Archive for the ‘tennis’ Category

Summer sport: when pre-season feels like mid-season

April traditionally marks the start of the summer sporting season in the northern hemisphere: cricket in England, the Masters Golf tournament in the US, the Paris-Roubaix cycling race. Now that so many sports operate all year, the excitement of a new season risks being lost.

The burden of constant competition takes its toll on athletes too. Rafael Nadal had to withdraw from a semi-final match in Miami last week due to injury; England cricketer Stuart Broad may miss the next match in Sri Lanka; and Tiger Woods pulled out of a tournament two weeks ago. All of them want to make sure they are fit for high profile events coming up in the next few weeks.

There are significant debates going on in several sports between competing interest groups about how to manage the calendar (see, for example, FIFA trying to force clubs to release footballers for Olympic competitionNadal resigning from the ATP players’ council due to lack of agreement in changing the ranking system to give players more flexibility in their schedules; and proposals to establish a multi-sport European Games). The federations and leagues in each sport all want access to the best players and to stage events in as many markets as possible but the calendar is crowded.

Sports competitions have proved fairly resilient in tough economic times. Although some lower level tournaments disappeared from the calendar in golf, tennis and other sports, the higher profile events have kept going, even if they have had to cut costs. Quite a few world and continental championships rely on a hefty subsidy from host cities but still manage to attract bids from cities hoping to attract other events in future. Commercial considerations therefore have only a limited restraining effect on the ambitions of federations and leagues.

The disputes about competition calendars tend to involve player unions or representatives, leagues and governing bodies. Leagues and governing bodies often have competing interests (such as the “club v country” debate) and resolve their differences through a power struggle. In individual sports, athletes are probably in a stronger bargaining position to determine how often they compete because they are more difficult to replace. In team sports it is of course possible to solve the problem of player burn-out by having bigger squads. The logical consequence of this is that top European football clubs pay some international standard players vast amounts of money to play a handful of games a season.

As interest in professional sport develops in more and more markets, the pressure on athletes to perform all year round looks set to increase. Clashes between competing competitions (such as the Indian Premier League and English domestic cricket or between Olympic football and pre-season tournaments) will become more common. Unfortunately, athletes will sometimes be forced into making a decision which is not in their best interests: playing when half-fit, or choosing one competition above another due to external pressure. Legal clashes are inevitable.

Athletes in spring training are looking forward to the opportunities of the new season. No doubt the sports lawyers are limbering up too.

“Winning Grim” – when ugly doesn’t go far enough

“Winning ugly”, the expression coined by former tennis player and leading coach Brad Gilbert is no longer an adequate way to describe how some teams and, less often, individual athletes find their way to victory. I would like to suggest “winning grim” as a term to explain the logical conclusion of this trend.

Brad Gilbert, a player of modest talent but great tactical understanding and mental strength, made himself very difficult to beat by dogged determination. His now famous book “Winning Ugly” is a manual for getting the best out of yourself and for finding a way to win against opponents who are slightly better. It covers match preparation but is primarily concerned with tactics on the field of play.

The term is now widely used in sport, perhaps most often by fans frustrated that a team or player is failing to win ugly. That is to say, they are losing games which they are capable of winning, lacking the killer touch, inconsistent.

“Winning grim” goes further. Winning grim refers to teams and occasionally individual athletes plus their management who take a more holistic view of sport and seek to influence all the factors which can determine the result of a match. The masters of winning grim are often the leading contenders in their sport. Exponents of winning grim will have a strategy for considerations such as these off the field of play:
- The structure of competitions (method of qualification, schedules, the way the draw is done etc.)
- Legal challenges before, during and after competition (on issues such as player eligibility, suspensions etc.)
- The priorities of broadcasters and sponsors (what final they would ideally like to see, style of commentary, length of agreements etc.)
- Pre-match PR (putting psychological pressure on opponents, match officials, spreading rumours)

They will also be expert at the use of specific tactics on the field which go a step beyond the requirements of winning ugly:
- Pressurising match officials for maximum impact
- Time-wasting when in a potentially winning position or to disrupt the opponent’s momentum
- Tactical use of injuries (exaggerating injuries to give team-mates a rest or influence the referee)
- Choosing ultra low-risk tactics when a normal tactic would probably suffice (think of a rugby team repeatedly kicking long when leading or a football team substituting an attacker for a defender when 2-0 up)
- Selecting players who are consistent but limited in place of others who are more talented but unpredictable

Winning grim is the logical end-point when fans, financial backers and political stakeholders demand results. It is a strategy motivated by fear which is perfectly focused on the bigger prize. For this reason winning grim is better suited to league competition and major tournaments rather than to individual matches.

