April 15, 2010
Posted: 1603 GMT
The tennis season is nearly four months old and little appears to have changed in the established order at the top of the men's game.
Roger Federer won the first grand slam of the season with a straight sets victory over Andy Murray, while Rafael Nadal is slowly working his way back to his best form and watch for him on the clay at Roland Garros.
But this was supposed to be the year when one of the young pretenders such as Murray, Juan Martin Del Potro and Novak Djokovic finally stepped up to the plate and ushered in a new era of dominance.
Murray's recent disastrous form is the most perplexing, crashing out in the quarters at Indian Wells, losing his Miami Masters crown, followed by a disastrous opening match defeat at the Monte Carlo Masters, three straight losses, his worst run since 2006.
The Scot, refreshingly honest, described his loss to Philipp Kohlschreiber as "rubbish" but instead of moving up the rankings he is going in the opposite direction.
While doubts remain over several aspects of Murray's game, noticeably his second serve, the same could be said about Djokovic, who told CNN's Open Court that he wanted to be world number one then promptly lost early at Indian Wells and Miami.
A successful defense of his Dubai Open crown is a slim return in 2010 to date and the popular Serbian has reacted by parting company with one of his coaches, Todd Martin, who was reportedly hired to remodel his service.
By a quirk of the rankings, Djokovic has risen to world number two, but has failed to add to his sole grand slam triumph at the Australian Open in 2008 after which he promised to sweep all before him.
To be fair to Del Potro, the lanky Argentine has been troubled by a wrist injury, but it could not be used as an excuse for his quarterfinal defeat to Marin Cilic at the Australian Open.
Having inflicted a rare grand slam final reverse on Roger Federer at the U.S. Open last September, the force appeared to be with him, but like all the challengers to the Swiss maestro, their efforts have petered out.
Even Nadal, who reduced Fed to tears of frustration on his way to a hat-trick of grand slams in 2008, has been halted in his tracks by nasty knee injuries which reduced him to a pale shadow of his former self.
Which leaves Federer, who now seems to care little about tournaments outside the grand slams, but reserves his best for when it really matters, like the semifinals and finals of this year's Australian Open.
With 16 grand slams and counting, he could afford to rest on his laurels, but while his challengers offer such an inconsistent threat the 28-year-old is making hay while the sun still shines.
It's just a pity that Murray and Djokovic in particular seem incapable of matching their incredible talent with grand slams while the likes of Andy Roddick have been scarred by too many defeats at the hands of super-Fed.
December 20, 2009
Posted: 2014 GMT
Sympathy has been almost universal for sacked Manchester City manager Mark Hughes and it is clear that the club's Abu Dhabi backers are taking a huge gamble turning to Roberto Mancini, who has no experience in English club management and will be given precious little time to adapt.
It's a gamble because Mancini has been out of the game for almost a year after departing Inter, having won three Serie A titles but failing to make an impression in the Champions League.
It's a gamble because they are presumably entrusting him with more millions in the January transfer window to shore up a leaky back four and make a final push for a Champions League place.
It's a gamble because several of the players who have flourished under Hughes, such as Shay Given and Craig Bellamy, are clearly in open revolt over the manner of his dismissal.
And it's a gamble because most expected Hughes to be given until the end of the season and if he failed to be replaced by Guus Hiddink, or even Jose Mourinho, both of whom with a track record in the English Premier League.
Admittedly, his critics will say Hughes had enough time at City and had been bankrolled to the tune of $200 million to deliver results, but even the most hard-hearted must agree that the City board grossly mishandled his departure.
Because even by comparison with other disgraceful sackings, and I have in mind the treatment afforded to Martin Jol at Tottenham, this was shabby in the extreme and showed a distinct lack of "class" by the City board.
Hughes has quickly broken his silence to reveal that he had no real idea he was on his way, despite the media speculation, and was "extremely disappointed."
I suspect that's an understatement and the suspicion that Mancini had been lined up for several weeks must leave a sour taste in his month.
