A sporting smörgåsbord of a summer

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.

The Green Green Grass Of Home

It’s that time of year again, time for the nation’s two-week love affair with tennis to begin and for some to discover that Fred Perry was actually a tennis player and not a designer of colourful polo shirts. Yes Wimbledon fortnight is upon us once more and with it come the annual questions of why we haven’t produced a home-grown champion in so long? (75 years now, and England football fans thought they had it bad!). And the more recent quandary of whether Andy Murray will be able to end that drought?

Roger Federer serves on Centre Court

Centre Court will be the centre of the nation's attention for the coming fortnight. Photo: Phil Jones

I’m not here to answer the first of those questions and I’ll get around to the second one in a little while. All I can say is that it gets rather tiresome listening to Roger Draper (Chief Exec. of Lawn Tennis Association) come up with the same old lines every June and announce a new initiative to get more people playing the game. He has been head of the LTA for five years now and I’m fairly certain he said when he got the job that it would take a few years to see the benefits of the changes he would make and that we have to be patient. Well he said the same thing last week and will no doubt say the same next year, in fairness it is the same schtick his predecessor came out with though and his protestations that we have a good crop of youngsters coming through does actually have some evidence to back it up this time.

British Talent

On the boys side we currently have one boy in the world’s top 10 and a further two in the top 20. Oliver Golding (no.5) made the semis at Wimbledon last year and followed that with a run to the final of the doubles at the US open and a quarter-final place on the clay of France this year. Promising results indeed and he was hardly embarrassed on his senior tour debut last week in his straight sets defeat to grass-lover Nicolas Mahut at Queen’s. George Morgan (no. 11) has also shown promise by winning the coveted U18 Orange Bowl trophy in Miami last December. It wasn’t Morgan’s first triumph in Florida though having already won the U14 title three years previously, his success there made him the first Brit to win the U18 trophy after Andy Murray could only succeed in the U12 age group. Victory in the Orange Bowl doesn’t guarantee you success on the senior tour but when you look at the previous winners there you can see that it’s not a bad guide when looking for the stars of tomorrow. Finally there’s Liam Broady (no. 17), he may be the lowest ranked but he’s the only one with grand slam pedigree, having already won the boys doubles at last year’s Wimbledon with fellow Brit Tom Farquharson, beating Morgan and his partner in the all British final. So the mens side of the game should be looking a bit more rosy in a couple of years time if these three can all make the jump up to senior level, however this cannot be taken for granted as we’ve had talented juniors before but they’ve failed to progress after their early promise.

Heather Watson at the French Open

Watson's win at the French Open propelled her into the top 100. Photo: Carine06

The girls are a step ahead of the boys in all departments it seems. They have two players in the senior top 100 compared to just Murray on the men’s side and a further six in the top 300 as opposed to just one man. The up and coming juniors are no longer juniors though, we don’t have a single girl in the top 100 juniors as our recent successes have seen both Laura Robson and Heather Watson make the step on to the senior tour in the last year or so. Both of them have junior grand slam singles titles to their name, something they share with Murray but a feat yet to be achieved by any of the promising boys. Watson has so far better of the pair, she recently turned 19 and became the first British woman to reach the second round of the French Open in 19 years (soon followed by Elena Baltacha), a result that propelled her into the top 100 for the first time in her career. Robson’s progress has faltered this year, her ranking has dropped to 247 having cracked the top 200 towards the end of last year, she split with her coach this week and is currently focussing on taking advantage of the wildcard she has been given into the main draw at Wimbledon.

Who will win?

On to the serious stuff now, Wimbledon is quoted by the great and the good to be the holy grail of tennis tournaments, so who will end up holding those famous old trophies aloft in a fortnight’s time?

WOMEN

No-one seems to want to take control of the women’s game at the minute, extended absences from the Williams sisters gave a perfect opportunity for someone to sweep up and dominate the game but it all seems to be a bit ‘no after you….’ at the moment. Caroline Wozniacki has been rewarded for consistent form by keeping hold of the number one spot, but she has yet to develop an attacking side to her game that can take her all the way to a grand slam title. Kim Clijsters won the US Open last year and the Australian Open at the beginning of this in Serena’s absence, but a bizarre ankle injury sustained whilst dancing at a wedding seems to have ruined her chances of success this summer and rumours of another retirement are starting to surface again.

