Tag Archives: Wimbledon

Wonder crowned! Nole downed, beaten in three. The rumble of Wimbledon, “Come on Andy!”

6-4 7-5 6-4. The scoreboard suggests a simple straight sets victory for Andy Murray as he defeated World Number 1 Novak Djokovic to earn a second major tournament title. However, beating the Serb and putting a 77 year-old story to bed was anything but, as Murray became the first British player to lift the Wimbledon trophy since 1936. For some, the annual obsession over this statistic must have become tedious to the point of irritation, not least for Murray and his predecessor at the top of the British rankings, Tim Henman. Tedious perhaps, but by no means an irrelevance. The expectation of Britain’s sports fans and attention from its media are not trivial to deal with and over the last few years you got the feeling that Murray has been desperate to deliver the title, not just to get the monkey off his back, but to bring genuine elation to the millions of fans that turn up or tune in to cheer him on. As part of Team GB, Murray made a contribution to the general feel good factor of last year’s successful Olympic Games by winning gold in the men’s singles tennis, but yesterday was his moment and his moment alone. As he stepped out on to the balcony of the All England Tennis Club to parade the winner’s trophy to the jubilant throng gathered beneath, his expression flickered briefly to one of modest disbelief at just how much this one victory meant to a nation.

Djokovic was classy as ever in defeat and praised Murray’s game, but undoubtedly he was not at his best in the match. There were fleeting moments of his brilliant best interspersed with some moments where you wondered whether this truly was the world’s best tennis player at the opposite end of the court to Murray with Novak frequently finding the net and sending his ground strokes long over the baseline. These things are all relative though and beating the six-time grand slam winner was never going to be an easy task for Murray. He was made to work hard for each break of serve and was frequently put under pressure in his own service games, coming from behind to take both the second and third sets. Murray’s resilience when facing these crucial moments was awe-inspiring. To win the second set from 1-4 down by reeling off five games in a row was impressive enough but the final set was the biggest testament to the belief he now has in himself. Murray broke Djokovic’s serve in the opening game of the third set and opened up a 2-0 lead. When the Serb responded with two service breaks of his own, it looked as if the match was headed for a fourth set. Murray though was always creating chances on Djokovic’s serve and took enough of them to find himself at 5-4 and serving for the championship. The Centre Court crowd willed Murray towards the title and all of a sudden he had three championship points. Perhaps like Gerard Butler, who was watching courtside, Murray couldn’t quite believe the position he was in because, for the only time in the match, his nerve faltered and the three chances went begging. The lapse was momentary though as Murray demonstrated his now supreme temperament in fending off two break points before finally sealing the deal on his fourth championship point as Djokovic sent a final backhand into the net. It took all of Murray’s guts to clinch this roller coaster of a final game and take the deserved glory.

Some may condemn the overall quality of this year’s tournament. Early exits for Federer and Nadal and some other high seeds including Tsonga, Wawrinka and Čillić left the field depleted of the top talent. This is a fair enough point and both finalists were probably only really tested once each on the way to the last round; Djokovic overcame Juan Martin del Potro in a gruelling five set semi-final and Fernando Verdasco asked some serious questions of Murray in Wednesday’s quarter-finals before the Scot eventually prospered. Nevertheless, the top two players faced off in the final and winning 7 best-of-five-set matches in the space of 13 days should never be considered anything less than a major achievement. As for the future, amidst all the celebration surrounding Murray’s Wimbledon victory, it’s important not to forget that this is his second major title after his watershed moment at Flushing Meadows last year and so the Brit now currently holds two of the four major titles. At 26 he’s at the peak of his physical condition and if he continues to play with the belief that has characterised the last 12 months of his career, he will unquestionably have opportunities to add more major titles to this tally.

Finally, this year’s Championships once again showcased how well the BBC does sports coverage. This is one of the last top-class sporting events the BBC has coverage rights for, with the rights to so many other events having been sold off to the highest bidder. Hopefully, the Beeb have no intention of relinquishing this particular jewel in the crown. The tournament would lose something of its tradition were the matches to be shown on Eurosport or Sky. Only the football World Cup finals come close to matching Wimbledon as a unifying spectator sport. People gather round workplace TV sets to watch and the tennis courts at local parks fill up. Sport inspires people and there were no more inspiring moments than the events of Sunday afternoon. For so long the BBC coverage has been defined by the prospects of a British champion and it’s the human element as much as the sporting spectacle that keeps viewers tuning in. Now that we have a true champion, let’s hope that people continue to tune in to watch and be inspired by a winner.

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It’s all in the bloody head mate – performing when it matters most.

The inspiration for this blog came from a discussion I had in the comments section of another F1 blog. Here, we were debating the reasons for Mark Webber’s apparent inability to make good getaways at the beginning of Grands Prix. There’re probably other drivers on the grid who make equally poor starts but Webber’s predicament is highlighted by starting towards the front of the grid thanks to his generally strong qualifying performances. Red Bull’s lead driver, Sebastian Vettel, has made a career and three world championships out of his ability to convert pole positions into race wins by virtue of maintaining his starting position into the first corner and subsequently dictating the race from the front.  Conversely, when Webber has started from the top spot, all too often it seems as though he’s left the car in reverse gear and has been swamped by the midfield bandits starting behind him, losing places left, right and centre in a Greg Norman-like display of relinquishing an unassailable advantage.

