Roger, Rafa, Serena, Venus. Form is temporary, class is permanent

January 28, 2017


The Australian Open singles finals became the sporting event of the year when four of the greatest tennis players of their generation faced off for the titles

January 2017: Melbourne Australia. Four great tennis players have battled to reach the finals. None had started the tournament as top seed. The tennis tensions are palpable.

All four have shown astonishing resilience against younger and arguably fitter opponents. It was all the more unusual because all four had been written off before the tournament on grounds of injury, Ill-health, and advancing years.

Andy and Novak battle for top seed

In the men’s game, for nearly a year Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic had been fighting for top dog (or top seed, as they prefer to say in tennis.) Roger and Rafa were left behind.

Roger, after a career of injury-free successes had succumbed to the perils of fatherhood, namely prepared his twins for their bath, and severely damaging his back when turning the tap on. (I couldn’t have written that in a fictional account).

Rafa after an equally-illustrious career but one blighted with injuries was recovering from his latest injury time-out. His appearances now reveal residual damage to knees, legs, fingers (ugh, particularly unpleasant looking.)

Recently they met to share medical reports, dreaming of one day when they might be both fit enough to limp on to court for one last public match.

Serena versus Venus

In the women’s game, the Williams systers had already become medical phenomena with debilitating conditions which has not prevented them from collecting multiple titles individually and just for fun as a devastating doubles partnership.

The younger sister Serena became by far the strongest and most talented and winningest woman player of her generation. Venus, by comparison Spiderwoman to Serena’s Superwoman, would also hold more singles titles (but fewer doubles, probably) if her sister had not been around.

A year ago, Serena reached the pinnacle of her career in the Senena Slam in New York, widely touted as the tournament in which she would be crowned as winner of all four slams in a calander year. Partly through nerves she slipped up. Since then she has won out only on  injury bragging-rights.

However, earlier in the tournament she summoned up her remarkable depths of bouncebackability to sweep past the new British hope Joannah Konta. She is installed as favorite once again.

Age shall nor weary them

Age shall nor weary them. This weekend, the tennis world watches with huge anticipation the battle of the four thirty-something’s. At clubs around the world, the four golden-oldies will be celebrated by millions of mere mortals, some still swinging as the decades slip by.

A tweet from Donald?

Donald Trump used the US Open to launch his political career. He may just find time for a phone-call to Australia or maybe a tweet today.

To be continued


Fame, wealth, celebrity. What more could a top sportsman want?

June 3, 2016
Novak Djokovic

Novak Djokovic

The answer, if you are Novak Djokovic, is the unconditional love lavished on his two great tennis rivals Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal

Read the rest of this entry »

Jeff Tarango is the Homer Simpson of tennis commentators. Duh.

September 8, 2014

Tennis commentator Jeff Tarango wears his heart on his sleeve. At the US Open he revealed remarkable similarities to Homer Simpson

Homer Simpson is the much-loved character in the peerless comedy series The Simpsons. He is portrayed as capturing popular stereotypes of the American culture, through his basic decency, his loyalty to his family and the American dream. He is also lovably dysfunctional socially, simplistic and unreflective in his beliefs and hapless in his unconscious mediocrity.

Jeff Tarango

Jeff Tarango has Homeric aspects to his personality. Perhaps the most famous is on U-tube showing how he defaulted himself from Wimbledon after a clash with an Umpire and a very Homer-like argument that he should be able to tell the crowd to shut up as they we telling him what to do. Then his wife, as loyal as Madge Simpson, manages to seek out the Umpire and give him a retaliatory slap.

Jeff never scaled the heights as a singles tennis player, although he crept into the top fifty with a career-best of 42. But like Homer Simpson , he had his triumphs over fate and adversity. He became a tennis pundit. Among his present employers is the BBC, as much part of the British establishment as The Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Club.

Tarango at the US Open

Even keen tennis fans in Europe probably missed the fantastic match at the US Open at which
Cilic beat Federer in the early hours of the morning, European time. I first learned of the result reading Tarango’s account of the match as it unfolded.

It is fair to say the Tarango is not your average neutral commentator. He wanted Federer to win. Big Time. His recorded view became more Homeric as his man struggled and headed out of the tournament.

Federer, he declared, would be back to win Wimbledon next July. In fact he would go on to win two or more Grand Slams. Most commentators were discussing whether the Fed would win another slam.


