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My sporting month: August 2010

You know summer’s nearly over when the newspapers start to publish their new season previews and the invites to join various fantasy football leagues flood into your inbox. Of course, the start of the new Premier League season is a big event, but there’s more to the month of August than football.

With that in mind, here are the top five non-football sporting events I will be watching over the coming month:

1. AFL round 18: West Coast Eagles v Fremantle Dockers (1st)

It has been (yet again) a tough season to be a West Coast fan, with the Eagles languishing at the foot of the ladder while the Dockers are seemingly playoff-bound, but there is always the opportunity for local bragging rights over the neighbours to look forward to. West Coast will be looking to avenge a heavy 111-73 defeat in May, which would represent an all-too-rare bright spot in an otherwise dismal year.

2. England v Pakistan – 2nd, 3rd & 4th Tests (starting 6th, 18th, 26th)

Pakistan bowler Mohammed Aamer

Following on from the first Test which started on Thursday, England‘s final matches before heading down under for their defence of the Ashes will provide a good benchmark as to our likely squad and prospects against a Pakistan side who are as capable of brilliant cricket as they are of total implosion. Never a dull moment.

3. Vuelta a España (starts 28, ends 19th September)

Alejandro Valverde (image courtesy of khoogheem)

The last of this year’s three Grand Tours, the Vuelta often feels like the slightly shabby cousin of the family when compared to the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France, particularly because of its timing so late in the season, when many riders are looking forward to either the World Championships or a well-earned break. However, the Vuelta remains an intriguing race, with some incredibly tough climbs and generally more open competition than you see at the other Grand Tours. Defending champion Alejandro Valverde is otherwise occupied serving a doping ban, and with many top riders likely to opt out after a brutal Tour, we should get an interesting look at riders who might otherwise be swamped by the established heads of state. Watch out for Tejay van Garderen, the 21-year old HTC-Columbia rider, who impressed with his third place at the Critérium du Dauphiné in June. With Lance Armstrong retiring, American cycling will be looking for a new young hero – van Garderen and 20-year old Taylor Phinney are strong candidates to fill Lance’s considerable shoes.

4. Belgian Grand Prix (29th)

After a four-week summer break following this afternoon’s Hungarian GP, the Formula 1 circus will return to action at one of the drivers’ and fans’ favourite venues, the historic Spa-Francorchamps circuit in Belgium. With championship leader Lewis Hamilton, Jenson Button, Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber currently separated by just 21 points (and with Ferrari‘s Fernando Alonso lurking in close attendance), we are facing the prospect of a genuine four-way (potentially even five-way) battle for the drivers’ title. With just six races remaining after Belgium, major points in this race could be vital by season’s end.

5. US Open tennis (starts 30th, ends 12th September)

The final Grand Slam tournament of the year will hopefully see the oft-injured Juan Martin del Potro defend his men’s singles title, while Kim Clijsters will be dreaming of a repeat of her fairytale comeback win in 2009.

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The week in numbers: w/e 4/7/10

Roger Federer

2002 – The last year in which the Wimbledon men’s singles final did not feature Roger Federer.

148 – In mph, the fastest serve recorded in the men’s tournament, by American Taylor Dent. Venus Williams had the fastest serve in the women’s competition, at 128 mph.

75% – Exactly three-quarters (93) of the 124 completed matches in the ladies’ singles were won in straight sets.

129Serena Williams required a total of 129 games to win the ladies’ singles tournament, nine fewer than were played in the fifth set of the match between John Isner and Nicolas Mahut alone.

516 – Williams spent a total of 516 minutes on court in her seven singles matches, which was just 25 minutes longer of the final set of Isner v Mahut, and 2 hours and 29 minutes less than that match in total.

100.1 – According to Sky TV’s speed gun, the speed of the fastest ball (in mph) bowled by Australia‘s Shaun Tait in Saturday’s one-day international against England.(Hawk-Eye measured the same ball at 97 mph, though.)

Fabian Cancellara

53.4 – In kph, the average speed of Fabian Cancellara, winner of the 8.9 km prologue time trial at the Tour de France on Saturday.

4 – It is the fourth time the time trial specialist Cancellara has won the opening stage of the Tour, and his third win in a row when the initial stage has been a short time trial (2007, 2009, 2010).

