The last few years have been very unkind to Venus Williams. We’ve watched as one of the all-time greats waged a very public battle against an auto-immune disease (Sjogren’s Syndrome) that threatened to end her trailblazing career. Faced with adversity, the elder Williams has shown remarkable fortitude in trying to get her career back on track.
Credit to Venus that she doesn’t want our sympathy. Although she struggles to stay healthy for prolonged periods, she seems genuinely happy to just be able to take the court and compete. Those who think she’s over the hill and should retire do her a great injustice. While she may never win another major, her successes going forward (however minor) should be celebrated as triumphs of her will and not mere snapshots of her past glory. Moreover, she’s relished her new role as exemplar of triumph over adversity.
So, what can we expect from Venus in 2014?
She’s currently playing in Auckland and managed a strong straight sets win in her opening match against Andrea Hlavackova. Tokyo showed she’s able to muster elite tennis provided she can “feel well” for long enough. Her march toward the semi-finals featured some vintage tennis but was eventually undone by a lack of match play and too many errors. Still, she was able to push an in-form Petra Kvitova to the brink in the three sets.
Is it likely that Venus will make her way back to the top-10? Win another major? Play a full schedule? Reach the second week of Slams? Probably not. She believes she can still win tournaments, but it’s not the only thing driving her at this point. Many athletes speak of a love for their sport, but Venus embodies it. It’s why her lows are so painful to watch.
I think V can win a tournament in 2014. Where it might come is anyone’s guess. I’d also like to see her make another deep run at a Slam. Perhaps she will be healthy enough come Wimbledon to find her groove. Grass is the most likely surface for her to make it happen. After such a lengthy period of misfortune, the tennis gods owe her something special in 2014.
*For those unfamiliar with the incident, my title refers to certain choice words Irina Spirlea had for Venus at the 1997 U.S. Open. Well, Irina, turns out she kinda is!
Rafael Nadal has featured in two of the all-time great rivalries. His matches against Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic have yielded unthinkable tennis. While the Rafa-Fed duel has seen its best days, each Nadal/Djokovic encounter still holds the promise of something special. Each man continues to wrest the initiative from the other just when one appears to have gained irreversible momentum.
The current world numbers 1 and 2 have played an Open Era record 39 times against each other. When the “Big 4” hang up their rackets, it will likely be the most storied rivalry we’ll ever witness. Still, there has been great tennis and meaningful match-ups all around. Below is a list of the “Big 4’s” record against each other:
Nadal vs. Djokovic 22-17
Nadal vs. Federer 22-10
Federer vs. Djokovic 16-15
Djokovic vs Murray 11-8
Murray vs. Federer 11-9
Nadal vs. Murray 13-5
In terms of raw wins and losses, Nadal vs. Federer and Nadal vs. Murray are the most lopsided. However, Nadal and Federer have played thrilling tennis, and the overall win-loss record doesn’t reflect the quality or closeness of the matches. It is the Nadal vs. Murray match-up that is the glaring weak spot amongst the “Big 4.”
When the two contested the semis of the French, Wimbledon and U.S. Open in 2011, it appeared Murray had finally arrived and was getting closer to solving his Rafa conundrum. Yet, since that U.S. Open match, they have met only twice with one result being a walkover in favour of Murray. TWICE!!! In spite of all the great tennis we’ve seen over the last two years, this is a big loss for tennis fans.
Both men have managed periods of supreme excellence during that time. However, injuries have robbed us of the two playing each other at their best. Murray ruled Wimbledon and the Olympics while Rafa was injured, and Murray was M.I.A for the latter half of this year while Rafa tore through the hardcourt season.
Djokovic is the man who has had to deal with Nadal and Murray as they excelled at separate times. He bore the brunt of the losses that halted what appeared to be a Federer-esque stranglehold on the game heading into 2012.
2014 could be the year that Murray and Nadal finally cultivate a meaningful rivalry. It’s likely too late for theirs to develop into something akin to what we’ve seen with Rafa-Fed and Rafa-Nole, but it’s one that will enrich the ATP Tour and add to the already insane depth and quality of matches on display.
