Monty: A Slating

It hurts to write this, it really does. Having to criticise a former hero is unpleasant – and I really hope that Andy Murray one day makes an insightful and appropriate tennis pundit. But in light of his insufferably pompous ramblings during Sky Sports Ryder Cup coverage, Colin Montgomerie is fully deserving of an absolute skewering. A skewering similar, in fact, to the one Monty has meted out to Tiger Woods all day.

Monty’s problems are threefold: purveyor of the most egotistical wittering ever recorded in televisual history; talking pure, unadulterated tripe about golf; and a raging, unseemly vendetta against the golfer Monty must unquestionably wish he was: Tiger Woods.

In between his incessant harking back to Celtic Manor in 2010 (Monty was the captain then, for those who’ve been fortunate enough to tune into the three minutes of coverage that he hasn’t spent prattling on about it) Monty has spent the opening day lambasting Woods for his driving, his putting and his demeanour; everything short of his skin colour, in fact.

Woods was poor during the morning foursomes, but certainly no worse than Lee Westwood. Nevertheless, “hopeless, I’d have had the authority to drop him” was Monty’s definitive verdict on Tiger’s performance; yet the bold Scot was noticeably silent on Westwood’s – and indeed Sergio Garcia’s – similar travails.

However, even more irritating than his continual Tiger-bashing and hilariously partisan European cheerleading, has been Monty’s unconscious, unspoken belief that he is Samuel Ryder’s representative on earth. The doyen of all things Ryder Cup. A learned guru sent to us by the founding fathers of the game. Albeit, a sage who only learned the science of “momentum” from Sam Torrance in 2002.

These foibles might have been forgivable without Monty’s repeated use of the personal pronoun. As it is, the utterly condescending tone with which he refers to self and slaughters the best efforts of others, engenders an overwhelming desire for Sky to insert some variant of a Mute Monty option on the red button. Indeed, it becomes a blessed relief to enjoy Ewan Murray and Butch Harmon, with their balanced, sensible and self-aware commentary.

I’ve written this as a lifelong fan of Monty; a golf fan who was perilously close to emotional breakdown when Monty choked his elusive major title away at Winged Foot in 2006 but his commentary has been so tediously self-important, that it almost, almost, makes you want the USA to win the Ryder Cup.

The conclusion of the 2010 Ryder Cup was comfortably one of the greatest, most thrilling, sporting moments ever to grace British soil; Monty’s resultant self-exultation almost makes you wish that McDowell’s famous putt on the 16th had slithered past the hole.

Heart says Murray; head says Djokovic

Bearing in mind his spectacular gold medal winning performance at the Olympics and clearly improved mental equilibrium on court, it now seems a formality that Andy Murray will  eventually win that elusive Grand Slam final. After an occasionally turbulent but ultimately masterful progression to the final – combining the great and the gritty – Murray is surely primed to deliver the performance of his life tonight on the the biggest stage in tennis. The only problem – his opponent: the titanic Novak Djokovic.

While Djokovic is not quite the superhuman colossus that annihilated the opposition in 2011, he is still an immense competitor and possesses a couple of significant advantages over Murray. Djokovic can hit the inside-out forehand far more consistently than the Scot and Murray’s backhand will have to be firing in order to combat Djokovic’s attacks into this area of the court. Whether Murray can turn defence into attack as startlingly as Djokovic can, also remains to be seen. In addition, Djokovic is quite simply the greatest athlete to ever set foot on a tennis court; an unprecedented blur of pure speed and incredible agility.

The head-to-head record is actually fairly even with Djokovic leading 8-6. However, more instructively, it is 2-2 in 2012 – with Murray triumphing in Dubai and at the Olympics, and Djokovic dominating the Miami final and winning that epic at the Australian Open.

In order to win, Murray must swarm all over the baseline, attack Djokovic as early as is possible and hit his groundstrokes with power and authority. The drawback to this strategy is that Djokovic often appears at his most dangerous when forced into seemingly impossible positions. That the abiding memory from their previous Grand Slam final encounter in Melbourne is of Murray’s forehand repeatedly capitulating under heavy pressure from the Serbian remains a slight worry too.

Fortunately, Murray is a more resilient character now under the tutelage of Ivan Lendl and certainly has the weapons and defensive game to make Djokovic a touch apprehensive. This is probably a case of heart ruling head; but expect Murray to serve well, trade groundstrokes consistently with Djokovic and show up huge in the decisive moments. It’s going all the way – final set tiebreaker…

Murray in 5

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US Open: Quarter Final Preview

We have been spoiled by the sheer quantity of legitimately epic Grand Slam matches witnessed in recent years and the 2012 US Open appears to be building to yet another glorious crescendo. Each of the four Quarter Finals has the potential to be a captivating match, with the subsequent permutations for the semis and final promising all-time great games and timeless classics.

Bearing in mind that I’m currently on a roll (7/8 correct in the 4th round) here is an in-depth preview – with predictions – of the Flushing Meadows Quarter Finals.

