Posted in Tennis

Putting an ‘I’ in ‘team

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To the strains of The Proclaimers and the cheers of the Emirates Arena in Glasgow, Great Britain reached the Davis Cup final this weekend with a 3-2 win over Australia. Commentator Andrew Castle was excited, and rightly: it’s an achievement of world-historical magnitude. Not since 1936 have GB won a Davis Cup, and their most recent journey to the final round was as far back as 1978, when wooden racquets and Swedes named Bjorn still ruled the sport.

The Davis Cup is a team competition, but in getting this far, Britain have pushed the word ‘team’ to its logical limits. Last year, the twin talents of Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka propelled Switzerland to the title. In 2012 and 2013, Tomas Berdych and Radek Stepanek chipped in for the Czech Republic. In 2011, Rafael Nadal, David Ferrer, Fernando Verdasco and Feliciano López stepped up for Spain. This year, GB have Andy Murray. Just Andy Murray. Take out Murray, the world no. 3, and there’s a yawning vacuum: the next-best player, by ranking, is untested Kyle Edmund at 99 (Aljaz Bedene, ranked 55, is ineligible for the Davis Cup, being cup-tied for his earlier career appearances for native Slovenia).

True, James Ward (no. 134), is a Davis Cup warrior whose against-the-odds victories over Sam Querrey, last year, and John Isner, this, turned each tie in GB’s favour. And there’s Dan Evans (300), a skilful, if mercurial, talent whose arty single-handed backhand propelled him to the 3rd round of the 2013 US Open. But in the elite company of the World Group, don’t lay your bets on either winning too many rubbers. The one incontestably great singles player GB have is Murray. Compare us to quarter-final opponents France (who can call upon Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Gilles Simon, Richard Gasquet and Gael Monfils, all ranked 24 or higher), and we’re at least four world-class players light.

So how did GB beat them, and then Australia? For all Murray’s brilliance, he alone can only ever muster two out of the three rubbers needed for victory. He needs a leg-up, and who better to oblige than older brother, Jamie. Jamie Murray, always deadly in doubles, is riding a career-high ranking of 7, having reached the last two Grand Slam doubles finals. Pooling their talents, the Murray brothers are dauntingly strong: Andy is the master returner, Jamie the virtuoso volleyer. Together they give captain Leon Smith, the mastermind of GB’s tennis renaissance, a winning hand: the Murray brothers’ victories over first the French and then the Australian doubles teams were decisive in both ties.

They were also the most entertaining matches in each weekend. The primacy of doubles is one of the more interesting things about Davis Cup. For much of the year, it finds itself sidelined (or should that be tramlined), banished from the big showcourts to make way for the feature act that is singles. So rarely do the top singles players bother with doubles that it may as well be considered a different sport. To many, it is a different sport: all touch, reflex and improvisation, a far cry from the power- and consistency-dominated modern singles game. The mental side is refreshingly different, too. Witness Andy Murray, so often a scowl with a tennis racquet during singles matches, become a focused, proactive can-doer with his brother by his side.

But doubles apart, the credit side of the Davis Cup ledger is looking a little depopulated. That this old competition needs a reboot is more than a minority opinion. This season, Andy Murray was the only marquee name to play the Davis Cup from the start. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal only answered the call last weekend, when their country was threatened with relegation. Representing your flag in the Davis Cup should be a patriotic privilege, but in a tough 11-month season, it can seem a bitter chore. Perhaps there is just too much Davis Cup. It styles itself ‘the World Cup of tennis,’ but would the World Cup itself be as prestigious if contested every single year? Even Sepp Blatter knows the answer to that one.

Flawed as it is, the Davis Cup is clearly a trophy on which Andy Murray has set his heart. In recent years he’s cast covetous eyes first at Nadal, then Djokovic, then Federer as each won glory for their country. He wants to put Britain’s 79-year itch for Davis Cup glory to an end. And so on to the fair shores of Belgium, GB’s opponents in the final. As the home team, they get to choose the surface on which the tie is played. To the surprise of no one, they chose clay, the surface most likely to inconvenience Andy Murray, and if nothing else, wear him out. Murray will, yet again, be up to his eyebrows in work, if he isn’t already tuckered out by playing the World Tour Finals (on hardcourt) the week before. That’s how it goes when one player (or two siblings) shoulder the hopes of the entire team. It may be a match too far. Let’s hope not.

For too long, Britain have struggled for basic Davis Cup respectability, never mind thought about winning it. No more. The irresistible force that is British tennis, after falling into a slumber in 1936, trembles once more on the verge of glory. Expect Andrew Castle to become even more excited.

