A sporting smörgåsbord of a summer

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Every year the football season ends, and every year the television and radio broadcasters roll out their trailers for the ‘summer of sport’, complete with soundtrack from Dodgy or Mungo Jerry.

You can forgive them for going a little overboard this year though, this year’s slightly different; in case you weren’t aware of it yet (although I’m not sure that’s possible), there’s the small matter of a summer Olympic Games in London to think about.

The games have become such a sporting behemoth that they have, and will, influence just about every other sporting event on the 2012 calendar.

London's Olympic Stadium

London’s Olympic stadium will be at the centre of the sporting world this summer. Photo: Phil Jones

With this in mind I’m going to add to the list of summer previews and give my take on the events in store for us in the next 3 months.

I won’t cover all the events, mainly because there are just too many to talk about, but I will give a brief overview of what I will be keeping an eye on, why it is worth your attention, and giving my prediction of how events might unfold (there’s no real insight involved in my predictions and any money lost from bets placed is not my responsibility).

Where to start then? Well we’re in the middle of the French Open tennis so that’s as good a place as any:

French Open Tennis (May 28 – June 10):

Why? – The potential for numerous pieces of history to be made. Rafael Nadal can set a record of seven titles in the Paris suburbs and join Bjorn Borg on 11 major titles. Novak Djokovic could become the eighth man to win the career grand slam, whilst simultaneously completing the ‘Djoko Slam’ of holding all four major trophies at once, and keeping alive his chances of completing the calendar Golden Slam. Federer could become only the third man to complete a second career grand slam were he to win, and Maria Sharapova could complete her first if the Russian gets her hands on the women’s title.

Who? – Nadal and Sharapova. I’d be stupid to bet against Nadal really. If Djokovic makes the final I’d still back Nadal, but he’d be less of a certainty to win. If he’s up against Federer though, then I can’t see the Swiss getting anywhere near the trophy. On the women’s side it just seems like everything has come together for Sharapova to triumph – the Williams sisters are both out, as is Francesca Schiavone and world number one Victoria Azarenka, Na Li hasn’t been too convincing either. I’d keep an eye out for Sam Stosur though.

UEFA European Championship Finals (June 8 – July 1):

Why? – It’s England in a football tournament, no matter how much we say we don’t expect anything, we can’t help but get caught up in the excitement. The Euros tend to provide more entertainment than the World Cup, less meaningless games and the football is generally of a higher quality. Any tournament with an Irish presence is better for it as well.

Who? – I’ll be very boring, play it safe, and say Netherlands v Spain in one semi, Germany v France in the other. That means the final could be a repeat of Euro 2008, but I’ve a sneaky feeling the Germans might just get their revenge and win their first tournament since Euro ’96.

Andy Murray at Queen's 2011

Andy Murray faces a potentially career defining summer in 2012. Photo: Carine06

Queen’s Club, Aegon Championships (11 – 17 June):

Why? – It marks the start of the British sporting summer, it means Wimbledon is just around the corner and there are few finer sights than watching a load of professional athletes slipping around at the back of a slick grass court.

Who? – If Murray’s fit then I’d take him to make it three titles in West London. He humiliated Roddick there last year and the American is worse now than he was then, suggesting that Murray’s only real competition will come from Big Willy himself, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.

Olympics Athletics trials (22 – 24 June):

Why? – The cream of British athletic talent all fighting for their place at a home Olympics. There’ll be some surprises, athletes who come from relative obscurity to book their place in the Olympic village, and there’ll no doubt be the odd high profile one who misses out too.

Who ? – I’m going to go for James Dasaolu to make headlines for all the right reasons. I interviewed him last summer during another period of rehab from injury, even at that stage his only focus was getting fit for the Olympics in his home city of London. The second fastest Brit over 100m last year, he’s already bagged an A standard qualifying time this season – all he’s got to do now is finish in the top two in the trials for his dream to become a reality. I also reckon a certain Mr. Chambers will fail to qualify for the individual event, his form this season doesn’t look good and I think the emotional roller coaster he’s been on over the past few years may have finally taken its toll.