Quarter Final Matches

 Roger Federer (1) v Tomas Berdych (6)

This may prove a tricky encounter for Federer as it should be the first genuine test that he has faced in the tournament. After sweeping imperiously past Donald Young, Bjorn Phau and Fernando Verdasco, the Swiss then enjoyed a walkover to the Quarter Finals after Mardy Fish’s withdrawal. Federer has looked totally untroubled so far, but Berdych – while in possession of a somewhat suspect psychology – has the huge weapons that are essential to trouble Federer on a hard court. When Berdych gets it right, he is practically unstoppable. However, it is severely doubtful that he will get it right for three sets tonight.

Pre-tournament, I predicted that this matchup would occur and that Federer would take it in straight sets; however, Berdych is playing with more confidence than expected and crushing his flat groundstrokes on both sides. The first two sets will be split before Federer begins to take control in a tight third and then a comfortable clincher.

Federer in 4

 

Andy Murray (3) v Marin Cilic (12)

Murray started the tournament inconsistently, with scratchy performances against Alex Bogomolov and Feliciano Lopez bookending an authoritative showing against Ivan Dodig. Fortunately, the Scot appears to be moving through the gears – destroying the much hyped Milos Raonic in the 4th round with a splendid display of powerful ballstriking and fleetness of foot and mind. Cilic has progressed quietly to this stage, and while he has beaten Murray at Flushing Meadows before, his confidence for this matchup will be built on a sandy foundation due to Murray’s utter dominance on every other occasion they’ve played.

Expect Murray to continue serving well and dictating the points with his steadily improving forehand. Cilic has the power to stay with Murray from the baseline – enough power to make it difficult for him at times – but ultimately Murray’s superior movement around the court and greater consistency off both wings should be enough to take control of the match early on and keep it for the duration.

Murray in 3

 

David Ferrer (5) v Janko Tipsarevic (8)

David Ferrer is an utterly fascinating player, one of the most underrated in the history of the game (an aside that I’m currently analysing and writing up currently) – and surely a multiple major winner in any other era. Possessing slightly better skills in every department than he is ever given credit for, Ferrer – often unfairly portrayed as a mere roadrunner – should progress to his second US Open semi-final with effort to spare against the occasionally flaky Serbian.

Tipsarevic undoubtedly has the requisite power game that can trouble Ferrer on the hard court, but is slightly too inconsistent (the reason his career has reached a – admittedly impressive – plateau of 8 in the world) to break the relentless Spaniard down over 5 sets. While he will never penetrate Tipsarevic’s defences with impunity, Ferrer will eventually wear the Serb down with his heavy forehand and supremely consistent ballstriking – increasing the possibility that he could grind his way to what would be a genuinely deserved Grand Slam title.

Ferrer in 4

 

Novak Djokovic (2) v Juan Martin Del Potro (7)

This is potentially the match of the tournament. Defending champion Novak Djokovic taking on the only man outside of the ruling triumvirate in men’s tennis to have won a Grand slam since 2005. After struggling with a variety of injuries following his US Open success in 2009, Del Potro has finally appeared close to his peak again, and has moving menacingly through the draw so far. Djokovic will serve more consistently and move better than Del Potro (better than anyone in the history of the game, perhaps?) but his defence will be tested to the limit under the forehand onslaught that the Argentine always bring to the court.

While Djokovic has looked close to his invincible best thus far at Flushing Meadows, I’ll stick with my pre-tournament prediction – Del Potro taking him down in a blaze of monstrous forehands, stinging backhands and huge serving. This is dependent upon his recovery from victory over Andy Roddick – and whether he can sustain that physical and mental effort over a major tournament is yet to be seen – but Del Potro can destroy anyone in the world on his day. This is his day.

Del Potro in 5

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US Open 4th Round Preview & Predictions

US Open: Last 16 preview.

With the first week of the US Open completed and (almost) all of the big names still in the tournament it is time to preview the business end of the tournament. Of the top three, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer have looked immensely comfortable in coasting through the early stages while Andy Murray has appeared a little shaky, not least in his third round, four set slugfest against Feliciano Lopez. David Ferrer, Tomas Berdych and Juan Martin Del Potro are also still in contention with 5 seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and 9 seed John Isner the highest ranked players to fall.

Fourth Round Matches

Roger Federer (1) v Mardy Fish (23)

Federer appears to be playing at the top of his game again, breezing through the opening week with a minimum of fuss. Expect Fish to play him tough with the fervent backing of the New York faithful, as he did in Cincinnati two weeks ago, but Federer’s serve and forehand will eventually take control of the match and carry him to another straight sets victory.

Federer in 3

 

Nicolas Almagro (11) v Tomas Berdych (6)

Grudge match. Berdych refused to shake Almagro’s hand after their Australian Open 4th round match earlier this year; the Czech unhappy after Almagro had blasted a ball at him from close range. This should be a brutal match, with continuous, unrelenting trading from the baseline. Berdych got the better of Almagro in Melbourne, owns the head-to-head record 6-3, and is regaining his form after a terrible summer but the Spaniard will take this in a deciding set; his glorious single handed backhand and greater reserve of mental fortitude the keys to success.

