Creative challenges to authority: ATP tennis at Miami

April 4, 2009
Hawkeye in tennis

Hawkeye in tennis

The Sony Ericsson ATP tennis tournament at Miami illustrated how players find creative and unexpected ways of coping with rule changes

From the UK, the Miami event plays out often into the early morning, GMT. This mini-post may thus have been influenced by sleep deprivation …

The Murray versus Del Potro semi-final furnished some nice examples of players cottoning on to creative use (and abuse) of newly introduced rule changes.

Non-tennis players begin here

Tennis has introduced a natty technology giving players the right to appeals line-calls. To avoid excessive appeals, there is a limit of three unsuccessful appeals every set. The ultimate authority resides in the technology which tracks ball-movements, now revealed on giant screens to ums and ohs from the fans. Despite reservations, the technology has been around for some while and seems mostly accepted by players and officials alike. It is also a crowd-pleaser.

The intention

The intention behind introducing the hawkeye system is to provide fairer decisions for the players, and perhaps reduce abuse of umpire and officials. Both seem to have been achieved to a degree.

Unintended consequences

In the course of the match, a commentator supplied some stats on how successful the top players had been in their challenges. Only one player had a better than 50% success rate. That was Novak Djokovic. Murray was down at the bottom of the list with less than 25% success rate. As it tuned out, Murray was to go on to contest the final at Miami with Djokovic [Sunday April 5th 2009].

Curious. This researcher’s interest was aroused (even at 2pm in the morning in the semi-final). Both players made unconvincing linecalls. But some unexpected explanations emerged from the SKY commentators. Del Potro, bothered by an injury, found various ways of grabbing a few extra seconds after toughly contested points. An appeal after one rather obviously correct call served the purpose very nicely. He had remained within the letter of the law, even if it had the unintended consequences as far as the legislators were concerned of giving a player a bit of breathing space (almost literally). .

Quickly after, Murray made an equally unconvincing challenge. Was he too grabbing a time-out from the battle? Possibly. But another explanation was suggested by the SKY commentator. It seems that Murray, nothing if not a strategic thinker, had been talking of using a line call appeal to figure out just how wayward his shot had been. The statistically minded might dig more deeply to see whether the stats for players may throw light on such cunning ruses.

Who cares?

Other tennis pros, maybe. Sporting innovators are destined to attract sporting imitators, and that’s how ‘progress’ (or at least change) occurs. Also, of interest to various anoraks who dream up theories of change leadership and innovation.


No Mourinho magic in Manchester

March 12, 2009

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Charismatic leadership can be like a conjuring trick which seems to defy all rational principles. But there are limits to what can be achieved, as Jose Mourinho found out at Old Trafford

The European Cup tie was billed as the clash of two great football managers as Jose Mourinho brought his Inter Milan team to Old Trafford [Wed 11th March 2009] after a goalless first leg at Milan. Manchester United and Inter headed their respective national leagues. United had won the trophy in 2008, and had since won a fledgling competition to establish themselves as World Champions. Most commentators considered United to be a stronger team. Inter had further problems from injuries to key players.

And yet …

And yet there was a degree of caution in the press in predicting a winner. On the home goals rule, a score draw would be enough for Inter to go through. But the main consideration the pundits mentioned in favour of the Italian team was Mourinho’s overwhelming winning record against Manchester teams (which means teams managed by Sir Alex Ferguson). This record, first with Porto, and then Chelsea, was part of the legend of Mourinho, the self-styled special one, and charismatic leader.

Mourinho may not have spooked Alex Ferguson, but he had had his usual effect at a distance on supporters and media alike.

Even the first leg could be claimed a minor victory for Jose. United played well but were denied by Inter in the first half, who then came back strongly after half time. Mourinho was assumed to have worked his magic during the interval or a team considered to have fewer world-class players in their prime.

The effects of charisma

The preservation of the image of a special one was captured in the post-match conference in Milan. Mourinho had, unusually, not acknowledged his counterpart on the touchline, when the match ended.

THis was not intended as a mark of disrespect. I have a special exit from the field, the special one explained. But he had left a message for Sir Alex with a ‘three houndred pound bottle of wine’ at his hotel, to say he would look forward to meting at Old Trafford for the second leg.

Two weeks later

Now at Manchester, Mourinho’s customary swagger is evident as comes into view on the touchline wearing his trademark black magician’s cloak (sorry, overcoat). The crowd in the theatre of dreams boo him energetically and theatrically. The contest starts.