Wimbledon Championships (June 25 – July 8):

Why? – Because it’s Wimbledon. Centre court has played host to some of the greatest finals of all time in the past five years and as is the way with any major tournament in this era, there are records to be broken. Federer could finally equal Pete Sampras’ record seven titles, or (depending on how events unfold in Paris) Novak Djokovic could march on to the third piece of the Golden Slam, Nadal could potentially win his twelfth major title or (whisper it) Andy Murray could win his first/second major title (OK 2nd is a little ambitious).

It’s not just the men’s draw that entices though, Sharapova will most likely be the favourite on the women’s side but those Williams sisters always save their best for the grass of South West London. Petra Kvitova won’t give up her title without a fight and Victoria Azarenka will be determined to reassert her authority on the women’s game. Throw into that the unpredictability of the women’s game at present and you may as well pick the quarter finalists out of a hat.

Who? – I’m going to stick with my Roland-Garros predictions and go for Sharapova and Nadal. Djokovic just isn’t quite on the high that he was last year, and if he’s not right on the top of his game then I think Nadal has the edge over him – as shown by the two clay court finals they’ve contested thus far this spring. You can never completely write off Roger either but his recent record at Wimbledon (only QF’s in the past two years) is worse than Murray’s, so you’d have to give Murray more chance than the Swiss magician.

On the women’s side, Sharapova has been pretty consistent in 2012, generally only losing to Azarenka, and should she make the final in Paris she’ll be coming to London with the number one ranking, a more consistent serve than she’s had for a couple of years, and potentially the confidence that comes with just having won a major title.

Dwain Chambers doing interview.

Will Dwain Chambers have be forced to run at in Helsinki to confirm a place at the Olympics? Photo: maxzix74

European Athletics Championships (June 26 – July 1):

Why? – Taking place the week after the trials, it’s surely the final opportunity for British athletes to grab the third discretionary place on offer at the Olympics if they didn’t perform at the trials. There may well be a lack of big names as the already qualified athletes will take a week’s rest in preparation for the games, but the competition is sure to be intense with so much at stake for those who do make the trip to Helsinki.

Who? – Who knows? It all depends what happens in Birmingham the previous weekend, who will have guaranteed their place and who will still be desperate to impress the selectors?

Tour de France (30 June – 22 July):

Why? – A sporting highlight every year for me. I can understand why people may find it boring and I can understand why some may be disillusioned with the regularity with which drugs cheats are highlighted in cycling. But I’ve been watching it since I was young, when I didn’t know what EPO was and when channel 4 gave me coverage in bite sized chunks at 6:30pm every evening. I remember Tom Steels blinding past me in 1998 to sprint to another stage victory, and I remember sitting having dinner in Lausanne, watching Marco Pantani ride past on his way to winning a post Tour criterium. Much has changed in the world of professional cycling since those days but much is reassuringly the same, Gary Imlach’s hair and the voices of Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen are synonymous with the Tour de France, bringing an air of class to proceedings come those three weeks in July.

Who? – Without wishing to sound too myopically patriotic, Britain’s riders genuinely have the potential to make history at this year’s Tour. Bradley Wiggins has what will probably be his best chance ever to grab himself the yellow jersey in Paris, and Mark Cavendish doesn’t look to have much serious competition in defending his green jersey. Doubt comes in the form of Wiggins’ main rivals for yellow, whom we should know more about after this week’s Dauphiné, in which Brad is looking to defend his title from last year. There will also be doubt over Team Sky’s ability to support both Wiggins and Cavendish in their separate goals, the squad as a whole is looking good though and if any squad is capable of winning two jerseys, then I’d suggest Sky are the team to do it. With that in mind I’ll go for Wiggins in yellow, Cavendish in green and Cadel Evans and Pierre Rolland rounding off the podium places.

