Drugs in Sport

The IAAF recently announced that they are doubling the suspension for a failed drugs test from two years to four years.  It is a welcome move.  But will other sports follow Athletics’ lead?  Recent high profile drugs revelations have lead me and millions of other sport lovers to question the integrity of competitive sport.  The public have been deceived so many times by cheats and cover-ups that patience is wearing thin.  Sports across the board need to get their act together and tackle this cancer head-on and with zero tolerance.

            The reality is that almost every major sport is tainted by drugs to some extent; to think otherwise would be highly naïve (motor-racing is the only sport in my mind that is relatively drug-free).  In disciplines such as Athletics, Boxing and Cycling, drugs have been prevalent for almost a century (the following Wikipedia article makes for depressing reading: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doping_at_the_Tour_de_France) but in other sports it is only becoming more widely understood.  Cricket and Football have historically had relatively drug free existences but with the rewards so great in both sports these days, drugs are a real concern.  Where there is money to be made, the temptation to use drugs, and the people willing to supply them, will always be there.

            The sport with the largest connection to drugs is Cycling.  Since 1969, only seven winners of the great race have never been tainted or connected to drugs in their careers.  That means, on average, one in every six winners of the Tour did so riding clean.  It is a horrifying statistic but it is not all doom and gloom. The last three winners, Chris Froome, Bradley Wiggins and Cadel Evans have never failed a drugs test.  Cycling needed to go through the dark time in the late 90’s and early 2000’s to get where it is today.  In a way, the fact that so many cyclists returned positive tests meant that the cheats were getting caught and the wider public started to take notice.  The sport had to clear up its act otherwise it faced fading into anonymity.  However damaging the past scandals may have been and after years of sweeping cases under the carpet, it has helped shaped a healthier and hopefully drugs-free future for cycling.  (For those interested in cycling’s shady past, read Tyler Hamilton’s autobiography The Secret Race)

            The same cannot be said for Athletics.  The two positive drugs tests recently returned by star sprinters Asafa Powell and Tyson Gay were a real blow to a sport which has been plagued for years by such scandals.  During the Cold War, communist countries, such as the U.S.S.R and East Germany, systematically doped a large majority of their athletes (especially women) to win major sporting titles.  This was seen as an attempt to legitimise their totalitarian regimes not only to the outside world but also to their own people.  Ironically, Russia has over 40 high profile athletes suspended for positive drug tests today.  The sport was particularly shady in the 80’s and 90’s and not only in the Eastern-bloc.  There has always been doubt cast over Carl Lewis, with strong rumours that a positive drugs test was covered up by the authorities.  Florence Griffith Joyner, still the holder of both the women’s 100m and 200m world records, mysteriously lowered her personal bests in both events by half a second in 1988.  And lest we forget, our very own Linford Christie failed a drugs test in both 1988 and 1999.  More recently, American sprinter Justin Gatlin (who has failed two drugs tests in his career, yet mysteriously is still allowed to compete) and 400m runner Lashawn Merritt (who claimed his performance-enhancing drug was for use in the bedroom) have successfully returned to the sport after their respective suspensions.  This riles me a lot given that clean athletes are being denied their just deserts (earnings and medals) because of a cheat.  A convicted drug-taker should not be allowed to continue to earn a living from sport after making a decision to defame that same sport in such a shameful manner.

            The Balco scandal was probably the most infamous in all Athletics history.  It came to light that its founder, Victor Conte, had been supplying steroids and growth hormone to athletes across numerous sports, the most high profile of which were sprinters Tim Montgomery (at the time the 100m world record holder), Marion Jones and Dwain Chambers, baseball legend Barry Bonds, and boxer Shane Mosley.  The worrying thing about the Gay-Powell saga is that they had no excuses.  Tyson Gay effectively admitted that he had taken drugs by stating ‘I don’t have a sabotage story… I basically put my trust in someone and was let down.  I know exactly what went on, but I can’t discuss it right now.’  If athletes don’t know themselves precisely what they are putting into their bodies then they can have no excuse.  Putting your trust in another person is a risk that in this case backfired spectacularly.  I don’t think Tyson Gay is the type of man to wilfully gain an advantage through illegal means, but he has been naïve in his choice of advisors.  Knowing or unknowing, a positive drugs is still cheating and Gay and Powell deserve the sanctions they receive.