Four minutes later, and the magic spell seems to have gone wrong. Slack marking from Inter, and United take the lead. Technically Inter win still win if they score one goal and United do not add to their tally. Mourinho paces around uttering incantations.

But maybe he still has inspired something special in his players. Manchester’s skill levels drop off (Afterwards, Ferguson was caustic on their sloppiness). His team gets to half time lucky to preserve the lead. United were still appearing scrappy and uncomfortable as the second half started. Then United score another goal, in one of the few world-class moves of the game. Even then, with Milan now needing two goals to triumph, the players played nervously in a way that was at odds with the score, and their record at Old Trafford for many months.

The limits of charisma

United repelled fluent moves from their opponents, cameras switching from time to time to Jose on the touchline. As his team created chance after chance and failed convert them, his body language began to change. It was like watching one of those cartoon characters racing over a cliff, and pedalling furiously in mid-air before fantasy yields to the reality of gravity, and the character plunges to earth.

The crowd chanted “You’re not special anymore” but more with a mix of relief and black humour than of spite.

We were witnessing the limits of charisma. Maybe not gone for ever, but vanquished in one particular battle in one particular place. Even the magician’s cloak looked more like a perfectly ordinary if expensive piece of clothing, more often associated with mourners at a funeral.

The final whistle blows. N special tunnel for Jose. The two great managers execute a clumsy embrace for public consumption. In the press conference shortly afterwards, Jose says Manchester United are ‘at their maximum’ and will win everything they compete for this year.

Of course. It takes super-special magic to defeat a chosen one.


What’s going on at Tottenham?

August 24, 2007

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There is a belief in football sports lore that a manager is in trouble when his chairman publically offers him support. This week Martin Jol of Tottenham Hotspur was the latest recipient of such an endorsement, delivered by his chairman David Levy

The story is rich in leadership implications. Martin Jol is widely recognized as a successful international football coach. As Manager, he has been as as successful as outside experts expected in his time at Tottenham Hotspur. Last season ended with the club in a creditable fifth-place in the Premier league. The evidence is that he is well-respected by the players. His acquisition of Dimitar Berbatov has been a huge success, with the Bulgarian striker scoring over twenty goals in his first season at the club. Despite interest from Manchester United and Chelsea, Tottenham was able to reatain their star striker, who has indicated the importance to him of his manager’s influence.

So why is there any doubt over Jol’s future? The obvious source of dissatisafaction is the two successive losses at the start of the season earlier this month. This was followed by a convincing win, but the rumours grew. The directors at the club appeared to have reached a view that their manager was not the person through which they would fulfil their goal of becoming one of the top four English premiership clubs. On this criterion, last season’s fifth place was a failure, even if it had been judged a signal success by most disinterested observers (if there is such a thing).

It appears that the poor start to the season may just have reinforced a corporate view that had emerged earlier. According to iol,

Spurs had offered his job to Sevilla coach Juande Ramos
In almost three years in charge his position has never been under such scrutiny for his usual media briefing…Jol only received the “100 percent” support of his chairperson Daniel Levy at the third attempt on Thursday, [August 23rd 2007] two previous statements from the Spurs’ board this week notably failed to give him their full backing…As Jol prepared to give his version of events, Spurs were forced to deny rumours that Fabio Capello was next in line to take over the helm after Ramos’s decision to stay put in Sevilla

So, there is some evidence of board-room discontent. It calls to mind the background of rumours around Jose Mourinho at Chelsea earlier this year, and Sven Goran Eriksson as he approached the end of his time as England manager.

Come to think of it …

Ambition drives business leaders onwards, and sometimes upwards. The goal of reaching the top four clubs in the land is one that can be understood. Only the churlish would point out that such an ambition needs deep pockets, maybe deeper than those around Tottenham at present. The ambition would have been further strengthened by the ease with which Chelsea has jumped to the top of the status table in London, as well as the top of the league nationally since the Abramovitch takeover and his foolishly wealthy support. That must hurt. For the moment, in town, Tottenham must look up to Arsenal who must look up to Chelsea. I looks up to him, but he looks up to me, as the old John Cheese sketch put it.

Admirable ambition. If the stories turn out to be accurate, the ambition was rather unrealistic, and badly executed. A fine manager is put under pressure, and the club has succeeded in the short-term only in undermining his efforts.


Sven, Alex and the Prawn Sandwich Brigade

August 19, 2007

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The first battle of the season between Manchester City and Manchester United is an opportunity to evaluate the impact of two celebrated leaders of contrasting styles. Sir Alex (The hairdryer) Ferguson blows as hot as Sven Goran Eriksson remains icily cool. The press have managed to squeeze out a story of mutual antagonism. The city remains largely disinterested in the press version of events.

