Murray’s victory captures hearts and minds like few other

There can be few career arcs in tennis that resonate quite as sweetly, and with quite as much tangible inspiration as Andy Murray’s from a talented young player struggling to put it all together to a supreme champion of the game, who reached his thrilling apotheosis in the shimmering atmosphere of Centre Court last Sunday. For Murray’s career has been studded with the kind of juddering emotional setbacks that would have caused a lesser man to crack, to discard all the hours of sweat and toil he had put in over the years through a feeling of helplessness. He had been in countless semi-finals against the other members of the top four club he has so convincingly made himself at home in, and four crushing finals – each closer than the last and therefore harder to deal with physically and emotionally. The agony that was increasing with each defeat nearly bubbled to the surface in losing to Roger Federer in the 2010 Australian Open final, before bursting out of him in a torrent of tears at his defeat in the Wimbledon final last year. Here was a man who had dedicated his whole life to the pursuit of his goals, from moving to a foreign country as a teenager to learn tennis and sacrificing the comforts of his home and friends to building up his body through agonising sessions of physical work to taking that fiendishly difficult hard look at himself and replacing his mental demons with a new calm, a new belief. Yet even after he had exhausted all those steps he was still coming up short and there was no guarantee after Wimbledon last year that he would ever find a way to cross that last barrier. It is therefore to his enormous credit that he never gave up the quest to improve himself, and continue finding the slimmest margins of self-betterment despite the dark hole that must have been growing wider and gnawing harder at him with each excruciating Grand Slam final defeat. There can be fewer worthy, more deserving or more heroic champions than this young man from Dunblane who has left no stone unturned in his quest to maximise his talent and nurture his gifts. Reflected in his shining eyes by the furiously clicking photographers on Sunday was that blissful happiness that accompanies the feeling that a human being has overcome crushing setbacks and moved past the fear of never knowing if what they dreamed about was possible, to transforming it into reality and experiencing the warm glow of fulfilment along with it. The way his career has run the full gamut of emotions to arrive at this giddy precipice of happiness invests his victory and the feelings around it with a sweet joy and a special significance.

This constant struggle against mental demons, this paragon of dedication to self-improvement resonates far beyond the tennis court in any walk of life. Anyone ever facing a difficult professional or personal obstacle, and doubting their fortitude in the face of apparently insurmountable odds, can look to Andy Murray as an example of how sweet a reward can taste if one never shirks the challenge, but instead rises taller to meet it as it grows ever greater in front of one. Anyone ever facing an apparent brick wall and struggling to find the bravery required to knock it down can draw a link between how Andy Murray must have felt after losing important match after important match to the world’s top three players, and then the soaring, sweet joy that would have engulfed him upon realising how he had overcome the great labour of his life to stand victorious at last. His is a tale of talent alloyed to the greatest human qualities: fortitude of heart and mind, ultimate dedication and constant self-improvement.

There will be people on the tennis courts as a result of his victories, but his shining eyes upon realising what he had done carried a message far and wide to all that finding the bravery to confront life’s great challenges can also bring tremendous rewards. Bravo, Andy Murray, for winning Wimbledon at last and bravo, for winning over and inspiring all of us in the greatest possible way.

O’Sullivan’s conflicted relationship with snooker adds gravitas to the game

Ronnie O’Sullivan’s latest instalment of his hate-love affair with snooker has been the subject of much debate within the game, compounded as it was by his inability to emotionally reset himself following his sabbatical from the table and a crowning as world champion that gave the fullest possible exposure to his discordant feelings towards his own sport. However, those concerned with the image of snooker need not fear; O’Sullivan’s frank and fascinating portrait of a man struggling to negotiate the vicissitudes of his own temperament is a resounding testament to the drama and poetry of sport.

Instead of reading with dismay negative connotations into his talk of “snooker not [being] for [him]” or how he can’t “keep putting [himself] through being unhappy”, the game’s well-wishers should treat these as articulations of the timeless, exquisitely cathartic negotiation between the blessing of a sportsman’s talent and the burden of his temperament. When O’ Sullivan, following a flat opening four frames, missed a simple red in his 2008 semi-final with Stephen Hendry and walked off, the initial reaction on his face to that error spoke volumes to the expectations human beings put on their talent, and the subsequent pressure that can swallow them whole if they allow the dam to break. O’Sullivan raised himself from the table ashen-faced, shook his head in an entirely instinctual expression of mingled frustration and self-loathing, and called it quits; his dam had broken, and so was he. Off he walked, leaving a nonplussed and aghast Hendry to also shake his head, collect his cues and walk off an unsatisfied winner.

