Talking Sport : King Roger, against the odds

Surprisingly, 2009 was Roger Federer’s year

by Lamont Russell

The tennis year of 2009 has unfolded like a great Russian novel, with cataclysmic upheavals, young pretenders, triumph and tragedy – before finally the old order has been restored, and Roger Federer is once more on his throne as the number one player in the world. This was such a different script from the one being written on court back at the Australian Open in January, when Federer was a beaten and weeping finalist.

At the time, Federer was consoled on court by his conqueror Rafael Nadal, who – incidentally – is living proof that one can be a fiercely competitive professional sportsman and a compassionate human being at the same time. Back then, the script seemed to be : Federer was on the downhill slope. Throughout 2008, his rivals had been snapping at the heels of the once invincible Swiss star, and now Rafa had eclipsed him. Federer, so the smart money said, would never win another Grand Slam. Allegedly, he had lost belief in himself.

How wrong we all were. Famously and incredibly, Rafa went crashing to defeat in the French Open at the hands of Robin Soderling and – thanks to the combination of his dodgy, perhaps irreparably damaged knees and the trauma of his parents’ divorce – he has never seemed like the same player since. Amazingly, the Spaniard has lost eight out of the nine matches that he has played against Top Ten players since May. As Rafa faltered, Federer won the French Open and then Wimbledon. Those Slams enabled him to pull ahead of Pete Sampras as the most successful player in tennis history.

In the wings, various other pretenders rose and fell. Andy Murray was briefly number three during 2009. Yet in a long British tradition, he has shown a tendency to choke in key games. Opponents have learned that his counter-attacking game is very vulnerable to an all –out offensive, and Murray has lost ground as the year has progressed. Novak Djokovic, on the other hand, may have begun 2009 with a well earned reputation for quitting when things got tough, but he has ended the year just as he did in 2008, as the most dangerous immediate threat to Federer’s reign. Unless Nadal finds some miraculous way to repair his body, Djokovic should claim the number two slot from Rafa at the 2010 Aussie Open next month.

Juan Martin del Potro was the other rising star of 2009. His victory at the US Open ( where he beat Federer) has finally given him confidence that he can beat the very best players. 2009 though, has been has been Federer’s year.

Footnote : plainly 2009 has also been a pretty good year in tennis

for Arlan Kantarian as well. Arlan who ? You might well ask. Kantarian is CEO of the US Lawn Tennis Association, and he pocketed over $US9 million in salary and bonuses this year. He does his job pretty well too, by all accounts. Yet as pointed out in this letter I spotted on a tennis forum, such salaries ( and tournament prize money) have no place in a sport that relies so heavily on volunteer labour :

The USTA expects people to volunteer at most of their events. Why in the world should people be giving their time over to an event that is surrounded, literally, by millionaires. And, with this latest information we now know it’s not just the players. Any one of the top 20 players in the world could donate 1% of their salary to make sure volunteers make at least a couple hundred bucks a day. To me, it’s pathetic. Why should people give their time and energy when just about everyone involved in the event is making more money then most of us will ever see. The players owe it to volunteers to make sure they get paid. It won’t make the slightest different in their savings accounts. Really sad actually that this still goes on, especially in today’s economy.

Amen to that. Given that New Zealand kicks off the tennis year with its tournament in Auckland in early January, the 1% donation proposal is one that should be raised at press conferences, with the top players participating.

The New Zealand soccer team’s feat in reaching the World Cup has to be our most significant sporting feat of the decade. It epitomised what we like to think of as being our national virtues – a plucky, never say die attitude, and grit and skill when it mattered most. We managed to beat a team of pampered professionals, while lacking the same advantages and financial resources. If the team can go on to achieve any further success next year at the Cup tournament proper in South Africa, it will be time to call in the Hollywood script writers : because we will have our own Slumdog Millionaires in soccer boots.

Reportedly, there is something in the region of $NZ10 million now available to the code, thanks to mere participation in South Africa. Some commentators – and people close to the team – have stressed that these resources and this showcase for the sport in New Zealand must not be frittered away – as allegedly, the possible gains from our participation in the 1982 World Cup were lost.

I think that needs to be put in perspective. The main reason the opportunity was lost in 1982 and soccer did not advance as a national sport was not mainly due to poor work by soccer officials. It came down to what the team achieved on the field at the Cup, and in 1982 that proved to be very little. Next year, the hurdle will be just as high. Yes, it is a terrific achievement to have reached the World Cup – but further gains for the code beyond 2010 will require victories on the field next year at the Cup tournament. Given the calibre of the teams New Zealand will be facing next year, that will be very, very difficult. Yet as recent events have shown, it is dangerous to under-estimate this team.

As others have also noted….who-ever chose that All Whites name and brand was obviously tone deaf to its global implications. Not to mention resigned to soccer having a chronic dependence on rugby – because the name makes sense only as a play of words on the All Blacks, who play a game that by comparison, enjoys only a miniscule following on the world stage. Chants of All White ! All White ! are going to sound very strange indeed in South Africa, and to a global television audience to whom rugby means nothing at all. It would be unfortunate if the main global outcome of this wonderful global exposure would be to unwittingly brand New Zealand as a country of apparent Aryan supremacists.

The victory last month by Manny Pacquaio over Miguel Cotto confirmed that we are watching a true phenomenon, possibly the greatest fighter since Muhammad Ali. Cotto was an extremely good welterweight champion – taller, heavier, with longer reach than the Filipino. Yet thanks to his speed and explosive power, Pacquaio handed him a terrible beating (pictured left) before the referee called a halt in the 12th round.

It means that Pacquaio has now won world boxing titles in seven different weight divisions, something no other fighter in history has achieved. True, back when Henry Armstrong won three titles ( featherweight, lightweight and welterweight) in a short space of time in the mid 1930s, there were only eight weight divisions in the entire sport. But Pacquaio has now beaten comprehensively everyone available between 112 pounds and 145 pounds. I say’available’ because the one stellar opponent still elusively waiting in the wings is the great Floyd Mayweather. If that fight can be put together in 2010, it will be the only sporting event next year to rival the Football World Cup. ENDS

Lamont Russell is a Wellington-based writer.