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Talking Points 2009
 
 
 
The greatest hoax of all time?
You may have heard that the United States Tennis Association (USTA) was supplied with renewable energy certificates (RECs) to match its electricity consumption during the 2009 US Open. By buying verified RECs, the USTA made a bold statement about its commitment to the cause of environment-friendly renewable electricity generation. But could it be that, along with many other businesses and individuals, they are guilty of being a shade disingenuous about this supposed investment?

I happen to believe the case for anthropogenic global warming (AGW) is riddled with inconsistencies, contradictions and apocryphal findings. But I'm going against the consensus. I'm a denier, a wacky conspiracy theorist. You can just ignore my views if you don't like them. It may well be that the notion of AGW as a flawed hypothesis is heresy to you. It could be that such a thought has never flashed subliminally across your mind even for a nanosecond. If that's so, then you are a paragon of great faith and need not concern yourself with these feeble misgivings.

But won't you concede at least a flicker, a soupcon of doubt? The mountain of money toppling precariously on the AGW hypothesis is vulnerable to such doubts. Every hint of distrust threatens to undermine it. Al Gore and co are running scared. Small wonder. We could be witnessing global fraud of apocalyptic proportions.

Climate change evangelist Al Gore is chairman of a carbon trading firm called Generation Investment Management. He, and others, are making utterly mind-boggling sums of money out of our naive inclination to trust politicians and scientists who may be complicit in the greatest hoax of all time. And when the rapidly expanding carbon trading market collapses, forget subprime mortgages - this will be right off the scale!

Since the carbon trading system is demonstrably failing to reduce emissions in Europe, its rationale is evaporating into the upper atmosphere along with all the CO2. Given that companies find it cheaper to buy carbon credits than to actually reduce emissions and given that they buy them from those who were allocated too many in the first place, it is hardly surprising that the entire scheme is in jeopardy. To make matters worse, companies are also avoiding cutting emissions by financing "green" projects in the developing world. These "carbon offsets" are effectively a licence to pollute beyond agreed limits, on the supposition that reductions will be made elsewhere sometime in the future! Those who labour under the misapprehension that carbon offset projects are motivated by altruism may be interested to know that they are often merely land grabs resulting in either exploitation or displacement of indigenous peoples. In 2002, for example, the Uganda Wildlife Authority evicted more than 300 families from the Mount Elgon area and destroyed their homes and crops in preparation for a reforestation project. Offsets and RECs are a shabby figleaf for businesses embarrassed about their failure to make real reductions in their consumption of "dirty" energy.

For now, this artificial trading system continues to thrive as a mechanism for redistributing wealth among companies and traders. Indeed, if Barack Obama succeeds in pushing his carbon trading bill through the Senate early next year, it could easily become a $2 trillion market within ten years. Complex financial instruments (futures and other derivatives) are being devised in order to increase speculative profit, inflating the "carbon bubble". A market in which money chases intangible or bogus assets is doomed to failure.

Of course we must address the issue of dwindling finite resources, but there are better and more sensible ways of protecting the planet than allowing this madness to go unchecked. The carbon bubble is growing bigger and getting more pear-shaped all the time. The sooner we prick it and dismantle the associated markets, the better.

Dave Winship (9 November 2009)

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Le Miserable
Andre Agassi
Andre Agassi's reputation will be tarnished but not destroyed by the crystal methamphetamine revelations. A little controversy always helps to drive up sales of an imminent autobiography. The majority of those who are currently dismayed by Agassi's dabbling in drugs (and alarmed about his lying) will end up reflecting on his subsequent metamorphosis and they will judge in the Las Vegan's favour. They may even applaud the candour with which he has catalogued his mistakes. Andy Murray's response is probably typical. "I judge him as a tennis player," the Scot told reporters. "He was great, one of the best of all time. No one wants drugs in sport but everyone makes mistakes. I don't think any of the players expected it but you've just got to move on. I loved Andre, met him numerous times. He was unbelievably nice to me. I practised with him quite a lot. I guess it's something he has to deal with himself. He's entitled to say whatever he wants and I wish him the best."

