Saturday, 20 September 2014

An open letter to Andy Murray

Dear Andy Murray,

Hello Andy. I hope preparations are going well for the final leg of the 2014 season, which starts in China for you shortly. This is a strange time of the season, with perhaps little in the way of top-level Grand Slam glory. However, there are some pretty high-profile tournaments to win, and there is a chance to build a good platform for the following year. Many will remember the role Ivan Lendl played in your history-making 2012 season, but it's also worth remembering your strong end to 2011 setting things in motion. I still think the second of your three wins during that autumn - the 2011 Japan Open - was one of your finest; you played brilliantly in the final, even if maybe one could argue that Rafael Nadal was not quite in 'Grand Slam mode' when you beat him 3-6 6-2 6-0.

Of course the news in the past couple of days has been less about tennis in Shenzhen, Beijing and Shanghai and more about politics in the United Kingdom. On the morning of the Scottish Referendum on independence (September 18th), you publicly came out in support of the pro-independence "yes" campaign in a short post on Twitter. This quickly generated some quite strong feelings on both sides of the debate, and has become a hot talking point going forward. Sadly, I hear that the strength of feeling led to some unacceptable and frankly disgusting comments on social media. I obviously condemn this in the strongest terms.

It's a difficult one to try and articulate. Speaking purely from a personal point of view (in the interests of full disclosure I do currently work for HM Government, which is why I'm stressing that this is a personal view) from someone living outside Scotland (the so-called rUK), I wanted Scotland to remain as part of the United Kingdom. So ultimately, I suppose that any support you gave for 'yes' would broadly have been met with disappointment, and any support for 'no' broadly endorsed privately, whatever the way in which it was stated. You are of course entitled to your opinion and there is an argument commending you for putting yourself out there and coming down on one particular side.

However, even accepting that view, there is an element to this which makes me feel uncomfortable and, after some thinking, I think I've been able to pinpoint what it is. Much has been written since Thursday about how you took years to win the hearts and minds of 'middle England' and now, having done so in the last couple of years, the old suspicions and mistrust will resurface after your support for 'yes'. The point I would like to make is that this perception of you was, and has always been, far from universal in rUK. There are those of us that have supported you since your breakthrough in 2005 and, in particular, since Tim Henman's retirement left you as the main British hope and talent in 2008. We saw through all the 'anti-England' rhetoric that wrongly followed you for so many years. Many of us have friends and family, though, who - whether believing the 'anti-England' rhetoric or not - still didn't like what they saw. We tried consistently to put the case for the defence, we suffered the tough losses in Grand Slams and other major tournaments, we said 'chapeau' to those who played better on the day (tennis is not a tribal sport) while observing the gloating of non-fans on social media afterwards. We also, it must be said, were repaid in abundance by many ATP titles, Masters victories, an Olympics gold (and silver in the doubles) medal and, finally, those two Grand Slam triumphs. A huge testament to your persistence, drive and work ethic.

Yet by openly supporting the secession of Scotland (who you would then, not unreasonably in the case of a 'yes' outcome, compete for) from the United Kingdom, the indication you give is that you want no part in Britain except, presumably, to live here. The implication is that you give flagrant disregard to the support and emotional investment (in varying degrees, and I'm quite sure there are many in rUK who have invested more, as well as many others who have invested less, than myself) that those of us in Britain have given over the years (including when others have been more sceptical). In extremis, this could even be interpreted as not so much "thanks, but no thanks" as "thanks, but fuck off!" Thinking about this rationally, I am almost 100% certain that this was not your intention. You will no doubt point out to me that your criticism in that Thursday morning tweet was against the 'no' campaign, and that your endorsement of 'yes' was therefore not a wholesale rejection of Britain and its people, including your supporters. You may also posit that the application of this type of 'either/or' mentality to the separatism debate is precisely what you disliked about the 'no' campaign in Scotland.

However, I would argue that this issue is not confined to the referendum, and can be seen in other sporting examples. Golf will join the Olympics roster in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 and, in an interview shortly after London 2012, Northern Irishman Rory McIlroy was asked his views on whether he would compete for Britain or Ireland. Speaking honestly about his feelings on the issue he said "what makes it such an awful position to be in is that I've grown up my whole life playing for Ireland under the Golfing Union of Ireland umbrella. But the fact is, I've always felt more British than Irish...I don't know [why], but I've always felt more of a connection with UK than Ireland." This was thoughtful to begin with, but it still received a strong backlash from Ireland and its golfing community. McIlroy recognised that, although he had expressed his opinions sincerely, he had failed to fully consider the hurt and puzzled disappointment his opinion would cause in an Ireland where he had been, and continued to be, well supported. A few days later, he clarified: "After everything that's happened [the interview and the backlash]...it really hit home with me how important it is for a lot of people and how important my success has been to them...It would be terrible to nearly segregate myself  from one of those groups that supports me". Finally, this summer, on the eve of the Irish Open in Cork, he announced that he would play for Ireland. This was in due course backed by the Team GB Olympics golf coach, as well as the golfing community as a whole.

The key point here I think is not necessarily McIlroy's final decision (which is also slightly nuanced because golf in Ireland, up to professional level, spans both the Republic and Northern Ireland). Rather, it is that he showed that he understood the sensitivity of the issue on both sides of the debate. I think this process of communication helped make his final decision easier to digest for people on both sides, including those - like the Team GB golf coach - who (logic suggests) would have loved to have had Rory in the Team GB fold. Even though I would not have agreed with your support for 'yes', I believe (or like to think) that, had you shown an understanding of the complexity of how your decision could have been interpreted - in a sporting context - by fans in both Scotland and rUK, this would have helped myself and other people who were hoping for an outcome of 'no' (or 'yes', had you gone the other way on this issue) to better accept your decision. The alternative option, of course, is to not give an opinion on the matter - the stance you maintained until a quick tweet on the day of polling.

Instead what we had was a quick post on Twitter supporting "yes" with only a criticism of the "no" campaign's tactics (i.e. their negativity) in support. And thus instead many of your fans appear to be, if not necessarily hurt (an emotion too strong for me, though maybe not for others), then left slightly disappointed and scratching their heads that their support over the years appears to have not been considered or acknowledged at all in a decision on a topic of such magnitude. Truth be told, memories are (mostly) short and a good trait of human nature is the tendency of forgive and forget. Your commitment, work ethic and success have been a huge credit for Britain on the world sporting stage, and when the dust settles that will never be forgotten and will continue to be a source of pride for many British sporting fans (myself included). However, for a while - just for a while - what happened on Thursday seems to have stuck in the craw somewhat for some of us. And there is a chance, if only a very small chance, that things may never quite be the same again.

Yours Sincerely,
Rishi 

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Monza weekend race summaries

As indicated in my post last week relaying some of the things I experienced going to last weekend's (September 5th-7th) Italian Grand Prix, here are some corresponding race summaries from the races I saw. To be honest, it's nice to have a record of this down in one place to complement my earlier post but, at the same time, there probably isn't much value to add here compared to what viewers at home would have seen. Moreover, in some unavoidable cases gaps may have been filled in after the event, for both TV viewers and spectators in the stands (e.g. Daniil Kvyat's brake problem). However, on the other hand, this may be useful if for example you follow a series but don't often watch it or follow it very closely; or if you want to find out about some of the drivers or stories further down the field of a race, particularly because when I was in the stands I probably followed these battles more closely than I usually do when I watch on TV.

FORMULA ONE

The Mercedes team celebrate their 1-2, after Hamilton led
home Rosberg. (C) 2014 XPB Images

Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) gave his title aspirations a shot in the arm with victory in the Italian Grand Prix. Starting from pole, a technical glitch saw Hamilton drop behind team-mate and title rival Nico Rosberg (who also made a great start), as well as Felipe Massa (Williams) and the fast-starting Kevin Magnussen (McLaren). Both Massa and Hamilton cleared Magnussen before Lewis then cleared Felipe with an intricate move into Prima Variante (Variante del Rettifilo). He then chased down Rosberg, reducing the gap to around a second (i.e. getting within DRS range) shortly after the pitstops. It was shaping up to be a close battle, with the faster Hamilton chasing the man with track position, Rosberg. Alas Lewis' pressure told on Lap 29 of 53 when Nico overshot the Rettifilo for the second time in the race. Hamilton duly took over the lead and controlled it to win from Rosberg (who now leads the championship by 22 points) and Massa, who ended up having quite a quiet race but an important one, as it yielded his first podium of a difficult season.