            It is perhaps easy to see how performance-enhancing drugs directly benefit stamina and power-based sports.  However, can such a skilled sport such as football profit from banned substanes?  The very successful Juventus team of the mid-90’s was systematically doped (without the players knowledge apparently) with the blood-boosting hormone EPO (common amongst cyclists at the time as it allowed one to ride at a higher intensity for longer).  Dutch players Jaap Stam, Edgar Davids and Frank De Boer all tested positive for nandrolone (which promotes artificial muscle growth and red blood-cell stimulation) in 2001.  The most heralded football coach in the world, Pep Guardiola, failed a drugs test for nandrolone in that same year.  New Liverpool signing Kolo Toure tested positive for a slimming aid in 2011 and Rio Ferdinand was suspended for 8 months in 2004 for missing a drugs test, although that was more dopey than doping.  In his compelling autobiography, Tony Cascarino revealed that he was injected with what club doctors called ‘vitamins’ and ‘minerals’ in his spell at Marseille in the early 90’s (Marseille weren’t exactly strangers to controversy after the match-fixing scandal in 1993).  I am slightly worried that football doesn’t currently do blood tests.  Urine samples have to be given by randomly selected players after every game but blood samples are not mandatory.  A blood test is a much more thorough way of detecting illicit substances in an athletes’ body.  Sports like Cycling and Athletics have gone so far as to set up a blood passport system (anti-doping agencies can check samples against each other to spot irregularities).  Football needs to act fast otherwise the situation risks getting out of hand.  A drug such as EPO can increase stamina and intensity by up to 20%, so not only can players play for longer, they can train harder too.  Yes it could result in some embarrassing findings but for the sake of the game, it is imperative.

            Even more worrying for football is the links it has to the Operation Puerto scandal in Spain.  Doctor Eufemiano Fuentes provided numerous athletes, mainly cyclists but also footballers with performance-enhancing drugs (including testosterone pills) and blood doping.  There are rumours that he supplied seasonal plans for Real Madrid and Barcelona, and also assisted Real Sociedad in systemised blood doping.  If this isn’t evidence enough that blood testing is required then I don’t know what is.  What is most ridiculous of all is that the judge presiding over the whole Fuentes case ruled that the blood bags should be destroyed.  This is evidence that could be vital in catching not only dopers of the past but drug cheats of the future.  It seems the Spanish authorities are desperate to cover up this humiliation.  They obviously have something to hide.

            Another sport that was named in Operation Puerto was tennis.  It is rumoured that Fuentes worked with many tennis players, including the Spanish Davis Cup team, bafflingly the most successful nation during the 2000’s in the competition.  Tennis, like football, requires high levels of not only skill but also fitness.  That small advantage that blood-doping can give you makes a sizeable difference at a professional level.  With tennis becoming so athletic it is no wonder stories of doping are abound.  Remember the likes of Boris Becker, Tim Henman, Andre Agassi?  All very fit guys in their own right, but compare their physique to modern day players like Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray, Tomas Berdych.  I’m not saying these players are doping, it’s just the physicality of the sport has got that much more intense that you have to be in top shape to even compete with the top players.  Agassi had his own well-documented troubles with recreational drugs but recently top-100 ranked player (not for long) Victor Troicki has been slapped with an 18-month ban for failing to provide a blood sample.  A week after that, world number 15, Maran Cilic, was banned for a positive test.  Richard Gasquet has also been nabbed but this was for cocaine use, which he claimed was via kissing a girl who had just taken some.  Encouragingly, tennis is pressing ahead with plans to introduce blood passports which should help catch potential drug cheats.