The world would be a duller place without Homer Simpson. Perhaps the same could be said about Jeff [Homer] Tarango

Federer versus Murray, and why I might become a behaviorist

August 16, 2014

Andy Murray loses to Roger Federer in the quarter finals of Cincinnati. Your LWD correspondent considers becoming a behavioural psychologist

Just another tennis match, [16th August, 2014] and no big deal. Except Roger Federer has just had praise heaped on him on the event of his thirty-third birthday with the implication he is nearing the end of his illustrious career. He has drifted down to World number six. Andy Murray after surgery has slumped to World number ten, and is slightly under-cooked for the US Open in a week’s time.

At the start of the match, one TV pundit favoured Murray slightly to win it. Another expert favoured Federer slightly. What happened was dramatic and unexpected.

Early exchanges

Early exchanges show Federer to be the more confident player, and he breaks to lead 3-2 and serve. Then he wins another break to take the first set. One of the worse sets Murray has played against Federer.

Second set

Federer’s play dips and Murray breaks at 2-1. Then again to 4-1. Murray strategy to Federer’s backhand side is winning. Federer’s play weaker than in the first set.

Murray drops serve and droops

Murray drops serve with weak play to 4-2. Then drops another serve with even weaker play. If I believed in momentum I would say Federer had gained it.

Murray’s play continues in increasingly predictable weak fashion, and he loses miserably.

‘Between Andy’s ears’

Peter Fleming, one of the better tennis commentators, observed for B Sky B that ‘something was going on between Andy’s ears’ , a euphemism I took to mean that Andy’s mental state was wrong. But on the previous day Andy had shown enormous concentration in defeating big serving Isner. There was no mental fragility on show.

Why I might become a behaviourist

I did not disagree with Fleming’s remark. Except it left me feeling I might give up searching for explanations of human behaviour that involved unobservable processes such as mental fragility. That is the central precept of behavioral psychology,

Fight may still be OK

If I took up with behaviourism, then I could stop worrying about mental events or processes such motivation, commitment, maybe even fright, but fight might just about be OK because like flight it is just about observable.

And, as a behaviorist I would have to abandon worry as an epiphenomenon.

Goodbye to creativity

So it’s goodbye creativity, hello to the world of stimulus and response.

My observations on this brave new world may be reported in a future blog post.


August 22nd:  The Murray conundrum continues in the first round of the US open. Against a veteran opponent Robin Hasse, Murray is tentative from start and gets worse.  The serve is tentative. The play a mix of cautious and over aggressive.  Still struggles on, but wins tie break to go two sets up.

Murray then increasingly physically distressed, cramps mightily, appears to be about to default.  Hasse wins 

set, then also flags. Murray limps home after a wildly swinging fourth set.

I depart from neo-behaviorism and reach speculative view that AM is in same dire form as some English and Indian cricketers I have watched recently.  Cramp is part of a more complex set of actors.  So is first round nerves.

Why I’m not a tennis commentator: Murray v Federer

January 26, 2013

Australian Open Tennis Semi-Final 2013. After five games of the match, two commentators declared that Federer could not win unless something significant changed. What had they ‘read’ that was not obvious to a non- professional observer?

Tudor Rickards

As a tennis addict I watch a lot of matches. I even offer opinions on a game I have never played at competitive level. Why not? There are plenty examples of less gifted players who make impressive commentators. With the notable exception of John McInroe, former top players do not seem particularly insightful. [I hesitate to comment on female commentators, as I don’t watch or listen enough to have a view on them or the game.]

Australian Open Tennis Semi-Final 2013 [25th January]. Views were expressed by former grand slam winners Pat Cash and Goran Ivanisowitch, after only five games. Both though Murray was completely in charge. Why?

I roused myself from beneath the warm morning blankets [UK time] and switch on TV. The first set went as the pundits predicted. To me, Murray seemed more comfortable on serve, although scattering enough errors to need a few big winners on big points. Federer seemed a shade more nervous than usual. The pattern or strategy of Murray was clearer. Strong hitting to the Federer backhand with powerful forehands to win points. Federer more being forced to respond.

Second set

A more even set. The TV commentators are more cautious than Pat and Goran, saying that Federer is never out of a close match. Now fully floodlit on the court. Are conditions changing? Is Federer giving up on points needing a big chase? My mind thinks tiebreak with edge to Murray. Tiebreak it is. Weak start by Murray. Murray misses a chance to win, misses, loses. One set all.

Third set

Murray seems in discomfort. Notice, Federer is hard to read. Physical and emotional state concealed. Federer has a weak service game, loses it, Murray holds. Wins set. 39 to 19 points won. Federer takes comfort break.

Fourth set

Murray’s concentration lapses and he drops serve. Fights back. At 4-4 no predictions. Murray stronger and breaks again to serve for match. Federer brilliance Wins to reach another tie break. And wins tie break.