Yet the regular sports viewers among us would have recognised that fury and frustration O’ Sullivan felt at his sport at that moment as a necessary component of the fierce desire of all artists to produce something of the sort of soaring quality that returns an intangible, almost spiritual satisfaction to its owner ; without this frustration at the immense difficulty involved in producing such virtuoso performances at one’s beck and call, the satisfaction accrued on the rare occasions on which it all falls sweetly into place would also be non-existent. The drama of sport owes much to these raw depictions of the psychological struggles that consume most human beings, whether it lies in O’Sullivan’s inability to cope with the frustration of inevitable dips in his flawless snooker exhibitions, or Luis Suarez’s primal, subconscious urge to bite Branislav Ivanovic following a perceived injustice, or Sergio Garcia’s collapse on the 17th hole of the Players’ Championship at Sawgrass under the knowledge that he could best Tiger Woods in a high-profile battle and surmount the mental hurdles that have haunted him throughout his career, or Richard Gasquet’s tendency to only unfurl his full repertoire of shot-making artistry when he has built a lead and the pressure has subsided.

Dr Steve Peters, the psychologist charged with exorcising Luis Suarez’s demons, has described how human beings struggle to overcome the negative emotions weighing them down as they are often unable to perceive the root causes of those emotions, yet the transparent depiction of this inner struggle through sporting contests is vital and compelling theatre. There are lessons to be learned in Adam Scott’s recovery from a traumatic abdication of his grasp on the British Open Claret Jug at the death, to win the Masters in a nerve-wracking play-off this year, or even the fact that O’Sullivan’s frustration stems from engagement with the highest forms of creative endeavour through the medium of snooker. Sport is a distilled microcosm of the struggles of human life, in which the goals to be attained are clearer and more morally laudable, making the efforts of the protagonists attempting to accomplish them more open to evaluation and reliable as sources of inspiration. Which politician’s success or failure, built on the back of wider forces than himself, can ever be regarded as sincerely or purely as that of the sportsman struggling to overcome his own person to achieve something he knows to be of intangible, immeasurable wealth?

In this respect, O’Sullivan has rendered a great service to snooker by placing it in that hallowed club of sports which by their nature demand the greatest engagement of human talent and spirit from their protagonists, and which carry stories of miraculous successes and heart-wrenchingly heroic failures that will continue to enthrall for generations to come.

Agassi serves up a fault with claim that men’s tennis has never been better

The great Andre Agassi passed some interesting remarks on the lavish state of men’s tennis currently, and in doing so, effectively dismissed his own era as not comparable in quality. This was some judgement to pass, considering that his era contained players of the talent and imagination of Pete Sampras, Agassi himself, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, Gustavo Kuerten and Michael Chang, and so his comments beg closer scrutiny.

Agassi drew a fascinating tactical comparison between how the game was played in his day, and how the range of shots that players can pull off now has rendered those tactics redundant and triggered an “evolution” of the game:

“In my day, somebody who ran well was [Michael] Chang,” Agassi said. “He’s just going to get to one more ball, but that’s his problem if he wants to run one more time, you know. It’s not mine.

“And then you saw it go to Lleyton Hewitt, who would move even better. If you just were off on one [shot], he would then move forward in the court and turn a point around. Now you got problems if you don’t keep him on the defensive. And then you take that to a guy like Djokovic, who probably moves even better than Hewitt ever moved and doesn’t need to turn a point around. When he’s on defence, he can actually win the point with one shot. That’s an evolution of the game.”

Such insight from the eight-time Grand Slam winner suggests he is a fantastic pundit in the making, and the sight of his familiar shaved pate at Melbourne Park as prize-giver to the finalists was a stirring and timely reminder of an era of men’s tennis that could certainly hold its own to this one when it came to dynamic personalities and compelling rivalries, as well as perhaps providing ample ammunition against the growing number of claimants – Agassi now among them – that it was impoverished in comparison to the modern day in its standard of tennis. For while few would argue that Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer’s 2008 Wimbledon epic stands head and shoulders above most other claimants as the purest display of tennis excellence in the modern era, who could equally say that the latent enmity detectable in every match-up between two players and people as markedly different as black and white as Sampras and Agassi were was anything short of pure sporting drama? The quality of matches they put on also challenges the notion that anything Nadal and Federer produced in their titanic clashes was somehow on another plane; Sampras’s straight-set evisceration of Agassi at the 1999 Wimbledon final had commentators ooo’ing and aaah’ing far before Federer elicited the same sounds from them, and the two Americans’ five-set clash at the very same Australian Open where Agassi was consigning his era to the ashes of memory still stands as a shining monument to how sport played between the very best can thrill and inspire. Agassi was dressed in black that day, Sampras in white and the two knights of American tennis duelled back and forth with their unforgettable confrontation of imaginative shot-making of the highest order (Sampras) and nearly inhuman returning and retrieving capabilities that stretched each point to fever pitch (Agassi).