            Cricket is a sport that one wouldn’t usually connect with performance-enhancing drugs.  It has had its problems in the past with recreational drugs.  Ian Botham, Keith Piper, Ed Giddins, Dermot Reeve, Phil Tufnell, Graham Wagg and tragically, Tom Maynard have all been found to have taken recreational substances at some point in their careers.  But taking drugs to improve say one’s strength to hit the ball further wouldn’t necessarily be an advantage in cricket.  Timing is much more important than brute strength, though I dare say it couldn’t do any harm.  However, players have been known to take drugs to aid injury recovery.  The injury-prone Pakistani fast bowlers, Shoaib Akhtar and Mohammad Asif both failed tests for nandrolone in 2006 and were handed bans which were later overturned on appeal.  Asif claimed his was due to a faulty nutritional supplement.  He later failed a test in the IPL for steroids in 2008 and also was detained at Dubai airport that same year for possessing illegal substances – all apparently linked to injury recovery.  Sri Lankan batsman Upul Tharanga was handed a three-month ban in 2011 for a banned steroid which he claimed it was an herbal remedy for a shoulder injury.  The legendary rotund Australian text messager Shane Warne infamously missed the 2003 World Cup for taking a banned diuretic (allegedly one of his mother’s slimming pills – a believable argument).  With the increasing riches on offer to players, cricket needs to be more vigilant in its approach to drug-testing.  The rewards are so great and the sanctions relatively minor that one or two players are going to be tempted to take short-cuts.  The IPL is especially vulnerable in this respect.  Indeed, young Indian fast bowler Pradeep Sangwan returned a positive drugs test for steroids in this year’s IPL.

            Golf is another sport which has links to drugs and injury recovery.  Fijian Vijay Singh admitted using deer-antler spray, a banned growth-hormone on the World Anit-Doping Agency’s (WADA) list, but was acquitted after it was revealed that it wasn’t taken in sufficient enough quantities to enhance performance.  Tiger Woods was linked to controversial doctor Tony Galea during his recovery from knee-ligament surgery in 2008-9.  Galea had links to the Balco scandal and Victor Conte having been involved in both Marion Jones and Tim Montgomery.  Galea’s method involved taking blood from Woods, placing it in a centrifuge to increase red platelets (don’t ask), and injecting it back into the affected ligament, thus speeding up the healing process.  To me, this is no different from blood doping that cyclists used – surely artificially increasing the body’s red platelets is the same as artificially increasing the body’s red blood cells and oxygen capability.  The rules have tightened since 2010 on the procedure but I believe it still remains legal.  Now I’m not suggesting that Woods is a drugs cheat, but having links to a man who is known to be involved with Conte and human-growth hormone is a bit fishy.

            The ultimate skill sport, snooker is not exempt from drugs.  Bill Werbenuik took beta blockers in the 1980’s to slow his heart rate when at the table and Neal Foulds also admitted to having taken a similar substance.  It is doubtful whether this would have a positive effect on performance but if a player suffers from nerves, it could be beneficial.  Recreational substances have long been associated with snooker: Kirk Stevens was known to have taken cocaine and Ronnie O’Sullivan was disqualified from a tournament in the 90’s for testing positive for cannabis.  Jimmy White and Alex Higgins were also no strangers to drug scandals during their careers.

Rugby League recently found itself at the centre of a drugs scandal in Australia where six clubs have been implicated in doping thought to include AFL too.  There has been little information since the report in February but rumours are surfacing that supplements (mainly muscle growth-hormone) were administered by the clubs, not by the odd rogue player himself, which is more worrying.  AFL player Jobe Watson has admitted that he took a banned anti-obesity drug but only after signing a consent form provided by his club. (http://theconversation.com/essendon-scandal-a-symptom-of-australias-sporting-woes-12085).  This whole affair draws parallels with the Festina affair during the Tour de France in 1998, where drugs were found in the Festina team car, and subsequently numerous teams were under suspicion of providing illegal substances for their riders.  Closer to home, Bradford Bulls star Terry Newton was banned for two years for taking Human Growth Hormone.  Martin Gleeson also received a ban for a failed drugs test in 2011.  One can see the benefits of taking these sorts of drugs in sports like rugby where power and size are central factors.  Recreational drugs are also not uncommon – Australian Rugby League Star Wendell Sailor tested positive for cocaine in 2006, as did new Salford Red Devils forward Gareth Hock in 2009 whilst playing for Wigan Warriors.