Nevertheless, if Agassi is the Jean Valjean of tennis, there are those who are willing to pursue him with all the relentlessness of an Inspector Jalvert. One such is Wada director general David Howman, who immediately expressed his determination to bring Agassi to book. "He's obviously lied and he lied under oath," he said. "I think that warrants further investigation to see whether there might be any other charges. We all know about Marion Jones - she lied to a tribunal. It can't just be one of those things you get away with. The second issue is: he had a lawyer represent him. Does his lawyer know that he was lying? Maybe something can be done in relation to that."

The ATP's reputation will not suffer any more than it has already suffered over doping scandals. ATP officials were either guilty of colossal naivety in accepting Agassi's claims that he consumed a spiked drink or they were guilty of a cover up as astonishing as the American's ponytail wig. But time has moved on and so has responsibility for doping issues. The ATP's self-policing programme was known to be inadequate at the time of Agassi's misdeamours in 1997. It was two years before the inception of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and drug testing systems were riddled with more loopholes than a tennis net. Eventually, in 2006, the International Tennis Federation embraced the WADA code and took over responsibility for anti-doping matters on behalf of the players' associations. The ATP was finally relieved of a burden that threatened to crush it.

The reputation most vulnerable to damage by Agassi's revelations is the reputation of tennis itself. Sponsors and fans are entitled to ask how many more, like Agassi, are bluffing and lying their way out of trouble? Perhaps, for the sake of the integrity of the sport, Inspector Javert must succeed in getting his man.

Dave Winship (3 November 2009)

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Getting too close to the players?
Today's top players devote considerable time to honing their technique. But I'm not just talking about stroke production. Media relations is very much on the curriculum for anyone aspiring to make their way on one of the pro tours. Fans once contented themselves with the privilege of being able to watch the world's best players showcasing their tennis skills. Not any longer. The watching public is developing an appetite for more than just tennis. An exhibition of dazzling strokes and athleticism is all very well, but, apparently, it doesn't reveal enough about the human being, unless, like Marat Safin or Serena Williams, the frustrations of competition give rise to visible lapses of composure. The media has responded to this by sticking microphones and cameras in players' faces at every conceivable opportunity. We have pre-match interviews right before the players step out on court (can you smell any nervousness)? We have post-match interviews conducted courtside while the emotion is still raw and the conditions are perfect for an unguarded remark or two (will they say something stupid?).

When on-court interviews burst onto our screens, players quickly adapted by offering standardised answers to predictable, generic questions like "how do you feel?". At this year's Australian Open, however, it was clear that television was prepared to up the ante by provoking the players. Alicia Molik, one of Channel 7's team of former players, greeted Jelena Dokic with "give me a hug, girl!" directly after one of her wins. Rivalling Molik in the cringe stakes, Jim Courier donned a Muhammad Ali mask in an interview with Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who, yes, bears a passing resemblance to the boxing legend. You can see where all this is heading. Another step closer to car crash TV.

Dokic and Tsonga have been around pro tennis long enough to handle such provocation with their dignity intact, but how long will it be before standards slip further, exposing the vulnerability of a less savvy player? We must curb the extent to which the media panders to public fascination. An on-court interview is an unjustifiable invasion of a tennis player's personal space.

Dave Winship (8 October 2009)

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Peer pressure
Shahar Peer
I'm sure Stacey Allaster is delighted with her appointment as chairman and chief executive of the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour but she's probably less than elated with the timing. Having to steer through a recession when your organisation's buoyancy relies on sponsorship is not an enviable prospect.

Even if she navigates her way through the rough economic waters ahead, Allaster will do well to avoid the iceberg represented by the 2010 Dubai Tennis Championships. In February, Israeli player, Shahar Peer, was denied a visa and the opportunity to compete in the tournament.