It is the way this generation, led by Djokovic, has improved on the retrieving capabilities that he was so famed for and upon whom Andy Murray, among others, modelled his game that Agassi has now settled to pitch his argument that tennis has moved on. Michael Chang used to be able to return one well-struck ball with his athletic ability, Lleyton Hewitt pushed that further to being able to return and move forward, and now Djokovic can simply reach a potential winner and smack a winner back from an impossible angle with his dizzying mix of athletic ability and shot-making talent. In Agassi’s eyes, the difference between offence and defence has therefore narrowed, and the game has become nearly impossible to plan in a tactical sense. One explosive winner may simply be returned by another explosive winner, and so players stop thinking about dictating points and more about hitting off pure instinct. His theory is borne out by what we saw in the men’s final yesterday, which was a continuation of the mind-blowing, hit-first-look-later, ping-pong rallies that have characterised Djokovic and Murray’s recent encounters.

Agassi’s analysis of the game and its changes is as shrewd as you might expect from one of the most gifted tennis players of the last twenty years; where he falls short, however, is in his attribution of the causes for this “evolution.” In only fleetingly attempting to shed light on what has been behind the change – his remark that he would “have had to have a different body [to play now]” alone pointing the way to the vast improvements in sports science and recovery potential that form part of the reason – , he leaves us with the impression that it is largely to do with the inherent quality of this generation’s set of players over any other factor. Indeed, he even distinguishes between the big four, claiming that while “Fed raised [the standard]”, Nadal “matched and raised it, [and] Djokovic, for that intense period of time, even raised it.” To suggest that Nadal and Djokovic have somehow taken tennis to a level that even Federer could not reach, and that a pattern of constant improvement in the quality of players will be evident so that those following the Big Four will be even better than them (“Something tells me it’s not going to stop here…every five years it seems to click up a different level”) should give everyone pause for thought. Is Agassi not doing a disservice to every great in the history of a great game – including, in that penultimate quotation, Federer, by suggesting that they bear no comparison to anything the latest in the game can produce? Is he not, in fact, talking about the changes that technology and sports science have foisted on tennis, and how it is this, rather than any gigantic leap in the quality of individuals that has transformed the face of the game?

For every time we see Djokovic miraculously sliding across the surface to smack back a ball seemingly already past him to the opposite side of the net with interest, or Murray make a dramatic forehand pass down the line whilst on the run, we marvel at what these players can do and inevitably allow the talents of the Sampras-Agassi generation to dwindle by comparison in our impressionable minds. However, it is abundantly clear that these scarcely believable feats of athletic prowess and tennis ability have almost as much to do with the most dedicated professionals amongst today’s batch taking full advantage of the gargantuan leaps in sports science and racket technology as inherent ability. A cursory glance at the eclectic combination of sprints and tailored weights that comprise Murray’s fitness regimen reveals the extent to which fitness trainers have zeroed in on the kind of body the tennis player of today requires: 4/10’s sprinter (explosive speed), 3/10’s footballer (sudden changes of movement), 3/10’s boxer (cardio and upper body strength). In Sampras’s day, a player would perhaps travel with his coach but now two or three fitness trainers can sometimes be seen sitting in Murray’s box and the benefit of these additions is reflected in the additional balls he reaches from the back of the court in such superhuman fashion.