Rugby Union is no stranger to drug scandals either.  2009 was a dark year for Bath Rugby Club in particular as their England prop Matt Stevens received a two year ban after failing a drugs test.  He later admitted to having taken cocaine on more than one occasion and confessed that he found it almost a relief that he had been caught.  Later that year, after an end-of-season party, four Bath players were embroiled in a scandal after allegations of cocaine abuse.  (http://www.rugbydump.com/2009/07/1023/the-ins-and-outs-of-the-bath-drugs-scandal).  Their Australian lock, Justin Harrison confessed and was handed an 8 month ban whilst the other three, co-captains Michael Lipman and Alex Crockett and Andrew Higgins all resigned after refusing to give samples.  However it is very rare that a Rugby Union player is found to have taken performance enhancing drugs which for the sport is a saving grace (http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/rugby-union/24626491).

            Boxing is a shady sport that has had all manner of problems in the past and drugs are just one of the many issues facing it today.  It has a fairly lackadaisical attitude towards drug testing which it needs to rectify pretty quickly if it is to retain any credibility.  Recent scandals have included Lamont Peterson’s positive test for synthetic testosterone in 2011 which he failed in the lead up to his victory against Amir Khan.  Wrangling over drug testing scuppered plans for a ‘super-fight’ between Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather Jr in 2010 after negotiations over blood-testing failed to reach a conclusion.  Boxing doesn’t have a fixed set of anti-doping criteria which immediately sets the alarm bells ringing.  The drug-testing is not determined by a central body but is instead agreed between the two fighters themselves.  Legendary Mexican Juan-Manuel Marquez, before his sixth-round knockout of Manny Pacquiao last year, started to work with a less than reputable ‘conditioning coach’ Angel Hernandez, who has links to BALCO and Victor Conte (http://globalnation.inquirer.net/62195/did-drugs-nearly-kill-pacquiao).  Marquez’s physique was visibly more chiselled than at any point in his career and in his previous three meetings with Pacquiao, he had failed to knock down the Filipino.  Yet he put him on the canvas in round 3 and knocked him out cold in round 6 to record his first victory against his nemesis.  Worryingly, no drug testing of any sort was done pre-fight to either boxer.  In his most recent fight (which he lost to Timothy Bradley) Marquez caused controversy again by reneging on a pre-fight drug-testing deal (http://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/boxing/2013/10/08/drug-testing-rift-tim-bradley-juan-manuel-marquez-fight-is-on/2948991/).

            With the rewards on offer and the relatively minor sanctions, performance-enhancing drugs are an attractive proposition to sportsmen and women.  The only logical conclusion is to introduce a zero-tolerance policy of life bans for any convicted drugs cheat.  In the case of recreational drugs, a less hard-line approach would suffice given that often there are deep-set emotional reasons for such substance abuse.  There is a worrying trend in certain countries of drug-taking getting out of control.  During and after the 2010 Commonwealth Games, Indian athletes returned a disproportionate amount of positive drugs tests; similarly, Russia has over 40 suspended Athletes at the present time.  Chinese, Turkish and Greek authorities all have major problems with doping.  China in particular seems to have a particular problem with Swimming and Weightlifting.  There is a disturbing situation arising in Jamaican athletics where alongside Powell, two other high profile female sprinters, Sherone Simpson and double 200m Olympic Gold medallist Veronica Campbell-Brown, have returned positive drugs results amid claims that testing has been few and far between (http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/athletics/24517780).  The worry is that the testers are always playing catch-up with the takers.  The introduction of blood passports is a big step in the right direction but until all governing bodies across all sports make it a top priority, the situation is not going to improve.

