Posted in Tennis, Uncategorized

Roland Garros 2016: Men’s Preview

The 2016 French Open has barely started, but already the list of challengers is one lighter. World number three Roger Federer is out, having thrown his back out of whack in the run-up to the Madrid Masters in April. Once, Federer was a player the gods singled out for their favour. Not just for his style of tennis – so graceful it would make a ballerina weep – but for his charmed imperviousness to injury. From 2000 through 2016, the Swiss didn’t miss a Grand Slam, snagging 17 of them as he put together the greatest CV tennis has seen.

But the cruel winds of circumstance are finally beginning to blow Roger’s way. In February he tore a knee cartilage while running a bath for his twins, necessitating the first surgery of his career. Then came a stomach virus and now a flare-up of the back problem that ailed him throughout his annus horribilis, 2013. With Wimbledon round the corner, and Federer’s 35th birthday in August, are the great man’s chances of major number 18 going-going-gone?

No such problems weigh on world number one Novak Djokovic. Since the start of 2015, the Serb has swept through all opposition like a devouring flame. Such is his dominance that it’s become an act of idiocy not to back Djokovic for every single tournament sight unseen. You don’t even need to watch the matches, so wearyingly predictable has been the result. But just for once Novak isn’t the presumptive no-brainer shoo-in favourite. Firstly, his form has slipped (a little) of late. He lost early in Monte Carlo to Jiri Vesely, while Andy Murray clipped him in the final at Rome. And secondly, Roland Garros is the only major he hasn’t won. If we can be sure of anything in this world, it’s that Novak Djokovic, with every burning fibre of his being, desires to win the French Open. Can he master his inevitable nerves, can he calm his quaking fingers if, say, Nadal (a potential semi-final opponent) starts connecting on his forehand again?

Indeed, Djokovic can be forgiven for feeling a bit overwrought about the Spaniard’s recent resurgence. Lately written off as a busted flush, Nadal has been on a springtime tear, winning in Monte Carlo and Barcelona, then pushing Djokovic uncomfortably close in a 7-5, 7-6(4) quarter-final loss in Rome. A step quicker and seemingly half a head taller, Rafa has rediscovered his mental mojo right on time. With – count them – nine French Open titles to his name, you don’t need advanced analytics to realise that Rafa will be a threat in Paris. But the true, the only, test of whether Nadal is ‘back’ comes over the following two weeks.

And what of Andy Murray? The Scot has a case to be considered the second favourite ahead of Nadal – which just two years ago was a logical absurdity too ridiculous to contemplate, let alone take seriously. For most of his career, Murray had little confidence on the red stuff, believing himself outgunned and – crucially for his counterpunching style – outmanoeuvred. But after back surgery in 2013, Murray improved his movement, and with it his results, beating both Nadal and Djokovic in recent weeks. With those two duking it out on the other side of the draw, you have to fancy him to reach the final.

A not insignificant roadblack in his path might be Stan Wawrinka. I say ‘might,’ because you never know with Stan: is he going to win the tournament or lose limply in the first round? Given his poor recent form, I incline towards the latter. But it could just as easily be the former. Such is the unknowable enigma that is Wawrinka.

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Posted in Football, Uncategorized

Why football got relegated: confessions of a lapsed fan

football

It used to be different. In my younger years, football meant everything to me and a little bit more. Everything I did, I did for football. Devouring Four Four Two magazine? Football. Chain-watching parent-taped Match of the Day videos? Football. Performing an eternity of keepie-uppies in the back garden? Football. Pressing refresh on Ceefax (page 302) so often that I may have put myself at risk of carpal tunnel syndrome? Football, football, and again football. And that’s before I so much as mention video games such as Championship Manager and Pro Evolution Soccer, which between them must have occupied my thumbs for hundreds, nay thousands, of teenage hours. To quote Bill Shankly: ‘Football isn’t a matter of life or death. It’s more important than that.’ Or maybe Sir Alex Ferguson had it better: ‘Football. Bloody hell.’

But even Fergie, who retired as Man Utd manger in 2013, chose to say goodbye to the sport he loved. And while it didn’t generate the same media hoopla, so did I. Once so all-consuming, my football habit began to wane, and it soon became the easiest thing in the world to stop watching football, stop playing football and, yes, stop reading Ceefax (which went the way of all flesh in 2012, anyway). As turnarounds go, it ranks up there with Milan vs Liverpool, 2005. But what was it that changed me, the football obsessive of a decade ago, into someone who – to quote Bill Shankly (again) – would close the curtains if he saw Everton playing in his back garden?

