Spectator sport

The pain of being second-best

9 June 2016

1:00 PM

9 June 2016

1:00 PM

The boys at Radio 5, bless ’em, are now including the EU referendum as part of their sports trailers. As in: ‘The European Championships; England versus Sri Lanka; Wimbledon; the EU Referendum; the Rio Olympics… don’t miss a second of this glorious summer of sport on BBC 5 Live.’ Nevertheless, the normally excitable world of sport has remained strangely immune to the dramas of the Brexit debate, though Sir Ian ‘Beefy’ Botham has put his considerable bulk behind the ‘outers’. Not surprising really. It was once said that cricket has the only trade union where the workers are to the right of the employers.

But keen Brexiteers should note that Serbia and Switzerland have won eight of the past ten men’s tennis majors (two for Stan Wawrinka and six for Novak Djokovic), and 31 of the past 52 once you count Roger Federer. Clearly, if you want to win a major, vote Leave.

But what a beast Djokovic is now, albeit one with immense charm, impeccable manners and an unbeatable fluency in umpteen languages. And surely, among the greatest there has ever been. Poor Murray wasn’t serving so well in the French tennis final, but he is still arguably the more versatile and interesting player: the angst-laden jazz saxophonist to Djokovic’s consummate concert pianist, whose finger placements are never more than a millimetre out. It’s much harder being the second-best tennis player in the world than, say, the second-best footballer. If you’re Ronaldo, you can have a whale of a time, hang about on boats, get a tan, and just not worry too much about Messi. But if you’re Murray, it’s a life of pain: well-rewarded but oh-so hard. He played some superb ground strokes in Paris and Novak chased them down. Good shots wide into the corner and then into the opposite corner were reached and returned with interest.

So is Novak actually beatable? If you play defensively, you will lose more slowly than if you play aggressively. But either way you will lose. The only way to beat Novak is by being better than him, and there is absolutely no sign of anyone coming near that. But just in case, here’s the plan: pull Djokovic into the net. And then play better than him. Good luck with that.

The European soccer championships is the first big tournament since the end of the corrupt regimes of Blatter and Platini at Fifa and Uefa. I hope we will now see the game being cleaned up on the pitch just as, so we are told, it is being cleaned up behind the scenes. We must encourage referees to be stricter with dissenters (yellow cards for verbal confrontation and so on), and make greater use of video evidence. If anyone this side of Pluto can see the ball has been handled in the area apart from the referee, that cannot be right. And refs should be told to come down hard on the kind of histrionics where players writhe on the ground when an opponent has brushed past.

Rarely has a sporting life been coated with so much rich anecdotage as that of Muhammad Ali. Here is one story I like. In 1976 Ali fought Richard Dunn, a solid citizen of impeccable courage, but no match for the champ. The NBC guy at ringside approached Ali and asked him to keep it going for six rounds as they had to get all the commercials in. In round four, Dunn was out on his feet, so Ali went into a clinch and walked Dunn backwards to the ropes. He leant down to the NBC man and said, ‘Better get those ads in quickly. I’m not sure I can keep this guy up much longer.’ The fight ended in round five.

Very good to see that giant alligator giving it large at Buffalo Creek golf course in Florida the other day. I’m pretty sure he and I teamed up for a four-ball at Sawgrass the other year. I seem to recall he was pretty handy in the bunkers.

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