Winning grim should not be equated with cheating. Winning grim is legal and sometimes necessary, especially after a series of disappointments in big events. Eventually, however, winning grim will leave fans joyless and frustrated, alienating federations and other stakeholders along the way. You can’t afford to win grim all the time.

Masters of winning grim include José Mourinho and the England football team. It is to the great credit of the All Blacks that it was only in the final against France that they had to resort to winning grim. After a long wait for their second Rugby World Cup victory we should forgive them.

Two countries divided by uncommon sports reporting

As newspapers increasingly look for online readers across national borders in their quest for advertising revenue, the challenge of catering to differing tastes in sport increases. The solution will presumably involve covering a wider range of sports and employing columnists from different countries but it’s still early days.

The Economist this week
mentions that the Daily Mail website, Mail Online had over 40m unique visitors in May 2011, up 60% on last year. Much of the increase comes from readers in America. Meanwhile, about one third of over 30m monthly visitors to the Guardian website come from the US.

Both papers are making concerted efforts to attract US readers through new overseas correspondents but the sports sections are still resolutely UK-focused. In common with other UK media, both the Guardian and Daily Mail provide a staple diet of football coverage all year round with seasonal coverage of rugby, cricket, Formula 1, golf, tennis, horse racing and others. Olympic sports such as athletics and cycling enjoy more prominence than would have been the case a few years ago due to the proximity of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

The New York Times is the only newspaper which has more unique visitors to its website than the Mail Online, including many from outside the US, but its sports coverage clearly targets American readers. The top menu in the sports section lists baseball, NFL, college football, NBA, hockey, soccer, golf and tennis. The lead stories about Wimbledon in recent days are naturally about American players rather than the sole British player still in the competition, Andy Murray.

Any sports fan who has watched the global news channels such as CNN, BBC World or Al-Jazeera English will have noticed the inadequacy of their sports reports. In the first place they have to decide which sports to cover, which requires a compromise given the wide range of nationalities among the viewers. The second issue is that the global news channels frequently don’t have the necessary rights to show clips of sports events which would feature in national TV news broadcasts. As a result, the combination of match scores shown on screen and assorted clips satisfies few.

Web users who proactively seek out online newspapers from other countries probably have a particular interest in international news. There is no reason why this should not include sports news but it would require significant investment to provide adequate sports coverage to cater for readers in two or more countries.

International sports specialist news sites probably lead the way in this area. ESPN have both a US and UK version of their website with no apparent overlap in content and Eurosport maintains an impressive range of 15 national sports news websites alongside TV channels in numerous languages.

For the immediate future, newspaper sports reporting looks set to remain nationally focused. It’s a curious fact that while sport itself is inherently universal and global, sports reporting is carefully tailored to national audiences.

Li Na at the Australian Open: China’s Kournikova moment?

Chinese tennis player Li Na lost a hard-fought Australian Open final against Kim Klijsters but in doing so she may have spurred on many young players.

Fans of sport and celebrity gossip will remember Anna Kournikova, a glamorous Russian tennis player who never quite reached the top of the game. For a number of years Kournikova had a very high public profile without ever winning a tournament. She faced significant criticism and her playing career was curtailed by injury.

However, she was the pioneer that inspired what has become a production line of world-class female Russian tennis players. Maria Sharapova, Svetlana Kuznetsova and Anastasia Myskina have all won Grand Slam titles in the last ten years and there are currently six Russian women in the world top 20, more than from any other country.

Li Na is the first male or female Chinese player to reach a singles Grand Slam final. Having been in and out of the world top 20 over the last few years and controversially broken away from the state training system, she will now rise to a career high of seventh. In what looks set to be a very open year for women’s tennis, she could yet win a title.