Posted in Culture

That is the Question

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For years, I was unpersuaded by the pub quiz. To me, a self-appointed Young Clever Person, they were dull: entertainment of the boring, by the boring, for the boring; orgies of quasi-intellectualised nonsense meant to bilk barflies and poseurs out of their loose change. What was trivia, after all, if not trivial? Even when asked nicely, I would no more think of taking part in a pub quiz than I would a bring & buy sale, or a fully costumed re-enactment of the Battle of Nantwich. They weren’t my cup of tequila. At all.

Then something changed. What changed was this: I competed in a pub quiz. Previously, I had only ever been a bystander, a non-combatant caught in the quizmaster’s crossfire. Which could be annoying, especially if you were mid-conversation. So, blindsided by yet another pub quiz and another mic’d-up quizmaster, we decided, my pals and I, to abandon the habit of our lifetimes. We produced our £2s and quizzed. For the first time, I found myself answering pub-quiz questions in anger.

And we won. Quite handily, as it turned out. It was a victory that changed everything. Winning was like taking a big hit of some delicious drug. That day, I left home a sceptic and returned a fanatic. What was boring was suddenly fascinating. I had been bitten on the brain by the pub-quiz bug. And to think we had won so easily without practice or revision or training. Imagine what was possible if one of us actually knew something! Feeling for the first time the full scale of my ignorance, I proceeded to nourish myself on the tree of knowledge. I visited libraries, I watched Eggheads, I ate superfoods with brain-boosting properties.

Because, despite my glowing example, one can’t simply rock up at a pub quiz and expect to prosper. If you have designs on winning, you need a certain amount of smarts. You must become a lifelong learner. Use me as a cautionary example. I’ve seen the innards of books, my brain circuits are honed by strategic turn-based video games (Civilization 4, Championship Manager 01/02) and I possess a fund of information on hamsters, tennis history and miserabilist ‘80s indie pop. But for all that, I remain a makeweight. The simplest questions still stump me (‘Name one dog’) and my best guesses can be criminally off base.

But this is where one’s fellow quizzers earn their keep. Getting a winning team together can be more art than science, but largely, the smarter your compadres, the better their chances of plugging the gaping holes in your knowledge. The presiding genius on my team is not me – far, far from it – but a certain R. Learned across the arts and sciences, R probably has a full 50 IQ points on the rest of us put together. No question ever gets the better of his colossal intellect, no lateral-thinking puzzle ever defeats his miraculous powers of deduction. Well, very occasionally R might err, but for an amateur quizzer, he’s got a hell of a lot of game (which is just as well: I’m halfway to being a halfwit).

It was at full strength (i.e. with R with us) recently that we assembled at The Grapes, in Limehouse, for its Monday quiz. The Grapes, for the uninitiated, is a pub of great antiquity owned by someone of similar vintage: Sir Ian McKellan. Even in London, you don’t see its like very often. Tall, narrow and nibbled by the River Thames, it totters under the weight of its centuries-old history. And the pub’s ancientness and advantageous location bring it distinguished custom on quiz night. Being a slip of a place, there are only a few tables, but on them are collectively gathered what is pleased to think itself the chief intelligentsia of Limehouse society. Clearly, we were going to have our hands full.

To the quiz proper. The opening questions were so pants-poopingly easy the answers wrote themselves (though not without the odd stumble over spelling: is ‘a capella’ one word or two?). Inevitably, the difficulty curve soon ramped up, but we were equal to it. As usual, R was in full flight, and for once, T had troubled to bring his A-game too. Both M and C pitched in plentifully when opportunity offered. Me? I was saving myself for the music round. And how it paid off, when, quick as a flash, I recognised the jingly opening bars of Four Non Blondes – ‘What’s Up’. It’s one of those annoying songs, you see, that you know but don’t know.

Flushed with that triumph, I tackled the anagram, which had soundly defeated all comers. How unfathomable could a few scrambled letters be? Very, as it turned out. I furrowed both brows, I gave the thing the cream of the Emmerson brain, but nothing would unriddle it. And I had about as much luck with the questions in the second half. Some were so stupid-bonkers difficult that I had to fight the instinct to weep on the spot. And for a fiendish few, even the collective efforts of R and a zoning T drew a blank. Still, we performed creditably. Whether it would be enough to triumph in the pub-quiz snake pit that is The Grapes was another question. We waited, in an agony of anticipation.

Not being one to leave the reader on tenterhooks, I’ll tell you: we won. By one whole point. It was an away victory! In hostile territory! (everyone there was really friendly, but still). My heart was singing. I was brimming over with pride. Do you see what I’m getting at now? Only in a pub quiz are such feelings of jubilation possible! Pub quizzes: they tickle every brain cell of your being. So come and quiz, all ye with hungry minds and thirsty bellies! If anyone should ask for me, I shall be in the Grapes, prepping fiercely for the defence of our title. Address letters care of Sir Ian McKellan.