Behind them, a train formed behind Magnussen which included Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull), Fernando Alonso (Ferrari), Sergio Perez (Force India), Jenson Button (McLaren) and Valtteri Bottas, Massa's team-mate. Bottas had had a very slow getaway and dropped as low as about 11th, but ended up taking 4th after a series of fine overtaking manoeuvres. The Finn's stock continues to grow and grow this season. Daniel Ricciardo (Red Bull) took 5th place; the Australian (of Italian origin) had had a slow start to the race, but benefited from a team call to bring his team-mate Vettel in early to get ahead of Magnussen. Whilst Vettel was successful it meant that he and his rivals (who all followed him and generally pitted a lap or two later) who were part of the Magnussen train all had to finish the race on older, quite worn tyres. Ricciardo, who had run long in the first stint, was thus on much fresher tyres. It was testament to his impressive racecraft that, despite having a slower Renault engine, he not only caught the train but worked his way to the front with a series of fine overtakes, and then duly pulled away. Vettel hung on to 6th, ahead of Perez, who had a really good race holding off Button to 7th. Magnussen was penalised 5 seconds for running Bottas off the road at Rettifilo and thus finished 10th; while Kimi Raikkonen caught the pack at the end to claim 9th after team-mate Alonso was forced out by an ERS failure - his two points a small consolation from a difficult home GP for Ferrari (their worst at Monza since 2005).

Valtteri Bottas (pictured here on Friday)
was quick all weekend and made a lot of
overtakes in the race after a start problem
Out of the points Daniil Kvyat (Toro Rosso) had a great race, storming through from 21st on the grid (after an engine penalty) to 11th (running a similar strategy to Ricciardo) but missing out on the Top 10 after a late brake failure (similar to Mika Hakkinen's for McLaren in 1998). Pastor Maldonado (Lotus) drove really hard all race but spent most of it on his own - in 14th! Sauber managed to get both cars into Q2 on Saturday but could only manage 15th (Adrian Sutil) and 20th (Esteban Gutierrez, after a collision and a penalty). Finally, a fired-up Kamui Kobayashi (Caterham) returned to his seat after being stood down for the Belgian Grand Prix a fortnight earlier to beat Marussia's Jules Bianchi into 17th, something the Banbury-based outfit will hope to reverse at the next round in Singapore.

GP2 SERIES

Saturday Race: McLaren young driver Stoffel Vandoorne (ART) held off race-long pressure from Arthur Pic (Campos) to keep his title hopes alive with victory in the GP2 Saturday race at Monza. Kiwi Mitch Evans (Russian Time) took a deserved third. Behind them, some good battles opened up, with Stephane Richelmi (DAMS) and Andre Negrao (Arden) heading the pack to come through 4th and 5th. Championship contender Felipe Nasr (Carlin) came through a scrap with team-mate Julian Leal and Daniel Abt (Hilmer), the latter having benefited from pitting early to leap into the points positions. Alas, in the end, Leal was penalised for forcing Abt off the track into retirement at the second Lesmo in a particularly robust overtaking move. Title leader Jolyon Palmer (DAMS) and current 4th placed driver in the standings Johnny Cecotto Jr (Trident) put in really strong drives; Palmer was relegated to the back of the grid for not providing enough fuel after qualifying, but stormed through to take 8th and the sprint race pole. Cecotto started down in 23rd but echoed Palmer's assertiveness in traffic to take the final point in 10th place. Marco Sorensen (MP Motorsport, 7th) and Stefano Coletti (Racing Engineering, 9th) rounded off the other points places, while Coletti's team-mate (and the home favourite) Raffaele Marciello was forced to retire after being caught up in an early accident triggered by Kimiya Sato (Pic's team-mate at Campos).

Stoffel Vandoorne en route to victory in Saturday's GP2 race

Sunday Race: Step forward Sergio Canamasas (Trident). His buccaneering rallycross act through the Ascari chicane on the opening lap triggered an accident between debutant Pierre Gasly (Caterham) and Artem Markelov (Russian Time). It also helped contribute (more indirectly) to an accident further down between Cecotto and Sergio Campana (Venezuela Lazarus) at Parabolica. This brought out the only Safety Car I saw during the entire race weekend (I did not watch the GP3 Sunday race so don't know if that had one). Not content with ruining those batch of races, Canamasas then ploughed into the side of Rene Binder (Arden), and made contact with the charging Marciello for good measure! The stewards eventually put him out of his misery by giving him the black flag. World feed GP2 and GP3 commentator Will Buxton was scathing about Canamasas' driving standards after the race. Up at the front, Sorensen attacked Palmer early on, but ran wide and dropped back behind Richelmi. With DAMS now running 1-2, it allowed Palmer to get away while Richelmi tried to soak up pressure from Sorensen and the hard-charging Coletti. The race was made memorable by a series of bold overtaking manoeuvres by Coletti, which moved him up to 2nd to chase after Palmer. He caught the Briton, but was unable to pass him. Jolyon extended his championship lead with victory (after the qualifying penalty!), with Monegasque drivers Coletti and Richelmi rounding out the podium. Sorensen was 4th, while Negrao cemented a strong weekend by finishing 5th. Nasr took 6th, Pic 7th and Adrian Quaife-Hobbs (Rapax) 8th after Jon Lancaster (Hilmer) was given a time penalty for having all four wheels off the track to pass Pic earlier in the race.

GP3 SERIES

Vosiou and Kirchhofer race for 3rd position before the former's
drive-through penalty in Saturday's GP3 race

Saturday Race:
 Jimmy Eriksson (Koiranen GP) kept his title hopes alive with victory as he held off Dino Zamparelli (ART) to win. Similar to the GP2 Saturday race (albeit without pitstops), Eriksson had a steady gap early on but Zamparelli reeled him in during the second half of the race, though wasn't close enough to attempt a pass. Behind them, Robert Vosiou (Arden) ran 3rd for most of the race, but was given a drive-through for a marginal call for overtaking under yellow flags call (I didn't know this at the time, I just suddenly saw he'd dropped back a lot of places!). Marvin Kirchhofer (ART) thus completed the podium, ahead of Emil Bernstoff (Carlin), Dean Stoneman (Marussia Manor) - who had unwittingly helped Kirchhofer on Lap 1 by outbraking himself and ramming the other car much further up the field as a result! - and title leader Alex Lynn (Carlin), who pulled off a couple of useful late overtakes to put more points on the board. Lynn's main title rival Richie Stanaway (Status) had a very slow getaway and despite picking up a few places thereafter could only salvage 9th place, just ahead of team-mate Nick Yelloly - who in turn just held off compatriot Jann Mardenborough (Arden) for the final point after a difficult race. Patrick Kujala (Marussia Manor) and Matteo Tuscher (Jenzer Motorsport) (7th and 8th) finished in the other points positions.

Sunday race: I didn't actually watch Sunday morning's GP3 race, making it my seat just before the start of the Sunday GP2 race, which was just after it. However, a race report of the race - in which Dean Stoneman held off Alex Lynn to win - can be found here.

PORSCHE SUPERCUP

Philipp Eng (in the yellow car) had a few good wheel-to-wheel
battles in this race. Here he did manage to retake his 8th position
down at Rettifilo. Apologies for part of my hand being in the pic!

It was a lights-to-flag victory for Sven Muller (Team Project 1) in the only Porsche Supercup race of the weekend on Sunday mid-morning. Austrian Klaus Bachler (Konrad Motorsport) put a bold move on title leader (and former A1GP driver) Earl Bamber (Fach Auto Tech) to take 2nd place, on a circuit where it was difficult for the Supercup cars to overtake because of the tightness of some of the chicanes. Bamber used this, and his defensive driving, to good effect to hold off title rival Kuba Giermaziak (VERVA-Lechner) for 3rd place, despite Kuba being urged on by the two Polish fans next to me. Michael Ammermueller (Lechner Racing) had looked impressive in the damp conditions on Friday, and ended up putting a solid drive in to finish 5th being Giermaziak; another former A1GP driver, the German was nicknamed "the Hammermuller" in the those days for his tendency to bash into (hammer into, get it?) other cars. Luckily, this particular character trait was absent on Sunday (and probably has been for some time for all I know). Nicki Thiem (Lechner Racing) was frequently referenced by the British commentator on the tannoy, after overcoming a difficult qualifying to finish 6th with a series of bold overtakes, ahead of Clemens Schmidt (Lechner Racing). Erstwhile Formula 2 driver Philipp Eng (Team Project 1) was in a couple of tight battles during the race but came through to take 8th, ahead of Briton Ben Barker (VERVA-Lechner). 18 year-old home favourite Matteo Cairoli (Antonelli Motorsport), a wildcard entrant who is currently leading the Italian Porsche Carrera Cup championship, qualified well up and came through unscathed to take a commendable 10th place (as well as fastest lap) on his Supercup debut.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

If it's (early/mid) September, then it must be...