Almagro in 5

 

Andy Murray (3) v Milos Raonic (15)

After watching Murray labour to victory over Lopez on Saturday night, Raonic will certainly fancy his chances of causing the upset in the night match on Arthur Ashe Stadium on Monday. Murray looked lethargic and powerless at times during his nervy victory over the Spaniard and Raonic will hope to exploit Murray’s fatigue tonight. However, the Scot has proved before that he raises his performance under the lights at Flushing Meadows and has an outstanding record against huge servers like Raonic. The Canadian has won their only meeting; but that was on clay and probably has no bearing on this evening’s contest. Murray should be able to neutralise Raonic’s monster serve effectively and will prevail in a tense struggle due to his superior consistency from the ground.

Murray in 4

 

Marin Cilic (12) v Martin Klizan

Cilic’s career has stagnated rather similarly to Tomas Berdych’s but he couldn’t have picked a more accommodating 4th round opponent. Klizan may have shocked Tsonga in the second round, but the giant Croat will have way too much for him here. Expect Cilic to win in straight sets with Klizan eventually capitulating under a barrage of suffocating groundstrokes.

Cilic in 3

 

Janko Tipsarevic (8) v Philip Kohlschreiber (19)

Kohlschreiber produced the biggest shock of the third round, taking down the highly fancied John Isner. The German has the tools to trouble the higher ranked Tipsarevic, particularly a surprisingly thunderous serve and a beautiful single handed backhand (as an aside, it is intriguing that the only 4 players in the top 32 with single handers have all made the last 16). However, Kohlschreiber could suffer an emotional letdown from his titanic 5 set victory over Isner and Tipsarevic should prove slightly more reliable in the ground game, despite his own flaky start to the tournament.

Tipsarevic in 4

 

David Ferrer (5) v Richard Gasquet (13)

Grind. Grind. Grind. Ferrer holds a 7-1 head-to-head record against Gasquet and he’ll bury the Frenchman into the ground with his unique brand of relentless tennis tomorrow evening. Gasquet’s suspect temperament will be exposed by Ferrer, a man who gives absolutely nothing away. This should be close for the first two sets but Ferrer will prove slightly tougher in the clutch, choking the life from Gasquet early on with his remarkably deep and utterly consistent groundstrokes, before pulling away in the third set.

Ferrer in 3

 

Juan Martin Del Potro (7) v Andy Roddick (20)

This will probably be the night match on Arthur Ashe tomorrow night. And this will probably be the last game of professional tennis that Andy Roddick ever plays. Despite an inevitably raucous New York crowd, Roddick just doesn’t have quite enough game at this stage of his career to compete with the nuclear power of Del Potro. Inspired by the occasion, Roddick will pull out a set before being overwhelmed by the potency and penetration of the Argentine’s groundstrokes.

Del Potro in 4

 

Stanislas Wawrinka (18) v Novak Djokovic (2)

MATCH OF THE ROUND. Wawrinka is a solid player, with a gorgeous single handed backhand, and certainly more capable of going deep into Grand Slams than he has shown during his career. In the surprise of the round, I expect Wawrinka to play the match of his life and push the hitherto untested Djokovic to the very limit. Ultimately Djokovic will have a little too much heart, but the Wawrinka’s ground game could just test Djokovic in a way that he might not expect. The Swiss hit the ball beautifully in his victory over Dolgopolov in the last round and his shots noticeably penetrate the court more at the US Open than other majors. Djokovic to steal it in a classic.

Djokovic in 5

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The Trouble with Tomas Berdych

Firstly, an admission – I had planned to write this fairly negative article about Tomas Berdych, regardless of the outcome of his first round match at the US Open today. That he beat David Goffin fairly straightforwardly (7-5 6-3 6-3), is beside the more important point: that is, given Berdych’s prototypical physical stature and the attacking weaponry at his disposal, The Berd should be The Word.

Instead, Berdych is the most anonymous member of the world’s top 10. Consider it: the Big Three speak for themselves; as does Andy Murray, if to a slightly lesser extent. Based on pure ability, Juan Martin Del Potro is perhaps the nearest to crashing the Federer/Nadal/Djokovic closed shop. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga brings verve and boundless exuberance to the party. David Ferrer; a remarkable ability to run forever, in addition to some underratedly weighty groundstrokes. John Isner has a massive serve, huge heart and a penchant for epic matches.

Tomas Berdych? Well, nothing really – other than an overwhelming sense that the Czech just doesn’t really want it enough. His genuinely powerful groundstrokes, huge wingspan and colossal serve should, at very least, have made him a poor man’s Ivan Lendl (a compliment). Unfortunately, Berdych is apparently contented with his position near, but not at, the pinaccle of the game.  Lacking in heart, somewhat strategically naïve and mentally frail – these are deficiencies that even an abundance of talent cannot overcome.

For, despite these criticisms, Berdych undoubtedly has great ability – you don’t reach a Grand Slam final as he did at Wimbledon in 2010 without at least a modicum of said asset. However, the giant Czech seems curiously loath to display this virtue on the biggest stages. Take this year’s top level defeats: an encouraging start before tame submission to Rafa Nadal at the Australian Open. A similar, resigned loss to Del Potro at the French Open. And more recently, an incomprehensible annihilation by Ernests Gulbis at Wimbledon.