Other managers, even Arsene Wenger, who refused to shake his hand after City had denied his side a place in the English League Cup semifinals, have expressed their opposition to the sacking.
Hardly surprising because turkeys don't vote for Christmans and managerial solidarity remains strong in the topsy-turvy world of the Premier League, but there is a feeling that this is a sacking too far and will lead to fresh doubts about the role of "foreign" owners in English football.
It will be hardly reassuring to Mancini that he will have to deliver results in double quick time and if Hughes had some advice for the suave Italian it would be don't believe a word the owners tell you.
According to Hughes, he was set a target of finishing in the top six and Saturday's win – admittedly only the second in 11 Premier League games with a raft of draws – had left them in sixth.
Add the small matter of the League Cup and the chance of winning silverware for the first time since 1976 and it is easy to see why Mancini has a mighty task on his hands to satisfy a group of businessman who view footballing success as a commodity which can be bought.
They're wrong, of course, and might do well to heed words of advice from the great Alex Ferguson, who has steered City's neighbors to trophy after trophy for two decades and has often warned that money does not guarantee succcess.
"The art of management is building a team with balance, with certain characteristics that blend with each other," said Fergie on 2008. Quite.
October 26, 2009
Posted: 2126 GMT
By one of those strange coincidences that happen so often in sport, both Valentino Rossi and Sebastien Loeb wrapped up their respective world titles on the same day, making no mistake with the sort of assured performances which have marked their remarkable careers.
MotoGP ace Rossi was winning his seventh title in motorcycling's premier class and his second in succession, Loeb made it sixth straight world rallying crowns, an all-time record.
Both had to endure significant challenges during the course of the season, Loeb from Ford Focus ace Mikko Hirvonen, Rossi from his Yamaha teammate Jorge Lorenzo.
And both showed their incredible winning mentality when it mattered the most, with Loeb having to relegate Hirvonen to second place in the season-ending Wales Rally GB to leapfrog the Finn in the final standings.
Rossi wrapped up his title with a race to spare, needing to finish fourth in Sepang to clinch it, he claimed the final podium spot behind Australian Casey Stoner, keepng Lorenzo one place behind him.
It is a feature of great champions that when the question is asked they come up with the answer and both Rossi and Loeb have solved puzzles a plenty to stay at the top.
But are they the greatest of all-time in their respective sports ?
Statistically, Loeb has few peers, with his 54 wins a world rally record, but questions have to be asked about the overall competitiveness of the championship in recent years with this year's title race effectively a two-horse race between the Citroen and Ford teams.
Rallying fans may well point to the merits of the great Finns Tommi Makinen, Juha Kankunen and Marcus Gronholm while Spain's Carlos Sainz had few peers. Throw into the mix the late and much-missed flying Scot Colin McRae and there is room for much-debate.
Who do you think is the greatest rally driver of all time ?
In the same vein, Rossi has been a winning machine with nine world championships from 125 cc to MotoGP, but his fellow-Italian Giacomo Agostini is the all-time record holder with 122 grand prix wins and 15 world championships.
Australian Mick Doohan won five successive world 500cc championships and was totally dominant in the 1990s, while flamboyant British ace Mike Hailwood
So who is the ultimate maestro on two wheels ?
October 25, 2009
Posted: 1706 GMT
Just when the critics were writing them off, Liverpool produced a performance of such passion and intensity it left defending English Premier League champions Manchester United looking very much second best.
The 2-0 scoreline at Anfield did not flatter Rafa Benitez's battlers who were desperate to avoid a fifth straight defeat which would have left the Spaniard staring down the barrel.
For sure, United can feel a little hard done by that Jamie Carragher was not dismissed for cynically pulling back his old teammate Michael Owen as he chased a late equalizer, but they did not deserve a share of the spoils after a lackluster display.
Going into the match, all the questions were over Liverpool's supposed frailties and over-reliance on Steven Gerrard and the magnificent Fernando Torres.
By the finish, United's own weaknesses were exposed, with the below-par form of Rio Ferdinand, exposed for the Torres opener for Liverpool, and their over-reliance on Wayne Rooney, who for once looked off the pace and received little support from Dimitar Berbatov.