There were howls of protest, but, to be fair, many of them subsided to whimpers when players were
"disappointing"
challenged to support Peer by boycotting the event. Kudos to Andy Roddick, however. The defending champion pulled out of the men's event, explaining: "I really didn't agree with what went on over there. I don't know if it's the best thing to mix politics and sports, and that was probably a big part of it. It's just disappointing that reflects on a tournament that probably didn't have much to do with the decision. Nevertheless, I just don't feel like there's a need for that in a sporting event. I don't think you make political statements through sports." The Tennis Channel also made a stand, refusing to televise the event.

The WTA imposed a $300,000 fine on the Championships and ensured Peer and her doubles partner were compensated. Allaster's predecessor, Larry Scott, also issued a strongly worded public rebuke. "The Sony Ericsson WTA Tour believes very strongly, and has a clear rule and policy, that no host country should deny a player the right to compete at a tournament for which she has qualified by ranking," he said. Despite the slap on the wrist, many people in the game interpreted Scott's decision as feckless capitulation, severely weakening the integrity of the Tour.

So far, Allaster has been making the right sort of threatening noises. "We will not have another player on the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour discriminated against in our future," she insisted recently. "Certainly, the Dubai situation was most unfortunate for everyone, particularly Shahar, and all of our athletes and the sport itself." She speaks of the Dubai government providing "firm commitments" that Peer will be granted a visa next year and is unequivocal about the consequences if they fail to do so. "Certainly, if they don't make good on that promise, I can tell you that we will not have a Dubai tournament there in 2010."

So when the time comes, we will not expect to find Allaster rearranging the deck chairs.

Dave Winship (20 August 2009)

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Kissing goodbye to Mr Scrupulous Guy
Pamela, Pamela,
Remember the days...
(with apologies to Graham Gouldman)

Pamela, Pamela. Remember the days when the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) insisted on the principle of strict liability? When an athlete was deemed strictly liable for substances found in his or her bodily specimen? When an anti-doping violation was deemed to have occurred irrespective of whether the athlete intended the consequences of his actions or even foresaw them? Remember when ITF president Francesco Ricci Bitti launched the new Anti-Doping Programme with assurances that it was "fully compliant" with the WADA code? Well, we've kissed goodbye to Mr Scrupulous Guy. Or, rather, Gasquet has (literally).

Having tested positive for cocaine, Richard Gasquet faced a career-threatening two-year ban under the WADA code, but escaped with little more than a slap on the wrist when a tribunal accepted his defence that the trace amounts of cocaine had entered his system when he kissed a woman, identified only as Pamela, in a Miami nightclub.

Gasquet's indiscretion forced him to miss out on Wimbledon, but perhaps we should spare a thought for another SW19 absentee. Two years ago, five-time Grand Slam champion Martina Hingis tested positive for cocaine - again only a trace, significantly less, in fact, than the amount in Gasquet's specimen. Declining to "take on this doping machinery", Hingis quit tennis for a second time. Under the conditions of her ban, she still isn't allowed to attend a Grand Slam event, even as a spectator. Like Gasquet, Hingis vigorously denied taking the drug and, like Gasquet, may well have been a victim of inadvertent doping. How must she feel now?

We might think Gasquet should be expected to avoid compromising situations, but few people believe he is a calculating drugs cheat. Rescinding his ban might therefore appear fair. But tell that to Martina Hingis and tell it to the other sports federations that are now wrestling with the flood gates. Will we see any more draconian doping bans in tennis? Or has Gasquet paved the way for ever more creative excuses and are lawyers the world over now chasing urine samples as well as ambulances?

Dave Winship (22 July 2009)

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Making a big noise
Michelle Larcher de Brito
When 16-year-old Portuguese phenomenon Michelle Larcher de Brito is unleashed on the British tennis-watching public at the end of this month, it's likely that a media furore will ensue. If she wins a match or two, there's a risk that the media attention devoted to her banshee-like shrieks and grunts could derail the impressive progress of this highly promising Nick Bolletieri protege. When Nick is happy with her serves, groundstrokes and volleys, it is essential that he prepares her for the media onslaught.