The Autodromo Nazionale di Monza (circuit in red, old banking in grey).
I think they've added a few new stands beneath Grandstand 26 since this
photo was taken. (C) Monza website
The start of a new Academic Year for schools and universities? The return of workers from their summer holidays (la rentree, as the French call it)? The conclusion of the US Open tennis? Yes, all are plausible answers to the above (depending on where you live). However, the one I'm referring to is the Italian Grand Prix, which has traditionally been held at this time of year at the Autodromo Nazionale di Monza in every year of the World Championship (i.e. since 1950) except 1980. I've sort of wanted to go to the Italian GP, an event with a rich history, for a few years now, and this year I decided to take a leap of faith and go, incorporating a day walking around Milan, where I was staying, into the experience (I have actually been to the Lombardy region - including Milan, Como, Monza and Lake Maggiore once before, when I was 8, but I can only remember bits of it). What I've decided to do is focus on my experience of attending the race in this blog, and then I'm planning to add my thoughts about the actual racing in another one (probably at the weekend).

GETTING TO THE RACE TRACK (FROM MILAN):
The internet is very good at teasing out this sort of information, but there was a change this year. The options for getting from Milan to Monza by public transport, as core details, are as follows:

  • (Option 1) Train from Milano Centrale (every hour) or Milano - Puerta Garibaldi (every 12-15mins, direction Chiasso or Lecco, may be less frequent on Sunday) to Monza, followed by a shuttle bus (black line) to the grounds of the circuit, from which you then walk 15mins to the entrance. This runs from Friday to Sunday.
  • (Option 2) Train (every half-hour) from Milano Centrale to Biassono-Lesmo station (just outside the Lesmo curves of the circuit). Sunday only.
However, the difference is that, for Option 1, you can now buy a 8€ ticket, which incorporates use of the bus, for all three days. If not, then you must pay for the train and the bus (which used to be free) on each of the days you wish to use them. It is still quite cheap either way (€2.10 for a single train fare plus the bus fare, which I don't know!), but the 8€ option is best. For Option 2, the journey now costs 4€ for a return ticket (it used to be free). Although neither are now free per se, I think that the reason for the change is to encourage flexibility in the option you choose. Under the old system, the overwhelming incentive was to use Option 1 on Friday & Saturday, and Option 2 on Sunday (for all ticket holders). Under this new system, some three-day ticket holders might prefer to simply use Option 1 on all three days, for example. Having used both options over the weekend, I can report that for me it ran surprisingly smoothly and efficiently (there were delays post-race on Sunday, but these were minor). However, maybe I was very fortunate!

WALKING AROUND THE CIRCUIT
It is a good tradition from when I go to races with my Dad to walk around the circuit if we can (not the actual track necessarily, but its contours such that we can get to see all corners of the track). For Monza, a three-day ticket includes access to all stands (not just the one you've booked a seat for) for Friday, so it encourages you to walk around. My lesson learnt is to walk around the inside of the circuit, which is accessible from several underpasses. This is because most of the walkways between different grandstands are on the inside of the circuit, so directions are (usually!) clear and also you won't go long without seeing any action as you go from one vantage point to another. The circuit is in the middle of a woodland area in Monza's historic royal park, so it's also nice to walk in between all the trees and greenery, and to have all this so close to the circuit itself (Brands Hatch in Kent is quite similar in this respect for anyone who's ever been there). You also get to walk past some of Monza's famous old banking (on which races were run until the 1960s), and get an idea for just how steep it was! So it is overall a good walking experience.

A piece of Monza's old banking. Note
how steep it is!
However, it's also worth noting that the length of the track is quite long, so it does take quite a bit of time to do (Brands is a lot smaller by comparison - 5.8km vs 3.9km for the Brands GP circuit). Furthermore, the circuit is, roughly speaking, L-shaped (see map, top), and so are most of the walkways from one part of the track to the other. Hence to get from the Variante della Roggia (2nd chicane/Seconda Variante) to Parabolica using the walkways, for example, you can't really walk in a general diagonal direction. Rather, you have to walk a lot of L-shaped routes which, for those of you who remember Pythagoras' Theorem from school, will know is a longer way of reaching your destination! One grandstand I didn't spend a lot of time at but would recommend is No 6, which is on the inside of Prima Variante (Variante del Rettifilo) and you can see the cars under braking. The Parabolica ones are good too because, when I went there, it was a bit damp from a late-afternoon drizzle and the GP3 cars were taking some different lines into the corner as a result.

AT THE RACETRACK: SIGHTS & SOUNDS
Formula 1 is of course the main attraction for the Grand Prix weekend, while junior formulae GP2 and GP3, along with Porsche Supercup, form the rest of the bill. I watched the action from the 26C Grandstand, which is on the pitstraight and near the back of the starting grid. So you get to see the cars emerge from Parabolica, and accelerate their way down the straight, heading towards Rettifilo as they do so. Therefore you do see the cars for quite a stretch of the main straight, and you also get to see the action in the pitlane as well, so I don't have any regrets about watching from here. There is a TV screen nearby, and this tends to be big enough to see overtakes (elsewhere on the circuit) and the like, but not big enough to see detail (e.g. who's been handed out penalties, exact race positions). So there's sometimes an interesting challenge to try and read a race yourself, something I particularly enjoyed doing with Saturday's GP2 race. With Monza being a very high speed circuit, getting photos of the cars in action is not always easy (you need to get the timing right), but the obstacle is not insurmountable with a bit of practice I don't think, and I also imagine that it is easier in places where the cars aren't flat out (e.g. under braking for one of the chicanes, where you'd also see more overtaking moves being pulled off). Finally, one of the entry routes to the track for the now famous post-race track invasion at Monza is located next to Grandstand 26, so it was a good position for that too (I do believe there are other entry routes dotted around the circuit, or the main straight in particular)

Lewis Hamilton chasing down Felipe Massa for 2nd place
during the Italian GP. I never managed to get them in the same
shot! I think this was the lap Lewis passed Felipe.
One of the big talking points about this Formula 1 season has been the noise. With the generational change from V8 engines to V6 turbo-charged power units intended to improve efficiency, the cars are not as loud as they used to be. This has angered many F1 traditionalists. Personally, I agree that the GP2 cars did end up louder than the F1 cars, and did possess more of that that high-pitched scream people perhaps expect from their Grand Prix cars. However, I've got to say that I didn't have a problem with the noise the F1 cars made at high speed, which was still fairly loud without being earth-shattering, and which did have its own, deeper character and quality. If there was an objection I had with the noise, it was that the cars had a tendency to sound quite "guttural" mid-corner, something highlighted to me when I watched the last half-hour of Free Practice 2 from the Ascari chicane on Friday.

THE TIFOSI & OTHER SUPPORTERS
When it comes to support the Italian Grand Prix is, of course, Ferrari territory and a traditional pilgrimage for droves of passionate tifosi. This year was no different, I imagine, from other Monza races I've seen on TV in the sense that those red cars got the strongest support. However, the Maranello outfit have had a disappointing season featuring only two podium finishes, and are somewhat in a period of transition (the exact length of which in uncertain). Hence, the support from the tifosi was tempered by their somewhat muted expectations - particularly on a power circuit which suited the Mercedes-engined cars. There were the occasionally overt displays of support, to be sure; there was a particularly passionate flag-waving display before qualifying (helped by members of the fan club giving away free flags), and cheers when Fernando Alonso pulled a bold move on Sergio Perez on the opening lap of the race. There was also a nice piece of theatre when Luca Montezemolo appeared on the pitwall during Free Practice 3 on Saturday morning, waving and pumping his fist to the set of stands I was sitting in, and we responded in kind (of course I waved back!). However, elsewhere it felt a little like the tifosi were going through the motions in showing their love for the Scuderia.