133 – There have been 133 goals in 60 games so far in the football World Cup, an average of 2.22 per game. If there are eight or fewer goals in the last four games of the tournament, it will be the lowest scoring World Cup in history in terms of average goals per game – currently the 1990 edition in Italy, which saw 142 goals at an average of 2.21 per game.

30.8% – Just 520 of 1689 shots so far in the World Cup have been on target, underlining the difficulties faced by attacking sides this summer.

(Some statistics courtesy of @optajim and Castrol Live Tracker.)

Isner and Mahut think it’s all over: it is now

As the saying goes, all good things must come to an end. And so, at 4.48pm yesterday, the record-breaking and fitness-shattering first round men’s singles match between American John Isner and France’s Nicolas Mahut finally drew to a close, with Isner emerging triumphant, 70-68 in the final set.

The label of ‘epic’ is one which is too easily used in sport, but it is entirely fitting here. Over the course of three days, the match had covered 11 hours and five minutes of playing time encompassing a total of 183 games (138 of them in the deciding set).

To put that into some kind of context, consider that the average Wimbledon five-setter will take three to four hours and require 55-60 games. In other words, Isner and Mahut played the equivalent of three five-set matches back-to-back-to-back.

Serena Williams played 146 games in total in winning last year’s ladies’ singles. And Roger Federer required 273 – equivalent to one and a half Isner-Mahut-style matches – in his seven matches in the men’s singles, despite having to play the longest Grand Slam final in history (a mere 77 games) to overcome Andy Roddick.

A few facts and figures:

  • 183 total games – exactly 100 games more than the previous longest match since the introduction of the tie break (Andy Roddick’s 2003 Australian Open quarter-final win over Younes El Aynaoui, which finished 21-19 in the fifth set).
  • The fifth set alone lasted eight hours and 11 minutes, 98 minutes longer than the previous longest official match at the 2004 French Open, when Fabrice Santoro defeated Arnaud Clement after 6 hours and 33 minutes.
  • Isner served 112 aces, Mahut 103 (previous all-time record: Ivo Karlovic, 78).
  • 168 consecutive service holds, from 2-0 in the second set to the final game of the match.
  • 490 total winners.

Defeat was particularly tough on Mahut, who had defeated Britain’s Alex Bogdanovic 24-22 in the third set of their qualifying match. Serving second throughout the final set, it meant that, from 4-5 onwards, it was always he who faced the sudden-death scenario of serving to stay in the match. The fact he achieved it 64 consecutive times before finally succumbing is testament to an extraordinary ability to deal with pressure and sheer bloody-mindedness.

To add insult to injury (or at least fatigue), Mahut was later back on court in the men’s doubles. His partner? Arnaud Clement, the loser in the previous longest-ever match. Sport never ceases to amaze with the delicious ironies it so frequently serves up.

Immediately after the match, both players were presented with crystal bowls and champagne flutes on behalf of the All-England club – a nice touch, although bath salts and a day pass at a spa might have been more appropriate.

Isner said:

What more can you say? The guy [Mahut] is an absolute warrior. It stinks someone had to lose. To share this with him was an absolute honour. Maybe we’ll meet again somewhere down the road and it won’t be 70-68.

Mahut added:

At this moment I’m just really thankful. It was amazing today. John deserved to win. He served unbelievable. It was really an honour to play the greatest match ever at the greatest place for tennis. It was very long but I think we both enjoyed it.

Spare a thought also for Swedish umpire Mohamed Lahyani, who sat in the chair through the entire 11 hours. Three years ago, he was involved in a car accident while officiating in Shanghai when his Chinese driver fell asleep at the wheel. Lahyani suffered whiplash injuries and still receives requires treatment on his neck – a condition particularly unsuited to the work of a tennis umpire.

After the match, Lahyani said:

It has been quite amazing to be involved with such an extraordinary match. I can’t imagine seeing another one like it in my lifetime. I didn’t get a chance to feel tired, I was gripped by the amazing match and my concentration stayed good – I owed that to the players, their stamina was breath-taking and their behaviour exceptional.

When you are so focussed and every point feels like a match point you just don’t even think about eating or needing the bathroom.

On Wednesday my voice did get a little dry, but I have drunk plenty today and it feels good. I travel economy so seven hours sitting still on court is nothing.

Lahyani’s contribution to this extraordinary match was recognised by a congratulatory letter, a set of cufflinks and a club tie. Only at Wimbledon.