            I love sport.  When I was younger I would marvel at the seemingly super-human abilities of professional athletes on TV and wish I could do what they could.  The concept of someone achieving something by artificial means never enters a child’s head.  I suppose the first time I really took interest in a drugs scandal was Dwain Chambers’ positive test in 2003.  I couldn’t believe that an English sprinter would do such a thing.  I mean it is so un-English.  When Chambers pleaded guilty a little bit of me died inside.  I naively assumed that illegal narcotics were consigned to Athletics only.  Then the world of cycling was turned upside down after Floyd Landis’ positive test after his Tour de France ‘victory’ in 2006.  Again, I assumed it was an isolated case limited to a minor sport.  Yet, when the recent Lance Armstrong scandal reared its ugly head, I slowly started to realise that one should not take every amazing performance, every world-record, every breath-taking sporting moment at face value – and that is really sad.  I now have a slightly cynical view of the sporting world thanks to those athletes who decided to take the short-cut, the easy way, the cheater’s route to success.  I still love sport and I still marvel at sporting prowess but now, at the back of my mind, there is always some doubt.

 

This Wikipedia article makes for rather disheartening reading:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_doping_cases_in_sport#Q

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Who’s going to win the U.S Open?

The final Grand Slam of the year begins in earnest this week and the competition is pretty wide open.  Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal are all Major winners this year and it is hard to separate them.  Add to that the evergreen Roger Federer and 2009 winner Juan Martin Del Potro and you have a tournament that promises some tasty match-ups in the second week.  The women’s competition is slightly less of an enigma – Serena Williams is the girl to beat but if she gets knocked out, anyone has a chance of taking the U.S Open crown.

            Andy Murray goes into this Grand Slam in the slightly unfamiliar role as the man to beat.  Instead of gunning after Djokovic, Nadal et al he is probably expected to at least make the final as the defending champion.  How Murray deals with this added pressure will be interesting.  He certainly has seem to find a formula that sees him peak at exactly the right time for the Grand Slams; 4 finals and two championship victories in his past four appearances is reminiscent of Federer at his peak.  He won the Miami Masters earlier in the season on hard-courts but his form of late has been slightly lacklustre.  Murray will need to raise his game significantly (which I’m sure he will) to retain his title.

            One player who is in top form is the Spaniard Rafael Nadal.  Two titles in consecutive weeks on the U.S hard-courts is the ideal preparation for a tilt at the U.S Open.  For a man of his exceptional talents though, Nadal doesn’t have a great record in the majors on hard-courts.  He has only won 2 Grand Slams (1 Australian Open, 1 U.S Open) on the hard stuff in his entire career and there is a feeling that Djokovic and Murray are both superior on hard-courts.  He is the man in form but he will have to do something extra special to avoid being beaten once again by his nemeses.

            Which brings us to Novak Djokovic.  If God wanted to create the perfect hard-court player he would have probably made something very similar to the sinewy Serbian.  Wonderfully athletic and as strong as an ox, he has the lean, fatless physique that us mere mortals can only dream of.  But enough of my mini man-crush.  His rippling torso has in fact helped him become probably the greatest hard-court player of the modern era, and add to that a freakish talent with a racquet, he is a good bet to add to his already bulging trophy cabinet.  He himself has announced Nadal as the favourite in New York but I think he’s just playing a bit of mind games.  Like Murray he has also reached 4 finals in his previous 4 appearances but has only managed to win one, which might play on his mind.  Nevertheless, Djokovic is my (very ill-advised) tip to win.