Nonetheless, every cloud has a single lining and the absence of a Ferrari driver on the podium was counter-balanced to some extent, by one of Maranello's favourite sons returning to the Top 3 for the first time in 16 months; Felipe Massa remains extremely popular despite having left Ferrari for Williams in the close season, and his 3rd place was very warmly (and vocally) received, something Felipe also really appreciated. Additionally, there was strong support for race winner Lewis Hamilton. Part of this came from Italians who, I imagine, like his fighting spirit and heart-on-his-sleeve emotion for racing and winning. A lot of it, however, also came from a fairly large British contingent who had come over to support their man, along with Jenson Button & the McLaren team. This meant that Monza's traditional end-of-race track invasion still had a resounding feel-good factor to it, though it must also be said that there was some booing for race runner-up Nico Rosberg (which stopped when he gave his podium interview in Italian). 

Under the podium as part of Monza's traditional track invasion.
You might just be able to make out Lewis in the photo!
Beyond the tifosi and the Brits it was good to see pockets of support for others too. There were a fair few Red Bull T-shirts and support for their drivers, a few French people supporting Romain Grosjean, and a few from Scandinavia supporting their respective drivers (Kevin Magnussen for Denmark; Valtteri Bottas and Kimi Raikkonen for Finland; and Marcus Ericsson for Sweden - there was also a flag unfurled at the end of the race commemorating his compatriot Ronnie Peterson, a former driver who lost his life at Monza in 1978). There were even a few fans supporting drivers from the support races; I managed to work out that the woman next to me was from Poland, and her allegiances were to Kuba Giermaziak, a Pole currently battling for the title in the Porsche Supercup championship.

CONCLUSIONS
To be sure, no circuit is perfect and I've pointed out some of the holes Monza has during this article (e.g. the TV screens are quite small, and it isn't necessarily the easiest circuit to walk). I'm also sure that the atmosphere would have been even better had Ferrari been more competitive and competing for a race win or the title (particularly as they now haven't won a drivers' title since 2007). However, these were all, fundamentally speaking, minor issues (at least they were for me on this particular weekend). The atmosphere for the race weekend and for the podium was still really good - at least with Massa's podium and Hamilton's victory for the latter (the booing of Rosberg admittedly wasn't great, though I do agree with Edd Straw in Autosport that, while I didn't do it, others have a right to do it if they want to). The racing was also mostly really good all weekend, and I really enjoyed the whole experience I've described earlier of walking around the track, following the races and being amongst the crowd as we all cheered on our favourites and appreciated the impressive overtakes or defensive driving. So, in short, I'd definitely recommend it to any racing fans thinking of going, and I hope they're as fortunate as I was!

Ideally, some of the action above may have been better captured by videos rather than photos. I do have some of these, and may further attempt to upload them if I can. So far, it has been unsuccessful. However, if I don't have time or if it remains unsuccessful then I will just keep the photos instead!

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Hereford United: The drama of their downfall (and my walk-on part in it)

Source: BBC Sport website
North London. A Friday the 13th (seriously!) in the closing weeks of the 2011/12 football season. I spent the day revising Advanced Macroeconomic Theory (search & matching employment models, for those interested!) and then, in the evening twilight, hopped onto the Tube to the end of the Northern Line (High Barnet branch!) to watch Barnet play Hereford United in a tense League Two relegation six-pointer. Both had had their heads above the water earlier in the season, but had undergone bad runs of form (in Barnet's case at least, losing matches even when playing pretty well); cut adrift of the teams above them, these two, plus the even more horribly out-of-form Macclesfield Town, would fight over one survival position in the Football League.

The match that took place was high on endeavour, but arguably low on true moments of quality. However, this was perhaps unexpected given the tangible feeling of tension prevalent around all corners of the ground; there was a lot riding on this game (there were only three after it) for both sides, and fans of both persuasions were desperate for the three points. As it happened, Delroy Facey (a journeyman who had played for Bolton & West Brom in years gone by but now looked about a stone or two too big for the professional game) used his physicality to good purpose by heading home Ben Purkiss's cross to give Hereford an initially deserved lead. Barnet regrouped, and replied when substitute striker Ben May (on loan from Stevenage) fired home later in the 1st Half. Both teams, at different stages, threatened to take all three points; Barnet had a very good handball shout (visible to us behind the Hereford goal but not to the referee, who was the other side) turned down, while at the other end The Bulls' Yoann Arquin had a great chance cleared brilliantly off the line by The Bees' Clovis Kamdjo. Alas, the game ended in a 1-1 draw, an overall fair reflection on the game but one which pleased neither side entirely, though Barnet (who were three points clear of Hereford - with a less favourable goal difference - and occupying the safe 22nd position) left the slightly more satisfied of the two.

As it happened, the result was not enough to save their manager, Lawrie Sanchez, who was sacked a few days later. However, the team claimed two wins from their remaining three games, seeing them narrowly escape Hereford's clutches (who managed seven points from nine against arguably tougher opposition) to safety on the final day of the league season (Macclesfield went down with a game left) - the third season in a row that they had secured safety on the final day. At the time, I was delighted by the news. During my year in North London, I'd taken the little club to my heart somewhat, following their progress closely and attending matches wherever possible (not often during a gruelling Masters degree year admittedly). I therefore saw the looming prospect of relegation from their shoes. Loss of Football League status meant loss of youth funding, which was crucial to Barnet, who had invested quite heavily (certainly for a club of their size) in The Hive, an impressive sporting facility where youth teams and junior sides trained and developed. Moreover, the club had for years sought a move away from Underhill - their home ground between 1907 and 2013 - where they had to pay a lease to Barnet Borough Council to use the ground and the land around it, and therefore to keep some money for a potential move to a new ground (particularly if the terms of any (renewed) lease became too prohibitive and made the need for a move more urgent, as was becoming the case around this time). Relegation would have constrained their ability to do this and would potentially have left them them facing an uphill challenge of finding a venue for home games, while remaining financially sustainable.

In the end, Barnet's luck ran out when they were relegated on the final day of the following season! However, that extra year in the Football League helped them make contingency plans for their home games (they expanded their facility at The Hive to host games as a medium-term option); and it seems that their financial position is not too precarious at this stage (touch wood!). Yet fast-forward two full seasons on from 2011/12 and the perils of loss of Football League status have bit very hard at both Hereford and Macclesfield. The Moss Rose side from Cheshire flirted with danger often behind the scenes last season, and were only cleared to start the 2014/15 season in the Conference Premier when major shareholder Amar Alkhadi found the money late in the day to pay an outstanding tax bill, as well as outstanding staff wages (including playing staff). At Hereford, the situation has been even worse. They thought they had pulled off a rescue of Jimmy Glass & Carlisle-esque proportions on the final day of last season, when they clambered above Chester FC to the safe position of 20th in the table. However, long-running financial problems failed to go away and, despite much leniency from the Conference, they were eventually expelled from the league in early June after failing to secure their financial future (Chester were reprieved as a consequence). Since being accepted in the Southern League (two divisions below the Conference Premier), their new owner has failed an FA 'fit-and-proper persons' test and they have continued to battle separate winding-up orders from former manager Martin Foyle and HM Revenue & Customs over unpaid debts. The orders have been repeatedly adjourned, most recently until September 1st. Until then, attempts to secure a Company Voluntary Arrangement for payment of the outstanding debts have been unsuccessful.

Hereford United fans protest against those they hold
responsible for the club's troubles. (C) Hereford Times 
What I find really staggering is the sheer amount of debt at the club. £225,000 (possibly much more) is huge for a club in non-league football, particularly when you consider the generous fundraising efforts that have already gone into keeping the club afloat (which total almost £100,000 themselves, and include one-off performances from comedian Omid Djalili - a Chelsea fan!). The first thought is that there must have been some serious financial mismanagement going on at Edgar Street, even taking into account the loss of funding and lower attendances associated with loss of Football League status. On further reflection though, perhaps it is an indication of the financial sustainability of football in England. The Conference is nominally a non-professional league, yet most the teams in it are now professional; it is effectively a League Three in all but name. Not only does this make promotion difficult, it also means relegated clubs with falling incomes have to keep splashing the cash to keep attracting players. One thing that I perhaps did not fully consider in my support for The Bees is that Barnet, despite their undoubted challenges, are perhaps helped by their catchment area; like most of England's big cities, the London area is a hub for both semi-pro and pro clubs and hence they are able to pick up players who maybe showed promise at youth level, but are now plying their trade semi-professionally while looking for a route into the pro game. The Barnet side on show that day in April 2012 featured several such players, including Ricky Holmes, Sam Deering and Kamdjo. In 2008, the club picked up Albert Adomah from nearby Harrow Borough FC; the winger now plays for Middlesbrough in the Championship and has even been capped by Ghana. West Midlanders Hereford, by contrast, are quite far from any major hub of football (even the West Midlands hub, which is more centred around Birmingham). Thus it is harder, I'd imagine, for them to find the players they want locally and, hence, they probably have to pay a premium to get these players in from other parts of the country. They have actually flirted with financial apocalypse before in recent years, so it leaves me wondering about the financial sustainability of a club in the area in which they're located. Having said that, you could make the alternative argument that the club should compensate for this by ensuring they have a sleeker (i.e. more cost-effective), smarter scouting system in place.

