Saturday, 3 October 2009

Take a Wrist, Andy! How Murray can come back better than ever.

The best players are distinguished not just by what they do on the court, but by the work they put in off it. Andy Murray can use his enforced lay-off to protect his wrist and come back a more complete player.

Ace conditioning

Roger Federer's fitness programme has become legendary in the game as experts marvel at his longevity and resistance to injury and admire in ever higher definition the technical perfection of his game.

Rafael Nadal not only forged the most formidable physique ever seen in tennis, but transformed his style and hitting trajectory to triumph over his rival on the grass of Wimbledon and Melbourne's hard courts.

Novak Djokovic was first held up as an example to Andy Murray, as the promising young Briton suffered repeated attacks of cramp, then written off as a quitter who had failed to keep up with the game's physical demands after retiring from several successive Grand Slam matches.

Andy Murray himself has undergone a dramatically impressive transformation from lanky hopeful to cast-iron contender through a vigorous and varied training programme.

Bullied off the court

Murray has now found his Grand Slam progress curtailed by issues beyond simple conditioning. He has three times this year found himself out-powered by players in inspirational hitting form: Fernando Verdasco in Australia, Fernando Gonzalez at Roland Garros, and Andy Roddick at Wimbledon. Against Marin Cillic he simply flopped, and admitted as much.

Each time he has pronounced himself happy with his performance on the day and his game in general. While fans must accept that Federer and Nadal have been almost unique in their dominance, there is only so long Murray can keep losing these matches and using his opponents' exceptional form as an excuse. He has now gone into two or three majors in exceptional form himself and failed to win.

While he nurses his wrist injury Andy Murray must consider these matches to identify why he lost and how he can win those games next year. Here is my verdict.

Wrist care

The left wrist so crucial to the 22-year-old's prize backhand is prone to tendinitis and needs managing in a way the rest of his body does not. He has dismissed his latest lay-off as "just" tendinitis, but wrist problems kept him out for months the season before last and are now sidelining him when he has serious ranking points to defend.

Murray's medical team must find ways to nurse this Achilles Heel through the most arduous spells in the calendar—the spring clay-court months and the American hard-courts of summer, when big tournaments come thick and fast.

Certain supplements can encourage tendon growth and repair, while the wrist should be iced and compressed regularly after playing, even when it seems healthy. The variation of the single-handed backhand also takes pressure off the left forearm. Finally, it may be necessary to create specific warm up and cool down exercises for the wrist to keep it healthy.

Beef up the forehand

Murray's two-handed backhand is a formidable weapon, but perhaps one he relies on two much, choosing to target opponents' weaker wing in gruelling cross-court exchanges. All his main rivals possess more potent forehands, and Murray struggles to close out points in slower conditions.

Federer's flowing forehand allows him to step into the court and dominate rallies early on, then deliver the killer blow with ruthless efficiency and power. Nadal's heavily top-spun left-hander has exposed chinks in his rival's game when it looked on the verge of perfection, while Juan Martin Del Potro's long, bludgeoning swings demolished Federer in the US Open final last month.

Murray must use his left-sided lay-off to turn his forehand into a fearsome weapon, just as Justine Henin did a few years ago when she realized the most beautiful backhand ever to grace the game would not match the power of her opponents.

Technical change

Henin achieved this partly through a brutal bulking-up process, but also by stepping into the ball and making a firmer, flatter contact to batter it back into the far corner of the court.

Murray appears to lean backwards and hit round the back and top of the ball, which results in a more looping trajectory—safer and easier to control, perhaps, but lacking in venom. Just see in the picture above how his left hand is tucked awkwardly into his body and he leans sideways and back to strike the ball.

The New York Times recently showcased graphics that demonstrate Federer's perfect transfer of force through his body from his feet to his upper body:

His British rival looks a mess by comparison, approaching the ball more front-on, chest facing the court without the same upper-body rotation of the Swiss's swinging arms or the long levers of Del Potro's extended limbs.

Moving forward

Where Federer leaps up off his right foot to launch himself upwards and forwards, the overwhelming dynamic of Murray's stroke is a rocking back motion that sets him on his heels as if always a fraction late on the shot.

This would have the added advantage of combating his tendency to play off the metaphorical back foot, committing him to step into the ball when he might otherwise resort to a cagey table-tennis style of spin and control.

If such surgery seems impossibly or unnecessarily radical, we should note how significantly the Scot's serve has been upgraded this year and remember that the man from Dunblane has left no drop of sweat unshed in his hunger for success.

