Return of the King & The Armchair Warriors
11th June 2017
What a superb and memorable French Open it has been this year. It heralded what we all wanted to see. The return of the King, Rafa Nadal, both as in Roland Garros Champion for the record breaking 10th time, and as in back in sublime top form once again. The trophy is back in the hands of it's rightful owner, but that doesn't stop the rest of the pack scrabbling around like Golem for it. We wants it. We wants it, my Precious ...
Although did I say King? I think I have the roles mixed up. If anything Wawrinka was the one returning to Philippe Chatrier as the brave, courageous King Aragon. It was a noble valiant effort that even got the crowd behind him, even though he only won a hand full of games. But all observers, even little grey men with big heads and giant black eyes in flying saucers floating high above Earth, could see he was against an impossible opponent. One whose performance was so sublime and impossible to play against, it was more akin to that of the super powered elf Legolas, than Aragon. To his credit, Wawrinka tried everything he had in his multiple Grand Slam winning power. He never gave up fighting for one second. But when it came down to it, not for the first time, and hopefully not for the last, Nadal was just too good on the sun drenched orange clay of Roland Garros for any man, of any time. Wawrinka stood no chance at all. Nadal is no longer a king of Philippe Chatrier and the surrounding lands ... He's a God.
If he continues in this manner, they'll have to rename the event Rafa Garros. Nadal put in a performance so good, that even if Superman himself had been on the other side of that net, Nadal would have made him look like Gimley the dwarf. I can only speculate that Doctor Who must have been somewhere in the crowd under one of those white Panama hats (he wears Panama hats now ... Panama hats are cool ...) for this truly was a greatest of all time performance on clay.
Whilst competitive rivalries will always entertain to the end of mankind in tennis, Nadal's knees and wrists are not getting any younger. Who knows if we will ever see a better display of perfection on clay from another man in all of time and space? Greatest of all time history is in the competitive process of being created in men's tennis at the moment.
How lucky we have been to have witnessed the current era of men's tennis over the last 15 years ... So many ups and downs and changes of power, and with the old guard experiencing a second renaissance, it would seem it's far from over yet. Let's hope so at any rate. With Rafa now having surpassed Sampras and being just 3 slams behind Roger, we may well be about to witness the last leg in the race for the greatest of all time.
Let's hope it will be a race that lasts several years. It will be a sad day when Roger and Rafa finally hang up their rackets, but for now at least, there is still so much to look forward to from these all time greats of sport. And with the persistent threats of the other great Champions, in particular, the other impossible opponent that is a peak Novak Djokovic, but definitely also Murray, Wawrinka, and who knows who next, all also valiantly fighting for their own places in history, I for one can't wait to see how the final chapters write themselves. And I have a feeling that, just as in Kinshasa, Zaire, October 30th 1974, if you look close enough at the crowd of certain tennis matches over the next few years, you might just be able to spot a young man in a tweed jacket wearing a bow tie and a fez sat next to a hot leggy red head. At some point in the near future, it is highly probable that history is about to be set for all time ...
But even more so for me, Roland Garros 2017 was all about Jelana Ostapenko. I can't remember the last time I enjoyed a ladies final so much. Having just turned 20 years old in her semi final a few days before, the unseeded Ostapenko belted out more winners than any other player in the tournament, by some margin, wielding a forehand that astonishingly averaged faster than Men's World Number 1, Andy Murray, and by coming back to win from 1 set and 3 games to love down.
A remarkable achievement done with such exhilarating charming youthful style. She also hit more unforced errors than anyone else, but only because she went for the risky big shot every single time. Every shot was attack. It was quite astonishing to watch. There was no relenting. She believed in herself with every power shot whether it went in or not. She applied constant pressure and didn’t let a single miss phase her or alter her game plan. Even when she was a set and 3 games to love down, and almost out. Ostapenko didn't let her opponent rest for one minute until that trophy was in her hands. And in tennis, to maintain that kind of focus, is much easier said than done.
On this occasion, fortune favoured the brave - and the talented. She went for broke … and won the jackpot!
She pulled out so many incredible winners that most players would simply have deemed far too risky to go for. It must have been so frustrating to play against for Simona Halep who was forced to run, slide, scramble, and then run some more, in order just to return them. And to her amazing credit, return them she did, albeit almost entirely in a defensive style. But then again, what other choice was there?
Like a Jedi batting back the lasers of armies of relentless battle droids, Halep remained calm and composed throughout, emotions amazingly only cracking the surface every so often. But even then, they were instantly swallowed, allowing her to slide straight back into that state of mental calm that she manages so well.