            Coming in slightly under the radar is the mercurial Argentinian, Juan Martin Del Potro.  He won his first and only Grand Slam to date in New York four years ago and he is in top form on the hard-courts at the moment, winning the Citi Open and reaching the semi-finals of the Western and Southern Open.  He played brilliantly during his run to the semi-finals of this summer’s Wimbledon, taking Djokovic to 5 sets and also showing unprecedented determination to overcome an injury in beating David Ferrer in the quarters.  He has mighty ground strokes and an unstoppable serve – ideally suited to the fast hard-courts in the Big Apple.  The only drawback is that Del Potro is not in the same league physically as Murray, Nadal, Djokovic.  He does move well for a man of 6ft 6in tall, but his speed across the court is not as good as the top three.  A dark horse, yes, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he made to at least the semi-finals.

            This is the first time in more than a decade when I don’t count Roger Federer as one of the tournament favourites for a Grand Slam.  The Swiss virtuoso has had a lean year by his very high standards and it would seem that age is catching up with him.  He has won two tournaments this year, both on grass, yet his performances at the Grand Slams have been worrying.  Defeated at the French Open by an inspired Jo-Wilfred Tsonga, he suffered an ignominious loss to Ukranian Sergei Stakhovsky (albeit to some brilliant serve-volley tennis) at the 2nd round of Wimbledon.  Federer is still capable of superb tennis and I have no doubt that he could beat some of the top-4 ranked players, but I doubt whether his body can endure 2 weeks of intense Grand Slam tennis.  There is a definite feeling of his star waning; players are no longer as fearful of him.  The 32 year-old used to have this unbeatable aura about him – where players almost knew that they were going to lose before they even began the warm-up.  Alas no longer.  Thankfully, we can still marvel at his beautiful and sometimes balletic forehand.  However, I doubt the man with the second best backhand on the tour (behind Richard Gasquet of course) will feature heavily in New York in the coming weeks.

            On the women’s side, the peerless Serena Williams is still the girl to beat, and with confectionary entrepreneur and part-time tennis player Maria Sharapova out of the tournament injured, her task is made that bit easier.  World number two Victoria Azarenka actually beat Williams in their most recent meeting in Cincinnati but the Belarusian has never won when it really matters at the Grand Slams.  Petra Kvitova has an ideal game for the hard-court surface – she hits the ball very hard and could have a good fortnight if she gets going.  Apart from those two there are very few players that can trouble Williams on the tour.  Laura Robson is Britain’s best hope but she is nursing a wrist injury so do not expect her to repeat last year’s run to the last 16.

             So there you have it.  A pretty conservative prediction I know but hopefully an accurate one for once.  Of course I’d love it if Murray won but for me Djokovic is the superior player on the hard-courts.  It would certainly be a mouth-watering prospect if they both made it to the final.  Here’s hoping.

The return of the serve-volley

How refreshing was it to see Sergei Stakhovsky beat Roger Federer the other day?  Any victory against the Swiss genius should be heralded but it was the manner in which Stakhovsky played that made victory all the more special.  He got his tactics spot-on with a bit of old-fashioned serve-volley tennis.  It was a joy to behold.

            Serve-volley tennis has been on the decline since primate Pete Sampras hung up his racket.  In days gone by, all the big guns used to serve-volley: John McEnroe, Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors, Boris Becker, Goran Ivanisevic, Steffan Edberg, the list is endless.  These days however it is a dying art.  The ground strokes and service return of your average tennis player have improved no-end to the detriment of the volley.  Nowadays a venture into the net is about as common as a yeti.  The problem is that because the ground strokes are so good, the volley has to be near perfect otherwise the man at the net is just a sitting duck and will be passed easily.  Consequently, volleying has no longer become an integral part of the game at a junior level where players rarely learn how to play the shot properly and confidently.

            Since Sampras retired, few players have had success with the tactic.  Federer used to serve-volley a lot more often in his early career – indeed he beat Sampras in 2001 and also won Wimbledon in 2003 with that strategy.  Recently he used it as a surprise tactic.  Perhaps, with his advancing years, he should re-embrace the serve-volley in a bid to shorten the points.  It may well prolong his career.

            Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski used to serve-volley with varying degrees of success.  Rusedski employed it throughout his career, reaching the fourth round at Wimbledon in 2002, memorably beating Andy Roddick in straight sets in the process.  Henman reached numerous Wimbledon semi-finals with a serve-volley game and it worked well until he played someone who was better than him.  Henman’s serve was not quite good enough to trouble the top players and so could be returned with interest as Lleyton Hewitt, Sampras and Ivanisevic all proved.

Roddick had a fearsome serve and used to back it up with some pretty handy volleying.  He never used it as his stock tactic, though perhaps he should have because his ground strokes (especially his backhand) were pretty ropey.  He still reached three Wimbledon finals, all defeats to Federer and played one of the all-time great matches in his 2009 loss to the Swiss maestro.

            Other recent exponents of the art of serve-volley include Sebastian Grosjean – who beat Tim Henman at Wimbledon in 2004, Michael Llodra – who has yet to win anything of note but his commitment to the tactic is unwavering, Pat Rafter – who reached two consecutive Wimbledon finals in 2000 & 2001, and Radek Stepanek, who got soundly beaten by a young Andy Murray at Wimbledon in 2005.  Britain had its own serve-volley hero in Chris Eaton who, in 2008, beat Boris Pasanski in the first round of Wimbledon.  He got absolutely mullered by Dimitri Tursunov in round two and has yet to do anything of note since, but we live in hope.

            Apart from Stakhovsky there are still the odd exponents of serve-volley at this year’s championships.  In his first round defeat, Gilles Simon employed the strategy against Feliciano Lopez who himself was partial to a little jaunt to the net after one of his serves now and again.  Jamaican/German Dustin Brown beat Lleyton Hewitt in round two with a spot of serve-volley action.  Even Andy Murray has been known to crack out a serve-volley but only very rarely.

            I hope that this mini-renaissance in serve-volley is not a mere flash in the pan but heralds a new era for grass-court tennis.  The modern game is all too often a slug-fest from the back of the court relying on brute power.  It is time a bit of finesse returned to the sport.  Sergei Stakhovsky I salute you for successfully bringing the archaic art form of serve-volley back to SW19.

Le French Open

The second Grand Slam of the year started at the weekend in Paris and it promises to be (hopefully) more intriguing than in recent memory.  King of the Roland Garros, Rafael Nadal, is still feeling his way back from injury and has not been as invincible as he once was on the red dirt.  World number one Novak Djokovic will be snapping at his heels like one of those yappy chiens posh French girls carry around in their Louise de Vittons handbags if the Spaniard is not as his absolute best.  You also can’t discount the evergreen Roger Federer, a former winner of this tournament back in 2009.  In the absence of Andy Murray, Jo-Wilfred Tsonga may fancy his chances of a run to the latter stages and David Ferrer will be another hoping to feature in the second week.  Here’s a rundown of the top contenders:

 

Rafael Nadal (Spain)

World Ranking: 4

Seeded: 3

 

The ‘Muscles from Mallorca’ is bidding for his 8th title on the Parisian clay and who would bet against him?  He has only lost once at Roland Garros, to an inspired Robin Soderling in 2009, and it is going to take a similarly superhuman effort to stop this clay-court juggernaut from adding to his already bulging trophy cabinet.  He did lose his Monte-Carlo title to Djokovic last month which will rankle with him and it remains to be seen whether his body can handle the rigours of a Grand Slam schedule after his injury problems.  If it can, expect to see Nadal’s fangs clenched around the famous trophy once again.

 

Novak Djokovic (Serbia)

World Ranking: 1

Seeded: 1

 

Djokovic is the man most likely to stop Nadal.  The Serbian doesn’t quite have the power of the Spaniard at the back of the court but if Nadal’s game is not bang on, you can bet your bottom Euro that Djokovic will be there to exploit any weakness.  He has supreme fitness so if the two do meet and it goes to 5 sets, he knows he has the stamina.  He has already beaten the Mallorcan on the clay this season but he has never won at Roland Garros and he has put in some rather tame performances in his previous finals defeats to Nadal.  He will be desperate to rectify this, and 2013 could be his best chance.