I should clarify, it wasn’t just Everton that I came to dislike. It was every club, every player, every manager, and eventually, every match. The problem was that I had stupefied myself with football, and you can’t do that without consequence. Football fatigue – I had a bad case, and it’s little surprise when you consider how ubiquitous the sport is. Starting in August, the season splutters on until May (July if it’s a World Cup or Euro year), and during that period, you can’t escape football, try as you might. In casual conversation, football is a leveller, a lingua franca: everyone saw last night’s game, and who doesn’t have an opinion on that red card or disallowed goal? Even if it’s not quite our national religion, it’s easily our national hobbyhorse. That and house prices.

Which brings me neatly to a familiar gripe: money. The game has altogether too much of it. Like London’s overheated property market, the Premier League is a plutocrat’s playground, where football teams function like Regency townhouses in Belgravia: they’re status symbols reserved for the billionaire class. As well as being objectionable in itself, this has had the effect of making the sport less unpredictable: only a handful of petrodollar-rich clubs can win the league, or even hope to occupy the Champions League places. And while footballers have enjoyed a meteoric pay rise, their public image has dwindled in inverse proportion. No longer relatable heroes from modest backgrounds, they’re rampant, me-first mercenaries who’ll sign for any and every club with a bigger chequebook. And what about their lamentable performances for England? Have they no passion, no ambition, no pride? I’m generalising to a degree, but there’s a reason the public stock of football players has fallen so low (figuratively, not financially, speaking).

Worse, their wages add up. Despite being bankrolled by squillionaires, ticket prices have risen every year, because basically, screw you fans. But even the fans, the poor downtrodden fans, weren’t spared my ire. And ire is the word. I mean, do football fans like watching football? Because you’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise. Tempers fray, seemingly, at every match. For proof, you only have to look at the sea of hate-contorted faces should a referee decision go against the home team. They say sport is war by other means, but in football it’s closer to a clash of civilisations, an unholy war fought against the enemy in the differently coloured shirt. Perhaps it’s impossible for me to understand. Obsessive as my football fandom was, I never really supported a team. I never had a dog in the fight. And in such a tribal sport, there’s no room for neutrals.

It was never a complete footballing abstention: I would keep tabs on the England national team at major tournaments (only to be disappointed), and wasn’t above watching a Champions League final every other year or so. But the day-to-day of the game passed me by completely. Sacked managers, big-name transfers, relegation six-pointers – it all met with icy indifference. Why give my attention to a sport that was played, watched and run by belligerent, blinkered idiots? Screw that for a game of soldiers.

Or better yet, a game of tennis. That’s right, in case you should wish to know what replaced football in my affections, it was a sport that – in this country at least – is watched for only two weeks a year, and has a twee, garden-partyish association. But better an unpopular sport that’s competitive and fairly fought than a popular sport that’s predictable and ill-tempered. Compared to football, tennis players are generally statesmanlike in defeat. They’re less likely, for instance, to stamp, headbutt or otherwise rain blows on their opponent when feeling frustrated. But possibly the two aren’t so different. I’m prey to the same sporting lusts as before; I’ve just let my eye stray to a different sport.

And lo, changes are afoot in the game of football. This season, the Premier League Establishment have all floundered, and against imponderable odds, Leicester City (yes, Leicester City) have won the league championship. Tottenham Hotspur (yes, Tottenham Hotspur) are poised to finish second. And I’m bound to admit that such an unforeseen turn-up has piqued my interest. In a moment of weakness I found myself watching the second half of the recent Everton vs Man Utd FA Cup semi-final and frankly, I enjoyed it. When Martial scored a last-minute winner, I sat up and felt an oddly familiar thrill in my viscera. Even after this lapse of time, it would seem I’m helpless against football’s advances.

Of course there’s the danger that 2015/16 is an outlier, a once-in-a-generation fluke, and next season the usual suspects will reassert their hold on the Premier League’s throat. Will Leicester, will Spurs be able to stop richer clubs from poaching their best talent? It’s doubtful. And lest we get too misty-eyed about Leicester, we should remember that they’re not exactly unprovided for. Chairman Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha is a billionaire, but that admittedly seems to be a prerequisite in football nowadays. No, I’m prepared to give football another go, another chance to re-capture my heart. The first test will be Euro 2016. Roy Hodgson, don’t let me down (at least, not before the quarter finals).