Surviving in a court of awe

It is the best way to get a feel for the tennis these days; watching, and typing, with a broken finger.

Surviving in a court of awe

At least it felt broken. And looked broken. And it certainly wouldn’t be in keeping with the occasion to play these things down.

So I was all set up for the authentic, gruelling experience yesterday morning. Because the tennis always seems to be gruelling now, particularly the men’s.

We heard, during the week, that Fox TV had invested heavily in a new survival show called Utopia. You wondered why, when they already have the tennis.

Nowadays, in tennis, the winner is invariably the survivor. The man who outlasts. In rallies, sets, matches.

In Melbourne, you even had the kind of bonus the reality TV people pay the big bucks for; searing heat. For extra gruel. And of course there were the injuries; dodgy knees, bad backs and, in Rafa Nadal’s case, blisters.

Less tennis elbow, more tennis body.

The commentators have been in constant awe at the depths of human resolve on display. There is always somebody “winning a lot of friends out there” for hanging in instead of throwing his hat at it and heading home on the private jet. All in all, you suspect it is not the kind of environment where there is a lot left for Roger Federer.

Before the semi-final — which was recast as a ladder match for the pantheon — you worried, for Roger, when he talked about the pressure being off, being able to enjoy it. There is seldom much fun to be had at the opposite end of a court to Nadal.

Maybe we got a more accurate sense of Fed’s relish for the prospect after his win over Andy Murray. “It will be brutal, all these things...” he sighed to Jim Courier, sounding like a man pining for simpler days when he could glide to survival on touch and intuition.

Sure enough, the BBC was already calling brutality inside the first set yesterday. When the rallies went long, as most did, Nadal outlasted Federer 10 times to four.

You knew it was all over early in the second, when Federer had a strop with the umpire about Nadal’s grunting. What he could really hear, you’d imagine, was the bell tolling.

The first time they met, in a Slam, Nadal was 19 and fearless, storming his Roland Garros debut. Federer pulled out all his shots but the young buck slashed and burned him.

Federer played down his disappointment. “I’m not going to destroy the locker room and never play tennis again. I’m not at that point.”

Nadal, who hasn’t picked up many fears along the way, may have pushed Fed closer to that point since, making it 9-2 in the big ones. Whatever about the locker rooms, has Federer’s reputation as the greatest been vandalised?

In Strokes of Genius, his book about the 2008 Wimbledon final between the pair, Jon Wertheim insisted that theirs, like all the great rivalries, was a mutually-beneficial relationship.

“Nicklaus deprived Palmer of a bunch of trophies, just as Magic robbed Bird of a few more NBA titles. And vice versa. But they also pushed each other to greater heights. Frazier and Ali gave each other’s achievements context and heft.”

Yet, those were leveller personal contests. It may buck the classical narrative we tend to favour — the slugger outlasting the boxer — but is it time we downgraded Roger to a leading role in the story of Rafa’s greatness? If Fed has been cast as Ali, it is the old Frazier motto, drummed home by Rafa’s relentless topspin, that has resonated loudest: “If you kill the body, the head will die.”

Maybe what the sport has become made that inevitable. Rafa even threw in a few delicacies yesterday — a few lovely drops and nudges — just to show that he could, if he ever needed them to survive. But he didn’t need them really. Rafa, unlike me and Roger, probably didn’t even find this one that gruelling.

If you face reality, things start to happen

It’s all gone quiet at Harvard lately. You will recall that they had it all sussed, the management game, with their lessons from Fergie.

Looking back, the teachings seemed to skimp somewhat on the succession planning side of things, presumably on the basis few people would ever have to take over from somebody like Fergie, so it wasn’t worth worrying about.

But that was the problem with much of the manifesto; you couldn’t really put it to the test unless you were Fergie himself, with decades of success and control and fear behind you.

Prepare to win, he advises. “I expected to win every time we went out there. Even if five of the most important players were injured, I expected to win.”

But you cannot make a man expect, particularly a man with the phrase “these things happen” prominent in his vocabulary.

“It happens,” frowned Moyesy, of De Gea’s last minute gaffe. “Again, these things happen,” he sighed, of Jones and Welbeck’s attempts to find their old gaffer in the stands from the spot.

But a lot of the people Moyesy is dealing with now didn’t realise things like this happened. Moyesy invited these stark realities into their lives. And when people realise bad things can happen, they find themselves taking the ball towards the corner flag with six minutes to go at home to Sunderland in the League Cup. And when they do that, there is no telling what high farce might follow.

Luckily, you can study chaos theory at Harvard too.

Blurred lines gone forever

So, prescription goggles have been approved for rugby, but do we really need players to see exactly what they are doing?

Brian O’Driscoll definitely won’t be availing of the new eyewear in his final season since he had laser-eye surgery in 2009 to correct vision in both his eyes.

“Maybe in the past, I saw gaps that weren’t really there,” suggested Drico back then, of his time operating on the blindside.

Suitably emboldened, he probably even went through a few of them. Now, how many surges will be abandoned and points sacrificed to 20-20 vision?

Clear eyes, full hearts, could lose!

Bragging rights taken to a whole new level

John Giles has often advised us that post-match interviews should be abandoned altogether, to stop wasting everyone’s time.

Gilesy will probably stick with that position even if he saw Seattle corner back Richard Sherman gave one for the ages after the NFC Championship Game.

Sure, it was tempting to see some potential in 2014 becoming the year of braggadocio. The year sport was ‘Kanyefied’.

But when you recall all the staged old guff boxers and other combatants have inflicted on us, you realise we’d soon get tired of it.

So, when a tidy cornerback books his place in our own showpiece, we’ll settle, as usual, for hearing that he “got the few breaks, thank God”.

HEROES & VILLAINS

STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN

Jose Mourinho: No doubt he’d have enjoyed Old Trafford, but won’t it prove so much more fulfilling to rebuild United while working his own job as well? Tireless.

HELL IN A HANDCART

Zoopla: Wonder, after all the hoopla, will they have managed to deliver a blank set of gear to WBA in time for next Wednesday’s visit to Villa. Or might they just stick things out until the summer to get their money’s worth?

Jennifer Lopez: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Surely Shakira had done enough to retain World Cup anthem duties.

Jamie Heaslip: At least that’s over. Is it me, or is there often a touch of the Pat Kenny everyone-wants-me-but-I’m-staying-anyway about the egg-chasing transfer market?

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