There are over 100 professional clubs in England today. That is a truly staggering achievement and one that is a real testament to the passion that the sport arouses in so many fans across the country. However, it is also far more than any other comparable league in Europe (most of whom tend to have 2, at most 3, professional divisions rather than almost five!). Although the news would be hugely sad for its loyal supporters, and provide a sad epilogue to the club's finest hour - a 2-1 FA Cup 3rd Round Replay victory over Newcastle United in the 1971/72 season, footage of which is still shown on TV every year as the ultimate FA Cup upset (it inspired Djalili's fundraising gigs), maybe a club like Hereford United is truly unsustainable, at least in its current form. After the summer it has had, the many months of problems it has had, maybe the only way for a club in its location to be truly sustainable at a professional level is to be reborn completely from the ashes of the current club, with a new ownership reforming its practices completely as a result, to ensure it is able to cope with the unique challenges that it faces.

TEAMS & SUMMARY FROM APRIL 2012 (BARNET 1-1 HEREFORD):
BARNET (Manager: Lawrie Sanchez): Dean Brill; Sead Hajrovic (Ben May 25), Paul Downing, Michael Hector, Jordan Mustoe; Mark Hughes (c), Mark Byrne, Clovis Kamdjo, Sam Deering, Ricky Holmes; Izale McLeod

HEREFORD UNITED (Manager: Richard O'Donnell): Adam Bartlett; Ben Purkiss, Byron Anthony, Michael Townsend, James Chambers (James Baxendale 77); Nicky Featherstone, Kenny Lunt, Will Evans (Yoann Arquin 57), Sam Clucas; Tom Barkhuizen, Delroy Facey (c) (Nathan Elder 90)

GOALS: Facey 11; May 31

REFEREE: Christopher Sarginson
ATTENDANCE: 3,189

Sunday, 10 August 2014

In-depth look: Canadian tennis' history-making generation

Milos Raonic (l) and Vasek Pospisil (r) after their history-making final at
Washington's Citi Open, which Raonic won. (C) 2014 Getty Images
The Citi Open, Washington D.C. The old Legg Mason Classic bolstered by the change to twin event status (both men and women play there at the same time) that came with the sponsorship change in 2012. It is one of the flagships of the North American hard court summer; a key for players' preparations for the US Open and an important event on the ATP and WTA tours. In the men's final last Sunday (August 3rd), history was made as this capital of the US of A was turned red and white and overgrown with maple leaves as two Canadians - Milos Raonic of Thornhill, Ontario and Vasek Pospisil of Vernon, British Columbia - faced off in the final for the first time in an ATP event, with Raonic coming out on top 6-1 6-4. Coming just before Canada's own flagship event - the Canadian Open, better known as the Rogers Cup, a Masters event - the timing was (almost[1]) perfect. Moreover, it serves to highlight the giant strides the Canadian professional game has taken in the last few years and, in particular, the last few months. This blog will attempt to chart the rise of Canadian tennis; try to look for the reasons behind it; and analyse future prospects.

THE RISE & RISE OF CANADIAN TENNIS
Whilst Canada's Rogers Cup had always been a popular event, and whilst the odd player had always done pretty well (e.g. Daniel Nestor's success - eight men's and four mixed Grand Slam titles - in the doubles, and a young Aleksandra Wozniak - arguably the first of this 'golden generation' before injury slowed her progress - getting far in several Slams during 2009), for me the Year Zero was Raonic's breakthrough run at the 2011 Australian Open (even more than Wozniak's precocious breakthrough a few years earlier). With his booming serve and direct, attacking style of play, Raonic caught the eyes of many as he reached the 4th Round, beating two seeds (Mickael Llodra and Mikhail Youzhny) en route. He quickly followed that up by winning the SAP Open in San Jose, his maiden ATP title and the first by a Canadian since 1995[2]. Although injuries took their toll in the second half of 2011, stalling his progress, he still won the 2011 ATP Newcomer of the Year award. Elsewhere, in the women's game Eugenie Bouchard showed promise in the juniors and in due course won the 2012 Wimbledon Girls' Singles title, marking herself as a player for the future. Whilst Bouchard was winning the Wimbledon Girls' title, compatriot Filip Peliwo was winning the Boys' Singles title; like proverbial buses, Canada had waited years for Grand Slam singles success (it had never happened at junior or professional level), only for two to come along at more or less the same time!

The boom, however, really started around 18 months ago. At the core of this, in the men's game, was a dream run by the country in the Davis Cup team event. In February, they shocked a powerful Spanish outfit to win their 1st Round tie, before beating Italy to set up a Semi-Final against a strong Serbian side. Although rank outsiders, Raonic dug deep to beat Janko Tipsarevic and Nestor & Pospisil teamed up to administer a shock five set win over Nenad Zimonjic and Ilija Bozoljac in the doubles to put Canada 2-1 up. Alas Serbia fought back to win 3-2, but the Canadian run caught the imagination of tennis 'mavens' (very knowledgeable fans, in this context; I put a definition in because I had no idea what the word meant until last week!) back home; hundreds of them made the trip to Serbia for the Semi, which was their best result in the Open era (i.e. since 1968). It was a testament, too, to the captaincy of Martin Laurendeau, in fostering a team spirit and confidence within the players.

Pospisil and Nestor celebrate the doubles win that put them
2-1 in the 2013 Davis Cup Semi-Final. (C) Tennis Canada
As this run was developing, Raonic won two further events during 2013, and became the first Canadian man to reach the Rogers Cup final since Bob Bedard in 1958, finishing the year just outside the Top 10 at 11 in the world. However, his incremental improvements were if anything superseded by the rise of Pospisil. Vasek hadn't really registered on most tennis fans' radar before 2013, but rocketed up the rankings during 2013 to move from 125 in the world to just outside the Top 30. Underpinning this run was a fine week of his own in Montreal (where the men's Rogers Cup was held in 2013; it alternates annually with Toronto, and the women's event goes the other way round - i.e. they played Toronto in 2013, but are playing Montreal in 2014), beating Tomas Berdych en route to the Semi-Finals, where he very nearly beat compatriot Raonic to reach the final! In the women's game, Bouchard reached the 3rd round at Wimbledon, the final at a WTA event in Japan, and rose up to 32 in the year-end rankings (from 144 at the end of 2012). It all earned her the accolade of 2013 WTA Newcomer of the Year. Here, too, was a player going places.

In 2014, the rise of Bouchard has been the big story. She has had a brilliant season, reaching the Semi-Finals of the Australian Open & French Open (only the second Canadian to ever achieve this in the women's professional game - after Carling Bassett-Seguso in 1984), and the Final at Wimbledon (where she was the pre-event favourite). She has caught the imagination of fans across the world (the so-called "Genie Army"); alerted talent spotters with her ambition; and risen to number 7 in the world. In the men's, Raonic reached the Semi-Finals at Wimbledon too (the first Canadian to do it in the men's singles since Robert Powell in 1908!), and has frequently reached the Quarter-Finals of Masters events and even the French Open, which is played on his weakest surface of clay. Pospisil reached the 3rd round of the Australian Open, and the final last week in Washington. Additionally, teaming up with USA's Jack Sock in the doubles, he triumphed where Bouchard and Raonic narrowly missed out by winning a Wimbledon trophy - beating the legendary Bryan brothers in the final of the men's doubles in five sets in front of a packed Centre Court crowd [3]. In the manner of 18 months, Canada has had a successful Rogers Cup run (in addition to Raonic & Pospisil, young Peliwo and journeymen pros Frank Dancevic & Jesse Levine all made the 2nd round), a brilliant Davis Cup run, and has now reached multiple Grand Slam Semi-Finals; even a couple of finals (one of which they won). This has been an incredible surge in recent times.

