Rob Minto

Sport, data, ideas

Month: May 2005

New kid on the block

Rafael Nadal. How can this be? He will play Federer on Friday in the French Open semi, and goes in as the narrow favourite. Yup. Against Federer.<br />
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Things to remember: he is 18; he has never been to a slam quarter before, let alone semi; he has only won a handfull of events on the tour; he has never played 5 5-set matches in a row before.<br />
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And yet – just watching the highlights of his last match, and he is hitting winners from anywhere on (or off) the court. His speed is frightening. He looks so comfortable on clay, and he is playing with what would look like arrogance if he wasn’t backing it up with the shots.<br />
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So – will Nadal beat Roger? Hmm, hard to call. If he plays at his current level, yes. Any dip, and Federer will try to kill him fast. But it could be the match of the year, and possibly the only real test Federer gets in a slam for the rest of 2005.

Ooo, tough crowd

You have to hand it to the Roland Garros spectators. They have always been fiercely partisan, adopting players on a whim and barracking others to distraction. They played a huge part in the famous Serena Williams – Justine H-H semi a few years ago, and treated the Williams sister very unfairly.<br />
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Yesterday, they took it to a whole new level. In the Grosjean – Nadal match, the umpire refused to leave is chair to examine a mark which (the French) Grosjean thought was out. Result: play was held up for 10 minutes or more whilst the crowd bayed for blood. A football crowd acts with more dignity.<br />
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To the players’ credit, they were the ones who calmed the crowd down. There were several options. The umpire could have suspended play, which would have been fair enough. The tournament referee could have spoken to the crowd, but was too spineless. So the players took steps. Grosjean and Nadal gave each other looks as if to say “up to you, mate”. Grosjean appealed to the mob to calm it, and Nadal, through a chorus of boos, served. The two men started a gentle rally, ignoring the mahem, and as noise subsided their play became more intense. It was the best thing they could have done.<br />
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Nadal showed remarkable composure for an 18-year-old in his first French Open. He cut out the fistpumps, rode the cheers that greeted his every error, and kept his nose in front. The winner will be decided today, but the crowd are clearly a poor third in this sorry spectacle.

Holder’s rights

So – the question after the best final for ages is: should Liverpool be allowed to defend their title. I have seen acres of guff about this, but the answer, surely, is “NO”.<br />
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First off, Everton can’t be sacrificed. That would be a massive injustice.<br />
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Assuming there are a limited number of teams that can be in the Champions League, a place for Liverpool means sacrificing a team from somewhere else, a “lesser” country. Not so bad, perhaps, from an English perspective, but is it really fair? A qualifying round for Liverpool would be a compomise, but it surely forces a team that didn’t initially require a qualifying match to play one, which again seems unfair.<br />
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Essentially, any plan to include Liverpool upsets another team somewhere else. But really, why do we stick to this notion that the holders of a trophy have an inalienable right to defend their prize? If they can’t make it up to the mark to qualify, bad luck. <br />
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Over time, our notion of defending the title has changed anyway. In the past, Wimbledon champions got a bye to the final in what was know as the “challenge round”. Not such a good idea. And things have changed in football too. World Cup winners Brazil will have to qualify for Germany 2006.<br />
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And was the competition so enhanced by having Porto in it this year? Hardly. What extra interest do the champions bring? Very little in football terms. <br />
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Liverpool should stop complaining. They won the title – most fans, players and managers would swap that for a year out of the tournament. If they are such a good team, they will get back in for 2007.

Lions-Pumas 25-all (no-one saw that coming)

If that’s the Argentinian second string team, what the hell are their coaches doing? That 15 looked good enough to trouble any side, and gave the lions lots to think about – particularly in the scrum.<br />
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On the upside, JonnyW looks ready to play in the tests now – he was sharp, fast and accurate in everything he did. The lions didn’t actually play that badly, they were just out played at times. True, they split a few balls, but they were turned-over fair and square enough times for Richie McCaw to be relishing the battle ahead. Neil Back looks a clever inclusion in the squad, and I still have a hunch that the backrow will be the old guard of Hill-Back-Dallaglio, with only Corry and Owen in with a shout of a test spot.<br />
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Equally, I liked the coaches reaction from Woodward and McGeechan – no panic, honest assessments and no criticisms of the players. No over-excited messages to the all blacks. Perhaps Alastair Campbell hasn’t joined the party yet.<br />
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Hansen and Lineker smug it up

There aren’t too many good documentaries on football about, but Alan Hansen is doing his best. <b>Life after football</b> was an emotional, intriguing insight – aside from all the-football-is-a-drug comments, which sounds like a justification for losing the plot.<br />
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Gazza is a traditional subject for this, given his playing in China and generally being all over the shop, with not much up top. His honest assessment: “I was too scared to plan ahead… and then I just hit the bottle.” A sad figure. Les Ferdinand and Alan Shearer hardly seemed to have it all worked out, but given their wealth and stature, they have time.<br />
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Unsurprisingly, booze featured very heavily – Neil “Razor” Ruddock confessed that he just goes off the rails when drunk; that the discipline and structure lacking after retirement is just too much for men whose sole life-skill was kicking a ball about in front of thousands of fans.<br />
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One comment by Tony Cascarino that “players are not nice people to be around, not when they finish playing” made me wonder how awful that must be, given the behaviour of current players. They all get divorced, it seems. Hardly a surprise.<br />
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Of the current youthful crop, Frank Lampard at least admitted that he is thinking about the future, unlike Rio Ferdinand who just thought the subject was “depressing”, and could only talk about fashion and music. But both recognised that the pampering the players get leaves you utterly unprepared for later life. As Ruddock said: “I had no idea how to find a dentist. Or how to get the car cleaned.”<br />
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But Hansen’s “I’ve been there” style has one major problem. He’s doing ok. Very ok. He sits around in his lazy style, quipping his way through matches with Lineker et al, picks up the odd commercial, and then makes poignant documentaries for the BBC. Sympathy rating: nil. What some ex-players who have hit the skids must have thought when the suave Hansen turned up in his lovely coat and asked them about how short-sighted they were during their careers I dread to think.<br />
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And the only player to have planned a career after football DURING their playing days, the only one to not miss the game? Lineker. He always wanted to work in the media, apparently. He tried to avoid seeming smug, but you could see him thinking “Ha! All those fools who never thought ahead. I did. Snooze, you lose.”

The delusional Mr Ferguson

So Sir Alex thinks that there was little between ManU and Chelsea this season?<br />
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Before Yesterday’s match, he said: “We don’t need to use tomorrow’s (Tuesday’s) game to provide proof that we will be challenging Chelsea next season. There is nothing between the sides and they know fine well we will be one of their main challengers next season.”<br />
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Riiight. Nothing between the sides, apart from 20 points in the league, losing to Chelsea 1-3, and two trophies. The man is clearly getting soppy. It wasn’t too many seasons ago that winning the Premiership alone wasn’t enough. Now the FA cup is their only chance of success.<br />
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I would imagine that the only players who would get a sniff of a game for Chelsea right now are Rooney and Ferdinand. Maybe van Nistelrooy when in form, but no-one else. If Fergie thinks his team are going to challenge for the title next season, he will need a run of luck, players free of injury and a dip from not just Chelsea but Arsenal too. Won’t happen.

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