Only the late introduction of Owen, who set up Antonio Valencia for a shot which thumped the crossbar, gave edge to their attack and the departures of Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez may well be a factor by season's end.
Liverpool could even do without the injured Gerrard but with inspired by their fanatical fans, rightly described by Benitez as their "12th man" showed enough to suggest that they will be a factor in the title race.
And what a title race we have in prospect, surely the most open for many seasons?
Chelsea have taken advantage to lead the standings after 10 rounds, but United will not give up their crown easily while Arsenal are looking a growing threat.
Liverpool are established members of the top four, but throw into the mix the financial muscle of Manchester City and the nuisance value of the likes of Tottenham Hotspur and Aston Villa and it has all the ingredients of a classic season.
Who do you think will emerge as the Premier League top dogs come next May ?
October 14, 2009
Posted: 1000 GMT
Maradona, despite his god-like footballing status in his homeland, has placed the national football team, an almost sacred entity in itself among the loyal fans of Argentinean soccer, in something of a mess.
Argentina have failed to reach the World Cup just once - after a draw against Peru in a qualifer for the 1970 finals in Mexico - and history nearly repeated itself this weekend.
Once again, a draw with Peru would have condemned Argentina to miss the party.
And things looked bleak when, through the driving wind and rain, Hernan Rengifo, a striker who plies his trade in Poland, drew the home side level with Maradona's men.
It looked a dagger blow for Diego's under-performing squad of millionaires and the end of his controversial spell in charge.
But then up cropped one of his selection gambles, Martin Palermo, a striker who played alongside his coach at Boca Juniors in Maradona’s retirement season 12 years ago, to tap in a dramatic winner in the fourth minute of injury time.
Maradona magic or just plain lucky given his messy situation?
Actions on the pitch aside, can you imagine what Maradona’s collective team of doctors were thinking for those three minutes it appeared Argentina would not win?
His blood pressure must have hit the roof and his memorable celebration, sliding full length on the muddy pitch give some idea of his relief at redemption.
And speaking of pressure – has it ever be more intense for Maradona or Argentina than ahead of the Wednesday evening kickoff in Montevideo against Uruguay?
Uruguay also have designs on clinching the fourth and final automatic World Cup spot from South America and are tough at home.
Ecuador, who are favorites to clinch fourth spot, play Chile who are already qualified in third place and may not be too bothered by the outcome.
On top of this, pundits are claiming that the best Argentina can hope for is to clinch fifth in the group and go into a playoff against a team from the CONCACAF region which they would be heavily favored to win.
But Argentina need to improve to even secure the draw they likely require as a minimum and they need their superstar Lionel Messi to step up to the plate.
The Spanish sports newspaper AS is reporting there is a rift between Maradona and his talisman, who is being deployed in a different position than he plays for Barcelona and is apparently disillusioned by the tactics employed by the coach.
Maradona must sort out this situation fast or he will be looking for a new job on Thursday morning, which would be a shame because whatever one's opinion of him, he is box office and the World Cup finals will be the poorer for his and Argentina's absence.
While a World Cup without arguably the best player in the world in Messi is surely unthinkable.
Some heads need to be banged together in the Argentina camp starting with the football icon and his legendary boss.
August 13, 2009
Posted: 1846 GMT
So now we have it, the final confirmation that the Olympic motto of "citius, altius, fortius" – or faster, higher, stronger - counts for absolutely nothing when it comes to the selection of sports for inclusion in the 2016 program and beyond.
With the greatest of respect to golf, and I happen to believe that Tiger Woods lays claim to being the greatest sportsman of all time, it no more fits that Olympic ideal than an energetic game of tiddlywinks.
I have this vision of a by-then 50-year-old John Daly chain-smoking his way to gold at the 2016 Games, his not inconsiderable belly peaking over a set of garish trousers in the colors of the United States of America, with the silver going to Spain's Miguel Angel Jimenez, giant cigar in one hand, and bronze to 66-year-old Tom Watson, revived after his second artificial hip operation.