Andy Murray can do this, but he must do it now or he risks stalling for longer than his wrist holds him back.

Monday, 31 August 2009

Off With 'is Eduardo! Sound the Bans for Platini's Rule of Terror

After rugby’s soul-searching and swingeing response to the Harlequins cheating scandal, football’s authorities seem to be desperate for some attention. Barely a weekend goes by without a dubious penalty appeal in the Premiership – given, denied, dived – yet UEFA President Michel Platini has chosen this moment to make his dash for the soiled molehill that represents football’s moral high ground.

As overreactions go, Eduardo is still some way behind the elite.

Most impressive of all, Platini appeals to parks football while trialling a system that draws on the only sporting theatre more overblown than Europe’s – America. Here is why the UEFA President is wrong.

A New Dope

Diving, exaggerating, penalty-winning, define it how you will, has been around as long as any living pundit can remember. The fake blood scandal was a new gash in rugby’s credibility and had to be cauterized immediately to preserve the spirit and reputation of the game. The career-threatening bans handed down to Dean Richards and others were a fitting and effective response to a newly discovered ruse.

If football wants to put its house belatedly in order, a more organic approach is called for.

Footballing Ethics

Football has never enjoyed the reputation for probity enjoyed by rugby union even after recent events. It is telling that the rugby world has acted instantly to punish the perpetrators even though Harlequins failed to overturn the deficit on Leinster after Tom Williams was led dripping from the field.

It is hard to imagine the same eruption of bitter accusations had Eduardo failed to convert the penalty on Wednesday night.

In football such joke shop dramatics as Emmanuel Eboue’s feigned collision with the invisible obstacle that was not Patrice Evra’s foot merit only a yellow card. As spectators can tell, the punishment is more in pricking one of the few sources of shame still felt by modern footballers than in the statutory sanction.

To say that Eduardo must suffer a ban equivalent to a violent conduct charge, simply because the referee adjudged in his favour is a breakdown in logic.

If Eduardo suffers, so too must Eboue.

Cruel Intentions

Did Eduardo actually appeal for a penalty after his limp collapse? It was noticeable that although his arms went up as Artur Boruc slid in to graze his heel, by the time he came to rest his arms were lowered, his mouth empty of plaintive cries and his concerned look back was almost bashful. He had certainly anticipated contact and acted to maximise its effects, but did not demand a penalty.

Two seconds more without a whistle and we might have seen the incident in an entirely different light. As it is, show me a player who tells the referee to take back any favourable decision, let alone a penalty.

Perhaps we stalwart Englishmen should turn our eyes closer to home? Wayne Rooney of all people fell to his knees before making contact with Manuel Almunia’s rashly outstretched arms on Saturday – surely knowing full well that his decisive touch had already sent the ball hurtling into the advertising hoardings on the full.

Unlike Eduardo he performed an adroit turn while sliding on his knees to launch an appeal whose ferocity would have made Shane Warne proud. Rooney’s penalty was far more pivotal than Eduardo’s, as a discomposed Diaby doubled it within minutes by nodding into his own net.

Silly Season

If UEFA or Platini would have players punished for one brand of deceit, where do they call a halt? What about players who shrug their shoulders in pantomime faux-innocence after committing assault on a ball-carrier? Players who know they have not taken the ball in a challenge, but protest to the contrary? Darren Fletcher’s penalty-box slide to upend Arshavin did not touch the ball until it reached the Manchester United midfielder’s arms, yet he was still unwilling to admit it even after seeing that the replay revealed all.

What of all the automatic appeals for corners and throw-ins from players who know precisely who touched the ball last? Players who routinely react to a limp wrist in the chest as to an elbow to the face? Perhaps Ferguson’s undetected foot grazed a water bottle in a touchline foray without the eagle-eyed intervention of fourth official Jeff Probyn? Platini should conduct a proper review before sounding off, or football risks bridging the gap between silly season and panto time.

Wrong Answer

Let us suppose, for a moment, that change is needed and that Platini must start somewhere; perhaps “simulation” is the most unsightly and demeaning of offences, especially in the light of slow-motion replays. However, his solution is counterintuitive. It is the cameras that have laid bare some of the most controversial incidents, yet he would involve more touchline officials to watch the goal-line and penalty area.

Platini asserts that technology is contrary to the spirit and practicalities of the game as played in local parks – Hackney Marshes seems to be the media-designated heart of the English game – but such contests rarely have two impartial assistants, let alone four.