Test Series v South Africa (July 19 – 20 August):

Why? – The top two ranked test nations in the world going head to head. England desperate to hang on to top spot and Graeme Smith’s South African side desperate to wrestle it away from them. Eight of the world’s top twenty batsmen will be on show (four each), seven of the world’s top twenty bowlers (4-3 to England), the world’s best all-rounder, this series has it all.

Who? – Take your pick really. Dale Steyn is the best bowler in the world, Vernon Philander is chasing him for that moniker and James Anderson would like to have a say in the matter too. Andrew Strauss could become England’s most prolific century maker of all time, Kevin Pietersen always likes to put on a show against his former compatriots, Ian Bell loves batting in the English summer and Jacques Kallis is a match winner with bat or ball. Were it any other year this would be the most anticipated sporting contest of the summer.

Olympic Games (July 27 – August 12):

Why? – The biggest sporting occasion in history, in London. Do I really need to add anything more?

Who? – Too many to mention and that’s why I love the Olympics – wherever you look there are stars being born. The obvious star is a certain Jamaican sprinter, Yohan Blake will push Bolt all the way for the sprint double but I think Bolt will still win both and add the relay title to cement his place in sporting legend.

Elsewhere I think Jess Ennis might just falter, but I reckon Phillips Idowu, Mo Farah and Greg Rutherford could all have a golden summer.

In the hockey I think the GB women could go all the way to the final. They beat the world number 1s Argentina twice recently, however the Argentinians were missing their star player in Luciana Aymar, so I’ll hold fire on predicting a definite gold. The GB girls are more than capable of delivering it though. For the men I think the best they can do is fifth, since winning the European Championships in 2009 and a silver in the 2010 Champions trophy, they seem to have been on somewhat of a downwards spiral of results – I’ll go for a German victory over Australia in the final.

Laura Trott riding for GB

Will Laura Trott ride away with omnium gold? Photo: Rob Duin

We won’t be as all-conquering in the velodrome as we were in Beijing. I still think we’ll come away with five golds though; both pursuit teams, the women’s omnium and one each from Sir Chris Hoy and Vicky Pendleton – not a bad return really!

On the road (providing safe passages through the Tour) I think it’ll be win or bust for Mark Cavendish, IF he makes it over Box Hill 9 times and is still on the front then the gold is his for the taking – if not then someone like Tom Boonen or Thor Hushovd is more than capable of riding away with gold. In the time trial I think Wiggins can get a medal, probably not gold but I’d be surprised if he didn’t make the podium.

For the women I’m not so au fait with the opposition, although in Nicole Cooke and Lizzie Armitstead we have two of the best road racers in the world, and Emma Pooley has previous in the time trial as well.

In the triathlon I’d be hugely shocked if there wasn’t a Brownlee on the top step of the rostrum. Don’t ask me to say which one but Jonny’s early season form and Alistair’s pedigree suggest that if they’re both fit they’ll be fighting between themselves for gold and silver. For the women then Helen Jenkins looks to be in top form so far this season, she’s not as far above the rest of the pack as her male teammates but anything less than a podium place would be a big shock.

I could keep going and going but my knowledge starts getting a bit patchy for other sports now, so I’ll let you make up your own minds as to who’ll take home the medals in the greco-roman wrestling.

Novak Djokovic at the French Open

Will Djokovic have had a record-breaking summer when he gets to New York? Photo: Carine06

US Open Tennis (Aug 27 – Sep 9):

Why? – For every reason I’ve mentioned previously. Nadal, Djokovic and Federer are a joy to behold, throw in Murray’s penchant for the hard courts and crowds of New York and we’ve got the recipe for another cracker on our hands. On the women’s side, Serena would dearly love to put last year’s meltdown in the final behind her, Sharapova could well be coming to New York with two major titles and an Olympic gold medal round her neck, and Azarenka could have bounced back on the hard courts she loves to be a favourite again.

Who? – We’re still three months away from the action kicking off at Flushing Meadows with an awful lot of tennis to be played in between so it’s too early to say really. All the usual suspects will be there, but I’d throw the names of Tomas Berdych, Juan Martin Del Potro, Agnieszka Radwanska and Caroline Wozniacki into the mix as well.