So what are the factors at play here? In the hi-tech world of F1 there are many technical explanations proffered; clutch slip, engine revs, bite points etc. It seems unlikely that one set of engineers would consistently be at fault here and so, conspiracy theories aside, the one remaining factor is Webber himself. Now given that he is no less fit or physically capable than any other driver, my theory is that like so many other things in the world of sport, it’s all in the head.

If you follow F1 closely enough though, you’ll know that the start line procedure is very well prescribed and on the parade lap each driver is being fed information and told which knobs and buttons to press on the steering wheel to optimise the launch from the grid. Once all of the necessary settings are programmed into the car’s dashboard, the final act is to wait for the 5 red lights to extinguish and then feed in the 740 horse power on tap using a hand operated clutch and a delicate right foot on the loud pedal. As the two dozen or so cars form up the grid, there is a brief moment of relative calm before twenty-odd un-muzzled V8s begin to growl in anticipation of lights out. These are critical moments in an F1 race, and as the symphony of engine noise reaches its crescendo, the engineers and computers have played their parts. It is now 22 human beings conducting the music; muscle, sinew and synapse. Thankfully, in a sport where so much is pre-determined by the laws of physics, there is still a human element involved and it’s just conceivable that with the adrenalin in full flow, Webber is prone to an attack of nerves. In the staring match with the 5 glaring red lights on the start gantry, Webber blinks first. Perhaps a fleeting moment of tightness, to use one sporting parlance; or maybe he just plain chokes, to use an altogether more damning one. Whatever the term used, could it be the pressure getting to Mark Webber? A flinch on the clutch paddle is all it takes to drop the revs, bogging the engine down, a twitch too much of the right foot and the rear wheels spin, losing valuable metres to his opponents.

One response to this thesis was that having started over 200 Grands Prix, Webber would be all but immune to the effects of pressure. Not a bit of it! To completely dismiss the psychological aspect of sport is to miss the point almost entirely. The more there is riding on a single moment in time, the more it matters and the more difficult it becomes to control the emotions and execute the skills performed flawlessly during training or in times of less imposing mental duress.

As I write, the second week of the Wimbledon Tennis Championships has just begun and there is no better time to see sportsmen and women struggle to keep their emotions in check. The scoring system of tennis is such that pressure points can arise relatively often. With a game score tied at deuce, each player can feel safe that there will be at least one more chance whatever happens. One point later though and the game teeters on a knife-edge with one player having the advantage. Still though there is a chance, and the ability to hold one’s nerve and deliver the break-point saving ace when it matters most is something that separates the great players from the merely good.

This is one reason why the appeal of tennis as a spectator sport is almost universal – especially for two weeks in summer in Britain – but it is not to say that other sports do not create such moments. In cricket, a batsman can struggle to rein in his attacking instincts when a more measured approach is called for. Conversely, a fear of failure may prevent the very same batsman from expressing himself as exemplified by the current plight of Nick Compton, who is struggling to suppress his inner demons and express his obvious talent. Then there are the “nervous nineties”, a term which nicely describes how tricks of the mind can cause a cricketer to abandon the mindset that garnered his or her first 90 runs in the pursuit of an almost arbitrary score of three figures. Finally, who could forget the Ryder Cup of last year, where every European putt on that final evening in Medinah had the hopes and expectations of an entire continent riding on it? Time and time again, Ian Poulter found the hole to keep the European victory bid alive knowing the consequences of a mistake would almost certainly entail defeat. The Americans faced a different type of pressure going into the last day, only needing to avoid a complete rout to claim the trophy. The expectation attached to being an odds-on favourite is a pressure all of its own and in the end, the pressure told as Yank after Yank fell short of the mark.

Sport is littered with similar such occasions and they are all the more memorable and enjoyable for the role that psychology played in them. Can you perform when it matters most? It’s no coincidence that those who can are consistently found at the top of the leader board, lifting the trophy, or taking the centre step on the podium.

In closing, we return briefly to Webber. Sunday’s British Grand Prix was a microcosm of Webber’s Red Bull tenure. Plainly frustrated with his team after yet another poor start and another opening lap tangle with Romain Grosjean, the Aussie battler put in a determined drive to come through the field to finish second to a young German driver (Nico Rosberg this time after Sebastian Vettel had retired from the lead). Webber’s performances as a favourite are what we began questioning here, but his efficacy in the face of adversity is undisputed. Never better than with the bit between his teeth and a bone of contention to pick, this was a classic Webber drive and exhibitedthe mental toughness, grit and willpower that he possesses in bundles. If only he could match this underdog determination with the ability to lead from the front – to perform when it matters most – he would be leaving the sport at the end of this season with at least one world championship to his name.