However, the nadir was probably a woeful straight sets loss at the Olympics to Steve Darcis. Yes, Steve Darcis. (World Number 74, since you didn’t ask). And while Berdych could possibly be excused that debacle on the grounds that ‘it was only the Olympics’; remember that the Olympic tennis tournament and a victory over Roger Federer created Berdych’s reputation in 2004, a reputation that he arguably existed upon for the next six years.

Many of Berdych’s best results have taken place on clay, a strange scenario given the apparent suitability of his game to faster, harder courts. While this may be due to the dubious ‘Martin Verkerk principle’: the clay giving Berdych more time to line up his shots than on other, quicker surfaces – it is an invalid excuse for a player possessing such serious firepower on both forehand and backhand, and with legitimate aspirations of winning Grand Slam titles. In fact, Berdych’s game – so similar in many aspects to Del Potro’s – should be ideally suited to the US Open; instead, he has never progressed beyond the 4th round. A dismal record for a player with his unquestionable ability.

While a permanent fixture in the top 10, Berdych is not seriously a threat to win any Grand Slam tournament in this era; indeed, he currently seems unable to muster the heart to sustain even a credible pretence at challenging in the Majors. While this may yet be the fortnight that his stagnating career is resurrected; Tomas Berdych appears disappointingly – given his aforementioned natural ability – satisfied with his lot.

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Murray v Bogomolov: Instant Analysis

For whatever reason – whether psychological or physical; take your pick – Andy Murray has an incomprehensible tendency of making relative non-entities like Daniel Gimeno-Traver, Ryan Harrison and, tonight, Alex Bogomolov appear difficult adversaries in the opening round of Grand Slam tournaments.

Murray’s rather scruffy performance in winning 6-2 6-4 6-1 will not worry him unduly, but it would be comforting for his supporters to witness a significant improvement, both physically and mentally, against Ivan Dodig (probably) in the next round. While today’s lapses were not fatal – and the scoreline suggests somewhat of a procession – one would imagine that more dominant, initial offerings will be forthcoming from Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic.

The uncomfortably familiar timidity in Murray’s ground game was evident for the first hour of the match before the utter obliteration of a running forehand at 4-2 down in the second set finally raised him from his irritable stupor. Admittedly the shot was struck with a great deal more anger than with any sense of tactical precision but the violence was not unwelcome as the match threatened to become a proper struggle. Additionally, it symbolised the brand of tennis that will be required to win the tournament.

It wasn’t until the final set that Murray finally began to disregard the drop shot and strike through the ball with a little more authority – a method of play that will be essential in potential encounters with Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Roger Federer during the second week. However, even as Murray gained a tighter grip on the match and his own emotional state, there was a disconcerting moment as his hamstring appeared to cramp up during the third set. Fortunately, this did not cause the Scot too much distress; in a sense liberating the previously passive Murray – the necessity of keeping the points short beneficial, as always, to his overall performance.

The most positive aspect of Murray’s game tonight was undoubtedly his service return. He pounced on Bogomolov’s frail second serve with regularity, attacking the Russian up the line and crosscourt almost at will. While the rest of his game was unconvincing, the result was never actually in doubt; an early round invincibility that Murray definitely shares with the Big Three.

Ultimately, it was the lethargy, rather than the level of performance, that was startling about Murray about today. In total contrast to the Olympics – and indeed Wimbledon – there was a curious lack of concentration and energy about the Scots’ demeanour. Whether it was due to the weather delay; the understandably flat, opening round atmosphere at Flushing Meadows; or simply Murray’s lack of hard court preparation is unclear. There is much improvement to be made, assuredly; but nothing to be concerned about just yet.

US Open 2012: Preview and Predictions

Last year’s US Open produced a truly unique tennis moment. A single shot that defined a match, a tournament and possibly even an entire season. In a sport rarely judged by singular moments of brilliance, Novak Djokovic’s mind-blowing forehand return winner at match-point down to Roger Federer might be a completely unparalleled event.

The shot, the charismatic celebration and the subsequently inevitable victory was the eye of Djokovic’s 2011 perfect storm. His remorseless completion of the greatest season in tennis history (don’t bother arguing, McEnroe and Federer) against Rafa Nadal in the final may not linger in the memory; but Djokovic’s forehand will live in tennis immortality.

After the match Federer was pilloried for his rather ungracious remarks: “For me, this is very hard to understand. How can you play a shot like that on match point?” yet he might well have had a point. The last-roll-of-the-dice nature of Djokovic’s forehand symbolised a different, imperceptibly more fleeting, type of success to that achieved by Federer and Nadal. A great player? Certainly. One of the greats? Possibly not yet. (And I argue that with sadness, as Djokovic always appears the most likeable, humble and fullest of heart among the Big Three.)

So, twelve months later, to this year’s instalment of the biggest, brashest show in tennis. The dynamics of the top 3 have changed dramatically throughout the course of 2012: Djokovic’s level – understandably so – has begun to drop noticeably over the summer; while Federer has ascended back to the summit of the game; and Nadal misses the tournament with a knee injury.