That’s me done for now, no doubt I’ll go into more detail for specific events as the summer progresses. I’d be interested to see how many of my predictions you agree with though, and if anyone fancies calculating how much I’d win if I put an accumulator on all my predictions then you can have a cut of the proceeds when they all come good!

What have I missed?:

Three golf majors, England vs. Australia ODI series, a summer of Formula 1, a summer of Moto GP, Royal Ascot, Eastbourne tennis, domestic T20, Paralympics, Vuelta a España, World T20.

Enjoy your summer.

Better Than All The Rest?

World rankings are a divisive subject. The credence afforded to rankings varies from sport to sport as does the importance placed upon them.

A generalisation could be made that rankings are given far more attention in individual sports than in team sports. In sports such as tennis, golf and Olympic distance triathlon great attention is paid to who is number 1 and the chase to top the rankings. Whereas in team sports such as football, rugby, hockey and basketball then little is made of who is ranked number one, or even who makes up the top 10 (who can honestly believe rankings such as the FIFA ones that currently have England placed seventh in the World?).

Caroline Wozniacki Winning in Belgium

Caroline Wozniacki's position as the world number one tennis player is widely questioned. Photo: americanistadechiapas

An alternative view could be taken that rankings become somewhat irrelevant in sports with a standalone World Championships to decide who is best, whilst rankings only matter in sports that lack a single competition to identify a true champion. This theory is borne out when comparing the sports mentioned above; football, rugby, hockey and basketball all have a World Cup whereas tennis, golf and to some extent triathlon lack a single focal point for the season.

There are other sports that disprove the first theory of team vs. individual whilst lending support to the idea of a world champion. Cricket is a team sport that currently lacks a competition for the test format of the game and thus great significance is given to the world rankings, as we saw when England recently climbed to the top of the ICC Test rankings for the first time. Snooker also bucks the trend as it is an individual sport in which more attention is paid to the winner of the World Championships each May than to the world number one.

So we can conclude that the lack of a single tournament to determine the best in the world is the main factor in determining the worth attributed to rankings. It is human nature to want to determine who is best though, so without a world championships to decide it then it is logical to have an alternative method, i.e. rankings.

The debate then turns to what rankings should be measuring, how do you define the best player in the world? Should rankings be significantly weighted to the bigger competitions in a season or should they be a measure of consistency over a sustained period?

It could be argued that tennis and golf rankings are given most attention by both players and media alike so it is no surprise that there is currently debate over how they both rank their players.

Both tennis and golf lack a single world championships, unfortunately they share the problem of having four tournaments a year that are considered to be above the rest of the events, thus confusing the issue of deciding a world number one. Current ranking systems in these sports attempt to place higher importance on the four major events whilst still rewarding consistency throughout rest of the year. The problem is that whilst high importance is given to the world rankings, they don’t surpass the kudos attained by success in any of the four majors.

Luke Donald

Luke Donald on his way to another top 10 finish at the Heritage in April. Photo: Keith Allison

Luke Donald is currently the Official World Golf Rankings number one player and Caroline Wozniacki has just been crowned as 2011’s top ranked female tennis player by the WTA. However these two individuals share the dubious honour of being ranked number one in their sport but without an all important major victory to their name.

England’s Donald and Denmark’s Wozniacki can rightfully claim to have been the most consistent performers in their sports for the past two years. Wozniacki has finished the year ranked number one in both 2010 and 2011, whilst golf rankings cover the past two years anyway so Donald’s current ranking confirms his dominance over the last 24 months.

Donald’s dominance in fact is so large that the gap between himself and second placed Lee Westwood is the same as the gap between Westwood and Bubba Watson in 16th place, he is also highly likely to become the first ever player to win the money lists on both the PGA and European Tours in the same season. The Hertfordshire born player has had a year to remember, winning five times, recording two top-10 finishes in majors and 14 top-10 finishes from 19 PGA Tour events whilst averaging the lowest score on the PGA Tour at 68.86 strokes per round.