More than likely, the gold will be won by Tiger, but in his heart of hearts how will it rate against breaking Jack Nicklaus' record for 18 major titles, as he surely will, sinking the winning putt at the Augusta Masters, claiming the British Open at St Andrew's or the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach ?
Which brings me to my second argument, and leave aside questions of athletic ability, the strongest argument for Olympic inclusion should be that winning a gold medal must be the very pinnacle in their respective sport.
Think of the runner Paula Radcliffe's abject misery after failing to win the women's marathon at the Athens Olympics. She would willingly, I am sure, swap all her world records just to get her hands on gold, just once.
And however much professional tennis players and now golfers enjoy playing for the countries at the Olympics, it remains a secondary ambition – whatever Colin Montgomerie might have told the IOC in golf's apparently impressive presentation to the executive board. So what's it to be Monty, an Olympic gold in golf or winning the major that has always eluded you ? I think I know the answer.
Which is why I cannot find a vestige of enthusiasm for the inclusion of rugby sevens, a game requiring considerable physical ability, but just a watered-down version of the proper 15-a-side game, which has its own World Cup and Tri-Nations and Six Nations titles as the highest honors in its sport.
In fairness to the IOC executive board, the opposition to golf and rugby sevens was not terribly strong, with baseball and softball, whatever their advocates might say, played in too few countries and having been hardly a roaring success with their inclusion in previous Olympics to satisfy the American television audience which pays the IOC a hefty sum for the rights.
Karate undoubtedly had a case. However, it's a sport which might look good in Bruce Lee films, but like Taekwondo is rather disappointing visually and full of obscure rules which make it difficult to understand, which brings me to squash and roller sports.
Most people believe that squash is already in the Olympics because it's the sort of sport that should be, requiring immense skill, stamina and courage, played by some of the fittest sportsman in the world and in most countries in the world.
While roller sports – and I used to be very sniffy about the Extreme Games and the like – captures the imagination of youngsters all over the world in a way that, quite frankly, golf and rugby sevens will never do.
But of course they never had a chance against the cash-rich federations representing golf and rugby and the vested commercial interests which are threatening to undermine the Olympic ethos. They should have a new motto: Money Money Money.
July 3, 2009
Posted: 732 GMT
MONACO - Driving up to the Fairmont Monte Carlo, formerly the Loews Hotel, the signs were good.
Astana team cars and vans littered the front entrance which could surely mean only one thing. Lance Armstrong was not only in town for the start of the Tour de France, but staying in the same hotel as yours truly.
Contador getting in some final practice before the opening Monaco time-trial.
Surely it would only be a matter of time before our paths crossed, before I could flash my CNN pass and grab a quick impromptu interview or take a quick photo. Well we live in hope.
The hotel is full of devoted Armstrong fans, all sporting the Livestrong brand clothing of their hero and all believing he can deliver a miraculous eighth Tour victory after four years away from the race.
The fans certainly have to be devoted because with beer at $10 and the same for an ice cream, a few days in the south of France for the first couple of stages will leave a big hole in the bank balance.
Hopes of a chance encounter faded as the conceirge dropped a strong hint that just maybe the seven-time champion was staying somewhere else, away from the hullabaloo.
Which left the open road, because most of the riders were completing their final preparations by riding the 15.5 km course for the opening individual time trial which begins the Tour on Saturday in the principality.
It will be an important indicator of who is in form for the three-week race and unusually for such a stage being held over a lumpy course as it winds its way up from the harbor at Monte Carlo.
Fractions of seconds lost on corners could prove crucial and Armstrong with his legendary attention to detail will surely be having one last look.
And yes that is the case, but standing in the square in front of the famous Monte Carlo Casino it is very easy to miss a group of fast-moving Astana team cyclists whizzing down in single file.
My partner responds to my plaintive cry "there's Lance" by capturing the rear ends of the elite of world cycling. Nice try, but hardly a world exclusive.