The dream final for the neutral observer is probably a sixth consecutive meeting between Federer and Djokovic at Flushing Meadows (4 previous Semi-Finals and 1 final). However, this may just be the tournament where the balance of power in the men’s game ultimately begins to shift from the Federer/Nadal/Djokovic hegemony that has existed in some form or another since 2005.

Olympic champion Andy Murray, crowd-favourite Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, and Spanish roadrunner David Ferrer will all come into New York in possession of varying levels of confidence that this is their time. And, perhaps most dangerously of all, lurks the only other man who has won a Grand Slam in the trinity’s era.

After a decade of observing tennis, I remain convinced that no-one has ever struck the ball with more ferocity than Juan Martin Del Potro did during the final two sets of his 2009 US Open final victory over Federer. Despite a nervous start that night, his consistently flat, howitzer-like forehand completely eviscerated Federer towards the end of the match. A genuine contender was born. Or was; until a wrist injury befell the monstrous Argentine.

Finally, three years on, Del Potro has regained close to his best form this summer; hammering those lethal groundstrokes with the force of old and serving imperiously. If he can overcome yet more niggling ailments (wrist and knee, currently) then Del Potro is a serious contender to take down Djokovic in the Quarter-Finals, and potentially make a run at the title.

Similarly, Murray – the greatest player ever, never to have won a major – will surely believe that this is his best chance to win a Grand Slam. Following a remarkable destruction of Federer in the Olympic final, and finally in possession of a consistent forehand, and additional – if not yet abundant –composure; this will be as good a chance as Murray ever has to win a Grand Slam.

Predictions

Q/Fs

Federer bt. Berdych (Federer in 3); Murray bt. Tsonga (Murray in 4); Ferrer bt. Isner (Ferrer in 5); Del Potro bt. Djokovic (Del Potro in 5).

S/Fs

Murray bt. Federer (Murray in 4); Del Potro bt. Ferrer (Del Potro in 3).

Final

Murray bt. Del Potro (Murray in 4).

Analysis

I’d expect the top half of the draw to proceed according to seeding. If Murray can negotiate the Lopez/Raonic/Tsonga minefield – as I believe he will – then a Semi-Final against Federer will surely be the outcome. The combination of Murray’s clinically accurate backhand and increasingly formidable serve, allied to playing on his favourite surface, should be enough to throttle Federer over 5 sets.

The other half of the draw is wide open. As detailed above, I think Del Potro – injury permitting – is ready to advance to a Grand Slam final again. A potential Quarter-Final with Djokovic is a salivating prospect. David Ferrer should come through the weakest quarter of the draw, although John Isner, Richard Gasquet and Tommy Haas could also have legitimate chances to make the Semi-finals. Once there, any of the four will lose to Del Potro. Or Djokovic. Take your pick.

My predicted final – Murray v Del Potro – would be a rematch of the 2008 Quarter Final, one of the most brutal tennis matches I can remember witnessing (Murray eventually triumphing 7-6 7-6 4-6 7-5 after almost 4 hours of suffocating tennis). The power and accuracy on display from both participants was quite remarkable that day and would be just as fitting a climax to this tournament as Federer Djokovic VI.

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London 2012: As Good As Life Gets

“I hear there’s a guy called Mitt Romney who wants to know whether we’re ready. Are we ready?” From the moment Boris Johnson tore into the Republican Presidential candidate in front of a rabid, expectant Hyde Park crowd, on the eve of The Greatest Show On Earth, until Mo Farah’s keynote performance in the Olympic Stadium on the penultimate night of competition, my word, did London 2012 ever answer the Mayor’s question in the affirmative. We were ready. We delivered.

The highlights are almost too numerous to recollect: Team GB’s complete domination of the Velodrome; David Rudisha’s remarkable 800m World Record; Andy Murray’s destruction of Roger Federer; Chad Le Clos ripping the 200m Butterfly title from Michael Phelps’ iron fist; Katherine Grainger finally grasping her previously elusive Olympic gold medal; Phelps’ resurgence to become the most decorated Olympian in history; Jade Jones’ unprecedented Taekwondo gold medal, to name but a handful. Oh, and Bolt. Always Bolt.

The personal highlight (even eclipsing the realisation of a lifelong ambition by attending the 100m final the following night) was undoubtedly Mo Farah’s epic victory in the 10,000m. The gradually increasing Mexican Wave of noise that followed the athletes round the track for 24 ½ laps before climaxing in a deafening, crescendo of support as Farah struck for home and victory round the final bend was an exhilarating, transcendent experience. And one to which I will forever be able to say: I was there.

London’s ability to embrace the Olympic spirit was also foolishly questioned in the build-up to the big event. The Olympic Park probably best encapsulated the atmosphere of harmony, hope and happiness that prevailed throughout the city. A veritable Disneyworld of sport, the Park provided an almost utopian experience – from the designer sporting venues to the smooth and efficient security system; from the surprisingly edible fish and chips to the world’s largest McDonald’s; from the jovial volunteers to the unceasingly cheerful army operatives to the superhuman athletes  – it was like transportation to another, better, world.