Fifth set

The commentators have to make predictions. I’m glad I’m not one of those. BBC pundit just favors Murray. Who moves to 5-2. Then 6-2 to win match.


For me, realization that commentators are forced to resolve all anxieties for the rest of us. Maybe they “read” situations through better experience and tacit knowledge. Or maybe utter confidence in a belief is one of the charcateristics of a champion?

“Masterminds who give genius a guiding hand” Analysis of top tennis coaches

June 18, 2011

A thoughful examination of coaches of the top four male tennis players suggests their skills involve trust-building and seeking to make marginal changes

Hugh MacDonald writing in the Herald provides an impressive piece of sporting journalism. He stuck to supplying readers with evidence above opinion, in analysing the coaches and their impacts on the big four of Men’s tennis.

They are the best in the world, perhaps the best quartet in world tennis ever. So how can anyone make them better? This is the task facing those who choose to coach Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Andy Murray. They are four different personalities with distinct playing styles, but with the same driving force that demands improvement in their game.

Long-term relationships

Djokovic and Nadal have persisted with a long-term relationship with one coach. ‘Uncle Toni’ has been with Nadal for ever. Djokovic has stuck with Marian Vajda for much of his career. A brief period with the distinguished player coach Todd Martin did not work out. Federer has also stuck with Severin Luethi for some while. He was quoted in the New York Times as saying “We don’t particularly set up and say, ‘let’s do a brainstorming session’, like in business school or something. It’s somewhat more casual. We are in track suits and lounging around and all of a sudden it happens,”

Not so long term

Which brings us to Andy Murray. The snarly Scot seems to need a coach as target for his on-court frustations. Relationships appear to be intense and ephemeral in contrast to the other three players. MacDonald is tactful when he writes:

The most intriguing set-up, however, is situated at the heart of Team Murray. “I have a coach,” was Murray’s brisk answer to enquiries at the French Open about when he intended to appoint a full-time mentor. Murray now has access to Darren Cahill and has Sven Groeneveld in his box. Cahill coached Lleyton Hewitt and Andre Agassi and Groeneveld worked with Federer. The 24-year-old Scot thus has a mine of experience to seam. The approach of player and coach, though, show the relationship is built on trust and then faith. Murray talks of the “stability” the Australian has [recently] brought to his game. He said: “He did not just steam in and say, ‘you need to do this, you need to do that’, and start telling everyone what to do. He spent a few days not really saying very much, but he was figuring everyone out.” Murray added: “He’s someone who has been around big events and who has played at a high level as well so he knows how to deal with things emotionally. He knows how a player feels.”

Do coaches make a difference?

The accounts suggest that they do. Perhaps Murray has been the toughest challenge of the four. Perhaps it is one factor which keeps him behind the others in his ranking and tournament successes.

Nadal v Soderling: Nothing Personal?

June 1, 2009
Nadal reviews defeat

Nadal reviews defeat

Nadal crashed out of the French Open to Robin Soderling. The post-match interviews suggested there was nothing personal between the two. Or was there? And did it contribute to the result?

Nadal’s loss to Soderling in round four of the French Open [May 31st 2009] has been classed as one of the biggest upsets of the year. It has already been written upon at length. I just have one additional thought which may be more suited to back page gossip columns

There may have been something personal between the players. It may have worked to help Soderling’s game.

You have to go back into the history of their games to see what might have happened between these two players. And whatever it was may have been no more than one of the spats that might be expected to be no more or less in frequent in Tennis than in any other sporting area.
The BBC offers some history to the match and its antecedents.

World number one Rafael Nadal suffered his first ever defeat at the French Open in a shock 6-2 6-7 (2-7) 6-4 7-6 (7-2) loss to Sweden’s Robin Soderling. Nadal, chasing a fifth straight Roland Garros title, saw his 31-match unbeaten run in Paris come to an end in one of the biggest upsets in tennis history.
Soderling’s win comes a month after he was beaten 6-1 6-0 by Nadal in Rome. [Clue no 1]
“I told myself this is just another match” said the 24-year-old Swede … All the time, I was trying to play as if it was a training session. When I was 4-1 up in the (fourth set) tie-break, I started to believe”

The article goes on to supply other clues to the players’ attitudes to one another:

Soderling had lost his previous three matches against Nadal [Clue no 2 including a recent humiliation in Rome, which Nadal went on to win] but seemed a man transformed on Court Philippe Chatrier ..

The Spaniard struggled from the outset against a player with whom he was involved in an unsavoury spat at Wimbledon two years ago when Soderling mocked his pre-service routine [Clue No 3].

The evidence suggests?

Not a lot really. The story I am putting together may be no more than speculation.