When Larcher de Brito came up against 22-year-old Frenchwoman Aravane Rezai in the third round at Roland Garros, Rezai complained to the chair umpire about the noise issuing from her opponent's throat. She asked for the referee who duly informed the teenager that she was distracting Rezai. No further action was taken, Rezai won the match and an unrepentant Larcher de Brito dismissed the complaint in a post-match interview: "You know, when she [Rezai] was winning, she never complained. Only when I started to get my game going, I started winning games, then all of a sudden, you know, my noise is a nuisance ... I mean, I could [stop grunting], but, you know, it won't feel natural, because it feels like something is missing in my game if I just stop." As the red dust settled, you could almost hear the sound of knives being sharpened.

When Larcher de Brito contends that there is no rule against grunting she is being just
"legalised cheating"
a little disingenuous. She will be well aware that making loud noises of any description may result in a player falling foul of the hindrance rule. Umpires and referees, however, have been reluctant to adjudicate on such matters, prompting some commentators to urge players to make a stand. Former Wimbledon finalist Judy Dalton said of Maria Sharapova a couple of years ago: "If that was me and I was playing Sharapova, I would be saying, 'If you continue with that, you can have the match - I'll walk off and I'll lodge a complaint'. The other girls should say, 'Fine, I'll forfeit the match'. They can only forfeit so many matches and that might get the message across." Dalton agrees with John Newcombe and Martina Navratilova that grunting is sometimes used as a deliberate tactic to prevent an opponent from hearing the sound of the ball on racket. "It's actually what I consider legalised cheating," Newcombe argues, "because one of your great senses that you have on a tennis court is your ability to hear the ball come off your opponent's strings."

Bolletieri's Florida academy has produced more than its fair share of graduates whose booming forehands have been matched by booming exhalations. As well as Sharapova, Monica Seles and Nicole Vaidisova immediately spring to mind. Seles registered 93.2 decibels on the gruntometer at Wimbledon in 1992, prompting such an avalanche of negative publicity that she famously relented for the final against Steffi Graf - and lost. Bolletieri denies encouraging his students to exhale noisily when they strike the ball. "Never once has that entered into my mind," he insists. "But I believe releasing your energy is good because if you don't, it tightens up the body."

Sport scientists and coaches may or may not advocate noisy exhalation to assist the release of chi energy. Players may or may not use it as a deliberate ploy to hinder an opponent. What is certain, however, is that those who have developed the habit find it extremely difficult to stop. Prevention is always better than cure. As far as Michelle Larcher de Brito is concerned, people may just have to accept it's already too late for her to change.

Dave Winship (3 June 2009)

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Retractable roof, retractable agreement?
The Lawn Tennis Association (LTA) and the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club (AELTC) have worked in tandem since 1922 with the AELTC concentrating on running the Wimbledon Championships and the LTA, as the national governing body, taking responsibility for developing the sport at all levels nationwide. Under the terms of a new agreement, the LTA will secure 90% of the Wimbledon surplus from 2013 until at least 2053 in return for selling its 50% share of the company that owns the Wimbledon tennis site and facilities. Last year, the LTA received 25.7m from the Championships. From 2013, under the terms of the new agreement, it can expect this to increase to well over 55m. "This proposal benefits both The Championships and the development of tennis in Britain," said Tim Phillips, chairman of the AELTC.

But can the LTA be trusted to nurture the development of tennis in Britain these days? When Roger Draper took over as chief executive three years ago, eye-watering amounts of money immediately disappeared in an effort to secure the services of top coaches like Brad Gilbert, Peter Lundgren, Paul Annacone, Carl Maes and sports science expert Anne Quinn. Much to Draper's chagrin, it appears that you cannot simply buy these people's services anyway. Gilbert, Lundgren and Maes have all parted ways with the LTA and Quinn is 10,000 miles away in her native Australia, apparently unable to obtain a new visa. This unhappy exodus suggests something is definitely rotten in the state of Roehampton these days.