Additionally, the Olympic experience has been spectacularly enhanced by the BBC’s peerless coverage. 24 HD channels, 3 dedicated radio stations and an avalanche of web based content provided the opportunity to keep tabs on a multitude of events simultaneously. If it was on – dressage, artistic gymnastics, beach volleyball, the whole flippin’ lot – you could watch it.

Couple this with the intelligent and incisive punditry of Michael Johnson, Chris Boardman, Ian Thorpe et al. and the licence fee of £5.60 for the two weeks’ coverage surely stands alone as the greatest media bargain in history.

The isolated lowlight – an entirely personal one – having to endure an afternoon in an SW19 public house watching Federer defeat Juan Martin Del Potro 19-17 in the deciding set despite possessing a valid Centre Court ticket. Unfortunately, the ticket allocated to the Turkmenistan Olympic Committee had fallen into the hands of an unscrupulous tout who displayed rather questionable ethics in selling me the ticket after it had already been scanned into the grounds. Despite, an hour’s worth of protesting, whining, begging and moaning the Olympic staff were unmoved by my plight and I retreated to the Old Garage.

My despondency deepened further that evening, while sitting in the Copper Box arena watching ladies’ handball and being informed that Murray was conquering the once-invincible Novak Djokovic, in front of a raucous Wimbledon crowd. There were 14,999 people inside Centre Court that night; one seat remained empty.

I suppose it will remain forever impossible to quantify exactly why the London Olympic was such an overwhelming triumph.  Perhaps, most of all, the sense of hope provided by the unbridled Olympic fever that seemed to sweep the entire country defined our Olympics. A fortnight of release from economic woes and muddled government – in 21st century Britain this was as good as it gets; the absolute pinaccle of life.

Aided by supreme sporting performances from Usain Bolt – undoubtedly The Greatest (Ali? Bradman? Jordan? Please.); and Mo Farah (Great Britain’s Greatest?) the Olympics comfortably surpassed even the highest of expectations and made a mockery of the previously abundant cynics.

This wasn’t just the best sporting fortnight of the year. It wasn’t even merely the best Olympic Games ever. This was probably the best fortnight of pure sport that you will ever see. Savour it. London 2012 – you truly were an incomparable privilege.

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Masters Memories and Predictions: 2012 Preview

Nothing ever quite signals the beginning of spring like the Masters tournament from Augusta. While not my favourite Major – the US Open’s penal challenge provides better entertainment for this twisted observer – the Masters is probably the greatest and most awe-inspiring golf tournament there is. Providing unsurpassed beauty, and a steady supply of indelible memories, the Masters is surely the ultimate golf tournament.

My Favourite Masters Memories

Here are my three favourite Masters memories. What are yours?

3. Woods chip in on the 16th (Final round 2005)

“IN YOUR LIFE…” Unfortunately, this is undeniably the most iconic golf shot ever hit. Ugh.

2. Mickelson from the pine straw on 13 (Final round 2010)

In the same way that Tiger closing with two bogeys to fall into a playoff with Chris DiMarco in 2005 rather tarnished the miracle of the 16th; Mickelson missing the putt that followed this miraculous shot could have overshadowed his eventual victory. Anyway, just enjoy it; this is Mickelson as his most imaginative best.

1. Mickelson wins his first green jacket (2004)

Quite simply, my favourite golfing memory of all-time. Even though Peter Alliss ruined the moment on the BBC by mistaking Mickelson’s victory putt for a mere playoff forcer. And, has anybody ever found the footage of Ernie Els tucking into an apple on the practice range, with an air of knowing resignation, before hearing the unmistakable roar of American success from the 18th?

Prediction

1. Mickelson -12

2. Bradley -11

3. McIlroy -10

4. Snedeker -10

5. Woods -10

The main storyline will be the potential battle between Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods; a duel that every observer surely hopes to see come Sunday night. However, I think Mickelson – boasting a phenomenal Augusta record – could enjoy the slightly reduced spotlight for the first three days, hope that McIlroy and Woods fail to live up to the stratospheric expectations, make just enough important putts to keep the field at bay and might eventually lope in to the Butler Cabin to be adorned with his 4th green jacket.

No first time player has won since Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979; however, Keegan Bradley – winner of last year’s USPGA championship –with his massive hitting and towering iron play; boosted by the confidence of a major victory and in relatively good form could go very close.

If I was a gambling man, Brandt Snedeker would be my outside bet. A previous third place finisher, a winner on tour this year and a refreshingly quick player, Snedeker is a slightly different breed of journeymen American; and one who could be very close to the summit of the leaderboard come Sunday night.

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Running the Race With Endurance: Free Church Youth Conference 2012

Here is a brief summary of Dan Peters’ three talks at the 2012 Youth Conference; initially thought that this was my first ever non-sporting blog post and then I looked at the theme title again… Hope you all enjoy and it brings back good memories, and more importantly reinforces these vital truths for our Christian lives.

