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Better than backgammon

I have to admit, I’m not a big fan of Eurosport. Their production quality is reminiscent of those old daytime soaps where the entire set wobbled whenever a door was closed. As for their scheduling, ‘random’ is the most generous description I can offer. Programmes frequently start late, overrun, move without warning or sometimes disappear completely.

The Giro d’Italia is a good example of this. Through 21 days of racing, I religiously set my Sky+ box to record the highlights every evening, only to discover on at least five occasions that I had missed at least half the programme due to a combination of late starts and the EPG not being updated accordingly. (On one evening, I was less than amused to discover the slot had been switched for a programme of backgammon highlights. Thanks for that.)

Having said that, Eurosport is the only channel in the UK carrying Giro coverage, so I suppose I shouldn’t complain too much. And, through fortunate happenstance, the broadcaster yesterday gave us live pictures of two pieces of tremendous sporting drama, less than an hour apart.

Giro d’Italia, Rome

Denis Menchov was the last rider down the start ramp in yesterday’s 14.4km time trial around the streets of Rome, which concluded the Giro. Starting three minutes behind Danilo di Luca and nursing a meagre 20 second lead, it’s hard to know what must have been going through the Russian’s mind.

Certainly, he will have been receiving constant updates on the Italian’s progress through the time-checks, and as he passed through the first one himself five seconds slower than di Luca, no doubt his already fast-beating pulse will have quickened further. The news that light rain was falling over parts of the circuit won’t have helped, either. The cobbles that comprised long stretches of the course are difficult enough to ride in damp conditions on a standard road bike; on a racing bike, with its super-skinny tyres, it becomes close to impossible to corner at any speed whatseoever.

So Menchov will have been relieved to know that, as he started on the long, cobbled run to the finish, he had not only regained the early time losses to di Luca, but had indeed extended his advantage. And, of course, it was at that moment, on a straight stretch of cobbles, that his bike slipped away from underneath him, sending him sliding painfully across the road for at least ten metres.

In the long moment that followed, we wondered if Menchov had suffered an injury serious enough – fractured collarbones are not uncommon – to deprive him of his first Giro win inside the final kilometre. Fortunately, he was quickly back on his feet, while a mechanic in his following team car quickly jumped out, whipped a spare bike off the roof rack and gave Menchov a quick push start once he had climbed into the saddle – all done with the smoothness and efficiency of a Formula 1 pit-stop.

Bloodied but unbowed, Menchov continued on to the finish, to discover that he had triumphed by 41 seconds overall. It was the right result, as even di Luca would recognise, but a dramatic coda on the end of what had already been a tight, eventful race.

Roll on the Tour de France in July, by which time the ever-improving Lance Armstrong (12th overall in Italy) may just be in a position to challenge defending champion Carlos Sastre and 2007 winner (and Astana teammate) Alberto Contador for podium honours.

French Open, Roland Garros, Paris

Before yesterday afternoon, Rafael Nadal, the world number 1 and four-time defending champion, had a career record of 31-0 at Roland Garros, which included a run of 32 consecutive sets won, dating all the a back to the 2007 final.

Robin Söderling, the Swede seeded 23 (and ranked 25th in the world), had never previously ventured beyond the third round of any grand slam singles, and is regarded as something of an indoor specialist.

So, naturally, in one of those wonderful reversals of logic that only sport can provide, Söderling won, 6-2, 6-7, 6-4, 7-6. I turned over after the cycling to watch the fourth set, and while it was clear that Nadal was marginally below his best, it was also apparent that Söderling’s ultra-aggressive approach was paying huge dividends and filling him with confidence rather than trepidation. For every fizzing winner that Nadal fired across the net, Söderling had an answer. And in the decisive fourth set tie-break, there was only ever one winner as the Swede dismantled the defending champion’s serve, breaking his first three service points before emphatically closing out the match.

It was a stunning display of clay court tennis, from both players. And on a weekend where world number 4 Novak Djokovic also took his leave of the tournament, the happiest men in all of Paris – after Söderling – must surely have been Roger Federer and Andy Murray, for both of whom the draw has now opened up. Several dangerous obstacles remain – most notably del Potro, Davydenko and Gonzalez (who Murray faces next) – but all of a sudden the prospects for a British Grand Slam singles winner are significantly enhanced. Fingers crossed.

So, thanks to Eurosport for providing an hour of high sporting drama yesterday. However, I’ll still be watching the Tour de France on ITV4 come July. I simply couldn’t face another hour of televised backgammon …

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