A few years ago, when my son was endeavouring to work his way up the junior ranks, the cost of his coaching and travel to tournaments nearly bankrupted our family. A recent newspaper article written by Mark Petchey, Andy Murray's former coach, therefore struck a chord with us. "The travel to tournaments is a constant barrier for all parents and for many low-income families an obstacle too far," he wrote. "The cost of coaching and travel, whether to a club or tournament, is the single biggest factor holding back British tennis and not enough is being done to improve the situation for parents. I speak to too many parents whose kids enter events only to have them cancelled because of a lack of entries. These conversations are not figments of my imagination. These children are our tennis future and there are not enough of them competing at the frequency or level they need to."

Having unveiled the new retractable roof over Centre Court, perhaps the AELTC should take retractability a step further and make funding conditional on the LTA achieving targets in all aspects of the game's development nationally. If they can't take care of the grass roots of the game, leave the LTA out in the rain for a bit and let some worthy entrepreneurs like David Lloyd bid for a slice of the pie.

Dave Winship (23 April 2009)

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Murray joins clamour for malaria eradication
I know some people disapprove of charities because they breed dependency. And if we give to charities, so another argument goes, governments may renege on their basic responsibility to use tax and aid revenues to take care of those who can't take care of themselves. Personally, I don't always trust governments to make sound decisions about "worthy causes" and I'm often uncomfortable when my contribution to the Exchequer is spent on causes I don't approve of. Even if I trusted my government to look after the needy and allocate funds responsibly, I would still want to be able to express my philanthropy in my own way. It's just part of being human.

Nevertheless,
"we can radically change this"
I'm not in the habit of using these pages to cajole people into parting with their hard-earned cash in support of this or that deserving cause. I'm making an exception for Malaria No More, a non-profit, non-governmental organisation that has recently courted the support of Britain's Andy Murray amongst a host of other sports personalities. "This is the first global charity I've been involved with in this capacity and it was an easy decision," the Scot explained. "Malaria is completely preventable and stoppable but yet it still kills more children in Africa than any other single disease. We can radically change this. It is a huge opportunity and I'm urging the UK public to help save a life and get behind Malaria No More UK, a truly world-changing and life-saving initiative."

The disease is endemic in over a hundred countries, threatening 50% of the world's population. It claims almost a million lives every year in Africa (one child every 30 seconds). Ironically, as Murray points out, malaria is an easily preventable and treatable disease and a concerted humanitarian investment could make a huge impact on so many people's lives and livelihoods. And it could be done quickly and cheaply. If you want to learn more about Malaria No More or make a donation, please visit the Malaria No More website.

Malaria No More

Dave Winship (21 April 2009)

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Is WADA in violation of the Fourth Amendment?
The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution protects its citizens from violations of privacy, asserting that "the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated ... but upon probable cause." This principle has been adopted by most democracies to ensure that the exercise of state power may not extend to harassing an individual without evidence of wrongdoing.

The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) may not be strictly bound by the text of the Fourth Amendment but it should probably avoid blatantly flouting the spirit of its wisdom. The agency is currently under fire for introducing a "whereabouts" system that requires athletes to give three months' notice of their location in respect of one hour each day - seven days a week, between 6 a.m. and 11 p.m. American hurdler Lolo Jones joined the chorus of dissenting voices by complaining: "Maybe in the future they will find a tag they can put on us like dogs have." WADA says it has taken legal advice confirming that the new rules are within the provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights, but a group of 65 athletes in Belgium has started court proceedings to challenge that interpretation. High-profile tennis players Rafael Nadal, Serena Williams and Andy Murray have been among those outspoken in their criticism of the system. Williams has described the rules as "over the top" and "invasive", while Nadal has objected to players being treated "like criminals."