Li Na is in good form having made the final of both majors so far this season, losing to Clijsters in Melbourne earlier in the year but then becoming the first Asian player to win a grand slam singles title in Paris earlier in the month. The world number four has a reasonable record on the grass as well having made the quarter finals twice in the last 5 years, last years run seemed to provide the catalyst for her rise up the rankings as well.

Sharapova serves on centre court

Maria Sharapova's serve, if working well, will be big weapon in her assault on the title. Photo: Phil Jones

Maria Sharapova must be considered a real contender this year after a good run of form recently that saw her win on the clay in Rome and then make the semi finals in Paris. She is previously quoted as saying that she feels like a ‘cow on ice’ when playing on clay, so if she can play that well on the red stuff she must be in good form. If her serve can stay consistent over two weeks then there’s no-one in the draw that she will be afraid of and even fewer that will have a chance of stopping her getting her hands on the Venus Rosewater dish for a second time.

Outsiders:

Marion Bartoli has just won in Eastbourne, she made the semis in Paris and has form at Wimbledon.

Petra Kvitova made the semis last year and her all-out attack game took her to the final of Eastbourne this week.

Victoria Azarenka has had a very good first half of 2011 but her form has dipped somewhat since leaving the hard courts of America, back on to a fast surface she will be a formidable opponent for anyone.

Last but not least the Williams sisters are back. They returned at Eastbourne this week and both looked rusty as they tried to shake off some cobwebs in preparation for the trip to SW19. Venus has won the title 5 times but age seems to be catching up with her and lack of matches will probably be her downfall this year. Serena is looking for a 5th title to equal her big sister but the serious health problems that followed her long-term foot injury have placed a question mark over her fitness and preparation for Wimbledon. She’s a fighter though and as strong as an ox so you wouldn’t put it past her levelling things up with Venus. The seedings committee have certainly given her a helping hand as well – bumping her up from her ranking of 26 to be seeded 7th.

My prediction? Sharapova to come through a tough top half of the draw and beat Azarenka in a ‘battle of the shriekers’ final to take her second Wimbledon title.

MEN

The usual contenders are there and in tip-top condition. Rafa has just won a record-equalling 6th French Open crown, is on a 14 match winning streak at the All England Club and has the added motivation of fighting for his number 1 spot. He lost in the quarter finals of Queen’s last week and looked a little lethargic in doing so but that can be forgiven considering it came straight on the back of a gruelling clay court season in which he had to fight harder than usual to eventually reign supreme at Roland Garros. He was pushed all the way by Murray in the Madrid semis and lost twice in finals to Djokovic in Madrid and Rome but put everyone in their place to equal Bjorn Borg’s record in Paris.

Novak Djokovic has had a simply phenomenal 2011 to date, 42 matches played and only one loss, seven tournament victories, including the Australian Open and all five Masters 1000 tournaments played this season. It took an inspired performance from Roger Federer to bring his 43 match winning streak to an end in the semi finals at Roland Garros. He pulled out of Queen’s to rest a knee problem, but his improved strength and endurance has played a large part in his sustained level of success this year. The jovial Serb has switched to a gluten-free diet this season and has since banished the breathing problems that have blighted his career to date. He was known as a player that was always susceptible to a physical breakdown when the going got tough but that hasn’t been the case this year so there is no reason he can’t improve on his previous best semi final performance and win Wimbledon this year.

The Fed-Express had been rather less than express since his last grand slam victory at the 2010 Australian Open, but since starting to work with Paul Annacone (Pete Sampras’ old coach) in July of last year he has steadily been getting back to somewhere near his best. Unfortunately his best is now not always good enough, he seemed to have the upper hand against Nadal in this year’s French Open final having dominated the first set but somehow Nadal still won it. Federer’s game seems to be more attacking than it was during much of last year, he puts it down to being fully fit again after prolonged back issues during 2010. He will have to hope that the Wimbledon courts are playing particularly quick this year if he is going to break Nadal’s winning streak on Centre Court and equal Sampras’ record 7 Wimbledon titles.