Again, like a Jedi, at no point did she let mental negativity destroy her. She executed her game plan perfectly. And her experienced caution and calm of mind very nearly won her her first Grand Slam and world number 1 status ... Until Ostapenko adjusted to the wind and found her flow. From then on, it was full on Order 66 in Revenge Of The Sith. The fire wasn't just rapid and relentless, it now had unexpected precision and accuracy too. The Jedi was toast.
In the end, Halep was just no match for Ostapenko's relentless ruthless power plays. But to be fair, neither was anyone else the whole tournament. I felt for Helep. It must have been a tough loss for something that she had worked so hard and steadily for, made even worse by the fact that she got so close to achieving all her childhood dreams with this one win that she was only a few games away from ... Only to then be forced to endure the pain of watching the new comer experiencing the euphoria of her childhood dream instead, as hers once again slipped away from her into the jaws of defeat. Tennis can be a cruel sport. Listening to Halep in the press conference afterwards only confirms this. Again, Halep with the wisdom and poise of a true Jedi even in defeat. It's actually very inspirational hearing her talking about loss. I hope her time comes. But one thing did strike me, once again, it's as if no emotional outlet is allowed. After all, this wouldn't be well recieved. Who knows, perhaps Halep needs to add a bit of the Dark Side to those exemplary Jedi skills, and maybe the Grand Slams will start coming in? As said, who knows? Either way, it was a great game to watch with the unseeded Jelana Ostapenko rightfully emerging as the worthy tournament Champion. She played an amazing tournament.
All in all, those 2 finals covered everything I love about tennis. They were fantastic. I can't wait for Wimbledon now.
And yet despite this, what surprises me most about Ostapenko's fantastic performances is that, although there was certainly no evidence of it in this tournament, only a year ago, she had been labeled as tennis's new bad girl, known to be a bit of a stroppy tantrum queen when things weren't going her way.
Along with a few of the other young up and comers in women's tennis, Ostapenko has been so often labeled by online commenter's as a spoilt brat, a bitch, a disgrace to the sport ... And worse. And yet look at her now.
But then everybody knows that online comments sections are notoriously hostile environments. Comments sections are full of arm chair warriors armed with a keyboard and a bitter mind, fighting a never ending battle that no one asked them to or even wants them to. You could write an article about the joys of flowers in Spring, scroll down to the comments section below, excited to view the feedback you have inspired, and low and behold some nice fellow has harangued you about a spelling mistake following up with a nice message involving your children, a cucumber, and lack of sexual consent ...
If it were up to the arm chair warriors, Ostapenko should have quit years ago and done the Cersei Game Of Thrones Walk Of Atonement before throwing herself to the dwarves and rapists in the dungeons for a damn good thrashing.
And they seem to be particularly harsh on women. I've even seen Putintseva, another young up and comer that can get a bit stroppy on occasion, labeled a fat dwarf in comments sections and informed by the armchair warriors that she needs to decide if she really wants to play tennis or not. Who do these people think they are? She's 5 foot 3, so she is short, but she's also very fast. And talented. And works really hard. She pin balls around the court like Yoda in Revenge Of The Sith.
With several impressive victories under her belt, she's already a top 10 seed slayer at 22 years old and has the clear potential for much more. And whilst it's true she has had the odd tantrum, it's also true that she was also the only player to pose a threat to Serena Williams at last years Roland Garros. She's even been criticised for celebrating too much when she wins a point. As if passion is a bad thing now?
Let's face it, they're not the first tennis players that have found it difficult to keep their emotions in check. And not the worst either. Not by a long, long shot, multiplied by another long, long shot, and then with another long, long shot added on top ... times by two. John McEnroe anyone? He's on a whole 'nother level compared to anything else that's ever existed in sport! The guy's temperament was absolutely shot away.
He just lost it, badly, on so many occasions - and yet he still won Wimbledon 3 times and inadvertently became pure tv magic! Not only that, he's widely respected in the tennis community and regarded as a true great. He even presents Wimbledon now.
Truth is, there's more than a touch of accidental Ricky Gervais tension humour on the faces of all involved when a tennis player goes a bit mental. It's brilliant! It really is tv magic. At let me assure you, the person it's least funny to is the person that's just lost control of their emotions. They are killing themselves inside. Depends on how you choose to view it I suppose.
