Saturday, 9 January 2016

Britain's Davis Cup victory and Djokovic's dominance have cured me of my tennis obsession

This is undoubtedly the best-played match point I have ever seen:

It was also probably the moment when my lifelong interest in tennis peaked.

I somehow failed to mention the British Davis Cup team's extraordinary achievement in winning the trophy six weeks ago in Ghent (of all places). Strange, because it was the one sporting contest last year which reduced me to tears of excitement, relief and gratitude (although I'll admit to wiping away a tear or two during Stuart Broad's eight-wicket rampage against Australia at Trent Bridge - but that was mainly the result of prolonged laughter). As Andy Murray won't be around for ever,  and as Scotland might very well declare independence if the EU referendum result displeases them, thus rendering the Murray brothers ineligible, and as the current unwieldy Davis Cup format is simply unsustainable, November's miracle is unlikely to be repeated during my lifetime. In fact, a team representing Scotland would have an infinitely greater prospect of winning the Davis Cup than a "What's Left of GB" team - as one wag pointed out at the time of the BBC Sports Personality of the Year Awards, Judy Murray's womb has produced more world class tennis players than the extravagantly-funded British Lawn Tennis Association programmes actually designed to do so. Once Andy Murray has left the battlefield, the tennis war - for Britain, at least - will be well and truly over.

It would be an exaggeration to claim that Murray won the Davis Cup single-handed (or double-handed, in his case) - but only a slight one. He had a bit of help - especially from his doubles-specialist older brother, and, sensationally, from Jamie Ward, who defeated John Isner during the clash with the United States. But, to put it in perspective, Great Britain won 12 matches - singles and doubles - during the 2015 campaign. Andy Murray was involved in 11 of them, and won every match he played. To employ the adjectives favoured by the player himself, his performance was awesome, fantastic and, of course, amazing. In terms of sustained achievement, it may eventually be considered a greater feat than winning Wimbledon - but probably not, because to win Wimbledon you have to see off the best players in the world (or, at least, the players who were good enough to beat them). Britain did face some stiff opposition last year, including Australia, France and the USA, but Murray didn't have to beat Djokovic, Nadal or Federer, who have all been part of Davis Cup-winning teams in recent years (the difference being that their team-mates were infinitely more experienced and talented than Murray's - Federer, for instance, was partnered by Stan Wawrinka in 2014). I think that, in time, Murray's Davis Cup victory will be considered his greatest feat of sheer willpower - and one of the greatest that tennis has ever seen.

Perhaps the rest of the team's major contribution was simply being there. It's evident that Murray loves being a team player: I don't think it's an accident that his first career-defining win was as part of Team GB at the Olympics, and, while his standard retinue has slimmed a bit recently, it has tended towards morbid obesity in the past. I'm not sure Glumboy is exactly a people person - but he's certainly one of those people who seem to need people.

Anyway, I ask nothing more of him - the Olympics, Wimbledon and the Davis Cup: that'll do. I'll even forgive him his incredibly maladroit "Let's do it!" tweet on the eve of the 2014 Scottish Independence referendum: after all, a large number of fellow-Scots seem to have been gripped by the same suicidal desire to turn their country into a new Albania, what with the prospect of massive public spending unfunded by English tax-payers, and with "their" precious North Sea oil now having reached price parity with tap-water. (Dodged a bullet there, Jock, old boy.)

I have no hunger for more Murray achievements - he's done all anybody could have asked of him. My great hero, Federer, is just having fun, and will win no more slams: his glorious, extended Indian summer has been a source of joy. Nadal might win another French Open or two, especially as he's enjoying yet another of his logic- and science- and credibility-defying returns to form and fitness, but I can't work up the slightest anxiety over that distinctly unappealing possibility. Of the younger players, only Nick Kyrgios possesses the natural talent and strength to break into the Top Four - but he's just too much of an adolescent prick for me to get excited at the prospect (I felt the same way about the hugely talented and utterly obnoxious John McEnroe in his early days). I got my hopes up regarding Dimitrov, once, but that's never going to happen.

For the time being, there's really only Djokovic, who produced one of the most perfect performances I've ever seen to crush Nadal in the final of the Qatar Open this afternoon (6-1, 6-2). What made it all rather shocking was that Nadal was playing really well - a lot better than he had during the whole of 2015. I suppose Djokovic might get injured (although this never seems to happen to Elastiboy); he might suffer a dip in form (he does now and then, but they're usually short-lived); he could come up against someone playing out of his gourd, as Wawrinka did against him at Roland Garros last year; or he could simply get bored (as great champions sometimes do) but he doesn't seem the type, and, if nothing else, simmering resentment at his lack of Federer/Nadal levels of fan worship will probably spur him on to even greater heights. The problem for the rest of the field is that, not only is Djokovic the greatest returner of the ball in history, he doesn't have a single weakness for opponents to exploit: that may also be why he has failed to capture the public's imagination - his game is so ridiculously solid, so meticulous, so monotonously efficient, there's no swashbuckling romance about it. I've absolutely nothing against the man - he's one of the greatest champions of all time: it's just that he's almost too complete, too faultless. And he lacks that indefinable quality - genius.

Though contemplating the 2016 tennis season might not exactly be setting my nerves jangling, there are at least three possibilties I'm looking forward to. Despite the fact that I'm not a great fan of clay court tennis, I'll be rooting for Djokovic to finally win the French Open this year: he deserves to. And although I doubt whether Federer can win the singles at the Olympics at the ripe old age of 35, I certainly hope he manages to - it would be a glorious and fitting end to his sublime career. Finally, I really would love to hear a convincing explanation as to why Nadal - who is now so completely Djokovic's bunny that he doesn't even look bemused while being routinely slaughtered these days - doesn't bring in some top coaching talent to help him find a way out of the rabbit-hutch. After all, Lendl helped Murray win two grand slams, Becker almost eradicated Djokovic's distressing habit of losing finals, and Edberg extended Federer's run at the top of the game by improving his volleys and his backhand. Why has Nadal been so strangely reluctant to invite outsiders onto his team? Hmm.

Of course, if Federer or Murray reach any grand slam finals - and their opponent isn't the all-conquering Serbinator - I'll be sitting on the edge of my seat, roaring them on, as always.

Oh dear, I feel an obsession returning.


  1. Agree with you about Kyrgios - but my guess would be that quite soon he will stop behaving like a plonker, and realize that an ATP rating of 30 is a sad reflection on his obvious talent. Top 10 by 2017?

    1. Definitely, mahlerman. I hadn't realised he was so ridiculously low in the rankings. He should be around 15 by now, and rising fast. Needs a proper, tough coach. Roger Rasheed keeps being mentioned, but he didn't exactly set the world alight with Dimitrov (after a bright start). The Aussies do seem to have a problem with their bright young prospects, given Tomic's behaviour to date. One gets the impression these talented young men would really rather be doing something else with their lives.

      Having said that, I wouldn't be surprised if Kyrgios won a major by the end of next year - depends how quickly he learns to stop behaving like a lippy 13-year old brat,.