Once he gets there, however, he still has to make the shot and that is where the racket comes in. Christopher Clarey of The New York Times has reported on how “strings are the real breakthrough in the past decade” and specifically, how “the development of polyester strings has changed the game by allowing players to take bigger cuts without bigger risks.” Thus all those shots that have audience members gasping out loud – Djokovic running like lightning across the baseline to smack a backhand winner that lands flush on the line, or Murray taking an explosive swing at the ball to increase its pace but still landing it in the corner – must be taken with a pinch of salt. How do they reproduce the impossible on such a regular basis, the audience wonders? How have they improved tennis so much? Players from the 90’s may have had access to the same wide frames characterising Djokovic and Nadal’s rackets that also help improve margin for error on shots, but polyester strings have apparently taken it to another level. The game has become punishingly athletic as a result, with stronger athletes being allowed to smack the ball back without finesse to destructive effect and those favouring shots such as the one-handed backhand being forced to discard it simply because the ball is coming back quicker, and net play becoming redundant as coming forward risks being passed by another polyester-aided, perfectly placed pass.

This is not to detract from anything that Djokovic, Nadal and Murray are producing now; given their gifts and searing ambition, they would have adapted and succeeded in any era, just as Sampras and Agassi would have moulded the quantum leaps in rackets and sports science to their inherently superior advantage if they were playing now. However, dubbing any era as a “golden age for tennis” has to speak for human qualities alone, and there is no doubt that people’s perception of soaring standards has been deceptively skewed by factors that are anything but. Shot-making is at an all-time high, but it is also easier to strike a ball with the perfect combination of power and accuracy than it was ten years ago. Players from outside the Big Four are able to produce great shots without necessarily being great, thus devaluing the art and our ability to distinguish true genius or improvisation from that which has been powdered over by technology to appear so. Any comparisons of Nadal and Djokovic to previous generations would therefore have to accept the premise that they are benefitting from a perfect fusion of (admittedly unique) sporting talent with significant breakthroughs in racket technology and sports science to a much greater extent than anyone before them. They are both tennis player and athlete, and it is becoming increasingly hard to separate the two. The aesthetic change accompanying the evolving landscape may not be to everyone’s taste either –  yesterday’s match between Murray and Djokovic was stunning, but also brutalizing; finesse was lost in the constant barrage of shots, and the everyday tennis player might have felt alienated from the turbo-charged game they were watching on television. It was a far cry from the purer form of the game that was practised in Agassi’s time, and it is worth bearing this in mind as we shower unchecked praise on the feats of the modern generation.

Armstrong’s concession lurches sports fans into uncertain new world where nothing is as it seems

In effectively holding up the white flag of surrender by allowing the US Anti-doping Agency (USADA) to strip him of his seven Tour de France titles and ban him for life, Lance Armstrong has burdened all of professional sport with the obligation to confront some ugly truths.

The cold clear light shone on Armstrong’s world by the testimony of former teammates complicit in his crimes still has the power to shock in a sport whose past scandals might have inured us to such feelings by now. In the light of USADA’s compiled evidence (soon to be released to the public), Tyler Hamilton’s interview to CBS about his and Armstrong’s partaking in the wider culture of doping in cycling (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iQZnBpoC2jc) can now be taken at face value. His step-by-step deconstruction of the myth Armstrong and cycling spun, through detailing EPO packages sent back and forth between US Postal team members, furtive trips to Spain on private jets to reap the illegal benefits of blood transfusions and the apparent certainty with which Armstrong knew any positive tests would be covered up, reveals the incestuous extent to which cyclists and cycling’s governing body alike stitched doping into the fabric of the sport to further interests that were to do with anything but.

As big the man, and as hard the fall that awaits him, some of the evidence that the investigation surrounding him has thrown up impels us, USADA and the Court of Arbitration for Sport to look beyond the story of one man’s downfall, and continue probing deeper in a bid to strike the dark heart of the problem. There is enough to suggest that the International Cycling Union (UCI) has been in on Armstrong’s game from at least as far back as 1999, and that they colluded with him to cover up positive tests and further a legend that brought financial rewards to all who were party to its construction. Armstrong continued to fall back on his last, specious bastion of defence yesterday in Austin by insisting that “the only physical evidence here is the hundreds of controls [tests] I have passed with flying colours” (http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/lance-armstrong-issues-statement-over-usada-doping-charges/2012/08/23/839262ae-ed8f-11e1-866f-60a00f604425_story.html). Yet if such a misleadingly clean record was achieved with the complicity of his governing body, what hope remains for sports fans who would have wished to dismiss plausible conspiracy theories out of hand surrounding certain events in their chosen sports? If the UCI realised that by doing away with honesty and scripting a Hollywood-esque tale of glorious victory from the jaws of defeat in its place that fulfilled most of the storylines people seek from sport and guaranteed a windfall of cash, then why should we believe that FIFA acted from any different motive in awarding the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to Russia and Qatar respectively? Perhaps more hard for people to believe, but no less worthy of investigation in the mistrustful atmosphere of the post-Armstrong world, is the conspiracy theory trotted about by some that Manchester City’s injury-time winner to secure the Premier League last season was not entirely organic. Another avenue for investigation lies in Spain, venue for the infamous ‘Operacion Puerto’, and a country where rumours that its successful national footballing team received “special” treatment from doctors can no longer be laughed away.