 

Talk 1 – The Necessity of Endurance

Endurance is universally and fundamentally relevant for every Christian group.  Hebrews 12v1 tells us to “throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” The writer is using a metaphor comparing Christian life to a long-distance race. Hebrews was written to a group of struggling and faltering Christians whom the writer is concerned may not reach the finish line.

Endurance is mentioned 33 times in the New Testament. Jesus, Paul, Peter and John all stress the theme. Why?

1. Endurance is necessary because God does not give us everything at conversion

Ephesians 1v3: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.” Conversion is an inestimable blessing and we sometimes feel that we can claim and experience God’s promises right now; however, Hebrews 4v1: “Therefore, since the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us be careful that none of you are found to have fallen short of it” and Hebrews 10v36: “You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised” both make clear that some promises will only be fulfilled in the future.

We often use the word Salvation to speak of our present reality, but writer to the Hebrews also emphasized Jesus’ second coming and the glory of final salvation for those who waited for him. (Hebrews 9v28).

We also usually speak of the word faith as the thing that saves us; the clinging to Jesus. Indeed, see Ephesians 2v8-9: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not of yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works so no-one can boast.” However, the writer to the Hebrews again speaks of this slightly differently, emphasizing conviction in unseen realities (Hebrews 11:1) and the absolute importance of patience in conjunction with faith (Hebrews 6:12).

The writer to the Hebrews has a distinctive use of the three terms: promise, faith and salvation. He places great importance on the need for continual work in our lives and how we must wait upon God. This is why endurance is necessary.

Heaven is an integral part of the gospel and our glorious hope for the future. As Romans 8v23-24 tells us: “we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for out adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.” Is this focus occasionally missing in our evangelism? It is crucial that we have this emphasis on eternal rest and hope.

2. Endurance is necessary because without it the Christian life is invalid.

Christianity is NOT like a pension system, we must endure till the end. As Hebrews 10v39 says: “But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who believe and are saved.” The writer is clear: if we shrink back, we will be destroyed. Thus, we must be careful about importance we place on Christian experiences – there will be people in Hell who spoke of having great ‘conversion’ experiences. For this reason, the writer pronounces continual warning to persevere in their lives.

“What happens if you die tonight?” is a question that we hear often; however, a more pertinent one for the believer is “What happens if you don’t die tonight?” By extension, we are asked whether we can endure for another 30/40/50 years in this world?

The writer vehemently makes the point that having a Christian experience and falling back is worse than never having started to walk with Jesus. (Hebrews 6v6). When we fall back we crucify Jesus all over again. He is not talking of a moral fault (e.g. David and Bathsheba) but rather an active and calculated turning away from Jesus. All that matters is where you are at the end of your life.

3. Endurance is necessary because many fall away

Jesus talks often of stumbling in our Christian walk, it is a prominent concept in fact. He describes the Christian life as a narrow path and stumbling is serious because the path is narrow. Good analogy of a motorcyclist speeding along a cliffside road, with sheer drops to centre death on either side.

To continue the theme of the vehicle, the speaker mentioned the giant LED signs at the side of the motorway displaying driving warnings. But, these do not sober us and slow us down as much as the sight of a car wreck beside the road. We must never think that we have had such great blessing in our Christian lives as to be immune from stumbling; even the privileged Israelites in the Old Testament fell away. Tragically, we know many people who have stumbled and fallen away – we see it every day and must use it as a warning sign in our lives.

God keeps us through our taking of responsibility. The believers in Hebrews are in Heaven right now because this letter came to them at just the right time, as the writer sensed they were in danger of slipping back. Will this Youth Conference be the same stimulus for us?

Make sure you are not among the casualties beside the road.

 

Talk 2 – The Challenge of Endurance

Enduring in the Christian life is not an easy thing; rather it is a particularly challenging business.

1. Endurance is challenging because there is nothing to see

The Hebrew believers were struggling in faith having been converted from a highly visual and tangible religious background, they were accustomed to this. However, as Christians, their new faith was the opposite. Hebrews 9v8-9 tells us that as long as the Jewish faith was visual – it was worthless: “The Holy Spirit was showing by this that the way into the Most Holy place had not yet been disclosed as long as the first tabernacle was still standing. This is an illustration for the present time, indicating that the gifts and sacrifices being offered were not able to justify the worshipper.” The fact that our faith is invisible is its compelling glory.

The Hebrews were finding a huge mental shift to become accustomed to this new faith. The Hebrews would have instinctively thought of religion as a series of festivals and rituals and they were having a difficult time changing their perceptions.

We are promised a future in Heaven which is spectacularly glorious; yet very little is tangible in this present time. Our glory remains entirely in the future and there is always a sense in which we find this difficult as we are a people and a society who want things here and now.

During our time on earth, many of us are called to serve God in our ordinary, banal lives. As 1 Thessalonians 4v11 says: “Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands.” George Orwell suggested that this banality was a reason that the Germans followed Hitler and the Nazi party as they were bored with ordinariness and tedium in their lives. Hitler promised struggle, self-sacrifice, danger and potential death.

Experiencing glory is like having blackout blinds in your bedroom – right now it is pitch dark but the light will stream in as the blinds are lifted and Jesus returns. Unfortunately, we too often mimic the prodigal son with our desire to have our inheritance now.