But the real beneficiaries may be those who follow in the years to come. Of the three other Chinese women in the world top 100, the youngest is 22. Li Na’s achievement in reaching the final was covered extensively in Chinese media and Stacey Allaster, Chief of the Women’s Tennis Association, was reported as saying that her success would boost the sport “exponentially” in China.

Tennis produces global stars from time to time (the Williams sisters, Federer, Nadal), but viewing figures and the popularity of the sport in each country tend to rise and fall in line with the success of their players. To increase its appeal, tennis therefore needs champions from as many countries as possible.

British tennis fans will be hoping that Andy Murray can also be a pioneer. Unfortunately, he may be on his own for a while – British number two James Ward is ranked 207 in the world.

Commonwealth Games: differentiate to survive

Looking beyond the construction delays in Delhi as the city prepares  for the forthcoming Commonwealth Games, there are some useful lessons for the future of major multi-sport events.

The Times of India is one of many news outlets that has covered in detail the scramble to finish preparations in time for the opening of the Games on 3 October. It has featured a number of stories about athletes withdrawing, sometimes blaming minor injuries, sometimes explicitly citing potential risks to their health.

The first and perhaps biggest name to withdraw was sprinter Usain Bolt (focusing on 2011). He has been followed by numerous elite competitors including  British cyclists such as Chris Hoy (clash with European Championships), Australian discus thrower Dani Samuels (concerns about health and safety), tennis player Elena Baltacha (health worries), and many others.

The clue is in the sports of the high profile absentees:
- Athletics – this is the only year in a four year cycle without either a World Championships or Olympic Games (and there were European Championships this year) so athletes want to have a rest
- Cycling – the European Championships clashes with the Commonwealth Games and has become an important event for Olympic qualification
- Tennis – with the focus on the four Grand Slam events, players have often appeared indifferent to the Olympic Games and other multi-sport events featuring tennis

It is noticeable that there are far fewer absentees in sports such as rugby 7s, netball, hockey, swimming and indeed the para-sport events on the Commonwealth Games programme in athletics, swimming, table tennis and power lifting.

These are all sports which have room in their calendar for the Commonwealth Games and which draw many of their top athletes from the eligible countries. From a British perspective there is also the interest of seeing England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland plus Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man compete in separate teams.

While athletics and tennis draw big television audiences for their biggest events, they will not do so in the absence of their star performers. I would argue that multi-sport competitions such as the Asian Games, Pan-American Games and others would benefit from differentiating more in their sports programmes and schedules.

Attempts to cut sports from major events will always be met with resistance – few stakeholders will vote for their own abolition – but innovation can bring success. The Commonwealth Games was the first to introduce rugby 7s to a multi-sport event and it is now on the Olympic programme. Similarly, the recent Youth Olympic Games in Singapore trialled new formats such as combined male/female relay events, which were well-received.

It is inevitable that hard-pressed athletes will pick and choose major championships in an over-crowded calendar. For event owners it is better to acknowledge that fact and to look for ways to differentiate than to imitate the Olympic Games and fall short.

Australian Open – look out for the comeback queens

One of the intriguing stories of this year’s Australian Open tennis, which is getting underway in Melbourne, is the comeback of Belgian stars Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin.

The 26 year-old Clijsters retired from tennis for two years, during which time she had a baby, before returning in spectacular form last summer to win the US Open. Henin, a year older, played her first competitive tournament for 18 months in Brisbane in the first week of January. Fittingly, Henin made it through to the final before losing a close match against Clijsters. Both women are former world number ones and Henin won the Australian Open in 2004. Few would bet against either of them winning more Grand Slams. 

The comeback is one of the classic narratives of sport, familiar particularly in individual sports such as boxing (Muhammad Ali is the most famous of many), but also sometimes in team sports (for example, Michael Jordan in basketball). Cyclist Lance Armstrong was a high profile returnee in 2009.