The debate about whether Wimbledon should introduce fifth set tie-breaks will no doubt rage for the rest of the tournament. I understand the arguments in favour of this, with concerns over the well-being of players being at the top of the list, not to mention the potential scheduling nightmare such a long match could have created in a week less blessed by fine weather than this one.

For me, the current system of tie-breaks being played at 6-6 in the first four sets, with the fifth set being played to a resolution works just fine. Long final sets which make it beyond, say, 15-15 occur once or at most twice in an average Grand Slam tournament, and provide a sporting spectacle which draws in both fans and casual viewers alike. If Isner v Mahut had finished 7-6 on a fifth set tie-break, it would have been an ordinary event, an ignored footnote in the day’s coverage. A captive audience watching on TV and at court-side would have been denied one of those legendary, once-in-a-blue-moon experiences which sport specialises in.

How would the 1966 World Cup final have been remembered if it had gone straight to penalties at the end of normal time, denying us the dispute over that goal and Kenneth Wolstenholme‘s memorable commentary, which I have shamelessly paraphrased in the title of this post? Would Federer-Roddick in last year’s final be so fondly regarded if it had been 7-6 – it would have been the third tie-break of the final – rather than 16-14 in the concluding set? Yes, both the above examples were great spectacles, but the extension of playing time at the end of both matches made both truly special.

I particularly liked this comment from the Guardian, which summed it all up for me:

This match in one fell swoop reminded people of what sport is supposed to be; intense and competitive, but also with fair play, respect, class and sportsmanship. Isner and Mahut reminded the world that winning might be important, but how one wins is even more so. Today Isner may have scored one more service break than Mahut, but they both, and sport in general, won a much grander victory. These two gentlemen returned class and respect to the field of competition with their sportsmanship, grit, determination and mutual regard for the abilities of their opponent. They were playing for the love of the game, something almost all professional athletes seem to have long ago forgot. In that sense, they won a far more tremendous victory today than simply a tennis match. In ten years, few will likely remember who won this year’s Championships. However, people will be telling their great grand children, who will tell their great grand children, about the day that sport regained its soul.

Finally, John Isner is scheduled to play Thiemo De Bakker in the second round this afternoon, who won his own first round match 16-14 in the fifth set. Settle in, it could be a long one.

Isner and Mahut court history in 10-hour Wimbledon epic

John Isner (image courtesy of Emmett Hume)

With the bulk of my attention focussed on the World Cup, I have maintained little more than a watching brief on Wimbledon so far. But what a three days it has been so far, with major upsets, near misses and perhaps the single most remarkable match in the long history of the sport in the first round tie between the American John Isner and Frenchman Nicolas Mahut.

Already during three days of gloriously sunny action, Wimbledon has witnessed the first round departure of French Open ladies’ champion Francesca Schiavone (only the second time this has ever happened. We have seen defending men’s champion Roger Federer produce a stirring recovery from two sets down against Colombian qualifier Alejandro Falla, in which Falla served for the match at 5-4 in the fourth set. Britain’s Anne Keothavong somehow contrived to lose against Anastasia Rodionova despite leading 4-0 in the final set.

The first round match between Isner, the number 23 seed, and Mahut, conqueror of British number two Alex Bogdanovic in the Wimbledon qualifying competition (in a match which went to 24-22 in the final set), looked to be nothing special on paper. Play was suspended on Tuesday evening after nearly three hours’ play had seen the pair split the first four sets. They returned yesterday afternoon to start the fifth set – and left seven hours and eight minutes later when failing light caused play to be halted with the score level at 59 games all in the final set.

Nicolas Mahut (image courtesy of Bruno Girin)

59 games all!

To the very end, an enthralled crowd packed the 782-capacity court 18, with hundreds more looking on from outside, as they will no doubt do when play recommences on the same court – what a shame that the most talked-about match of the tournament so far will not conclude on one of the show courts! – some time this afternoon. (The match is third on the scheduled order of play, presumably to give the players a fighting chance of recovery.)

The quality of play even in the final hour remained surprisingly high, although understandably there were few long rallies as both players sought to dose the little remaining energy they had left. Mahut, in fact, seemed relatively sprightly and looked by far the more likely winner, whereas Isner was slowing things down and looking heavy even as he trudged from one side of the baseline to the other between serves. But any criticism of either player would, of course, be churlish. Far better to review some of the numbers pertaining to this incredible match, which tell a story all their own.