Andy Murray serves at Wimbledon

Andy Murray will need a high 1st serve percentage to be successful at this year's Wimbledon. Photo: pk2004

Last of the main contenders is Britain’s own Andy Murray. Fresh off his most productive clay court season ever and regaining the Queen’s Club title this week, Murray couldn’t have wished for a better Wimbledon preparation (ankle injury sustained at Roland Garros not withstanding). Successive semi final losses at Wimbledon have left the British public wondering whether they have another Henman on their hands? This is a little harsh though, Murray is still improving and still has time on his side, he just happens to be playing in one of the strongest periods ever for men’s tennis. Murray has made three grand slam finals so far and he is more than capable of improving that figure at this years championships but he will need to be at the peak of his powers for the whole two weeks, with no lapses in concentration in order to have a chance – he isn’t good enough to have a 5 minute relax against the big-3 without getting punished. His semi final victory over Andy Roddick at Queen’s showed that when he plays attacking tennis and goes for the kill early in the rally he can be devastating. The draw hasn’t been kind to him either, he is scheduled to meet Nadal in the semis for the second successive year but faces a stern test to get that far, Marin Cilic, Richard Gasquet and Andy Roddick all lie in wait in one of the toughest grand slam final routes you could pick.

Outsiders:

Tomas Berdych made the final last year, not in the best of form at the minute but can never be counted out.

Robin Soderling and his massive forehand will always pose a danger but having since split with Magnus Norman will he revert back to his old ways?

Andy Roddick may have missed his best chance to win on the hallowed turf in London but with that serve and a formidable grass-court pedigree he could play himself into some form with a few early wins.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, the enigmatic Frenchman known as ‘Ali’ loves to play on grass and if he can play to his best consistently then he has a big enough game to beat anyone.

Juan Martin Del Potro is still on the way back from the wrist injury that ruined his 2010 season but a couple of tournament wins this season show he’s getting back to his US Open winning best. The biggest forehand in the game (based on wingspan anyway!) could do some damage if the courts play quickly.

My prediction? I’d love to see a Murray v Djokovic final but I’ll play safe and go for another Nadal v Federer classic with Nadal shading it to keep Pete’s record safe for another year.

Anyone else confident enough to leave their predictions below?

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

Brains vs. Brawn

You know the person, the battering ram in the school rugby team, the beanpole on the basketball court, the lightning quick winger in football, the kid whose physical attributes covered up for a lack of talent? Most of these people get found out when adolescence comes to an end and everyone else has caught up with them and they can no longer barge through, tower over or race past the little kid. Some of them slip through the net though, some of them maintain their physical edge and have just enough talent to remain successful, maybe even turn professional.

I myself was the beanpole on the basketball court. A growth spurt between middle school and secondary school resulted in a distinct height advantage when it came to trials for the year 8 basketball team. After the first year though I became less and less effective but I trained hard and worked on my passing and shooting enough to hold down a place for the four years until 6th form, relying on the more talented ball handlers around me to get by.

Blake Griffin

6' 10" Griffin is quite a physical specimen. Photo: Keith Allison.

The idea for this blog came from listening to an NBA pundit commenting on Blake Griffin, the 6 ft 10 in record-breaking rookie, that he couldn’t wait for Griffin to become a basketball player as well as an athlete. The first rookie to be named in the All Star team since Tim Duncan in 1998, winning all six Rookie of The Month awards available in the Western Conference and the first rookie since 2000 to average 20 points and 10 rebounds a game, Griffin has had a stellar opening season in the NBA with a struggling LA Clippers side.

Is he actually a good basketball player though? Well he can definitely dunk, winning the Slam Dunk Contest during the All Star Weekend showed that, but is that all he can do? Like many power forwards he has a poor shooting percentage from the free throw line, his mid range jump shot needs work and if the Clippers want to build a successful team around him he must show more variety in the paint, doing more than just bullying opponents with his size. He shares the ball well though, averaging 3.8 assists per game, and showed signs of maturing as the season went on.

With all his success so far though, does he really need to improve? He already has enough physical presence to be an All Star for years to come, better judges than me though have deemed that he could be so much more. Were he to develop and mature as he seems capable of, he could become one of the all time greats and still be effective when his body starts to fail him in his later years.

Griffin has made it to the NBA and been very successful using his physical advantage but has the capability to prolong his career with genuine talent, others aren’t quite so lucky. Theo Walcott is still striving to convince many that he is anything more than a sprinter who can kick a ball, the same can be said for Aaron Lennon. OK I’ll admit that this is a rather black and white view of their footballing prowess but there is little doubt that were they not blessed with such electric pace they wouldn’t be where they are today.