Stay with the speculation, if only because Nadal losing is more than just ‘he had to lose on clay sooner or later’. What if any were the special elements in the loss? Might they the history between the players have worked for once as a spur to Nadal’s opponent rather than a deeply damaging mind-set of anticipated defeat.

Players say they go into every match believing they can win. This tends to get modified to ‘if I play well I have a good chance’ (Murray’s current favorite and cautious pre-match remark).

Soderling may have had visualised avenging his recent humiliating loss in Rome. He may have had two years regretting Nadal’s triumphs after their Wimbledon encounter. Which (we still don’t know how) he was able to turn to his advantage.

It’s nothing personal, as we are taught that the Mafia believed. Except I’m suggesting that revenge is always personal.

I rest my tenuous case.


After an injury break, Nadal begins 2010 with a win over Soderling at a mini-tournament in Abu Dahbi. The Swede had advanced into the top ten in the world, Nadal had regained his number two spot, and Soderling had beaten Roger Federer in the previous round.

Andy Murray and Roger Federer: How role models work

January 18, 2009


Update note

Updated on the eve of Wimbledon, June 2009. Six months later, Murray had climbed to No 3 in the World. Federer had recently won The French Open fulfilling several personal goals. Murray has won the Pre-Wimbledon tournament at Queen’s club.

Nadal, last year’s Wimbledon winner pulls out, leaving Federer as favourite, Murray as No 2 seed. According to seeding they will meet in the final … [Update ends].

Andy Murray owes a lot to Roger Federer. Their relationship gives an insight into how role models work to sustain motivation in athletes who want to become No. 1.

In the first weeks of 2009, Andy Murray defeated Roger Federer twice on the way to winning two tennis tournaments.

Federer, who had been No. 1 has recently slipped to No. 2 and Murray climbed to No. 4 Federer is still regarded by many experts as the most complete tennis player of his generation. Yet Murray, the in-form young contender, was installed as favourite for the upcoming Australian grand-slam event.

Andy Murray like most (all?) top athletes has a fierce competitive drive. This may be triggered by some important events in childhood, and it is probably genetically determined, at least in part.

My contention is that motivational drive can become anchored and focused by the influence of a role model.

How a role model helps shape behavior

Sometimes the wannabe champion has feelings of admiration and awe towards to the former No.1. That seems to have been the case for John McEnroe. On court, when competing with Borg, Johnnie Mac was a paragon of well-behaved virtue. But the influence of the role model did not extend far beyond their few hours on court.

Murray has also been better behaved while playing Federer, and was closer to the rebellious McInroe when playing almost anyone else.

I speculated elsewhere that an athlete may admire someone for qualities they would like to possess, but feel they do not. My earlier example was from Cricket, and Boycott’s respect for the on-field persona of Pietersen, all flair and aggression, and a near identikit version of Boycott’s suppressed shadow self.

Murray and Federer

Andy Murray is arguably heir to McEnroe. Both were precocious brats as teenagers. McEnroe eventually became a much-loved senior citizen. Murray seems to be emerging from teenage bratdom although the aggressive and sometimes obnoxious side still simmers away not far from the surface.

And Murray admired Federer initially from afar. His view on the new No 1., Nadal is quite different (although he still has been less prone to uncontrolled outbursts in matches against Nadal). The two spent a lot of time togther as juniors.

Federer’s response to Murray’s victories

Federer now to cope with a tough challenge to his own self-esteem and self-belief that he is the best tennis player in the world. still No. 1 image. Roger, a most graceful person in public has had to struggle to acknowledge the progress Andy was making towards that top spot. Recently [Jan 10th 2009] he more or less said that Murray might be a very good player one day but he would have to win a few Grand Slams on the way. Murray continues to refer to Federer with great respect, suggesting he is still the greatest player in the world. Such graciousness by Murray is helped by the fact that he is now well ahead on head-to-heads against the great man, and so his statement is also a nice bit of self- promotion.

Role Models, Motivation, and Learned Need Theory

The general issue of ambition is captured in the theory of needs generally attributed to Harvard psychologist David McClelland.

Need for achievement, (N ach) is typified by a fierce motivational drive towards achievement. The high N-ach individual seems driven by deep personal needs which McClelland believed were acquired or learned by early life experiences.

The high-achieving individual

I will return to the broader issue of the high achieving individual in a later post. Here I’ll just mention a few interesting ways in which Murray may be reinforcing his need to achieve, suggested by aspects of the theory.

High N-ach personalities seek, and thrive on, rapid feedback towards identified goals. In Tennis, after each stroke there is feedback in the win/lose result. There is further feedback in everything that connects to a perfectly hit winner, or a badly executed shot, from the body position, to the noise of the ball off the racquet, and the applause of the crowd. After the match there are the rituals of winning and losing.