Posted in Athletics

Beijing’s Forbidden Champion

“He’s saved his title. He’s saved his reputation. He may even have saved his sport.”

It’s fair to say Usain Bolt’s win over Justin Gatlin in the men’s 100m at the Beijing World Championships met with Steve Cram’s approval. This mostly unflappable commentator, working for a mostly impartial broadcaster, the BBC, was going unashamedly bonkers for Bolt. And, watching at home, so was I. So was everyone.

Bolt Vs. Gatlin in Beijing had been billed as a ‘battle for the soul of athletics.’ In the Good corner: Usain St. Leo Bolt, the sport’s showman, its drawcard, its crossover superstar. To a great many, Bolt is athletics: it’s on his lanky shoulders that the fame and reputation of this sometimes niche sport rests. And his adversary, in the Bad corner: Justin Gatlin, a two-time drugs cheat (who insists it’s only the one time), running faster than ever at the suspiciously advanced age of thirty three.

That Gatlin is a proven doper is bad, but he’s not the only offender. Cast an eye over the start list for the men’s 100m final and you’ll find three others: Mike Rodgers, Asafa Powell and Tyson Gay. That Gatlin is an unrepentant drugs cheat is worse, not least because it sends this message to would-be athletes and fellow competitors: cheats can prosper, even if you get caught. Twice.

And was Gatlin prospering. He ran a personal-best 9.74 seconds in Doha in May (Bolt’s best this season by comparison was a dawdling – by his standards – 9.87) and came into the 100m final riding an unbeaten streak of 26 races. Not only was the American unrepentant, but he was winning. Perhaps if he had been a second-rater – a Rogers or Powell – who hadn’t presumed to topple Bolt’s throne, athletics would have been quicker to forgive. But all the signs going into Beijing were that Gatlin, not Bolt, was poised to become world champion. It was a prospect that made many an athletics watcher shift uncomfortably.

It’s a shame Gatlin’s credentials are so dubious, because rivalries in sport are a Good Thing – witness what Nadal and Federer have done for tennis, Barcelona and Real Madrid for football. And until this year, save for a spirited challenge in 2012 by compatriot Yohan Blake (since injured), Bolt had been rival-free. No one was his equal, even on a bad day. We should embrace Gatlin, runs the counterargument, warts and all, for stepping up and threatening what until now had been an exercise in futility – beating Bolt. And Gatlin isn’t the devil, just a doper, which in criminal terms is more a petty pilferer than a contract killer. Anyway, the hero/villain narrative can only serve to add spice to an already tongue-tingling dish.

Bolt, for his part, sat on his hands when asked to denounce Gatlin, insisting he was racing for his own glory, not the sport’s. But whatever his motivations, it was clear something was weighing on him. Lining up for the semi-final, he seemed pressured, overanxious. The trademark pre-race mugging to camera was stilted, stagey. A visibly nervous Usain Bolt was overplaying the part of Usain Bolt. And when the race started, he was unrecognisable. Stumbling out of the blocks, he was well down at the halfway stage, winning in 9.96 seconds only thanks to a frantic late-race surge. He shook his head in self-reproof at the finish line; his fans wore worried brows. Gatlin, in his semi-final, duly riposted with an effortless 9.77. Surely there was only going to be one winner.

So, to the final. As the sprinters limbered up, as the stadium hushed up, the reputation of track and field trembled on the brink of collapse. All was in readiness for a Gatlin victory. Fearful, I clung to the empty hope that Bolt would find his form, that Gatlin would lose his. No chance. But for once, Bolt started the race well. At 40m he was actually ahead – just – but then Gatlin drew into the lead. For a terror-edged moment it looked as if Gatlin was pulling away. But instead, he seemed to slow down.

What was happening? Bolt was coming in hot, Gatlin, into a force-ten hurricane. Was Destiny showing her hand, or did the American, when it really mattered, bottle it? Because, by one-hundredth of a second, via a storming finish and a floundering rival, Bolt had won. He had actually won. As Gatlin grinned ruefully and Steve Cram got throaty with relief and joy, a knowing smile played across Bolt’s face. A minute later, there he was pulling his scene-stealing ‘lightening bolt’ pose. The Beijing crowd were rapturous. The saviour of athletics had laid another gift at his sport’s feet.

When you get beaten by Bolt, you stay beaten. Come the 200m later in the week – his favourite event – Bolt’s road to glory was clear before him. He defeated Gatlin with ease, in a world-leading time of 19.55 seconds. Perhaps Gatlin should be grateful. Thanks to Bolt (twice, and once more for good measure in the relay), he was spared the dubious distinction of being the most controversial winner in athletics history.