New Balls, Please

Yesterday Novak Djokovic won the Australian Open Men’s Tennis Final. In grand style. His opponent, Andy Murray, was Britain’s great hope and the nation stood anxiously by as he lost yet another Grand Slam final. Commentators said Djokovic won the match as much as Murray lost it. And lose it he did, in more ways than one.

I am not a huge fan of the Scotsman, Andy Murray, I have to confess. His tennis is great, constantly getting better and he works hard at it. However, I find his on-court behaviour and monosyllabic, monotone demeanour tedious and frustrating to watch. His post-match interviews tend to be the same whether he’s won or lost. I heard a comedian say that Andy Murray made Gordon Brown (the then British prime minister) look charismatic. I think you get the point.

So yesterday, in deference to my husband’s Scottishness, and as a temporary resident of Great Britain, I chose to support Andy Murray in the Australian Open final. After about ten minutes I wished my allegiance lay with the balletic, crazy athletic skills and calm demeanour of Novak Djokovic, who was so much easier to support. I found the childish, pouting tantrums that have come to characterise Andy Murray’s game, really difficult to watch.

He yelled at his “team”, he told them to relax and calm down, he told them to “shut up” and he swore like a trooper at almost every error in his game. He kept his eye, worryingly, on his team’s box after every shot, as though he was going to get into trouble for playing badly. His head hung low through most of the match. He threw his racket on the ground, he smashed the ball back across the court when he made yet another unforced error, and he ranted and raved. His mental attitude clearly didn’t serve him well.

In the post-match award ceremony, Andy Murray conceded that his friend, Novak’s, game had been unbelievable and he deserved to win. He then went on to say thank you to all the right people: his team, the tournament organisers, the volunteers, the court-side staff and all his fans.

Novak Djokovic, on the other hand, thanked his team and said he wouldn’t be where he was without them. He said that although tennis is an individual sport, he could not continue without the hard work that happens, for him, behind the scenes.

“I love you, guys,” he called out to his team. They, in turn, applauded as they took photos of their man of the moment, and shouted back, “We love you too”.

He thanked his family, mentioning his brothers in particular. He thanked the Australian Open team, he acknowledged the suffering of those who’d lost loved ones or homes in the devastating floods in Queensland, and he dedicated his newly-won trophy to his troubled home country, Serbia.

How differently this would this have played out had the final result been different, I cannot be sure. But based on yesterday’s performance, this is how I see it:

Two superb athletes? For sure. Two international sporting icons? Without doubt. Two true sportsmen? I’m not convinced. Let’s see what happens next.

Sunshine signing off for today!

Bob’s the Leftie

So there’s this Swedish guy, a Spaniard, two Polish guys and a pair of twins from the US … Not a lame joke, but the line-up for the ATP World Tour Tennis Finals at the O2 Arena last night. Another ticket in our red box.

Bryan twins, joined at the grip. Photo courtesy of commons.wikimedia.org

I’d been looking wistfully at the ads for the tennis, wishing I could go again this year. I treated myself to a ticket last year and, somehow, it felt like too much of a luxury this year. I got an email from a friend last week to say he’d been given two tickets for last night’s tennis, and asked if I wanted to go with him. Did I ever? Duh.

For those who may not know, the ATP World Tour Finals involve the top eight players from the year’s men’s tour. The final eight are only confirmed close to the start of this week, as the contenders are still playing in tournaments and racking up points. The tournament takes the form of a round robin, so you don’t know who you’re going to see until a day or two before.

We discovered on Sunday that last night we’d see Robin Soderling (Sweden) play David Ferrer (Spain) in the singles, and the Bryan twins (USA) take on the Polish pairing of Matkowski and Fyrstenberg.

It was a fabulous evening of tennis, which saw Matkowski and Fyrstenberg beat the reigning world doubles champions in three sets and Soderling take Ferrer in two.

I love the new doubles’ format for non-Grand Slam matches: when the score reaches deuce, they play a deciding point – receiver’s choice – rather than playing advantage, and deuce continuing forever. Also, the third set is played as a championship tiebreak, where the winners are the first to ten points, two points clear of their opponents. It makes the game much quicker and more exciting.

The Bryan twins were brilliant. The VT of their tennis journey revealed that Andre Agassi was their tennis idol; as children, they had posters of him all over their bedroom and they always wanted to be like him. They’ve been playing tennis since they were two, their father owns a tennis club and their mother is a pro tennis player.

“Bob’s the leftie, and Mike’s the rightie,” said the voice-over.

They bounced on to the court. They run and bounce and reach and jump and slam and smash and lob. Each point they win they’ll high five each other, or do their trademark chest bump. They seem to communicate without talking and it sure works: they have 66 titles, making them a hugely successful tennis pairing, if not the most successful ever.

When they ran up to the net, they seemed to form an impermeable wall of volleying, frustrating their Polish opponents no end. But when Matkowski found a gap, and sent a pacey forehand through to the baseline, that was the beginning of the end for the twins. Matkowski and Fyrstenberg played fantastic tennis and fought hard and well for their win.

Soderling and Ferrer then took to the court for their match. By this stage, a fair amount of fizzy drinks had been consumed around the Arena, and chirps were flying as fast as backhand volleys. “Go, Ferrer!” “David, you beauty!” “Vamos, Ferrer, vamos!” “Go, Soderling, go!” “Soderling, you can do it!”

My personal favourite was, “Love you, Robin!” to which the umpire said, “Thank you.” He had been encouraging the crowd to simmer down, but his timing was delightful and caused a wave of giggles through the Arena.

Soderling took care of Ferrer in two sets (7-5 7-5) and the two of them gave us a great game to watch, free of melodrama and full of perfect ground strokes. In Soderling’s post-match analysis, I was surprised to hear the interviewer ask him why, after a long line of placid Swedish tennis players, did Soderling have an almost Latin temperament.

Soderling was equally surprised and said, “Really?” It would have been funny had he then danced the tango and slapped the interviewer in the face. But he didn’t.

In between the matches, we saw a VT of the recruiting process for “ball kids”. 1,601 children applied (I’m sure it was meant to be 1,600 and then along came Wagner) and then they were whittled down to the final 30. One little boy they interviewed said, “I didn’t realise how badly I wanted to become a ball kid. I really really want to do this.” Everything is a competition, reality TV gets its claws into everything, and frankly, that made me feel sad.

As we left the O2 Arena, in the thrall of people walking towards the tube station, an announcement directed people to the tube station, bus stops and taxi rank. At that stage, one of a group of black-coated hooray henrys next to me said, “Taxis? In East London? Where would they even go from here?”

Snobbery, reality TV and a fabulous evening’s entertainment. All in a night’s work in London.

Sunshine signing off for today.