I guess what I'm trying to say is, cut these young players some slack, and just enjoy the story that unfolds in history. Just look how much Ostapenko has improved one year on. Just look at what McEnroe achieved. Some will grow out of it, some won't. Either way, it's great unscripted entertainment. Sport needs all sorts. It's not just about performing tasks with less margin of error more consistently than your opponent. As a function of society, sport is also a subset of entertainment and art. If it wasn't, we could just televise an efficient factory production line couldn't we?
Sport needs its Jedi's, it needs its Sith's, and needs those that can interchange between the two. And just as in Star Wars, you never know which will win - that depends on the individual embracing the mind set that is right for them, and the hard work, sweat, and fight they have in them when the crunch comes. Above all, sport needs passion. It's fair to say most people's day to day lives become a bit monotonous due to work. People want to see passion ... even if it's spilling out of a players brutally painful psychological wounds. It doesn't matter. It's still passion. I think that people forget that a sports persons fuel is passion. Not restraint. And they are all also only human. As his record shows, they can't all be Roger Federer. And this is both actually a very good thing for spectators, and an incredibly frustrating thing for the rest of the pack.
Perhaps playing console games as a teenager permits me some empathy to the tantrums, the racquet smashing, the swearing, and the general inappropriate verbal outlets and blame games that all tennis players, some more than others admittedly, seem to find themselves in at some point in their career (and that does include Roger Federer). I lost count of the amount of times I put my losses on Street Fighter II down to having to use the un-official controller. And the swearing ... (!)
Muhammad Ali once said that, "You've got to have the will and you've got to have the skill. But the will has to be greater than the skill". That's all very well for him to say, but for the rest of us mere mortals, that is exactly where the frustration stems from!
As for armchair warriors, these are the people that said Federer was finished in 2013 when he lost to the world number 116 at Wimbledon at 31 years old. He's 35 now. Look at him now. These are the people that said Nadal was finished after his first round exit at the same Wimbledon. His injuries had finished him early they said. Look at him now. These are the people that said double Olympic Champion, multiple Grand Slam winner, and current World Number 1, Andy Murray was a loser and just didn't have it in him to be a winner. Look at him now. They're probably saying Djokovic is finished too with his current dip in form ... These are clearly the people that really don't understand what it takes to be a real Champion. It's not just about winning. It's about the battle. In fact if you haven't fallen, you haven't faced your toughest battle yet - coming back after loss. This is why for me, Andy Murray's greatest moment was the last Grand Slam he played, that he didn't have a Grand Slam or Olympic Gold medal to his name. The loss to Roger Federer at Wimbledon in 2012, where he genuinely began to wonder if he would ever achieve his dream. You could see how much it hurt him. You could feel how much it hurt him. You could see his doubts. And you could see him fight through it all with dignity and grace. It was tv gold. He did come back a month later at the Olympics, and the rest is history.
Sport like life, is a series of ups and downs. Never write someone off because they've fallen down. It's how many times they get back up again that builds the true Champion. And if they don't get up again ... why kick dirt in their face?! Why indeed.
The difference between the armchair warrior's negativity and a tennis player's negativity when they lose control of their emotions, is intent.
The tennis player can't help it, it's passion spilling out of psychological wounds in the heat of the moment. It's natural. It's a by product of the will being greater than the skill. They'd rather it didn't happen. They've lost control. They don't want it. They can't help it. It doesn't feel good. The negativity eats them up inside. They are not negative people. Some people are just better, or more experienced, at managing painful emotions than others.
The armchair warrior on the other hand thrives off negativity, with no appreciation of the work involved, and having never applied any serious competitive effort themselves to the subject at hand. They actively seek it. To them it feels good. Their comments are never constructive. They don't want them to be. The destructive negativity they off load on others makes them feel better about themselves.
In fact why stop at young players? Cut everyone some slack. Let's have a bit less negativity across the board. A little more empathy, a little less kicking dirt in people's faces when they are clearly suffering involuntary emotional pain. Instead of criticising those trying, go and try something yourself. Mental health is one of the big topics of our time. It seems every successful celebrity is taking 5 minutes out to rush in front of a camera to tell you that they too have struggled before jetting off back to the villa to relax. Apparently this helps ...
It strikes me as strange, we live in a world where people say you shouldn't bottle up your emotions, but on the other hand, there's disdain with people genuinely out letting their real emotional pain in sport, let alone day to day life. As if talking about it politely over a cup of tea really cuts it. As if talking about it somehow removes you from the flames creating it ... Share your pain ... but only in a way that is socially acceptable. Otherwise expect your pain to be multiplied back at you because you deserve it. There's entire legions of armchair warriors out there just waiting for the opportunity. It's no wonder so many people prefer to suffer in silence ...