Monday, July 22, 2013

The Unenviable Life Prescribed

Ignore for a moment the media scrum. Forget all the many things which are ridiculous about this. If necessary, allow Republicanism to subside for a bit, and just focus on the noumena of the situation - the bare facts of what is about to happen.

A new child is about to be born. This is wonderful and beautiful, but in no way extraordinary or miraculous. It happens all the time. Move beyond that and see everything else that is about to happen to this particular child and just as a human story it's dizzying.

This child will be front page news the day it is born and the day it dies. It will be one of the most photographed human brings ever. Every stage of its development will be painstakingly followed by billions of onlookers. When they go to school, we'll all know when and where. When they have their first love, the romance will be broadcast, analysed, and dissected.

They have no choice of career. They have nothing to worry about, but little to dream of. Theirs is a life prescribed - a duteous pathway from which it is hard to deviate.

Now remember that this is nothing extraordinary. It is just a new child. Look at the life prescribed and apply it to yourself. Give due weight to the side-effects there of. Is it to be coveted and resented? 

Some people see their lives as a film in their heads, each moment caught by the unseen and often critical director in their minds. Now, imagine that director externalised, with his watching eye and his critical voice, showing you the rushes of your life in real time, and providing an unending and unwanted string of comment on every move you make. That is what the child is instantly heir too - a life in front of the unblinking lense. The concept is dizzying.

There shall be tremendous joy in this life. Few will have two million people cheer down the Mall at you for your very existence, but it is we who also make this child's life not as enviable as might be imagined. 

The child has the love of its parents, its family, a nation and vast swathes of the onlooking world. I wonder of those latter two. Will they also afford the infant the understanding it deserves?

Monday, July 8, 2013

And the Living Rooms of the Nation Exploded into Joy

Ramblings on the madness and mayhem of seeing a Brit win Wimbledon

He and I have one thing in common. Neither Andy Murray or I have any memory of what happened on that last point. I know that he served. I know that the point was awarded to him. I don’t remember if he hit a winner or if Djokovic lost the point. All I remember was jumping up and down, screaming like a lunatic with a number of others, and knowing that the living room I was in was like countless others around the country. A British man had won the Wimbledon title for the first time in 77 years.

Lord knows how many millions – how many hundreds of millions – had dreamt of this moment: the moment where, by hook or by crook, a British man would be “All England Lawn Tennis Club Single Handed Champion of the World”, as the trophy proclaims. No-one – not one person – could have known what it would be like to be alive when the final ball crashed into the net (Djokovic did hit it into the net - I checked). It was perhaps the single greatest moment of sport I have ever experienced. Better than any of the partisan footballing triumphs I have seen. Better (just) than the Ashes being reclaimed in 2005. I can only imagine that England finally getting over its paradoxical sense of entitlement and inferiority, before actually fighting to claim the Football “Coupe de Monde”, and then doing so, could top this.

Do you want a match report? Look elsewhere – I can tell you very little. It was a match of high quality, even if (thankfully) Novak Djokovic did not bring his superlative, very, best game. The rallies were extraordinary. These two are capable of doing things with a racquet that defy belief. When a point looks almost certainly lost, they see opportunity, They are deservedly the best players in the world, and any encounter is instantly going to be classic. It was extraordinary, and there were countless moments when my comrades and I had to say “Fair play to Djokovic”.

However, I cannot tell you what happened in sufficient detail. It was not a match one remembered in detail. It was a living, breathing thing that one experienced. The question was not “What’s the score?” The question was “How’s he doing?” Was he ahead? Was he behind? Numbers like 6-4, 7-5 and 6-4 again meant nothing. It was all about being there, in flesh or in spirit, and being absorbed.

There was no greater example of this than the final game. Murray had three championship points. Three! Surely, this was the time. Surely, there was nothing that could stop this now. We all believed. It would be blasphemy not to have faith. Nevertheless, one-by-one, the points slipped away and suddenly we no longer believed that the 77-year wait was about to end. Rather, we believed that the most astonishing sporting collapse could be about to happen. That from the most invincible position, the Scotsman might produce a calamity that even the England cricket team would be incapable of.

However, he somehow survived and then, somehow, won in a manner that Goran Ivanisevic might have thought a little risky. God knows how, but he did it. He bloody did it, and a nation roared with joy.

The relief was terrific and it is a memory that was instantly immortal, but, obviously, Wimbledon has blown it. They don’t have a next series. Like when a TV show answers the “Will-they-won’t-they?” with “They will”, there will never be the same height of interest. We should all sidle off now. However, I sense that we’ll come back for more. After all, did you know that by 2014 we’ll have been waiting for one year for a Wimbledon champion?

