listen to Boris Becker, the mastermind behind Novak Djokovic’s inexorable rise to tennis domination.

“Obviously you are not going to win a Wimbledon final by waiting for the other guy to lose it…you have to go for your shots, you have to be aggressive, you have to just do a little bit more than the other guy.”

In an individual sport, your greatest opponent is not the guy standing on the other side, but your own fallible self.  As I have stated on this blog before, Andy’s greatest nemesis has always been his own passivity.  Too often, he has been content to plant himself at the back of the court, trading endless ground strokes and waiting for the other guy to make a mistake.  Far too often, the other guy, being Roger Federer or Novak Djokovic, hasn’t made a mistake but gone for the winner and made it.

To win in tennis, you must be prepared to evolve.  To change.  Andy must change his mentality permanently if he wants to be a serial Grand Slam winner.  He must accept the need to be aggressive and ruthless, and kill points off at the first opportunity.

Andy will never have a better chance to win a third Grand Slam.  For the first time he is not playing a GOAT (greatest of all time rather than the animal variety!).  For the first time, he is playing a player ranked below him, who has never been in a final before, and dare I say it, someone who, although he is playing the best tennis of his life, is not as good a tennis player as Andy.

This Wimbledon final is Andy Murray’s to lose.  But he has to go out there and win it, not wait passively for Milos Raonic to bottle it.  He has to go into the match with an aggressive mindset.  Yes, his return of serve will be important, but more significantly, he needs to stop Raonic from coming forward and dictating the match.  Raonic is in the same boat as Andy as he too has a need to be more aggressive, which is why he has recently called on John McEnroe, one of the greatest serve and volleyers of all time, to help him develop a more offensive game.  Like I said, you need to embrace change if you want to be a winner.

The outcome of this match will be decided by who is prepared to be more daring and aggressive when the opportunity arises.  I would like to think that player will be Andy.  Ultimately, his game is superior to Raonic, and if he can play with confidence (and why shouldn’t he when there is no GOAT – still of the sporting variety – staring back at him?), and look to come forward and take his chances (yes, they are all cliches, but for a very good reason), he will beat Raonic, just as did at Queen’s a few weeks ago, and at the Australian Open semi-final in January.

If Andy can win Wimbledon tomorrow, he could go on to win a few more Grand Slams.  There is still time, and there is no one below him who is better than him.

Less caution, more opportunism.  That is the way for Andy Murry to win Grand Slams.

 

Wimbledon: Novak Shock-ovic!

Hands up who saw this coming?  No, me neither.  I doubt even Sam Querry’s nearest and dearest would have imagined such an outcome in their wildest dreams.  To anyone who has followed tennis for the last couple of years, it must have seemed like Novak would keep winning forever to the point where you were left wondering why anyone else bothered to turn up and play.

Novak’s shock third round defeat at Wimbledon (he hasn’t lost this early in a Grand Slam since 2009, would you believe) may be devastating for him and his fans, but it is a blessed relief for tennis.  As I have stated before on this blog, sport needs rivalries.  Or it needs to be dominated by big, crowd pleasing personalities.  Djokovic elicits respect, but he is not adored.  Not like Federer, Nadal or Murray.  That grates on him.  He has done everything this year to play to the crowd.  Only the rain sodden Roland Garros crowd responded in kind.  Perhaps they could see how hard he was trying to win them over and felt sorry for him.  But elsewhere, Djokovic has found it hard to get the love.  And he was certainly not going to get any at Wimbledon, Federer and Murray’s backyard!

With him gone, the draw opens up.  Uncertainty may be bad in politics and finance, but in the sporting arena, it is the lifeblood on which sport thrives.  Predictability in sport means boredom and stagnation.  With the demise of the big four, and Andy Murray unable to challenge Djokovic’s supremacy in Grand Slams, tennis was turning into a procession, and for many tennis fans, it was turning them off (ok, it was turning me off).

It is fitting that it should be the biggest and best Grand Slam in the world, Wimbledon, that will crown a new champion for the first time since the French Open last year, when Stan Wawrinka shocked Djokovic in the final and made him wait another agonising year to complete his career Grand Slam.

No doubt, after some rest and recuperation, Novak Djokovic will be back fighting to reinstate himself as the supreme tennis champion.  But in the meanwhile, Federer and Murray fans (yes, that would be me!) are rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect of another coveted Wimbledon title for their man.

Plus ça change Andy, plus ça change

There’s a famous quote attributed to Albert Einstein where he defines insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.  Obviously no tennis coach except Ivan Lendl has managed to point out this truism to Andy Murray, or if they have, he has chosen to ignore it.  Unfortunately for him, it is the sole reason why he has now lost yet another Grand Slam final.