Resigned to never capturing that individual moment, away from the press conferences or the official presentation of the teams it left only a quick recee of the start and finish area in Monte Carlo's signature harbor, resplendent with the yachts of the super-rich.
The road up from the harbor rises slightly before heading under the tunnel which is part of the course for the Monaco Formula One Grand Prix.
Mark Cavendish, the sprint sensation from Team Columbia who is set to bag a host of stage wins and is favorite for the green jersey, suddenly powers past, hunched on his tri-bars.
Then up behind pedals the now-retired Erik Zabel, many times a winner of the green jersey which Cavendish so covets.
Ken, an ardent cycling fan from England, his wrists chock a block full of Livestrong wrist bands, no prizes for guessing who he's supporting, shouts out his name in recognition and asks for an autograph. Erik pedals on.
But this looks promising, more promising still as I spot an Astana jersey in the distance and heading our way.
More instructions to a very patient partner who fires off a volley of camera clicks.
The cyclist moves closer. It's not Lance.
But it is Alberto Contador, the Astana team leader and favorite for the yellow jersey. He rides effortlessly by.
Ken does not seem overly impressed by our close encounter with the man most likely to put one past his hero and this time does not bother to ask for an autograph.
Having to leave to drive north to England just a few hours later (we never did get to see Lance close up,) but Alberto will do, and he's my idea of the race winner.
Will Lance prove me wrong? Well we live in hope.
May 30, 2009
Posted: 1626 GMT
WEMBLEY, England - The expectant walk up Wembley Way. A sea of blue. Goosebumps on the neck as "Abide with Me" rings round the stadium.
The magic of the FA Cup lives on and in prospect a David v Goliath clash which reflects the new realities of football.
Everton, fifth in the Premier League, take on Chelsea, just two places above them, but worlds apart in terms of resources and expectation.
Everton so short of players mid-season that they play for a while without a recognized striker with the invaluable Tim Cahill filling in admirably.
Chelsea, who could afford to leave Didier Drogba sulking on the sidelines until the arrival of Guus Hiddink re-energized the team.
Both he and Nicolas Anelka set to form a formidable partnership up front as Chelsea bid to shrug off the disappointments of losing out so narrowly to Barcelona in the Champions League, no disgrace there on reflection.
Everton chasing a first trophy under David Moyes and so deservedly in the final having beaten Liverpool, Aston Villa and Manchester United on the way to the Wembley showpiece.
It's not quite second-flight Sunderland upsetting all-conquering but unloved Leeds in 1973, or Wimbledon's Crazy Gang coming out on top against Liverpool, but an Everton victory would be still be against the odds.
The club's chiefs could not be more different. Everton's Bill Kenwright a theatrical impressario with a shrewd eye for a hit, in this case Moyes. Chelsea's Roman Abramovich a Russian billionaire with a ruthless streak who has dispatched Mourinho, Grant and Scolari and temporarily settled on Hiddink.
FA Cup victory for Abramovich would represent a morsel of consolation, for Kenwright it would be a full scale banquet.
But the FA Cup is no respecter of reputations and when the underdogs scored after just 25 seconds through Louis Saha's emphatic volley it was clear that Chelsea would have to work for their victory.
The noise from the Everton fans reached a crescendo, but before long they were silenced as Florent Malouda crossed for Drogba to head home.
Poor Tony Hibbert was suffering from twisted blood syndrome on the left as he tried to cope with Malouda and was unceremoniously hauled off at half time to be replaced by little-known Dane Lars Jacobsen.
But the Chelsea second half substitution spelt out the gulf in quality in the two squads as German captain Michael Ballack replaced Ghana powerhouse Michael Essien.
Saha might have put the Toffees ahead for the second time but his header was over and soon afterwards Frank Lampard drove the winner past Tim Howard.
Malouda, who I thought should have been man of the match ahead of Ashley Cole, could have finished the game off with two more close efforts, the second possibly crossing the line off the underside of the crossbar (further proof if any needed for TV cameras to decide these close calls).
It was impossible not to feel sympathy for Everton and their fanatical fans, but Hiddink has worked his magic again, inspiring an underperforming big-name squad to step up to the plate.