2. Endurance is challenging because attractive alternatives surround us

The Hebrews were being tempted back to their old religion by its pomp and ceremony. It offered a quick fix, present razzmatazz and something tangible for its followers. This is why the writer spends so long belittling the Old Covenant religion.  

Hebrews 13v4-5 tells us that: “Marriage should be honoured by all, and the marriage bed kept pure for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral. Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.”” This shows us that – just as we live in a dangerous contemporary society – so did the Hebrews.

The temptations of sexual promiscuity, wealth and the accumulation of possessions were widespread even then; anything to relieve the tedium of an ordinary life. We can recognise the relevance of this in our current society and in our lives, especially as so many people find it difficult to understand why we resist against these temptations.

John Piper tells of a couple who took early retirement and spend the rest of their lives sailing a yacht round the Florida Keys, playing softball and collecting shells. Imagine having to stand before God on judgement day and justify wasting such a large portion of their lives with sailing, shells and softball.

Ensure that this does not happen to us.

3. Endurance is challenging because we must rely on others

Psalm 16v3: “As for the saints who are in the land, they are the glorious ones in whom is all my delight.” King David, the writer of the Psalm, needed the togetherness and fellowship of other Christians. Ephesians chapter 4 also talks of how we grow together as Christians in Jesus.

Why is this part of the challenge of endurance? Because others can let us down.

As some Christians withdraw from meeting together there can be a severe detrimental effect on the support system of believers. Let us always spur one another on (Hebrews 10:24); we need to always remember this in our increasingly individualistic society.

We need others; as others need us.

 

Talk 3 – The Dignity of Endurance

Rod Liddell’s article in the Spectator – I must have it and I must have it right now. We live in a society in which everything is about the moment – deferred gratification is an alien concept. In the bible, endurance is beautiful and lovely.

1. A Clever List

We can admire things without ever properly appreciating them. Hebrews 11 lists the exploits of various saints in the Old Testament, and many New Testament Hebrews lived with a sense of self-pity brought on by the aforementioned banality and tedium of their own lives. This was fostered by a sense of jealousy regarding the Old Testament characters and their exploits.

The Hebrews failed to see why exactly the Old Testament saints were great men and women; it was their endurance and faith rather than their amazing deeds which made them great. The recurring theme of Hebrews 11 is “By faith, By faith, By faith…” and the utter conviction of unseen realities that these saints had.

What were the unseen realities? Was it Noah awaiting the flood? Was it Moses’ parents hiding their baby in the river? Was it Rahab aligning herself with the Israelites? No – it was not these things. The summary sections of the chapter (verses 13-16 & 39) make clear that Heaven was the unseen reality. The Old Testament saints yearned for Heaven; a better country. They had a hope of glory and this was their motivation. It should always be the same for us.

The writer never asked anything unreasonable of the Hebrews and inspired by the hope of Heaven they endured. We are also called to do likewise.

We make the same mistake as the Hebrews – identifying greatness in great exploits e.g. renowned missionaries bringing the gospel to thousands of people or translation of the Bible into the rarest of languages. Instead, the greatness always comes in perseverance and endurance.

2. Arousing exaltation

Hebrews 12v1-3 is the grand climax to chapter 11: Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” – Let us always fix our eyes on Jesus, he is the perfecter of our faith and gives us a greater basis for our faith than the saints of the Old Testament ever had.

Jesus is also the pioneer of our faith – he has shown us just how to live a life of endurance. He practiced this ultimately at Calvary. He couldn’t sail through life as he was fully human, he had to persevere and always remained convinced of the glory beyond the cross even as circumstances at Calvary screamed “This is a disaster, Jesus. You’ve failed.”

Even as Satan tempted Jesus to bypass the cross he remained faithful and endured, managing to throw off the sin that so entangles us. When we find ourselves in battle with the devil this coming week ask ourselves What Would Jesus Do? He has pioneered endurance for us.

3. A Tantalising Hint

There is not much in the book of Hebrews about God keeping his people. However, there is one hint of how this occurs in chapter 7v23-25: “Now there have been many of these priests, since death prevented them from continuing in office; but because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood. Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.” Here, the writer contracts Jesus with the Old Testament priests; Jesus has a permanent priesthood and is always able to save. This is our final dignity.

We often talk of doctrine like justification, sanctification and adoption – endurance is just as important; it a major part of our salvation and we have Jesus to ensure that we do endure.

New Testament churches had different needs at different times – hence the wide variety of instruction in the epistles of the New Testament – and the Hebrews were anxious as to whether they could endure. Do not ever be complacent by always practice endurance in your life.

Have we become complacent? Have we flirted with sin? When we feel this remember that the endurance spoken of in Hebrews is the answer. Jesus will help us to make it home however long we have left on the earth.

The juxtaposition between Paul and Demas is displayed in 2 Timothy 4v6-10: Paul had kept the faith and finished the race but Demas had deserted because he loved the world too much; this was all that mattered at the final reckoning.

Are you a Paul or a Demas? This is what our Christian lives ultimately boil down to.