WADA insists it has been forced to introduce the changes because many illegal substances can become untraceable within 24 hours. In-competition controls are clearly inadequate. Doping has become more sophisticated and athletes who dope during training can now be confident that all traces are gone before competition. The honest majority now have to live with the consequences of the appalling behaviour of a minority of cheats. And short-notice and out-of-competition testing is the only way to catch them. WADA's actions have the backing of International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge. "WADA has a good attitude to say that on the principle they will not budge," Rogge said recently. "The principle of the whereabouts is important and I believe that. Without whereabouts you cannot have out-of-competition testing."

Britain's 400 metres champion Christine Ohuruogu, who was banned for a year in 2006 after missing three random drugs tests, has joined Jacques Rogge in support of WADA's rules. "They [Nadal, Murray, etc] might not like it but that's what we have had to put up with," said the Olympic gold medallist. "I sympathise with them. I can understand for them it will be a huge change and adjustment to their daily lives. But we have to do it. We have been saying for some time that other sports have to fall into line ... My view is that we do need something in place. If that's the best they can come up with then so be it and that's what we are going to have to adhere to."

But is it the best they can come up with? Surely it's too easy for athletes to fall foul of the rules unintentionally? Christine Ohuruogu might take an uncompromising line now, but she is sensible and pragmatic enough to concede: "We are athletes but we are also human, with human fallibilities. Sometimes things don't always go to plan. You get flustered and you forget where you're supposed to be." Quite. If athletes make last-minute changes to their arrangements or are less than punctilious with the data they input, they could well have a strike against them. American doubles star Mike Bryan revealed he is already carrying two strikes. "It's a little scary," he said after missing the testers when he went out for an early breakfast near his home in Camarillo, California. "I don't know what they are going to do to me if I get three. I know I'm clean, and I know I'm getting screwed by the system a little bit."

A system that punishes the careless as much as the culpable is a system in need of an urgent review. And then there's those human rights considerations. As Spanish Sports Minister Jaime Lissavetzky pointed out at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg: "Where is the middle point between what is the fight against doping and what are human rights? This is the debate." A WADA tester visited Andy Murray at his home a few days after his elimination from the Australian Open. The Scot's account of that meeting adds fuel to the flames of protest. "I woke up not really knowing where I was and suffering badly from jet lag," he said. "The official who came to my home wanted me to produce identification to prove who I was. He insisted on watching me provide a sample, literally with my trousers round my ankles, and then insisted that I wrote down my own address, even though he was at my private home at 7 a.m." How happy would you be to advertise your whereabouts to someone who perpetrates such an intrusion?

Surely WADA can find a way of beating the drugs cheats without resorting to such excessive rigour? In the face of all the criticisms, however, WADA director general David Howman has blasted back. "If there are justifiable technical complaints, we'll listen," he said. "Don't ask me on Feb. 17, ask me on Dec. 31. We have to see how the changes pan out." WADA cannot afford to filter out everything except "technical" complaints. That heavy-handed approach will not cut it with international sports federations. It's imperative that Howman gets them (and the honest majority of athletes) on board well before December 31. As Mardy Fish says: "As someone who is clean and has nothing to hide you can test me whenever you want, but give us a little bit of leeway or respect."

Dave Winship (25 February 2009)

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"Golliwog" gaffe reveals thin skins
After filming the BBC's 'The One Show' last Thursday, Carol Thatcher had a conversation with presenter Adrian Chiles about the Australian Open, during which the daughter of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher referred to a player who had just been knocked out of the men's singles draw as resembling a "golliwog". One or more of those present reported her to BBC bosses and Thatcher was promptly axed from the show.

Thatcher's agent launched a stinging attack on the BBC for 'condoning' the leaking of a private conversation. Setting aside that particular issue and the implication that this kind of offence is deemed less significant if it takes place in private, the incident raises the question of whether such language is seriously racist per se. It seems to me that Carol Thatcher has been punished not for being actually racist but for using language that people who are considered racist might use. Is offence taken necessarily offence given?