It is now the burden of responsibility of all sports fans, intrepid media personnel and those institutions that still haven’t lost sight of their decency and obligations to investigate any cloud of suspicion around their sport, rather than taking the easy route out of turning a blind eye and continuing business as usual. Otherwise, they leave themselves open to the kind of crushing disappointment and shattering unravelling of truth that cycling fans are grappling with now. Cricket fans might wish to believe that the problem of match-fixing was nipped in the bud when three Pakistani cricketers were banned in 2010, but a more plausible theory to advocate and investigate would be whether the International Cricket Committee banned them to quiet media efforts to probe gambling in cricket and thereby protect their own collusion with wealthy mafia who guarantee them higher incomes than their sport can provide. Those who dismiss such fear-mongering as the petty imaginings of fools disregard how the shoe has gone onto the other foot in the post-Armstrong world. Similarly, can we really trust the PGA to investigate Tiger Woods’s links to Anthony Galea – the Canadian doctor associated with doping athletes – thoroughly at the risk of jeopardising the career of an athlete who has brought staggering benefits to the game of golf and all those employed by it? There is no reason to believe Tiger Woods guilty, but at the same time, there is no longer any reason not to investigate and hopefully disprove any lingering threads of suspicion. This can be the only way in which an increasing number of fans are not lost to their sports through cynicism and a justifiable reticence to believe what they are watching.

For all those who cling on to the hope that it is next to impossible for a sportsman of Armstrong’s stature to lead a double life on and off the cameras in today’s paparazzi world, they have to ask themselves why it took over a decade for his deception to come to light. As with Tiger Woods who maintained an image of being a family man long after that world had ceased to exist, and countless politicians, powerful public figures can control their image through associating themselves with the right “advisors” (and Armstrong had countless of these) and offering important bodies sufficient incentive to get behind them. Sports administrators are as partial as any other person to the lure of money, and if making money means participating in the construction, dissemination and maintenance of a beautiful lie and selling the soul of their sport in the process, then that is what they have proved themselves capable of doing. From now on, nothing is too far-fetched, and no longer should true fans of any sport consider not coming to its rescue because they are enjoying potentially false storylines and epic dramas too much to care.

Nadal’s injuries hurt all of tennis

Sports fans have short memories and are quick to move on, but both Rafael Nadal’s stature and the nature of the injury suffered calls for a moment to pause and consider. What made Nadal’s initial withdrawal, from the Olympics, all the more worrisome was that it had swiftly followed a Wimbledon match he had completed without sustaining any obvious injury. In football, some of the most damaging injuries are those sustained by players for whom there was no obvious external cause – such as an opposition stud or a dangerous tackle. They suggest chronic, deeper-lying structural flaws that cannot be totally overcome by surgery, nor detected until they flare up again, nor calmed without the passage of time. Nadal’s passage has now extended from the Olympics to the Rogers Cup, to Cincinnati and now the US Open. What kind of injury worsens, or simply doesn’t go away even when the player is resting?

His absence was easily forgotten in the heat of Murray-mania during the tournaments at Wimbledon this summer, but will slowly extend a shadow over the ATP the longer he stays away. If Roger Federer continues his excellent form, fans will look for confirmation of the worth of this late-period revival in the form of a contest against his most testing opponent. Andy Murray might initially take a first major on the back of defeating one or both of Federer and Djokovic, but consistently holding sway with every member of the big three will be a challenge denied him in full until the return of its longstanding member. Part of the appeal of the top four players in men’s tennis is the way in which they constantly push each other to new levels of greatness in unfailingly epic encounters, which provides a preferable option to when one player lords it over the rest. Nadal is a vital part of this competitive appeal.

Apart from all that, it is never nice to see a player – particularly one as lodged in the affections of the fans as Nadal – suffer such unplanned changes of direction to their career. Sportsmen take pride in shaping their own destiny, and it would be cruel to see the most hardworking tennis player of all be denied the chance to play out the second half of his career on his terms.