 

Roger Federer (Switzerland)

World Ranking: 3

Seeded: 2

 

Federer has had a quiet season so far, punctuated by an extended break in March to spend time with his family.  Consequently he is as fresh as a daisy and should have no trouble reaching the latter rounds.  He does tend to struggle against clay-court specialists of which there are a few in this year’s tournament.  His experience should see him through to at least the quarters but he doesn’t quite have the speed of old to last the pace in the longer rallies against the elite players.  The title will be beyond him but he makes tennis look like a piece of art so just sit back and revel in watching one of the game’s greats whilst you still can.

 

David Ferrer (Spain)

World Ranking: 5

Seeded: 4

 

The diminutive Spaniard reached the semis here last year, beating a certain Andy Murray in the process and a repeat performance is not out of the question (apart from the Murray bit).  He is not the most technically gifted player on tour but he has a relentless playing style, fighting tooth and nail for every point.  Ally that with a Mo Farah-esque stamina and you have a pretty handy clay-courter.  The problem with Ferrer is that he has a worryingly Henman-like record in grand-slams.  Semi-finals seem to be his maximum.  He is a very good player and he has won some big tournaments, just not the tournaments that really matter.  Credit to him, he has squeezed every last drop out of his potential but that potential is not good enough to beat the big boys.

 

Nicolas Almagro (Spain)

World Ranking: 13

Seeded: 11

 

This preview may seem like a bit of Spanish love-in, but they do have some quality players on the tour at the moment and Almagro is certainly one of those.  If God wanted to create the complete clay court player (and he’d somehow forgotten about Rafa Nadal) he could do worse than Nicolas Almagro.  The Spaniard knows the clay like Tim Henman knows Grand Slam semi-final defeats.  He has won some big tournaments in his career on the red stuff (all of his ATP finals appearances have been on clay) but the big one still eludes him.  He played one the best sets of tennis I have ever seen against Nadal in last year’s quarter-final, yet still lost on a tie-break (and lost the match in straight sets).  Rather like Ferrer, he doesn’t seem to win the matches that really matter against the top players.  That won’t change this year.

 

Richard Gasquet (France)

World Ranking: 9

Seeded: 7

 

The Frenchman has absolutely sod-all chance of winning in Paris but I have fallen slightly in love with him, or more specifically – his backhand.  In an era when the single-handed backhand is about as common as the sabre-toothed tiger (I was watching Marion Bartoli the other day and she has a double-handed forehand), the sight of Gasquet’s free-flowing caress of the tennis ball could make butter spontaneously combust.  He wields his racket like Monet with a paintbrush.  He is the latest in a rather stereotypical line of French flair players, inheriting the crown of Fabrice Santoro, Sebstian Grosjean et al.  Go to youtube and watch Gasquet’s defeat to Andy Murray at the French in 2010 (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hGWkwaMWaDk).  Never has a loss looked so beautiful, so perfect.  Even your girlfriend would struggle to provide you with 6 minutes and 17 seconds of comparable enjoyment.  Gasquet is not without controversy.  In 2009 He failed a drugs test and got caught with a small amount of cocaine in his system in Miami.  Astonishingly, the ATP accepted his explanation which consisted of snogging a girl in a nightclub who had mysteriously just taken cocaine and transferred it into him.  The ATP must still think Father Christmas still exists.  Anyway, even though Gasquet won’t win the tournament, watch him whilst you have the chance.  You won’t regret it.

 

So this year’s French Open is slightly more ‘open’ than usual, in that more than one person has a realistic chance of winning.  I can’t see past Nadal or Djokovic for the title and I wouldn’t be surprised if they were the finalists too.  Obviously they will deny the final the public really want – Gasquet vs Federer.  Keep believing.  It could happen.