The match has already encompassed 163 games – and will reach at least 165 (unless one player withdraws injured) – making it by far the longest match ever in terms of games played. By comparison, Serena Williams required only 146 to win all seven of her matches in claiming the ladies’ singles title last year. And the longest previous match at Wimbledon between Pancho Gonzales and Charlie Pasarell, which took place in 1969 before the introduction of tie-breaks, finished 22-24, 1-6, 16-14, 6-3, 11-9 to Gonzales, a mere trifle at 112 games.

The previous longest match in terms of duration took place at the French Open in 2004, when Fabrice Santoro beat Arnaud Clement after six hours and 33 minutes. Isner v Mahut currently weighs in at nine hours and 57 minutes, with the final set at seven hours and eight minutes and counting – more than half an hour longer than the entire Santoro v Clement match. This also makes the match longer than the shortest completed cricket Test match on record, which according to Cricinfo required just 537 minutes of playing time.

Isner has served a total of 98 aces; Mahut 95. Both have smashed the previous record of 78 aces in a single match, achieved by Ivo Karlovic in a Davis Cup tie in 2009.

At the end of an exhausting day, both players gave their views on the match, fully aware that we will probably never see anything like it again.

Mahut said:

We’re fighting like we have never done before. We’ll come back tomorrow and see who is going to win this match. Everyone wants to see the end.

Isner added:

He’s serving fantastic. I’m serving fantastic. Nothing like this will ever happen again.

Whoever wins tomorrow will eventually play Holland’s Thiemo De Bakker in the second round. His first round match only required him to play for just over four hours before outlasting Santiago Giraldo 16-14 in the fifth set.

No doubt those who are concerned about tournament logistics or the adverse impact such a long match would have on a player’s ability to recover for subsequent rounds will see this as an argument for introducing final set tie-breaks at Wimbledon. I say: who cares? This match has been brilliant to watch and has, at least briefly, elevated two lesser-known players to virtual demigod status. In seeing both Isner and Mahut continue to battle on in the face of numbing, shattering fatigue, it has given the world the kind of spectacle that shows us just how special top-flight sports – and the people who play them – can be. Give me that over our whining, complaining “I’m so bored, I’ve got nothing to do in the afternoon after training, oh woe is me!” World Cup footballers any day …

The week in numbers: w/e 6/6/10

10 – Number of wickets lost by Bangladesh in the final session of the second day of the second Test at Old Trafford, having reached 96/0 at tea. Only ten wickets had been lost in the five preceding sessions.

8 – Bangladesh’s defeats to England at Lord’s and Old Trafford in the last seven days mean they have now lost all eight Test matches between the two countries.

0 – Total number of minutes played at the 2006 and 2010 World Cup finals by Arsenal forward Theo Walcott, who has been the main focus of media attention because of his selection/non-selection for the England squad for both competitions.

28.7 – Average age of England’s World Cup squad, the oldest of the 32 countries in the tournament. (The youngest squad is Ghana, with an average age of 24.1 years.)

23Roger Federer‘s quarter-final defeat to Robin Soderling at the French Open ended a streak of 23 consecutive Grand Slam singles tournaments where he had reached at least the semi-final.

97.4% – Win percentage of Rafael Nadal in French Open singles matches (won 38, lost one). His only defeat came at the hands of Soderling, his victim in yesterday’s final, in last year’s fourth round.

0 – Total number of Grand Slam singles titles for the four ladies’ singles semi-finalists at the French Open (Elena Dementieva, Francesca Schiavone, Jelena Jankovic and Sam Stosur) prior to this tournament, guaranteeing the final would be contested by two players seeking their first Grand Slam victory. (Schiavone beat Stosur in straight sets in the final, incidentally.)

351,000,000 – In pounds, the current size of Liverpool FC‘s debt.

16,000,000 – In theory, the amount in pounds due to former manager Rafa Benitez according to the terms of his contract. He is reported to have settled for a £6m severance deal. Nice work if you can get it.

23 – Liverpool scored 23 points fewer (63) in finishing seventh in the 2009/10 Premier League season than they did as runners-up the previous year (86). Coincidentally, they also finished 23 points behind champions Chelsea, having been just four behind Manchester United in 2008/9.

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