Darren Fletcher warms up.

Darren Fletcher may not be the most skilful of footballers but that hasn't stopped him. Photo: Andrea Sartorati

Cardiovascular endurance can also elevate one’s performance levels above those around them, not because they are more skilled but because they simply can go for longer. Would Darren Fletcher and Park Ji-Sung be continually trusted by Sir Alex Ferguson to play in Manchester United’s most important games if they could not run for days on end? They certainly aren’t the most naturally skilful players at Sir Alex’s disposal yet they can be relied upon to close people down and track back to make a saving tackle when perhaps some so-called ‘flair players’ couldn’t be.

The list of sport stars ‘making the most of what god gave them’ is endless; would the Williams sisters be so good at tennis if they couldn’t hit the ball harder than anyone else? Would Rafael Nadal be the world no. 1 if he couldn’t chase every ball down and seemingly not tire? Would Michael Phelps be the all-conquering swimmer he is without his disproportionately large wingspan and size 14 feet? Would Usain Bolt be so fast if he wasn’t 6′ 5″?

Lionel Messi playing for Barcelona.

Messi is successful despite his diminutive stature. Photo: Prettyfriendship.

More importantly though, are all these questions rather pointless? Is it the same as asking, what if Lionel Messi wasn’t so skilful? Or what if Phil Taylor didn’t practice darts so much? Isn’t sporting competition all about celebrating the variations in people’s abilities? Team sports would be incredibly tedious if everyone shared the same qualities. And where would athletics be without the subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, differences between us all?

It may seem unfair that the big kid always gets picked ahead of you at school and that skilled individuals may be overlooked for those with more obvious physical advantages. But those people will get found out eventually, or they’ll have had to work incredibly hard to forge a path for themselves where less determined people may have failed. The great thing about sport is that there is a place for almost anyone, hard work can get you a long way and this is something that should be celebrated and encouraged. After all, we can’t all be Roger Federer!

Photo credits:

Blake Griffin: Keith Allison;  Darren Fletcher: Andrea Sartorati;  Lionel Messi: Prettyfriendship

R. E. S. P. E. C. T.

The charges have been made, the appeal heard and the a title=Wayne Rooney banned for Man Utds FA Cup semi-final href=http://news.bbc.co.uk/sport1/hi/football/12995661.stm target=_blanksentence handed down/a; Wayne Rooney will be missing for Manchester Uniteds FA Cup semi final against a title=Sir Alex Ferguson stokes up hostilities with Manchester City after derby victory href=http://http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/sport/football/article6841960.ece target=_blanknoisy neighbours/a City this weekend at Wembley. But did he deserve his two match ban? Was his offence really that bad? And perhaps most importantly, why on earth did he do it in the first place?

a href=http://farm6.static.flickr.com/5207/5284558112_e255f227fe_z.jpgimg class=size-full wp-image-41 title=Glasgow Rangers FC v Manchester United – UEFA Champions League src=https://thebigblogofsport.files.wordpress.com/2011/04/wayne3.jpg alt=Rooney reacts to scoring against Rangers in the Champions League width=510 height=286 //a

Controlled

Wayne Rooney is currently the most famous exponent of the four letter rant in English football, however he is by no means alone in his love of the profane. It would now come as a shock to watch a Premier League game without someone being caught swearing on camera at some point. Rooney is a serial offender though, add to this his high-profile and the timing of the event (coming just days after the a title=Premier League to curb player behaviour – Scudamore href=http://news.bbc.co.uk/sport1/hi/football/9442760.stm target=_blankFAs latest push for respect/a in the game), and it should come as no surprise that those in charge have chosen to make an example of Rooney.

Was his crime really deserving of a two match ban though? Especially considering the lack of action taken by the FA for the inexcusable elbow he dished out to Wigans James McCarthy in February of this year. That offence apparently warranted no punishment on the pitch and even having reviewed the damning video evidence after the event, the FA still chose to take no action.

So it seems repeatedly swearing into a television camera is worse than assaulting a player, at least that is what the decision makers think and theyre the only opinions that really count. In my opinion a two match ban seems appropriate for such a crime, however the problem comes when you compare it to other offences of a similar nature and the punishment they received.