Sunday, July 7, 2013

The Sun on the Horizon

Surely, I have been dreaming.
Which way is west?
Which is east?
All I see is the sun on the horizon.
Does it rise, or does it fall?

Say it rises:
What glory awaits when that red turns to blue?
We shall see the ocean from the height of the hills,
And beauty in a blade of grass,
And dance and sing and play
And play
And play,
As lovers smell roses in the garden.

Say it falls,
And all turns to dark.
What glories still await.
A canopy of stars, swirling in the cool of the moon,
Shall sit atop the madness of our night –
A madness of laughter in the forest
As friends join hands to walk toward the return of the dawn.

The sun still hangs on the horizon,
Neither ending nor beginning -
Simply a herald of whichever glory is to come.

The Quiet Rivalry

How Murray and Djokovic slowly but surely became the greatest rivalry in tennis

It is the final we wanted: the World Number One versus the World Number Two. Whereas in the recent past we may have ached for another instalment in the Federer-Nadal saga, now we crave more and more of Djokovic-Murray, a rivalry which has very quietly become one of the fiercest and most compelling in sport.

It began when they were children. Murray is seven days older than Djokovic, and the two competed against each other on the Juniors’ circuit. Their styles naturally lead to lengthy matches. Both are supremely good defensive players, but with a brutal aggression that they can call upon. Both have outrageous shotmaking ability. Crucially, both never give up on a point. As such, their matches feature numerous spectacular rallies.

It was Djokovic who reached his tennis maturity first, winning the Australian Open in 2008. However, it wasn’t until the early years of this decade that the two began to meet each other regularly in big matches. Their first Grand Slam meeting was also their first Grand Slam final against each other, as they fought for the 2011 Australian Open title. Murray was in his second consecutive final at the tournament, having been beaten by Roger Federer in the previous year. Djokovic was a former champion trying to reclaim his title. Sound familiar?

The match underlined Djokovic’s greater experience and confidence at the highest level. He defeated Murray in 2 hours and 39 minutes, 6-4, 6-2. 6-3. It was a comprehensive victory, and Murray’s third Grand Slam final defeat. He had not won a set in any of them. Djokovic, meanwhile, went on to complete a 43-match winning streak and have his most successful year to date, winning Wimbledon and the US Open later in the year.

At the start of 2012, the pair had a rematch, this time in the Australian Open Semi-Finals. The match was a bona fide classic and announced to the world that Murray was a pinhead away from being a Grand Slam champion. However, it was Djokovic who once again prevailed, this time in five gruelling sets, beating a valiant Murray 6-3, 3-6, 6-7 (4-7), 6-1, 7-5 in 4 hours and 50 minutes. Djokovic went on to top that unbelievable show of endurance by beating Rafael Nadal in the final, the longest Grand Slam final in history (5 hours and 53 minutes).

Djokovic lost in the French Open final to Nadal a few months later. Had he won that match he would have held all four majors at the same time. Murray made the Wimbledon final, the first British man to do so in 74 years, but was beaten by Roger Federer. This was the final piece in the puzzle for Murray, who became a complete player after that tear-stained disappointment. He returned to Wimbledon a month afterwards for the Olympics, comfortably beating Djokovic in the Semis, 7-5, 7-5, before avenging his earlier defeat against Federer.

Murray went to the US Open as many people’s favourite to win the tournament, and he made it to the final where he faced Djokovic. The match was another classic. Murray ground out a two set lead, before Djokovic characteristically fought back. At 2 sets all, Murray took a loo break where he thought of all his previous disappointments and swore that it was not about to happen again. It worked, and he took the final set, winning the match 7-6 (12-10), 7-5, 2-6, 3-6, 6-2, in 4 hours and 52 minutes.

Djokovic was, as always, magnanimous in defeat, but he was hurt by it, and he responded in the best way possible. He defeated Murray in their subsequent three meetings, including this year’s Australian Open final, 6-7 (2-7), 7-6 (7-3), 6-3, 6-2.

When they walk out onto Centre Court this afternoon, they shall do so as equals. It is folly to pick a favourite between them. It should be a long match and has all of the ingredients of a classic, and there should be many more of these to come.