Motivations for returning to top-class sport vary: hunger for competition and the limelight; a sense of unfulfilled potential; recovery from injury; desire to prove the doubters wrong; a need for money. Success on comeback often seems to depend on age and fitness. Clijsters and Henin both have age on their side and their respective retirements were linked more to mental tiredness than creaking bodies. Justine Henin was surely influenced by the instant success her former rival enjoyed on her return to a women’s game that, apart from Caroline Wozniacki, is still dominated by the same players as it was five years ago. 

Some unfortunate athletes are deluded or return as a result of manipulation but for others comebacks can bring many benefits. Returning athletes sometimes gain sentimental support from fans who were less enthusiastic in their earlier career and players often talk about being more relaxed or level-headed after time away from the sport. For media, comebacks of course provide a great story. If either Kim Clijsters or Justine Henin reaches the semi-finals of this year’s Australian Open it will be much bigger news than it would have been five years ago.

For other significant comebacks this week, look out for 2006 Olympic champion Evgeni Plushenko and former World Champion Stéphane Lambiel at the ISU European Figure Skating Championships in Estonia. Neither could resist the challenge of another Olympic campaign. Win or lose it will be a great story: the comeback is here to stay.

Federer and greatness by numbers

With his epic victory in the Wimbledon Championships - 16-14 in the 5th set - Roger Federer became the most successful tennis player in Grand Slam history. Objective measures show he is the best player in the world at the moment and many would argue he is the greatest ever.

One of the characteristics of sport that differentiates it from other types of public performance (music, drama, dance and so on) is that fact that all competitive performances can be summarised as a set of numbers. The numbers don’t tell you everything but in the case of Federer they leave little room for doubt about his status. They also provide a sobering reminder of how tough the competition is in elite sport.

Here are a few relevant statistics:
- Score in the final between Federer and Andy Roddick: 5-7 7-6 7-6 3-6 16-14
(the total number of games and the length of the final set were both records)
- Aces served by Roger Federer in the final: 50
- Players in the men’s draw for the first round at Wimbledon: 128
- Players undefeated in the men’s event at the end of the championships: 1 (it’s obvious but worth highlighting)
- Previous Wimbledon titles won by Federer: 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007 (Pete Sampras holds the record at 7 titles)
- Grand Slam titles: 15 (eclipsing the 14 won by Sampras)
- Consecutive Grand Slam tournaments at which Federer has reached at least the semi-final: 21
- Career earnings so far: $48m US

Roger Federer’s official world ranking at the end of each year since he first played on the professional tour in 1997 at the age of 16: 
1997  704
1998  301
1999  65
2000  29
2001  13
2002  6
2003  2
2004  1
2005  1
2006  1
2007  1
2008  2
- Number of players currently below Federer in the ATP world rankings: 1898  

The numbers show a) that Andy Roddick suffered a very cruel defeat and b) that Federer is consistently excellent on all surfaces against all players year after year.

Now that the statistics demonstrate Federer to be the best, there only remains the tricky issue of “greatness”. Leading players from the past, quoted by the BBC and ESPN, are divided on whether it is possible to acknowledge him as the greatest tennis player ever; Swiss paper 24 Heures is one of many that poses the question “Roger, the greatest of all time?”

In performance art the most talented people often rise to the top but subjective opinions help determine who is best. In sport it is the results that matter. Although opportunity, quality of coaching, standard of opposition and luck are all factors in deciding who wins, the combination of talent, dedication and performance under pressure is surely most important: you can’t reach number one in the world by luck. This reality gives sport much of its value.

Greatness in sport is difficult to define but, as was once said by an American judge speaking about pornography, I know it when I see it. In the case of Federer, one shot is enough.

French Open Tennis: 1928 – ?

Most sports fans will have shared Roger Federer’s delight when he won his first French Open title today and so became only the sixth male player to win singles titles at all four Grand Slams.

Who might be the next player to achieve such a feat? Actually, there is a chance it will never be repeated in the same way because the French Open itself is said to be under threat.

There has been speculation in Spanish media that the new venue in Madrid could replace Roland-Garros as the venue for the Grand Slam played on clay. It was noticeable that the French organisers rushed to announce plans for developing their venue, including a retractable roof and new show court.

In an interview with Le Monde, the director of the French Open said he didn’t think the Madrid tournament posed a real danger because “what makes the tournament is its history, which cannot be bought”.