Shivnarine Chanderpaul scored his 29th Test century today. His 122 not out was the typical Chanderpaul innings, anchoring the brittle West Indian batting to a respectable score. It’s precisely what we’ve come to expect from the Guyanese stalwart. Moreover, I’m pleased that he’s managed to get a big score after having reached 50 only once in his previous four Test matches.
I’m pleased because, at 39, Chanderpaul is in the twilight of an unexpectedly awesome career. The fitness issues he battled in his early days didn’t offer much hope for such longevity. How he scores so many runs with that technique is baffling to every batting technician. Yet, 19 years on, Shiv remains the lone world-class obstacle in the West Indian line-up.
The clowns at the WICB do not have the best track record with handling ageing players. Brian Lara and Desmond Haynes are two prime examples of those who were given the not-so-gentle push out of the team before they were ready. For Chanderpaul, there will be no Test series like the manufactured farewell for Sachin Tendulkar. The little master is a one of a kind talent, and Chanderpaul is not his equal. However, the comparison serves the purpose of illustrating how West Indian cricket culture has, traditionally, not treated its elder statesmen with the deference they deserve in plotting their international exits.
Chanderpaul has experienced this before when he was unceremoniously axed from the ODI team. He was made scapegoat for the Windies’ horrific performance at the 2011 World Cup. Yet, it was Chanderpaul who once scored 150 while opening in an ODI game. In spite of a reputation of being a dogged and slow accumulator of runs, Shiv (to this day) remains the only West Indian batsman capable of building the kind of innings needed in the 50-over format. I believe there is a direct correlation between the team’s struggles in ODIs over the last three years to his absence in the middle order. However, the powers that were decided he was no longer useful to the team going forward and that was that.
All this is to say that I am very happy that Chanderpaul managed a big score to cement his value to the Test team. We’ve seen what has happened with Ricky Ponting, Tendulkar, and now Jaques Kallis. When the greats get to a certain age, minor slumps are treated as evidence of irreversible decline; there is a reduced patience to see them through the inevitable bumps in the road through which all international cricketers must navigate. I have every confidence that, had Chanderpaul’s “slump” continued for a few more Tests, the WICB would be very swift in showing him the door.
Save for Tendulkar, I’ve never seen a cricketer other than Chanderpaul who loves batting as much. If he continues to make runs, I can see Shiv playing until he’s 45. He’s never been the most comfortable with the press. He never seemed at ease as captain. But, charged with defending his wicket and scoring runs, Shiv has shown that he can do that for days on end.
I am not ready to bid him adieu. I hope and believe he has many more runs to score. One need only have witnessed some of the breathtaking on-drives he played at Hamilton to see that he’s still got lots to offer West Indies cricket. More than anything, I hope he is able to go out on his own terms. For all the yeoman’s service he’s given to West Indies cricket, it’s the least that we and the WICB can give back to him.
West Indies cricket lost Shane Shillingford to a suspension yesterday, when the ICC deemed his bowling action illegal. After losing the second Test against New Zealand with shocking ease, this news lessens the likelihood of a Windies revival to tie the series.
In the absence of Kemar Roach and Ravi Rampaul, Shillingford has often been the only West Indian bowler who looks capable of taking a wicket. While this must be devastating for Shillingford - whose international career now looks to be in jeopardy with his second suspension - the WICB must shift focus to Sunil Narine.
The board seems to be of the opinion that Narine is only a limited overs bowler, not suited to the longer format. His results in 5-day cricket have been underwhelming. Ian Bishop has talked extensively on-air about Narine’s problems - he believes they are due to Sunil’s unwillingness to bowl a fuller length. The thinking holds that the shorter length works for Narine in shorter formats because batsmen are forced to attack him, whereas they can play him off the pitch and the back foot in Tests.
Bishop’s logic is sound. However, like him, I believe the board has not shown enough patience with Narine, and willingness to develop his bowling at Test level. Shillingford’s suspension now gives the WICB an opening to cement Narine as the team’s #1 spin option in all formats. The board has to get this right. If they mishandle this situation, Narine’s confidence may never be able to recover.