Matches between Manchester City and Manchester United do not seem to be among the highlights of the year for some local fans. City fans say it is because United supporters don’t come from Manchester. And anyway, they are inclined to add, the only Premiership stadium in the city is now Eastlands and until recently was at Maine Road, spiritual home of Manchester City.

Still, the press can always find a way to make the event more noteworthy. I picked up the story on the day of the Manchester derby match of August 19th 2007.

In The Sunday Telegraph, Roy Collins referred to ‘that mixture of Swedish and English that should perhaps be known as Svenglais’. Sven has excellent English, somewhat easier to understand than most English (not to mention Scottish) pundits and commentators.

It brought back to mind the gratuitous and unthinkingly xeonphobic articles Sven suffered during his time as England manager. As if on cue, I came across another article by Manchester City fan and Guardian blogger/ reporter Simon Hattenstone who acclaimed Sven’s great start as City’s manager, while hedging his bets in advance of the Manchester Derby, resorting (I think) to irony.

Svennis, I’m so, so, so, so, so sorry. I shouldn’t have compared you to Death in The Seventh Seal, shouldn’t have called you frigid, lily-livered and deluded, or harked on about your Cuban heels, or made gratuitous references to your Zeus-like libido, or been catty about the sweet dream that you were managing Manchester United, or questioned your ingenious scouting on YouTube. I was foolish, Svennis, an ignoramus. Glib. Just a stupid football fan wantonly giving you sticks.

With friends like these …

A more balanced view of Sven’s track-record found in an excellent BBC highs and lows treatment. And a useful if hagiographic account of Sir Alex in a ManU fanzone.

How to create a story

The tabloids managed to work up a story (an old one of ‘Fergie’s mind games’).
“People are trying to get me to talk about Sven, but I don’t know enough about him for an opinion really.” Which didn’t stop an article in The People from Steve Bates featuring the ‘exclusive’ that

Sir Alex Ferguson took a dig at Manchester derby rival Sven Goran Eriksson last night, claiming he’s only managing in the Premier League for the big-money wages.

I thought I’d offer a little local background to the match …

What’s it like in Manchester?

Wet. Cool. Quiet. At nine in the morning, the main signs of life are a few cars on near-deserted roads in the suburbs, and even fewer customers for the morning paper at the newsagents. The supermarkets are still getting ready for the mid-morning shoppers. The weather is worth a couple of hundred auxiliary coppers on crowd-control duties; the magistrate who sanctioned an early Sunday kickoff also did her civic duty.

It’s hard to believe it will be possible to play a game of tennis outdoors. It may be harder to understand how a group of us manages to play almost every Sunday. That’s because we play on an all-weather court, and in drizzle, and between showers. And so we shall today.

At the bar, Eric is having a late breakfast before going to the match. He says he fancies City to win. Eric always fancies City to win. But there’s always hope.

Ours is a mixed club. Mixed in a mostly tolerant way. There are reds and blues, but more than a smattering of the other regional reds (Liverpool supporters). To complicate the mix more, quite a few members are also supporters of that other local sympathy case, Stockport County (‘My other car’s a Porsche’).

Bragging rights

Supporters, true supporters, aren’t supposed to fraternise with the enemy. Maybe we are the kind so neatly skewered by Roy Keene as the prawn sandwich brigade. Anyway, I can’t see me tossing insults at Eric across the stadium, or vice-versa. We just wouldn’t accuse each other of being that sort of tosser. As for bragging rights, that’s maybe one of the psychological payoffs us prawn sandwich brigadiers have to do without. At least it makes Mondays more bearable for all sides. On the other hand, there is plenty of interest in football. I could probably say who supports whom for most of these folk …

Still falls the rain

In my mind’s eye, I can see more-committed praetorian guardsmen gathering prior to battle. Rain will not weary them, nor the clouds dispel. Their drummers will rally the troops as they head for the East Manchester fields, having supped well on what used to be called the Cream of Manchester, the blessed Boddingtons, brewed but a stone’s throw from Strangeways prison. As true to my stereotyping, as they to theirs, I head off home, if not to a prawn sandwich then maybe for a piece of Pork and Pickle pie.

Stop Press

City 1 United 0. Eric’s dream has come true. Sven’s team tops the table, Sir Alex, for the moment, has come out second best. I can’t remember what the Pork and Pickle pie tasted like.


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