The FA have made an example of Wayne Rooney, but with no precedent for their decision. Were there a set of rules in place to deal with foul and abusive language and its use on the field of play (or at least a set that are enforced) then perhaps this incident wouldnt have received the coverage it has.

If the sports governing body really are serious about achieving respect for their match officials then perhaps they should behave like a body that deserves it. Instead of promotional videos with Ray Winstone, advertising boards around the edge of the Wembley pitch and a little patch on a players sleeve, how about punishments for every swear word aimed at anyone other than themselves. A yellow card for a first offence, red card for second and match bans for anything after? The rule makers may say there are already rules in place to cover such offences, in which case they should be enforced.

Players need to realise that they cant turn the air blue whenever they feel like it and get away with it, if referees had this kind of power then they may just be respected that little bit more. Like it or not footballers are role models, so they need to learn to behave like it – if suspensions mean they miss important games, lose endorsement deals and are hit with significant fines then they may just sit up and pay attention.

Perhaps the more important question to ask with regards to this and countless other situations in which tempers boil over is why it happens in the first place? Why do players feel the need to swear into a camera, butt heads because someone may have mis-timed a tackle or join in a mass brawl, all started because someone wouldnt give the ball back quickly enough?

The slew of official player apologies that get trotted out to the press after a game will more than likely feature one of more of the following phrases: heat of the moment, not intentional, never meant to cause any offence, pressure can do funny things etc.

I fail to see how scoring a hat-trick to take the lead in a vital game could lead to swearing directly into a television camera. Surely this would be a joyous occasion, one to revel in with your teammates and supporters?

If a teammate of mine were getting involved in a fracas with an opposition player, I dont see the reason for two whole teams to then get involved and risk further punishment. If I were to ring a title=BBC – 606 href=http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0070hz6 target=_blank606 on 5Live/a with this opinion I would no doubt be told by Robbie Savage that you cant understand the pressures players are under until youve played at that level. I would agree with him up to a point, he is correct in saying that professional footballers are under far more pressure to perform than the average amateur sportsperson could ever imagine. However were he then to go on and say that it is just passion boiling over, this is where I would draw the line. Passion is a word used to excuse all sorts of despicable behaviour in sport, I refuse to agree that amateur sportspeople dont play with the same passion and desire to win that the pros do.

a href=http://farm3.static.flickr.com/2430/3598523111_12eb2a781b_m.jpgimg class=size-full wp-image-42 title=Roger src=https://thebigblogofsport.files.wordpress.com/2011/04/roger1.jpg alt=Roger Federer celebrates winning at the French Open width=170 height=240 //a

Federers

Of course foul language and bad behaviour is not reserved for professional sport, neither is it the sole preserve of a football pitch; John McEnroe, Serena Williams, Mike Tyson, Tiger Woods, the list could go on. So is it really passion boiling over or is that just an excuse for a lack of emotional, and sometimes physical, control? I would lean towards the latter and suggest that the old myth of if you take it out of their game youll lose something is a load of rubbish.

Roger Federer is a prime example of what someone can achieve when they a title=Roger Federer’s quest for tennis perfection href=http://www.sportingo.com/tennis/a4495_roger-federers-quest-tennis-perfection target=_blanklearn to control their emotions/a and focus that energy into something positive. As a teenager he was renowned for his emotional outbursts and racket smashing antics, but as soon as he learned to keep his emotions in check, he transformed into the serene genius that dominated mens tennis for so long.

So the benefits of keeping calm and respecting those around you are clear, you dont run the risk of suspensions, fines and tarnishing your reputation – and it may lead to an upturn in performance. It is evident that some find it easier to control their emotions than others, but even losing your cool is no excuse for violent outbursts, be they physical or verbal. How is it possible then for officials to obtain the respect they crave? If the athletes cannot learn to control themselves then at least consistent punishment might eventually push the message home.

Photos courtesy of stronga title=americanistadechiapas photostream href=http://www.flickr.com/photos/americanistadechiapas/ target=_blankamericanistadechiapas/a /strong(Wayne), and stronga title=Perunotas TVs Photostream href=http://www.flickr.com/photos/39203725@N08/with/3631936864/ target=_blankPerunotas TV/a /strong(Roger).