So will Murray win the Australian Open?
Murray is now close to the finished article technically and psychologically. My Delphic prediction for the Australian Open is that if Murray remains fit, a great victory will take place.

Betting on Murray against Federer

September 8, 2008

When Andy Murray squared up to Roger Federer for the US Open title, the smart money was on the former champion. But there were crumbs of hope for the romantics betting on the underdog

What considerations might lead anyone to back a player playing in his first Grand Slam final against one of the greatest of Tennis champions of the modern era?

Add to that the general view that the 21 year old Murray is still developing his game at the highest level, while the 27 year old Federer is still close to his awesome peak. as he demonstrated in beating Novak Djokovic in the Semi-finals.

No contest. But the odds offered on matchday offered were around 2/1 on Federer.

The immediacy bias

On of the famous biases in human judgement is known as the immediacy effect. Most people put to much weight in their decisions on the most recent bits of information. Murray played out of his skin to defeat World No 1 Raphael Nadal twenty four hours earlier, in a match interrupted by rain and extended over two days.

Rafa had recently snatched the No 1 slot from Federer. A great win for Murray.

Sky Sports summarizer was one Greg Rudzeski, who had been the last Brit to make a singles final for some years. (OK, an ex-Canadian, then).
Greg had been backing Federer to win, throughout the tournament. But now that Murray had outed Nadal, Greg flipped over. “It’s his destiny” he insisted. “He’s going to beat Roger. I’m going to change my pick. He’s playing better than Federer.”

For me, there are too many variables to reach a fully-convincing conclusion: Murray had lost five out of five matches to Nadal, and won two out of three matches against Federer. Nadal had beaten Federer in the final at Wimbledon this summer. Murray was likely to be more fatigued after his later completion of the Nadal game.

I suspect the betting is also biased by the proportion of the British Gambling public that is rooting for Murray. That is to say almost all Scots, and a rather smaller proportion of the English who are nostalgic for the days of Gentleman Tim Henman.

Tim, like Greg, thinks Murray will edge out the Fed. John MacInroe, and Nadal go with the bookies’ favourite.

Wisdom of the crowd says Federer. Track Record says Federer. Experience says Federer. So how come so many fans can’t wait for what they believe will be a close match?

Davydenko dumps Murray just like Federer predicted

March 7, 2008

When Federer lost to Murray at Dubai this week he said Murray had not developed much in two years. When Murray then lost to Davydenko, Federer’s harsh judgement seemed quickly justified


The remarks made by Roger Federer about Andy Murray were repeated by the media as the two prepared to contest The US Open final six months later.

Original Post

Fededer’s post match comments on losing to Andy Murray at Dubai caused a bit of a stir. He made his views clear. Murray had not developed a great deal despite his climb up the rankings in the last two years. Was the great man in denial after a rare loss?

Since his win over Federer, Murray’s performances seem to back up the Fed’s remarks. In the second round there was a scratchy performance against Fernando Verdasco which he could easily have lost. In the third round there was another lack-lustre effort against Davydenko in which the young Scot was comprehensively bullied off the court.

In both these efforts the most obvious characteristic of Murray’s play was a style that in essentials has characterised his play since his days as a promising junior. The style has often been described as that of a counter-puncher. He has always been a counter-puncher. It has survived changes in coach. But even after a time with Brad Gilbert he has remained a counter-puncher, albeit a much improved one.

It’s largely a matter of comfort zone. Under stress we all retreat to the most habitual responses to the pressure of the situation. Champions lose less, which is what we mean when we talk of their mental toughness. But under pressure we all now pretty much how an Andy Roddick will fight his way out of trouble. It will be different to how an Andre Agassi used to do it, or a Johnnie Mac. Murray’s way has been to stick even further to defense, reducing advances to the net even further.

Grooving and flexibility

Every player knows the importance of being grooved. How getting feet and body lined up just right to deal with as many different shots as possible. But grooving can come at a cost to flexibility.

Murray is still in search of grooving his now formidable serve. He does not bottle it on critical points. But it still needs more grooving, more consistency. He is more than flexible enough at a tactical level. Maybe too willing to try the low probability option that has commentators gasping in admiration when it works, and frustration when it doesn’t.

So the master has got a point about the apprentice. In some very important ways Murray has a signature to his play. Too often still he does not find the flexibility to depart from his comfort zone. That is sometimes concealed by brilliant improvisation that goes with the basic style.

Federer also said that maybe Murray will surprise us all over the next ten years. Maybe by winning slams. Let’s hope so.