REASONS BEHIND THE RISE: A WHISTLE-STOP ANALYSIS
Inevitably, as Canadian players start to feature ever more prominently, questions will be asked as to how this has happened. Was it because of structures and work put in place by Tennis Canada, or was it simply coincidental - a group of talented, committed players who happened to come through at the same age? It is a pertinent question, in particular, for the UK - who hired Michael Downey in 2013 to head up their tennis federation, the LTA, having done the same job at Tennis Canada for a decade as these guys rose up.

To start with, it must be said that there is little credit Downey and his team can get for introducing the likes of Bouchard, Raonic, Pospisil and Wozniak to the sport. Moreover, between the ages of 12 and 15 Bouchard went to train at Nick Saviano's academy in Florida, so therefore her development at this stage was exogenous of the Canadian system. Raonic and Pospisil, by contrast, continued to grow up in Canada, benefiting from local coaches and honing their games at the country's National Tennis Centre in Montreal during their teenage years. However, even then Raonic's breakthrough came after a stint spent training in Spain (where he now has a training base in Barcelona, when he's not in Canada). In particular, Raonic was taken in by the competition, winning mentality and limitless ambitions of the players there; whilst he had honed his big serve on the courts of his local club, his stint in Spain seemed to encourage him to be more clinical when using it, and more clinical in his attacking game more generally.

However, tennis federation did still play its part in the successes. Downey, a man with a sports marketing background, used his strength to extract more revenues from the Rogers Cup (helped, of course, by this being something of a golden era for particularly men's tennis). He then re-invested this back into elite development with the brand new National Training Centre facility in Montreal (announced in 2007, delivered by 2009) the focal point. This influenced the decision to move Bouchard back to Canada after three or four years in Florida, in a collaborative approach which blended Saviano's coaching guidance with the Centre's new state-of-the-art facilities. The proof of the pudding is in the eating and Bouchard's junior development seemed to richly endorse this approach.

Bouchard's junior career included a Girls' Singles triumph
at Wimbledon 2012. Photo: Adam Davy/Associated Press (C)
The more sophisticated facilities of the new Training Centre, and the more integrated approach (a 'partnership' approach that Downey is believed to be very keen on), came on stream at the end of Raonic and Pospisil's junior careers (both are born in 1990 - Pospisil is six months older - so both came through the ranks at pretty much the same time), admittedly. However, the facilities are there for the players today, and the corresponding structures and personnel put in place to exploit the new facility have proved helpful. In particular, Downey was involved in hiring Louis Borfiga - Team Canada's Vice-President and Head of High Performance Athlete Development - from the French Federation. Borfiga, in turn, was responsible in helping Pospisil make contact with Frederic Fontang, at the end of 2012. And, according to veteran Canadian tennis journalist Tom Tebbutt last summer: "Rarely has a player mentioned his coach and given him 'props' (kudos) as consistently and often as Pospisil this season." In an interview with the ATP website around the same time, Pospisil pinpointed where he had been improving under Fontang's tutelage: "We have worked really hard to take my game to opponents. That means not getting bogged down in long rallies and striking the ball early...even adding an extra 10% of aggression can make a big difference. You can't hang back, wait against the top players and expect to win." For fans of Andy Murray - like Pospisil, a player with a strong all-court game and solid stamina (tour debut notwithstanding), the challenge sounds familiar. With the support of Tennis Canada, Pospisil - generally a higher performer than Raonic at junior level - has found a coach who has helped him take great strides in overcoming it, just like Murray did.

HOW FAR CAN THEY GO?
In terms of prospects, the shining star from this group appears to be Bouchard. She is a big talent - with an attacking game - fiercely ambitious and has ostensibly seemed unfazed by her staggering achievements already this year. Tebbutt again [4]: "The mantra all through her progress since making the Australian Open semi-finals is January has been a variation of 'this is what I've expected, this is what I've worked for, and I'm not satisfied with what I've achieved so far'." Although she was beaten 6-3 6-0 in the Wimbledon final by Petra Kvitova, this could be put down to the Czech playing an absolutely brilliant match; sometimes a really good player has a really great day and you have to doff your cap to them and Bouchard herself seemed to acknowledge this afterwards. However, her return to action post-Wimbledon, in this week's WTA Rogers Cup event at Montreal, was less successful as she suffered a shock 6-0 2-6 6-0 defeat to USA's Shelby Rogers in front of her home fans. Afterwards Bouchard, now 20, admitted to not dealing with the pressure of the event too well, perhaps a bit of a surprise given how well she had handled the pressure of her rise so far this season, and how she has taken the adulation of the Genie Army in her stride. It will be interesting to see if this is an aberration or the start of a pattern but, for now, her Grand Slam prospects remain the highest in the group. Incidentally, her compatriot Wozniak's prospects are no longer as bright as they once were, due to a couple of serious injuries. However, she will be hoping that an injury-free run will enable her to return to the Top 100 in the rankings and potentially make serious inroads into the Top 50; at 26, time is still on her side.

In the men's game, Raonic remains the strongest prospect. However, for me, he falls into a similar trap to the one John Isner falls into. His style, and comparative advantage, is in playing a big-serving, direct, attacking game. So he must play to those strengths. However, at the same time, it is quite difficult these days to achieve Grand Slam success with this approach, because the greatest players are such great returners and perhaps therefore aren't as intimidated by that approach as was the case in the 1990s, where big-serving attackers tended to dominate; in their Wimbledon semi-final, Roger Federer dealt with Raonic's approach quite easily in a 6-4 6-4 6-4 win. Overall, Raonic is stronger as an all-round player (both attacking and defensive) than Isner, and is stronger outside North America than the man from North Carolina, so his prospects are stronger. This, therefore, may bring him the odd Masters title and appearances at the year-ending ATP World Tour Finals (which only the Top 8 players in the year rankings attend). However, I still can't see him winning a Grand Slam, though he may prove me wrong. Pospisil's weakness is perhaps the opposite; although his all-court game is very good, his lack of weapons (in relative terms) may see him struggle relative to his peers - again at the highest level. He is probably someone who can reach the Top 20, win ATP events, but maybe struggle to get too far in Grand Slam or Masters events at this stage. However, as his game develops, injury niggles fade and confidence grows, there is still plenty of time for him to prove people wrong and surpass that, maybe even asking questions at the sharper end of Grand Slams at singles level on top of his doubles success.

17 year-old Francoise Abanda reached the Semi-Finals in
Paris and is one to watch. Photo: Stephanie Myles/Opencourt.ca
Another intriguing element for Tennis Canada is the younger generation coming through, who will have benefited more from the new National Training Centre (and related investment) more than this generation. In particular, eyes will need to be kept out for Peliwo, 20, (whose career has stalled somewhat since turning pro but, in fairness, this is not uncommon in tennis these days) and Francoise Abanda, a 17 year-old who has overcome a serious shoulder injury and reached the Semi-Finals of both Junior Wimbledon (pre-injury, in 2012) and the Junior French Open (post-injury, in 2014). Although she lost in three sets to Australian Open finalist Dominika Cibulkova at this week's Rogers Cup (6-1 3-6 6-0), she did enough to mark out her potential. And, with tennis participation levels up in Canada during Downey's tenure, more may still be added to this next list of young hopefuls in the next couple of years

Make no bones about it, the rise of Canadian tennis has been rapid over the past 18 months, and evident going even further back than that. The talent, hard work and drive of the pros and youngsters, combined with investment and integration by Tennis Canada, is driving standards ever higher. It is an exciting time to be part of the tennis scene in Canada and, even more tantalisingly, all the protagonists mentioned here seem to be getting better and better and better. Whisper it quietly, because the competition is fierce but maybe, just maybe, this will be one golden generation whose success will truly be 'golden'. After all, they're already making history.

NOTES
[1] - Why 'almost'? Because the Citi Open was directly before the Rogers Cup. Hence, it was inevitable that Raonic and Pospisil were not going to be in 'tip-top' shape for the Rogers Cup. Alas, Pospisil was beaten in Round 1 by Richard Gasquet (a reverse of the Citi Open Semi-Final, where Pospisil had beaten Gasquet). Raonic fared better, reaching the Quarter-Finals, but lost in three sets to Feliciano Lopez.