As for Shillingford, hopefully he can recover from this. My main concern regarding the suspension is that the ICC doesn’t seem to have a uniformed way in dealing with these issues. The on-field umpire has to report the bowler during a match for any punitive action to be taken. Can the ICC, under this system, be certain that all teams are being treated in the same way? The opinion of the umpire will always be a subjective business.
Is Shillingford’s action more illegal than Saeed Ajmal? Or Harbhajan Singh? Ajmal has been reported before, with his action ultimately deemed satisfactory. Still, it is probable that bowlers will utilize multiple actions during any given innings and so how can the ICC effectively police this?
The issue at hand is the proliferation of the doosra, a delivery utilized by off-spin bowlers. It is meant to have the same effect as the googly bowled by leg-spinners, whereby the ball spins in the opposite direction as expected by the batsman. If you believe, as I do, that it is unlikely that the doosra can be bowled with a legal action (less than 15 degrees of elbow extension), then we must conclude that the system is not fair.
Cricket Australia has already banned its coaches from teaching the doosra to young spin bowlers, as it is of the same opinion that the delivery cannot be bowled legally. This promises to be a major issue for the ICC going forward.
Narine has also answered questions about his bowling action in the past. Hopefully he can avoid the fate dealt to Shillingford when his bowling comes under the heightened scrutiny of Test cricket. In the meantime, this is a crucial moment for West Indies cricket’s Test fortunes in the coming years.
Greg Maddux never had the lights out fastball or the knee-buckling curve. He was more wizard than gladiator on the mound. What he lacked in mph, he made up for in guile and precision - both of which he possessed in spades.
I became a Braves fan when Maddux was at the height of his powers. Each at-bat I'd hope for a 2-strike count so that I could witness yet another called third strike on a fastball that cut back over the inside corner. It remains one of my favourite things in all of sport.
Cooperstown will welcome Maddux into its next class, that much has never been in doubt. However, I never felt Maddux got the praise he deserved during his career - always in the shadow of pitchers with the electric arms. Clemens, Pedro and the Big Unit were the long ball to Maddux's seeing eye RBI single.
My hope is that he will now get the recognition befitting a man of such significant achievements. Perhaps the long shadow Clemens cast on the era will now allow the light to shine more brightly on Maddux.
Remember this commercial?
"How long are they gonna worship this guy?" - Prophetic question from Glavine. Now it is Maddux's turn in the spotlight while Clemens, Bonds, McGwire etc. are watching from the outskirts.
The only things missing from his resume are more World Series rings (1) and 20-game seasons (2). Still, we may never again see statistics like those he posted over 23 seasons:
18 fifteen win seasons
17 consecutive fifteen win seasons
1.14 career WHIP
5008 Innings Pitched
Only 7 times did he walk more than 50 batters in a season, none after 1993
4 consecutive Cy Young Awards
109 Complete Games
200+ Innings Pitched in 18 seasons
The list of accomplishments are endless. Taken together, they position Maddux as one of the all-time greats, a singular talent. He'll be recognized as such when he's elected to the Hall of Fame. Some speculate whether he'll be the first player ever elected with a unanimous vote. He's deserving of such an honour, but it won't make a lick of difference to the sheer volume of greatness he's given baseball.
I don’t feel it’s right that I’m playing, knowing that I’m not 100 per cent. I cannot currently operate at the level I have done in the past.
Following two failures in the first Test of The Ashes, Jonathan Trott opted to leave the tour due to a stress-related illness. Some ran with the narrative that he was unable to deal with the rough and tumble approach by the Aussie bowlers - a not so veiled attack on Trott’s masculinity.
Hughes' tweet was surprising considering he had previously offered support for Trott on Twitter right after the announcement. He quickly retracted today's tweet offering the trite "I'm sorry if I've offended anyone" apology.
Nonetheless, Simon Hughes has been the exception. Trott's decision to leave The Ashes has been met with near universal support - an acknowledgement that mental illness is a serious matter and one that warrants mature discussion.
Trott’s teammates have been staunch in their support, with many taking to twitter to pledge their allegiance publicly.