When you compare his 2011 record with those of the major winners from this year it’s hard to say that any have a better claim at the number one spot than Donald. Masters winner Charl Schwartzel, Open Championship winner Darren Clarke and US PGA victor Keegan Bradley each won just one other tournament all year, whilst Rory McIlroy’s US Open victory was his sole win on either Tour this year and only the third of his whole career.

Kvitova and Sharapova at Wombledon 2011.

Petra Kvitova and Maria Sharapova are two of Wozniacki's closest challengers, both of whom have won a major. Photo: americanistadechiapas

Wozniacki’s place atop the rankings is not as strong as Donald’s but she should still be admired and respected for her consistency and dedication. Many people argue that were it not for Maria Sharapova’s shoulder, Kim Clijsters’ ankle, Justine Henin’s elbow, Serena Williams’ foot or Venus Williams’ advancing years then any one of those would depose the Dane as number one. The point of the rankings though is to decide the best player over a period of time and if you’re not fit enough to take to the court for the majority of that period then you cannot rightfully be called the best.

Again comparing Wozniacki’s year to those of the major winners of 2011 suggests that the 21 yr old Dane deserves her number one status. Wozniacki has six singles titles to her name in 2011, the four major winners together could only manage nine and she also won 17% more matches that her closest rival.

I have no doubt that Donald and Wozniacki will both win at least one major in their careers, they both have time on their side and both of their games are still developing. So whilst the debate will rage on about their right to be called the best in the world when they haven’t won a major it is worth remembering not to confuse the two achievements.

Being ranked world number one means you’ve had consistently better results than anyone else in the world for the past year, being a major winner means that you were the best player in the tournament for a given week (golf) or fortnight (tennis).

Photos: Wozniacki + Kvitova and Sharapova – americanistadechiapas, Donald – Keith Allison

It’s Only Sport

When mulling over the potential subject matter for my next post and leafing (well, electronically leafing anyway) through pages of online sports news in search of a story worth commenting on I stumbled upon Mark Cavendish’s latest indiscretion. Competing in the Giro d’Italia (Tour of Italy), the second biggest bike race in the World behind the Tour de France and one of the three Grand Tours, Cavendish took umbrage with rival Alessandro Petacchi’s tactics in the sprint finish to Sunday’s second stage and made no attempt to hide his displeasure. This isn’t the first conflict Cavendish has had with a race’s commissaires and will no doubt not be the last, however today’s news from the Giro overshadows any petty spat.

Wouter Weylandt (1984 - 2011) wins stage 3 of the 2010 Giro d'Italia. Photo: taimages.

Belgian rider Wouter Weylandt died today following a crash on a descent approximately 20km from the end of the third stage to Rapallo. Early reports suggest that Weylandt’s left pedal jammed and as a result he could not prevent the fall of 20m off the side of the road, Weylandt was only 26. He had two victories in Grand Tours, winning the 17th stage of the Vuelta a España (Tour of Spain) in 2008 and stage 3 of last year’s Giro. He made the move to the newly formed Leopard Trek team for the 2011 season and sufficiently impressed his Sporting Director to be selected for the team’s debut Grand Tour. He is survived by his girlfriend who is expecting their first child in September.

Today’s race continued as Weylandt was treated on the road, and Angel Vicioso celebrated as he crossed the line to win his first stage in a grand tour at the age of 34. Shortly after crossing the line he was informed of the day’s tragic news and the personal significance of the day for him will now be lost. Scot David Millar should also have had reason to celebrate as he finished second on the day’s stage to take the overall lead in the race. The race organisers cancelled the presentation ceremonies for the day though and have yet to announce whether race will continue. Past evidence suggests the race will continue, the last occasion a rider died as a result of a crash during a Grand Tour, Fabio Casartelli in the 1995 Tour de France, the race continued and was won by Miguel Indurain for the fifth consecutive time.