[2] - The previous winner, in 1995, was Greg Rusedski. Having grown up in Canada, Rusedski competed for them in his early days before switching allegiance to Great Britain, where his mother was from and where he now lives, later in 1995.

[3] - It was unfortunate that Nestor does not get more of a mention in this article. He is nearly 42, still playing on the pro tour, and was giving advice to Pospisil before Vasek's men's doubles final at Wimbledon. He has been an important standard-bearer for a long time now and his experience of the tennis tour as a whole will no doubt be useful for younger players to tap into. He is also known to be a bit of a chatterbox in the changing rooms ("He never shuts up. But when he goes on court and doesn't say a word!" quipped Andy Murray in this interview)!

[4] - Tom Tebbutt's blog was hugely invaluable in helping with the research of this article, and is really the "go-to" source if you want to learn more about how Canada's players are getting on, and indeed to pick up useful snippets about the professional game (and players) as a whole. It can be found here. He is a big tennis enthusiast and, in the 1990s, famously discovered that Pete Sampras suffered from thalassemia, a blood condition which can cause mild anaemia.

Thursday, 31 July 2014

The 2014 Tour de France conundrum

The final 2014 Tour de France general classification podium: Vincenzo Nibali
(centre), JC Peraud (left) and Thibaut Pinot (right). Photo: Fotoreporter Sirotti
What to make, ladies and gentlemen, of sporting excellence? In particular, the type whereby one competitor completely destroys the opposition to take a dominant victory. The 2014 Tour de France, which concluded on Sunday (July 27th) on Paris' Champs Elysees (as it has done every year since 1975 - a fact I try to get into every Tour de France review I do!), saw one such exhibition of sporting excellence. Team Astana's Italian rider Vincenzo Nibali completely obliterated the opposition to win by almost a full eight minutes (7min37secs if we're being exact) over his nearest rival.

It was, of course, a superb achievement and virtuoso performance by Nibali throughout the three weeks, right from his breakaway attack at the end of Stage 2 in Sheffield, South Yorkshire, which saw him claim victory and his first stint in the overall leader's yellow jersey. Three more stage wins (his total of four is the most successful by a Tour general classification winner since the great Eddy Merckx in 1974) followed as Nibali entered the history books as one of only six riders to have won all three of road cycling's Grand Tours (the Giro d'Italia - which Nibali won in 2013 - and the Vuelta a Espana - which 'The Shark' won in 2010 - are the other two). Moreover, Nibali's dominance cemented his status as one of the best - maybe even the best - rider out there today. Whilst perhaps before the Tour we saw him as being one notch behind his rivals Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff) and Christopher Froome (Team Sky), this triumph - in my view - has forced a re-evaluation which puts Nibali half a notch ahead of those guys on current performance. 

Despite this fine exhibition of sporting excellence, one senses however that this will not go down as a vintage Tour de France. Part of this was the enforced retirements of Froome (on Stage 5) and Contador (on Stage 10). Personally, given Nibali's scorching form even early in the race (e.g. Stage 2 and during his attack on the cobbles on Stage 5), I still think the Sicilian would have beaten his main rivals. However, had they continued (and I know Froome was carrying some knocks from his falls during the Criterium du Dauphine in June), it would have provided that potential for suspense and some rivalry. The 2013 Tour provided this to an extent, with Froome having to overcome Contador, Nairo Quintana and Joaquim Rodriguez to win; whilst in 2012 Sir Bradley Wiggins had to overcome Froome and Nibali. However, both those also ultimately ended in a comfortable victory for the overall winner; if this writer is being honest, the last Tour that can be considered 'vintage' (or close thereto) was the 2011 edition - where the destiny of the yellow jersey was only settled on the penultimate day's time trial. After all, the presence of big names doesn't have such a big impact on the event if, either through form, preparation or topography, one guy still ends up dominating. The combination of sporting excellence and a close-run general classification (hence providing drama) - preferably with each competitor pushing the others and themselves to greater heights, like we have seen recently in men's tennis - is arguably necessary for an edition of the Tour to be considered 'vintage'. 

Having said all that, the 2014 Tour - just like the 2012 & 2013 Tours - did have its fair share of stories and impressive performances (even beyond Nibali); the world's most prestigious cycling will be forever thus. And the big story alongside Nibali's dominance this year was the continued resurgence of French cycling. For a few years now we have seen French riders win stages, occasionally win jerseys (think Pierre Rolland winning the white jersey for Best Young (U25) Rider in GC in 2011, and Thomas Voeckler winning the polka-dot, King of the Mountains jersey in 2012), and make waves. However, with the possible exception of Voeckler's GC heroics in 2004 and 2011, the dream of a first French triumph in the General Classification since Bernard Hinault in 1985 (another fact I try to include every year!) still appeared distant. Yet, slowly but surely, that appears to be changing. For this year there were no fewer than four Frenchmen in the Top 11 of the GC. Moreover, two of them joined Nibali on the podium; veteran Jean-Christophe Peraud (AG2R-La Mondiale) and youngster Thibaut Pinot (FDJ.fr) coming 2nd and 3rd respectively in a closely fought battle for the final podium slots (which also included Movistar's Alejandro Valverde - 4th overall). Fighting all those guys hard throughout was Peraud's team-mate Romain Bardet (6th overall in the end, while their French team AG2R won the Overall Team Classification), while Rolland (Team Europcar) had his moments en route to 11th. Further down, it was also good to see Brice Feillu (Bretagne-Seche Environnement) back in breakaways and high up in the GC (16th) for the first time since his impressive 2009 Tour performance with the old Agritubel team; while Tony Gallopin (Lotto-Bellisol) deserves an Honourable Mention for claiming the yellow jersey on Bastille Day (July 14th) thanks to his breakaway efforts (he also won on Stage 11 two days later).

It was good to see Peraud bounce back superbly from a sad end to the 2013 Tour, when he crashed in the final week (from being in the Top 10) and had to pull out, with some impressive climbing and a solid performance in the individual time-trial. A mountain biker who came to road cycling quite late, his 2nd place - at 37 years of age - is likely to prove a career high water-mark, even if he may well remain competitive for a couple of seasons yet. However, Pinot, 24, (this year's white jersey winner as well), 23 year-old Bardet, Rolland (27) and 2013 Vuelta a Espana stage winner Warren Barguil (Giant Shimano and only 22) are all part of the future of French cycling. As they continue to get better (Pinot shot to prominence in 2012, had a difficult 2013 Tour but has bounced back commendably well to hit his best form to date), their watching compatriots might finally find their dreams of French GC glory turning to reality. 

Elsewhere, special mentions for this Grand Tour must firstly go to the breakaways as a whole. While Marcel Kittel (Giant Shimano) and Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) had their moments in sprints with six stage wins between them, several breakaways were able to make their attacks stick (three of Kittel's four wins came in the opening four stages). Part of this was because the stages had tricky elements to them; for example, Stage 2 had a tricky hilly section right at the end, and Stages 15 & 19 were both affected by very wet weather. However, I also wonder if the sprint trains aren't quite as sophisticated as they once were. During Stage 15 (a near-miss, as the breakaway riders got caught in the last 500m), it struck me that the old HTC-Columbia team, in their 2009-11 pomp, would never have cut it this fine; they were often ruthless in ensuring Mark Cavendish got a chance to get another stage win and I don't think any team has replicated that sort of sprint preparation since. In addition to Stages 2 & 19, time-trial master Tony Martin (Omega Pharma-Quickstep) managed to make a breakaway stick on Stage 9 (ending in Mulhouse); and Gallopin triumphed on Stage 11 into Oyannax. However, as a work colleague pointed out to me, this may not be a bad thing; it is sometimes nice to see breakaways and late attacks worse, rather than seeing every flat or mostly flat stage conclude in a bunch sprint. A second special mention must go to Rafal Majka (Saxo-Tinkoff), who rescued his team after Contador's retirement with two stage victories (Stages 14 & 17) and success in the King of the Mountains classification.

Finally, although a run of record-breaking British performances came to an end this year (only Geraint Thomas (Team Sky) made it to the end, in a commendable 22nd overall), the Brits still deserve a special mention with the Grand Depart taking place in Yorkshire (plus Stage 3 from Cambridge-London). The White Rose county turned up en masse to cheer the peloton on; the riders enjoyed the challenges of the Cote de Buttertubs (Stage 1) and the Cote de Jenkin Road (Stage 2); and, suicidal selfies aside, the Grand Depart was universally well received.