If someone uses language that has racist connotations, it can and should be challenged. If that were not the case, societies would risk being infected with the racist attitudes that have blighted our past by engendering discrimination and even violence. But surely we should try to maintain some perspective here? Surely, common sense dictates that it's not so much what is said, but how it is said. In other words, it's a question of intent. If Carol Thatcher had no intention of demeaning anyone by her remark, then she is guilty of no more than an unwitting offence. And in my view, it is perverse to take offence where none is intended.

Ironically, since Carole Thatcher made her gaffe, the word "golliwog" has doubtless been repeated a million times in the media. The BBC has grossly over-reacted to this. How long before the corporation starts orchestrating a public burning of books like Mark Twain's 'Adventures of Hucklebury Finn'? Never mind fair-skinned or dark-skinned, when did we become so thin-skinned?

Dave Winship (6 February 2009)

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Don't think of the colour blue!
Bouncing the ball excessively before serving, abuse of injury timeouts and bathroom breaks, aggressive fist-pumping, excessive use of rituals and frivolous Hawkeye challenges. These are just a few examples of the myriad on-court antics that have become ubiquitous on today's professional tennis circuit. Not that it's necessarily a recent phenomenon. Gamesmanship - the art of winning by questionable means without actually breaking rules - has always been around in tennis. If Ilie Nastase and Jimmy Connors are often cited as the first exponents of this dubious "art", it's only because their attempts to change the momentum of matches by intimidating officials and shamelessly disrupting an opponent's rhythm and concentration were more overt than those of their predecessors.

John McEnroe's outbursts of boorish behaviour in the early 1980s provoked a media frenzy and challenged the whole ethos of sporting engagement. In a recent interview, Pat Cash illustrated what it was like to be on the other side of the net: "Playing him (McEnroe), you always knew that something was going to happen, that he'd throw his racket or whatever. And while he was doing that you'd be at the back of the court muttering: 'Don't lose concentration'. But that was like saying: 'Don't think of the colour blue'. You know he's trying to break your concentration, and meanwhile he's done it." At first, officials and custodians of the game reacted with no more than ineffectual huffiness and failed to stamp it out. But, eventually, the status quo was restored (McEnroe was defaulted at the 1990 Australian Open). Since that time, the ITF has become more attuned to the need to enforce standards of behaviour. Unfortunately, however, those who indulge in gamesmanship have made their own adjustments to the moving of the disciplinary goalposts. And the dance goes on.

Obviously, to an extent, gamesmanship is an integral part of competition, a facet of sport psychology, a demonstration of ingenuity, craft and cunning. Most of us have some sympathy for that point of view. I'll happily lob into the sun or fake a poaching move. I'll move right up to the service line to receive serve because it might put a question mark in the mind of my opponent. But I won't make retaliatory questionable calls or indulge in trash talk. That's just my particular take on it. If it's not explicitly covered in the rules of the competition we're engaged in, acceptable sporting behaviour comes down to personal interpretation. Increasingly, especially in the world of professional sport, those interpretations are aligned precariously right up against the boundaries of rule infringement.

Respect for the 'spirit of the game' has eroded irrevocably. And this extends beyond sport. How many people wrestle with their consciences these days before bending rules to gain an advantage in their lives? How many these days would unfalteringly echo Sophocles' words: "I would prefer even to fail with honour than to win by cheating"? A moot point indeed.

So when competitors are pushing at the rules like never before, governing bodies of all sports must prove themselves equal to the task of ensuring fairness. This is not a time for irresolute and faint-hearted umpiring. Unfortunately, there has been evidence of frailty recently. Racket-smashing has often gone unpunished in recent months and many a blind eye has been turned to time-wasting antics. Firmer umpiring will not make players nicer or more sporting, but it will offer some protection to those who, like Pat Cash, are trying desperately not to think of the colour blue when an opponent sets out to distract them.

Dave Winship (7 January 2009)

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© 2009 Dave Winship

 
 
 
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