Instant reaction from fellow riders came via Twitter, with a selection copied below:

Mark Cavendish – “Things like this shouldn’t happen. Absolutely sick to the stomach. My thoughts are with his family. RIP Wouter Weylandt.”

Bradley Wiggins – “Days like this put this great sport we love into perspective, Wouter rest in peace now mate, thoughts are now with the family and freinds!”

Russell Downing – “after seeing that i feel sick inside…Rip wouter…u will be sadly missed. lost for words.”

Lance Armstrong – “I’m shocked and saddened. May he rest in peace.”

David Millar spoke to the press after today’s stage about taking the overall race lead: “It means nothing. I can’t even imagine what his family are going through, it’s terrible.” He went on to say: “Our sport is very tragic at times, it has been throughout its history, but we get mixed up in a lot of stupid things in this sport. But the bottom line is that it’s a sport that has its risks every single day.”

This outpouring of emotion just goes to show that no matter how seriously people take their profession and no matter how dedicated they are to winning, some things take priority over all others.

Sadly this isn’t the only death to have overshadowed what should have been a moment of celebration in recent weeks. ‘Whispering’ Ted Lowe, whose voice is synonymous with the game of snooker, died at the age of 90 on May 1st. Many say the art of great of commentating is timing and Lowe got his timing spot on once again as his death coincided with the first day of the World Snooker Championship final. Columnists were already heralding 21-year-old Judd Trump’s run to the final as a changing of the guard, the death of snooker’s voice throughout its golden years on the same day as this just emphasised the feeling that this was the start of a new era for snooker. The crowd at the crucible theatre stood for a minutes applause in honour of Lowe before the final got under way. Rather than expressing regret at such a tragedy, this emotional display conveyed the warmth and love that all who love snooker felt for Lowe, it was about celebrating a life rather than mourning one taken too early.

Sir Henry Cooper Blur Plaque

Sir Henry Cooper (1934 - 2011), was already commemorated before his recent passing. Photo: secretlondon123

More sadness was to be felt that same evening as news broke that the great Sir Henry Cooper, the British Heavyweight champion who once knocked Cassius Clay to the canvas, had also passed away. There was no heavyweight bout taking place that night for a timely tribute but the football programme Match of the Day 2 still interrupted it’s running order to deliver the news and mark the passing of ‘our ‘Enery’.

Finally, ‘Seve’ Ballesteros succumbed to a brain tumour on Saturday 7th May. He had been facing a battle with his health since collapsing in Madrid airport in 2008, and finally lost that battle last weekend. News broke on Friday afternoon that his condition had deteriorated and we awoke on Saturday morning to the news many had feared. Seve was the first European to win the US Masters, he won five majors in all and formed a formidable and inspirational Ryder Cup partnership with his great friend and compatriot José Maria Olazabal. Tributes flooded in from all quarters for a man whose style around the golf course had captivated and inspired so many to take up the game. His appeal spread wider than the golfing world though, as illustrated by the minute’s silence observed at the Madrid Masters tennis before the semi-final match between Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer. After the match Nadal said: “I’m really happy for the victory but it’s a terrible day for Spain, and for the world, because we lost a great champion, probably the greatest in the history of Spain.”

Sport is many things to many people, in the case of today’s tragic news it is important to remember that a young man died in a bike race – just a bike race. Since starting to write this post it has been reported that the race will continue but tomorrow’s fourth stage will be neutralised, essentially the riders will ride the course but will not race, in memory of Weylandt. In this case sport is being put to one side to respect the more important things in life.

However it is also vital to honour those in sport who have given so much pleasure and entertainment to thousands, if not millions of people throughout their careers. Less tragic circumstances can lead to a celebration of peoples achievements and what they have meant to their fans. Sport can be such a release from the rigours of day-to-day life and the average punter can connect with an athlete and feel part of something that they wouldn’t have been able to were it not for the medium of sport.

So yes, it may only be sport, and on occasions such as today that must be remembered, but we must also remember all the joy it brings to people and save time to celebrate that as well.

Photo credits: Wouter Weylandt – taimages, Sir Henry Cooper – secretlondon123