Tradition is immensely valuable for a sports venue because fans and athletes remember great encounters from their childhood. The dreams fostered by those experiences linger for many years so that the idea of moving an event can seem like sacrilege.

Traditional calendar events comprise part of the core script of sport: showpiece tournaments and finals which are held at the same venue or venues at the same time each year. Examples include national football cup finals, Formula 1 Grand Prix, cricket test matches and Grand Slam tennis tournaments. With interest from top athletes, fans and broadcasters virtually guaranteed, these are some of the most economically successful events in sport.

A separate category of sports competition is the franchise event, which is allocated by rightsholders to a venue and organising team based on a bidding process. Among these are the FIFA World Cup and many other individual sport world championships.

Nowadays the organisers of calendar events are increasingly facing bidding competitions. Formula 1 rightsholders, buoyed by the financial success of the series, have encouraged ambitious new entrants to build venues and challenge the incumbent hosts. For this reason the long-established Grand Prix in Britain and France have been threatened, among others. Similarly, the England and Wales Cricket Board instituted a bidding process for hosting financially lucrative test matches, resulting in a recent match against the West Indes being held at a new ground in Durham. When ticket sales were poor the choice of venue was criticised.

Although abandoning established venues for new markets is sometimes essential – no Arsenal supporter would now question the move from Highbury to the Emirates Stadium - nevertheless there are significant risks. Owners of sports events can ill-afford to alienate their core market.

There is little hard evidence that the International Tennis Federation is about to abandon the French Open in favour of Madrid but managers of all established sports venues would be well-advised to make sure that the memory of a capacity crowd rising to acclaim the great Roger Federer is not the only reason to maintain the status quo.

Drug-testers catching up?

Are the drug-testers catching up? In the last two weeks French tennis player Richard Gasquet has tested positive for cocaine, LA Dodgers baseball player Manny Ramirez has tested positive for a women’s fertility drug, and the test of a frozen sample from Olympic 1500m champion Rashid Ramzi proved positive for blood-boosting drug CERA.

All are facing significant penalties. Both Gasquet and Ramzi could receive a two year ban and Ramzi is likely to lose his gold medal. Ramirez has been given a 50 game suspension which sounds a lot but amounts to only two months. 

The stories have attracted considerable media interest and a certain degree of resignation: Athletics Weekly points out that Ramzi’s behaviour was regarded as suspicious because he raced only infrequently; comment in the New York Times concludes that Ramirez’s record will forever be tarnished; and, for Le Figaro, Gasquet had recently been failing to meet the high expectations raised by his early success.

Of the three, the positive test probably matters least to Ramirez who is 36 and has already made a large amount of money. Nevertheless, there will be an asterisk beside his name in the record books. Ramzi’s name will be removed from the 2008 Olympic results and it is perhaps unlikely that he will return to top-level competition. In contrast, the 23 year-old Gasquet should be able to make a comeback but he could face a long battle to climb back up the rankings.

For the last 20 years or more it has often been assumed that most of the athletes taking drugs were one step ahead of the testers. Quite simply, out of competition testing was sufficiently rare that those inclined to cheat could restrict their drug regime to the off-season and gaps between events. But gradually the net has been closing. The much-maligned “whereabouts” rule, which requires athletes to provide their location for one hour every day of the year, makes it much harder to evade tests.

Ramzi’s positive test is particularly significant because it was one of a batch of tests carried out on frozen samples produced during the Beijing Olympic Games. Samples can now be kept for a number of years and further analysis carried out when a new test for a banned substance becomes available.

The motivations for taking recreational drugs, as Gasquet seems to have done, are obviously different from those who seek to boost their performance unfairly but the punishment is the same. Ultimately, all elite athletes have to agree to abide by the rules of competition when they participate, which include avoiding  substances on the World Anti-Doping Agency Probibited List.

Positive drugs tests are damaging because fans become disaffected, sponsors get scared off, and parents worry about the risks of pushing their children into sport. However, when there are a handful of positive tests it serves as warning for those athletes who may be considering cheating and it may reassure those who are clean that the guilty will be caught. 

Cynical, world-weary sports fans will take some persuading but the drug-testers may just be catching up.