Djokovic-Murray Career Stats
Grand Slam Titles
Djokovic 6-1 Murray
Career Titles
Djokovic 37-27 Murray
Djokovic 11-7 Murray
Grand Slam Head-to-Head
Djokovic 3-1 Murray
Grass Head-to-Head
Djokovic 0-1 Murray

The 21st Century's Greatest Wimbledon Finals

The Top Five Men's Singles Finals since 2000

5.            2012: Roger Federer bt. Andy Murray
    4-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-4
The first appearance of a British man in a Wimbledon Singles final for 74 years was always going to be an event, and in the early stages Andy Murray rose to the occasion, comfortably out-playing Roger Federer and winning his first set in a Grand Slam final. However, the rain came, play was suspended and the roof was closed, and suddenly Federer found another gear and eased away from his opponent. However, memories of the match itself, and Federer’s record-equalling seventh title, have become secondary to memories of Murray’s tearful post-match speech. “I’m getting closer”, he said, and he was right. A month later he beat the same opponent on the same court to win Olympic Gold, before going onto win his first Grand Slam title at the US Open.

4.            2009: Roger Federer bt. Andy Roddick
    5-7, 7-6 (8-6), 7-6 (7-5), 3-6, 16-14
Andy Roddick was the greatest Wimbledon champion that never was, having been put to the sword by the peerless grass court tennis of Roger Federer on two previous occasions. However, this time he seemed like a genuine threat to the Swiss master, having put out the home favourite Andy Murray with ease in the semis. He continued that form, serving brilliantly before finding himself at 2 sets all having not been broken once. What followed was a titanic fifth set, the longest ever in a Grand Slam final, and the almighty tussle ended when Roddick’s serve was finally broken in the 30th game of the set as the ball hit the frame of his racket and ballooned into the sky. Federer’s victory was his 15th major title, surpassing the total of the onlooking Pete Sampras.

3.            2007: Roger Federer bt. Rafael Nadal
     7-6 (9-7), 4-6, 7-6 (7-3), 2-6, 6-2
Federer’s total dominance of the sport had given him four consecutive Wimbledon titles, but he was being challenged by his great rival, the clay-court master, Rafael Nadal. The year before, Federer had comfortably dispatched the Spaniard in the final, but Nadal seemed more assured on grass than he had done before. Federer meanwhile was on the verge of equalling Bjorn Borg’s record of five consecutive titles, and he worked his way into a 2-1 lead in a thrillingly tight contest. However, Nadal suddenly stepped up his game and broke twice in the fourth set to win it 6-2, the Swiss uncharacteristically losing his cool over a Hawkeye line call in the first final where the system was used. Nadal twice had two break points in the early stages of the fifth, but when he lost the fourth of those his belief died and Federer rediscovered his champion qualities, winning the set with five straight games to claim that fifth title.

2.            2001: Goran Ivanisevic bt. Pat Rafter
    6-3. 3-6, 6-3, 2-6, 9-7
Two great champions that had never been met in the Men’s final in 2001, delayed to a Monday by the rain. Pat Rafter had been beaten by Pete Sampras the year before as the US master won the last of his seven Wimbledon titles. Ivanisevic meanwhile had been beaten by Agassi once and Sampras twice as the Americans had dominated the grass of Wimbledon in the 90s. Injury had forced Goran down the rankings and he had only got into the tournament on a wildcard. The set-up was extraordinary, and the final surpassed all expectations. Ivanisevic was in control but suffered from a bout of nerves, and ended up in an epic fifth set. Ivanisevic prayed on the spot were fortuitous shots had landed and waited until lucky balls were returned to him for his next serve. He finally triumphed in an amazing final game where he double-faulted three times before ultimately winning championship point on the fourth opportunity. He is the only wildcard ever to have won a Grand Slam.

1.            2008: Rafael Nadal by. Roger Federer
                6-4, 6-4, 6-7 (5-7), 6-7 (8-10), 9-7
Comfortably the best final of my lifetime, and what John McEnroe calls “The greatest match I’ve ever seen”, the 2008 final was the thrilling highpoint of the Nadal-Federer rivalry and saw the end of Federer’s five-year reign on Centre Court. Having been beaten twice before at this stage by Federer, Nadal took brutal control of the match, making Federer look truly vulnerable as he claimed the first two sets. After an 80 minute rain delay, Federer came back to win the third set on a tie-break, and then saved two championship points (one with the most thrilling, risky and exquisite backhands down the land as you will ever see) in a fourth set tie-break as he levelled the match at two sets all. A further rain delay saw the fifth set being played in increasing darkness. Federer got to within two points of completing the most incredible comeback and claiming a record sixth consecutive title, but Nadal held serve and at 21:15, Nadal served on championship point, and Federer ultimately netted a return. Nadal fell to the floor in triumph as flashbulbs lit up the south London sky. The match lasted 4 hours and 48 minutes – the longest Wimbledon final in history – and, with numerous rain delays, took just under 7 hours to complete.