The sickness that is undermining world sport

WHEN the great Roger Federer won his eighth Wimbledon title on Sunday afternoon it was almost a case of last man standing.

His final opponent Marin Cillic, physically and mentally hampered during the biggest match of his sporting life, revealed not only the blister on his foot but the distress he was feeling inside as he burst into tears in the second set.

This came just a couple of days after Novak Djokovic pulled out injured at the quarter final stage with an injured elbow and Britain’s champion Andy Murray nursed his hip through the last two sets of his defeat in a brave attempt to do some justice to what should have been a big occasion.

The carnage started on the first days of this iconic tournament when several players, including the opponents of both Djokovic and Federer, withdrew during their matches.

Australian firebrand Bernard Tomic, pictured above, gave voice to his mental distress – and, unsurprisingly, was widely castigated.

Alongside admitting he called on a trainer to break up the rhythm of his opponent – for which he will be justifiably sanctioned – he had the gall to say he had been playing on the professional tour for many years and couldn’t find the motivation necessary to compete at Wimbledon.

Tennis players of the past gasped in horror, but perhaps it’s time to consider what is happening all too often in professional sport.

Tomic is a maverick, his words speak to me of suffering from depression. But he also has a point – one sports authorities will happily continue to put to the back of their minds.

The primary reason why players pulled out of Wimbledon injured and others found it mentally difficult is because they play too often. Pure and simple.

The tennis circuit is one of the most brutal in world sport. The leading players perform for 40-odd weeks a year, often in tournaments the vast majority of the population haven’t the slightest interest in.

They do so, of course, to meet the demands, not only of tennis officials in different parts of the world but to provide live entertainment for commercial TV audiences.

For a time it helped to raise standards. The celebrated super four in men’s tennis – Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray – are widely thought to be among the greatest, if not the greatest, players of all time.

But all have gone through their problems in recent years and the only solution appears to be – don’t play as much tennis!

Nadal picks his tournaments these days and was rewarded with yet another French Open title a few weeks ago and Federer is doing it even more cleverly.

He emerged from a break to win the Australian Open in January and, now after barely lifting a racket in anger for six months, he has regained the most celebrated of crown of all without losing a set and barely breaking sweat.

The lesson is clear for both Djokovic and Murray, the most recent and current number one in the world, if they are to stay at the top. They are going to have to rest and pick and choose where they compete and defy some of those vested interests.

Tennis, naturally, is not alone with this problem.

Snooker is nowhere near as physical a sport but is another that is hugely over exposed.

The top professionals are expected to sign up for a world tour that barely gives them a moment to themselves. Endless tournaments are played in China, for example, purely for the prize money and a worldwide TV audience.

Again, one of the sport’s biggest names is the man leading the rebellion. Five-times world champion Ronnie O’Sullivan plays when he likes – and gets enormous stick for it. He is fortunate that he is such a leading light that he can get away with it, but his stance actually makes total sense.

When he plays in the competitions that really matter, he still enjoys rather than endures it – and his fans, kept keen by his long absences, love him all the more.

Yesterday I saw more evidence of what I am writing about in the world of cricket when I went to Trent Bridge to watch England crumble to a 340-run defeat by South Africa.

Again, I saw signs of ‘Tomicism’, if you like.

Our batsmen, subjected to more international five-day and one-day matches in a year than their predecessors played in three of four, had no more stomach for a losing fight than the Aussie tennis player.

Skipper Joe Root couldn’t come out and say his team was mentally tired – he’d be laughed at and crucified in equal measure.

But it sure becomes easier to accept defeat when there are still five more Test matches around the corner this summer alone, let alone an endless and punishing Ashes schedule to come Down Under.

Note here that it isn’t just the top players who are suffering, but the spectators who are sometimes being denied a genuinely good contest. Around 11,000 of us turned up in Nottingham yesterday and the vast majority went home stunned and disappointed.

Football, of course, is the most exploited and over-hyped sport of the lot.

The new English season starts in earnest in either two or three weeks time, depending on which division your favourite team is in.

But I would argue that the ‘old’ one has never ended. We’ve had play-offs, European club finals, World Cup qualifiers, international tournaments for different age groups and the Confederations Cup. Now we are seeing the start of the women’s European championships with England beginning their campaign tomorrow.

 

I can see no general answer to the problems I have raised in this article for one good reason – money is god in this capitalist world, nothing else even comes close.

However the individual marvericks who break the mould and reveal what is really going on are those who are doing their sports the greatest service.

They need to be listened to.

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