Sunday, 10 June 2007

Hat tricks in Paris

There was contrast at the end of the fortnight. Roland Garros started with clouds and showers and ended in beautiful sunshine.

There was symmetry too. Justine Henin won her third consecutive singles title and so did Rafael Nadal. The favourites had done their jobs.

As for the contenders. Ana Ivanovic was a 19-year-old bag of nerves. And Roger Federer was just error laden. You know something is amiss when the man with 10 grand slam titles gets the cheers against the defending champion who has just two to his name.

Maybe the crowd are growing tired of the Spaniard and would like to see Federer become only the sixth man to win all four majors. But this is terre battue. It's where grunting and grit reign supreme over stylish thrusts.

Roger you are to grass what Rafa is to clay. And there's no shame in that. The problem will come when Nadal wrests Federer's Wimbledon title from him.

I thought last year's final there was quite close.

Nadal served for the second set and he didn't take that chance to level things up at one apiece.

Federer won that set and after dropping the third he was struggling on his service at 1-1 in the fourth.

I was watching the final here in France and the commentator said something along the lines of...if Federer doesn't win this in four, I fear for his title.

Well Federer obviously heard him. He held for 2-1. Promptly broke Nadal for 3-1. Held for 4-1. Broke again for 5-1 and had the chance to serve for his fourth crown all within about 15 minutes of the commentator painting the doom scenario.

It all happened in such a rush that even Federer appeared flushed and dropped his serve. Nadal got back to 5-3. But on the second time of asking, Federer served out for what was at that time grand slam title number eight.

Since then he's added the US Open and the Australian earlier this year.

I've always thought there's a curse of the commentator. They often say: "We mustn't tempt fate."

But they go right ahead anyway and tweak it's nose. And once that proboscis has been tampered with, it unleashes a deluge of snort.

The 1981 Wimbledon final between Bjorn Borg - incidentally the only other man to have won a hat trick of Roland Garros crowns - and John McEnroe was a classic example of the curse.

Borg had won the first set and was a break up in the second and one of the BBC boys - for it was only men who commented on the men in those days - said: "It would be a brave man to bet against Borg now."

Somehow millions must have metaphysically done so since this was in the time before shops opened on Sunday in Britain.

For Borg lost his service, the set and the match in four. He never returned to Wimbledon again, retiring from the game at the ripe old age of 26.

I wasn't listening to commentators while watching the finals at Roland Garros. Too busy thinking of what I was going to say myself.

But I did learn something long ago from Dan Maskell, the doyen of the BBC commentators and sure enough it was true.

Federer had about half a dozen chances to break Nadal to take a 4-2 lead in the first set. On about the sixth break point, I thought of Maskell because he'd always say something like, you get the feeling that if he doesn't break here, it will affect his concentration.

Federer didn't convert. Nadal held for 3-3 and Federer lost his next service game to go 4-3 down and ultimately lost the first set.

While watching the Chelsea v Manchester United Premiership showdown at the end of the 2006 season, there was something I'd never witnessed before: the commentator's vision.

United needed to win to stop Chelsea from taking the title. United's Wayne Rooney was doing his utmost to be the boy wonder. He was also trying his best to be a thug. Call it overzealous youth.

Anyway one challenge on the Chelsea skipper John Terry left him with blood seeping through his shinpad.

But Terry being a kind of scrape me off the floor captain wasn't going to leave until the job had been done. So yeoman John was patched up and sent back into battle.

Rooney also had a tasty nibble of Didier Drogba's legs and down went Cote D'Ivoire's finest. As far as I remember that's when Rooney was booked.

And the French commentators said well it's about time he had a yellow card. In fact he's lucky it's not red because the tackle on Terry should have been yellow.

When Rooney tripped and injured himself chasing a ball, the whole of Stamford Bridge went silent. This was bigger than the Premiership (for at 3-0 up that was now won), this was England's star striker. First man over to see Rooney as he was stretchered off was Terry who could have been invalided out of the approaching World Cup.

One of the French commentators said the injury looks bad and it could seriously harm his chances of playing in the World Cup. But the other said well look at the challenges he made on Terry and Drogba. Their World Cups could have gone up in smoke too.

He went further and said that the English referees weren't doing Rooney any favours by letting such robust challenges go. They weren't educating him to be an international footballer.

He shouldn't have been on the field to get injured was the attitude. And then came the soothsaying. One of them said: "If England are basing their World Cup campaign around someone like that, they'd better think again. Referees during the World Cup aren't quite as lenient as they seem to be in the Premiership."

I was in Gelsenkirchen for the England v Portugal World Cup quarter final doing a match analysis for the French service when Rooney's studs crunched into Ricardo Carvalho's groin.

As Rooney was given his marching orders. I was agape. But the match commentator, Eric, asked me for my immediate reaction.

It's at this moment that I experienced the commentator as bi-linear linguistic entity.

My short, sharp: "Shocked" response in French was not deemed compelling radio.

But it was wholesome radio. Because on the other frequency inside my head was an array of expletive drenched questions as to what the referee had seen.

But Eric wanted a tiny bit more from me. I was there, after all, to offer real time match deconstruction.

But the analysis I was undergoing was psychologically charged from more than 30 years of trophyless hurting.

I was so - to quote a phrase beloved of English footballers - sick as a parrot at the prospect of England being down to 10 men in the quarters that I would have had trouble formulating a coherent sentence in my mother tongue let alone a foreign language.

That was until I thought of the sagacious French commentators from that Chelsea v United match.

In fact describing Rooney's rashness from then calmed me down and - even though one level was mourning the probable end of England's World Cup dream, the other plain was giving a cogent overview in French as to why the demise was occurring.

The dream 2006 did fade in the penalty shoot out.

Seeing Federer's quest for immortality fail for another year has left me slightly sad. But he, like England, didn't deserve to win the match. He didn't take his chances and served poorly.

Maskell's was the voice that informed me of those kind of imperatives and inspired my early appreciation of tennis. His dulcet tones came from an era when kindly-looking English gentlemen wore crested blazers, pastel-coloured shirts, old college ties, linen trousers and buffed brogues. And he offered up quaint comments like: "That was a peach of a shot," or: "I say, that's a smashing shot."

I think Maskell would have adored Federer for his poise, power and precision especially on grass. And also for his gracious demeanour off the courts. I bet he would have had an anecdote or two from his years in tennis to console such a player after defeat.

Maskell commentated on the 1980 final when Borg won his fifth consecutive Wimbledon title, probably saying something at the end like: "It's a magnificent achievement."

And it was. Pete Sampras, who won in total seven times at Wimbledon, was stopped from enjoying a consecutive fifth championship in 1999 by a certain Swiss teenager.

Eight years on from that fourth round win against the defending champion that 18-year-old is the man who can emulate Borg in London.

But yet he couldn't prevent another repeating Borg's feat on the clay here in Paris.

A long retired Swede is the big link between London and Paris. His is the name that dominates the record books at this time of the year.

If Nadal goes on to win Wimbledon next month, he'll be the first man to have done the clay/grass double since Borg in 1980. He had that chance last year and was prevented by Federer.

It's beginning to look like there are only two winners in town. Whatever Nadal and Federer are on, they should pass it on to the England football team.

But the commentators will probably have the final say.