It was no surprise that the biggest cheer of the afternoon was reserved for the Dutchman as he lifted the trophy.
What price Abramovich making him an offer he can't refuse to stay on at Stamford Bridge next season ?
While for teams like Everton, the FA Cup offers the best hope of silverware, aka Portsmouth in 2008, and that's why it's such a favorite with supporters and the players too, who for all their mega salaries and inflated egos just want to get their hands on a piece of history.
October 24, 2008
Posted: 1729 GMT
Arsenal captain William Gallas is under fire today, having been photographed leaving a London nightclub in the early hours with an unlit cigarette in his hand.
Arsene Wenger, known in the game for his strict discipline and attention to health and fitness, has condemned his captain’s behaviour as “unacceptable,” although he’s standing by him. (The Frenchman has upset Arsenal fans before with his sulky attitude on the field and occasional dodgy defending.)
Gallas isn’t the first to draw ire for this dirty habit: Wayne Rooney and Dimitar Berbatov have also been caught red-handed with a sneaky cig.
Is Wenger right? Is it unacceptable for footballers to smoke? Or does the odd smoky treat make little difference to players at the top of their game?
October 17, 2008
Posted: 1640 GMT
The long-established right of football fans to barrack and jeer and vent their frustrations was drawn into question by two separate international incidents in this week's World Cup qualifying matches.
Fans at the friendly between France and Tunisia this week jeered through the French national anthem.
First up was Ashley Cole during England's 5-1 win over Kazakhstan at Wembley. The Chelsea left back was subjected to a continual chorus of boos after making a disastrous error which handed the visitors a goal at a crucial period during the second half.
Stand-in England captain Rio Ferdinand was quick to jump on a bandwagon saying the disgruntled fans "should be ashamed of themselves" and other teammates also rallied round Cole, who it must be said is hardly the most popular member of the England squad after his well-publicized indiscretions on and off the field.
Fans might have forgiven him for apparently engineering a lucrative move from Arsenal to Chelsea, earning him the nickname "Cashley," or his alleged cheating on his popular British popstar wife, but the final straw was his abject back pass to an opposition player who could scarcely believe his luck.
Having paid a small fortune in these credit-crunch times to buy a Wembley ticket, might not fans might feel entitled to let off a little steam as England labored to beat the world's 131st-ranked team whose combined weekly earnings probably don't match those of Cole?
I would not have been among those jeering Cole - well, perhaps only for a moment - but if the fragile egos of our multi-million-pound footballers cannot stand a few catcalls then heaven help them in the more pressurized atmosphere of the World Cup finals.
Three days later and a furious row erupted as the French national anthem was drowned out before the start of a "friendly" international against Tunisia at the Stade de France in Paris.
The majority of the crowd was of North African origin and it did not appear to affect the French too badly as they ran out 3-1 winners.
But the snubbing of "La Marseillaise" infuriated French politicians and dignitaries who attended the match: the sports minister was summoned to meet president Nicolas Sarkozy, who himself called the incident "scandalous."
The solution seemed heavy-handed in the extreme as ministers and sports officials threatened to call off matches on the spot if such scenes were repeated.
UEFA chief Michel Platini said the idea was "absurd," a rare moment of clarity from the former French international hero who recently criticized English teams for losing their identity by playing too many foreign players while neglecting to point out that he had spent much of his playing career playing in Italy for Juventus with a host of other overseas players.
French Communist Party leader Marie-George Buffet, a former sports minister, offered an analysis that is even more uncomfortable for Sarkozy and his government.
"So we stop the match, then what? Is it going to solve the problem of these men and women who in a way are expressing that they don't feel right in our country?" she said.
All this in a week when European governing body UEFA finally acted decisively to deal with the totally unacceptable racist chanting that occurred in Atletico Madrid's Champions League game at home to Marseille.
Racist, sexist and homophobic chanting clearly has no place in civilized society. Other forms of barracking used also to be tolerated, but for how much longer?
Over to you: Is booing taboo? Should it be banned?