In any case, points of view can confuse as much as enlighten – well-placed assistants frequently flag phantom fouls or fail to act, as if unsure of their authority. The goal itself is also bound to obscure these new officials’ view of the entire penalty box.

A Just Sport?

The “justice” demanded by so many is at best a fickle and erratic one. There are no level scales of sporting justice and never have been – the ancient Olympics had their own cheats and it is inevitable that the most cunning and practised in deception are the least likely to be caught.

A cheat’s worst punishment is to be frozen out by reputation, as Cristiano Ronaldo once was, forcing them to clean up their act. How many decisions will Eduardo lose out on in the wake of one minor misjudgement?

Radical Retribution

However, one part of me would like to see UEFA go the whole hog. Platini himself could spend 40 hours a week ordering swingeing and arbitrary bans for a whole range of offences, from swearing at the referee to claiming throw-ins, shirt-pulling to late tackles, violent conduct to pathetic writhing.

He would be a law unto himself, guardian and avenger of the mismonickered “beautiful game”, and players would flee to their utmost moral sanctums in the face of football’s own Old Testament God. They would scarcely dare to look at the referee, aka “Sir”; apologise after fouls; wave their arms to indicate that they did not take the ball cleanly; offer each other the ball at throw-ins and sign autographs before taking corners.

Let Platini rule with a rod of iron. Let terror reign.

Sunday, 30 August 2009

Boo Boys Redeemed for Aspiring Arsenal

Emmanuel Eboue celebrated Arsenal’s second goal against Celtic on Wednesday night by raising his shirt to reveal the legend “Thanks Be To God”, but it is Arsène Wenger who was enjoying the adulation in the red half of North London, as a 3-1 victory over Celtic secured entry into the Champions League group stage.

Arsenal’s supporters have often been cast as a lost people in recent years, living on former glories and prayers for redemption. In hyperbolic Premier League terms the five years since the age of “The Invincibles” may as well have been a biblical forty, and the season has begun with ominous prophecies of the Gunners’ eviction from the Promised Land of the top four.

“In Arsène We Trust” and “Keep the Faith” ran the forlorn pleas of the faithful at a hushed Emirates.

However, with Champions League football secured and ten goals in two dazzling weekend romps, Wenger’s acolytes have much to cheer with the season just two weeks old. More surprising still, three of the stars of the show on Wednesday were players recently ridiculed by their own fans. Their apparent transformation will be taken by some as further evidence of the manager’s miraculous powers, by others as another confounding quirk of what the Arsenal fans dub “Wengerball”.


Eboue’s own redemption began last season, as he fought back from a reckless red card performance in mid-season to silence the boos, but this season he looks to have raised his game to another level. Ostensibly stationed on the right of a new-look attacking trio, Eboue managed to combine the best of his old overlapping full-back’s running with a newfound touch and composure.

His tireless pressing and an appetite for work that had him popping up right across the front three on Wednesday night were reminiscent of Rooney or Tevez at their most tigrish. The calm touch with which he steadied himself to slot home Arsenal’s third was even more impressive from the impetuous Ivorian.


William Gallas is another who has failed to realize his full potential in recent seasons, sulking on the touchline, losing the captaincy and bickering with defensive partner Kolo Toure. Alongside the forthright presence of Thomas Vermaelen he is back to the form that made him a surprising makeweight in the Ashley Cole’s acrimonious move to Chelsea a few seasons ago.

One diving header to whisk a cross off a Celtic striker’s bootlaces epitomised his renewed commitment. Even more surprising were his forays up the right wing outside the enterprising Eboue – on one occasion he left two defenders for dead with a dart to the penalty-area byline that would have made Theo Walcott proud.


If Eboue and Gallas always seemed to have the potential to shine, then Denilson will strike some as the most unexpected revelation of Arsenal’s August awakening. The little Brazilian was derided by the club’s own supporters for appearing too slight and too slow to impose himself on the Premier League, a poor replacement for the all-action Flamini.

However, he has clearly been alongside Jack Wilshere in the weights room this summer and now has the presence to run a midfield. A sharp spin in the final third to shield the ball from two closely competing Celtic players showed he has the strength and bulk to retain the ball under pressure, which can only add to his confidence in possession.

He has too often been muscled off the ball as he brought it out of defence. Top of the Premier League interception charts last year, the Brazilian’s positional intelligence is now matched by a Premier League physique.

Another year, another display of sparkling attacking football from Le Professeur's protégés, three revelations and some signs of steel in defence. And so we ask once again, are Arsène's kids finally ready to turn into men?

The Allrounder

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