Andy has, of course, had the misfortune to play in probably the greatest era of men’s tennis, and the three men who have been his nemeses are currently the most successful tennis players of all time.  Roger Federer is number one with 17 Grand Slams; Rafael Nadal is joint second with Pete Sampras on 14 and Novak Djokovic today became the third most successful player (jointly with Roy Emerson) on 12.  Therefore, it should be no disgrace to lose to the very best.  However, for a player who has now been in 10 Grand Slam finals himself, which is no mean feat, Andy has never given himself a chance in most of the finals he has played.

Andy’s greatest nemesis has not been one of the illustrious trio but his own passivity.  Yet again today in the French Open final, after an excellent start, Andy gave away the initiative to Novak Djokovic on a silver platter right at the beginning of the second set and promptly lost the match – very tamely.  From aggressive intent to passive pitter patter in the space of two games.  How to explain such a pathetic retreat?  Andy won the first set 6-3.  So far all was good.  He then put Djokovic under pressure straight away and earned himself a break point.  Even better.  But at the very point that Andy should have been aggressive and taken the break point on, he allowed Djokovic to take the initiative and come forward, and he duly said thank you very much and won the point.

From that moment on, the worm turned.  Novak won the game and for some inexplicable reason, Andy started retreating into his shell and seemed content simply to return the ball back to Novak and wait for him to make a mistake.  But Novak wasn’t making mistakes in the first set just for the hell of it.  He was making them because Andy forced him to do so by playing aggressive tennis and not allowing him to get into a rhythm.  So why, oh why, did Andy not do more of the same in the second set?  What did he have to lose?  He wasn’t the favourite for the match.  He didn’t have the pressure of going for the career Grand Slam.  The match was Novak’s to lose.  Andy had the freedom to hit out and just go for it.

Instead, it was back to the same old, same old.  Pitter patter tennis from the back of the court waiting for his opponent to do something.  Well, you leave it to the man who has won 5 out of the last 6 Grand Slams and all he will do is to say thank you very much and get you with one of those soul destroying precision shots that tantalisingly skims the line for a winner.  Which is exactly what Novak did.  And yet, not once did Andy return to his aggressive attacking game that had served him so well in the opening set.  Well, not until all hope was lost in the fourth set.  He managed to break Djokovic’s serve as he was serving for the title.  Sadly for Andy, Novak had the safety net of a double break so his effort was futile because it was so belated.  Why could he not have mustered up such risky never-say-die tennis when it actually mattered in the 2nd and 3rd sets?  In fact, why play passively at all?  Why go back to that?

Some may cite fatigue for Murray’s easy capitulation, but if that was the case, surely it was all the more reason to cut the rallies short by going for an attacking option as soon as he could see an opening.  Why engage in long rallies with the man with the most metronomic precision in tennis?  That way madness lay!  As if the obvious needed stating, the statistics showed that Murray was the one winning the shorter rallies and Djokovic the longer ones.  No shit Sherlock.  Yet Murray persisted in his passively defensive tactics.  And yet again, it cost him a Grand Slam.

Andy has now lost 8 Slam finals out of 10, coincidentally the same as Novak.  But unlike Novak he has won only 2 whereas the Serbian is now joint 3rd on the all time list with 12.  And the reason is simple.  It is not necessarily because Djokovic is better.  Andy is arguably more naturally gifted.  It is because Djokovic, for all his defensive scrambling, is a genius at turning defence into attack.  His tennis is passive aggressive.  He is not content simply to sit at the back and defend.  He is a player who defends with purpose, with intent.  He scrambles not only to get himself back into the point, but where he can, he will try to put his opponent on the back foot at the same time.

Novak is a deceptively aggressive player.  You don’t win 12 Grand Slams in the greatest era of men’s tennis by sitting at the back and waiting for your opponent to make all the moves.  You win by taking calculated risks and going for your shots when the opportunity arises.  Fortune does favour the brave.  It does not favour the passive, the cautious, the careful.  It favours those who make chances and those who take them.  At the start of the second set Andy Murray had a chance and he didn’t dare to take it – and he paid the price.  He let Djokovic back in the game and thus allowed him to grab the initiative in the match.  Djokovic seized that precious opportunity like a ravenous dog given a sliver of a bone and there was no way on earth he was ever going to let go.  Djokovic fully deserves his desperately desired career Grand Slam.

As for Andy – once more he’s been scuppered by his own mental limitations: his inability to break free of his own crippling passivity in the most important matches of his life.  It’s no use making the excuse that he’s playing against one of the greatest.  Andy is perfectly capable of matching Djokovic tennis wise, as was amply demonstrated in the first set.  But he has shown once again that he is incapable of changing his mentality when it really matters.  He cannot maintain an aggressive approach for the whole match against the very best in Grand Slam finals.  That is why Andy is, yet again, the nearly man of tennis rather than the main man.  No change, no win – simple as.