Sunday, 29 June 2014

Rishi's Retrospective: Hiroshi Aoyama's 250cc title win

Hiroshi Aoyama celebrates his 2009 250cc
title success in Valencia. Photo: Honda
A glance at the roll call of champions in all three of the series in Grand Prix Motorcycling (125cc/Moto3, 250cc/Moto2, 500cc/MotoGP) over the last twenty or so years, perhaps beyond, will reveal a certain dominance of Italians and Spaniards. I think this, to an extent, is a cultural thing; scooter-ownership and riding is common amongst mid-teen Italians far more than it is in the UK, for example. In Spain, meanwhile, there are some very high quality junior formulae for young aspiring riders to get their teeth into before they join international series. However, with its proud recent history of bike manufacturing, not to mention established racing series on its own, it must have seemed - in the 1990s (before I was into MotoGP admittedly) and early-2000s - that Japan was also about to join the party in a big way.

During this period, a generation of talent (mostly) raised in the high-growth boom years of the Japanese economy started taking on, and beating, the world's best. Step forward the likes of Haruchika Aoki (1995 and '96 125cc champion); Tetsuya Harada (250cc champion in 1993 and runner-up in '98, when he arguably was only denied by some very underhand tactics from his main title rival); and the late Daijiro Kato (250cc champion in 2001, tragically killed in an accident at Suzuka in 2003 after a promising start to his MotoGP career). Plenty of others also challenged for titles in the Grand Prix categories during this period, including Tadayuki "Taddy" Okada, Tohru Ukawa and Youichi Ui (whom a friend of mine used to support in 125cc). However, as the 2000s progressed, Japanese talent has started to drift away from the upper echelons of motorcycle racing and stories have success have been fewer and far between. For the most part, one has had to look beyond Grand Prix motorcycling to its cousin Superbike racing, where Akira Yanagawa had had his moments in the 'glory days' (late 1990s-early 2000s), and where Noriyuki Haga agonised fans worldwide throughout the 2000s with a few near-misses in his quest to finally win the World Superbike title (he never did in the end). Beyond that, Ryuichi Kiyonari* - a man who sometimes seems to embody Winston Churchill's description of Russia ("a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma") - has mixed introspective confidence crises with three superbly taken British Superbike titles (in 2006, '07 and 2010). But otherwise, the only notable success in recent times for Japanese riders was Hiroshi Aoyama's 250cc title success in 2009.

It is a success whose story does bear repeating, in my view, in this edition of the Retrospective, because it was in many ways a surprising success. This is because of two main reasons. The first of these was the depth of competition in the field. Aoyama had been racing permanently in 250cc since 2004 and during that period had established himself as an extremely consistent racer in the series; his championship finishing positions were 6th, 4th, 4th, 6th and 7th respectively. He'd always been a rider others had had to watch out for, and he had stacked up favourably against some series big names in the past (e.g. former champion Manuel Poggiali) but he was rarely the out-and-out "man to beat" in the series himself. Going into 2009, the impression was that several riders were on paper stronger than he was, including reigning series champion Marco Simoncelli, Alvaro Bautista, and possibly also Hector Barbera and the quick-but-inconsistent Mattia Pasini (2 Spaniards and 2 Italians, for those still counting!). The second was the bike "Hiro" was on - Scot Honda. 2009 was the final year of the 250cc world championship before its replacement by 600cc "Moto2" bikes in 2010. While Aprilia (who ran Bautista, Barbera and Pasini) and Gilera (Simoncelli's team) continued to develop their 250 GP bikes until fairly close to this time, Honda had stopped development on their bike for some years previous to 2009 and thus Hiro was faced with an older, on-paper less developed machine relative to his rivals.

The Scot Honda bike was one Aoyama felt comfortable riding
and pushing to the limit. Photo: Scott Jones (turn2photography)
However, the apparent negative of having an older bike, and moreover not one tailored to him, actually proved a positive for Aoyama. Explaining what had marked his most successful periods in 250cc, he opined that "I think it's a combination with the bike. Sometimes good combination, sometimes not". In the same interview, with motomatters.com, he also said: "this Honda bike is fit [built] for everybody, not just fit for you [like a factory bike might be]. But somehow I feel comfortable with this bike, and I can push a little bit more in the corner, and this is a good point of the bike." Clearly, despite age and non-bespoke qualities, the Aoyama-Scot Honda combination was working well, inspiring the rider with confidence to push the limits, and leading to a string of positive results which catapulted him to the title battle right from the start of the season. On top of that, Aoyama's consistency, intact as ever, stood him in good stead as mistakes crept into his rivals' efforts. Hiro finished every race (though he did have a scary excursion at the final round in Valencia!), never lower than 8th, and recorded four wins, three second places and five 4th places en route to the championship. Meanwhile, Simoncelli - who in 2011 was Aoyama's team-mate at Gresini Honda in MotoGP, and remains sorely missed after being killed in an accident in Sepang, Malaysia that year - missed the opening round through injury and was not fully fit until Round 3; although he shone thereafter, taking six victories, he was always playing catch-up and thus couldn't ever quite make up the difference to his Japanese rival. He eventually fell at the final round too when needing a win (plus results to go his way elsewhere) to claw back the points deficit. Bautista started the season more on the front foot, and was the man to beat for a while, but two DNFs in the closing rounds of the season ultimately cost the former 125cc champion a chance to win the 250cc crown. Pasini was quick but never a title threat after a season hit by a staggering eight DNFs, while Barbera lost too many points early in the season but ended up pipping Simoncelli to 2nd in the standings after a strong ending.

The awkward timing of the "middle race" of the MotoGP race weekend (too late for breakfast, too early for lunch!) means that I ended up supporting Aoyama's title win by following race results closely, but not actually watching many races. However, a few memories do stand out. Firstly, a race at the Sachsenring, where Simoncelli and Alex Debon had broken free early in the race. At the end, the chasing pack were catching them quite quickly, and Bautista was the fastest of the lot. Time and again he slid down the inside of Aoyama (defending 3rd) but, in the pressure of a title battle, Hiro never once missed his braking point, or tried to turn into Bautista. Rather he let Bautista come through, and then overtook straight back past by 'undercutting' him when Alvaro ran even a fraction wide. In the end, truth be told, Alvaro took 3rd and Hiro 4th on the last lap (Marco and Debon were just out of reach), but an important marker of maturity had been lain down. My second memory is of qualifying at Misano, where Aoyama pulled a stonking lap out of the bag late in the day to steal an unlikely pole. The usually reserved Hiro celebrated quite freely as well, showing how much it meant to him. My final memory, though I've only seen footage of the incident, came from the Dutch TT in Assen (a 'classic' race held traditionally on the last Saturday of June). At this point (Round 7/16), Bautista had held the upper hand in the title race, and on race day he and Aoyama had diced fiercely for victory. On the penultimate lap, Aoyama (leading) ran slightly wide at the entry to the final corner. Bautista, seeing his opportunity, tried to take the racing line for the second part of this chicane, hoping to take advantage. However, in the split second it took him to do that, Aoyama had already recovered his mistake. The result was that Bautista smashed into the back of Aoyama; a pure racing incident. The Spaniard fell and, though thankfully unhurt, was out on the spot. However, Hiro managed to stay upright and he held on to win. This was a crucial moment, as he took the lead in the championship, and it was a lead he would hold until season's end.

Since 2009, Aoyama has had a mixed time of things in MotoGP (plus one year in World Superbikes in 2012) since graduating from 250cc after his title win. That 2011 year with Simoncelli was probably his most competitive season (the comparison with Marco, who was clearly quicker, is not quite fair as the bikes they had were slightly different, despite being run by the same team). Other seasons have been more disappointing. After the initial relief and happiness I felt when he won in 2009, I didn't really think about his achievement very much. However, as time has gone on, I have found myself remembering it again. More than ever, I'm happy that Hiro won in 2009 and am impressed by what he achieved that year. It might not have been smooth going since then but, if "Hiroshi Aoyama, 2009 (and last ever) 250cc World Champion" is to be his magnum opus, then it's certainly not a bad one to have!

*=Since writing this piece Ryuichi Kiyonari has won Race 1 of the British Superbikes race at Knockhill, Scotland. It is his first win in the series for three years. From small acorns...?