Signals of intent for the athletics season and a Grand Slam without Federer down under
Just a quick filler news article today, to comment on some very interesting sports performances from the past weekend. First, we look at some results from the distance races at the Reebok Indoor Athletics meeting from Boston - Ethiopian women in fine form and Craig Mottram signalling his intent for 2008.
Then we look briefly at the Men's final of the first Grand Slam of 2008, the Australian Open. As from tomorrow, we'll resume our series on Exercise in the cold.
Craig Mottram - sign of things to come?
Last year, heading into Osaka, we (and others) picked Craig Mottram's battle with the East Africans in the 5000m final as one of the possible highlights of the Championships. How wrong we were! Mottram never featured, eventually finishing 13th out of 14 runners, in what was the slowest 5000m race in the history of the IAAF World Champs. So having begun the season with great promise, Mottram failed on the biggest occasion. In the aftermath, it emerged that Mottram had been struggling with a hamstring injury, which curtailed his training leading up to the race.
Well, 2008 has begun much the same was as 2007 did - Mottram looking mighty impressive. In Boston, he ran the fastest time ever on American soil for an indoor 3000m - 7:34.50. He won the race going away, with a final 400m of 59 seconds. The time is only 2 seconds slower than Mottram's best ever OUTDOOR 3000m performance, and given that indoors, the time is expected to be 3 or more seconds slower, Mottram is clearly in great shape.
So what will be interesting to see in the next few months is whether he is able to remain injury free and whether he can sustain the level of performance all the way through to August. In terms of the injury, Mottram has said that he's not travelling full-time with a physio, specifically to work on the risk of injury.
In terms of performance, things might be a little trickier. With six months to go until Beijing, Mottram will need to maintain his current form through the indoor season, and then on the tracks of Europe, which will be a tough task. He's clearly got great speed right now - to have speed sufficient for a PB at a shorter distance like 3000m indicates that at some stage in the next six months, he'll have to pull back and reassess before sharpening again for Beijing - a tricky task. It might require very frugal racing in Europe, perhaps even none until about July. Mottram enjoys racing though, and so to maintain good speed all the way to August will be very tough. But hopefully he's got the timing right and will be in his best shape to mix it with the Africans come Beijing.
The Ethiopian women - dominant distance running performances
Meseret Defar and Turinesh Dibaba are only 24 and 22 years old, respectively. But they are well on the way to being the best middle and long distance athletes in history. Dibaba has four world track and four World Cross Country titles, and Defar was the Women's World Athlete of the Year in 2007, is an Olympic and World Champion, and makes a habit of breaking world records by seconds.
And this past weekend, Defar added another to her collection. Admittedly, it was a soft record - the women's 2 mile record. The old time was held by Regina Jacobs, at 9:23. Defar cleaved 13 seconds off it with her winning time of 9:10.50 - that's how soft it was! But the performance was still remarkable. The halfway point was reached in 4:38.4, which means the second mile was covered in 4:32! This suggests there is more to come, for a negative split this large is not optimal in this length of event. Not that Defar will get the opportunity soon - the 2 mile is too rarely run. But that kind of sustained speed over the second half suggests that a 3000m time very close to 8:20 later on this year, and her 5000m PB of 14:16 (the World Record) may also be under threat this year.
Unfortunately for us, it does not look as though the race with Turinesh Dibaba will happen any time soon. In Boston, we had the bizarre scenario where Defar ran 2-Miles and Dibaba ran the 3000m - basically, the same race. So it does provide a nice comparison, but would have been far more exciting to see them race head to head. That was denied to us last year in Osaka, after Dibaba withdrew from the 5000m after winning the 10000m title. And it seems unlikely that they will race again in Beijing, since Dibaba will surely focus on the 10000m event, and with the heat, it's unlikely she'll have the appetite for two 5000m races after.
In any event, Dibaba was an impressive, not spectacular winner of the 3000m race. Her time was 8:33.37. Quite a nice comparison is possible by looking at the time taken to cover the second half of the race - Dibaba reached 1 mile in 4:36.1, which means the final 1400m was covered in 3:57.2 (give or take a few meters). Defar's final mile of 4:32 equates to a 1400m pace of 3:56.7. So they are seemingly as inseparable as ever.
Of course, this comparison is somewhat shaky, and that's why the best solution would be to have them race one another. Unfortunately for the sport, this kind of situation often develops, where two high-profile athletes avoid one another for all but one or two races per year, if that. We had Powell vs. Gay (on, off, on and off again), and numerous others in the past. One can't blame the athletes for not wanting to race unless the right "carrot" is offered, but it certainly would give the sport a boost to have a great head-to-head contest for meeting promoters to hype up and promote.
Tennis action - new faces and new prospects
Moving onto tennis, and exciting times for the men's game. For the last four years, Roger Federer has so dominated the tennis world that everyone else in the Grand Slams was vying for the title of runner-up. With the exception, that is, of the French Open, where they were all hoping for a semi-final, right before Rafael Nadal disposed of them on the red clay!
And a month ago, we looked into our crystal ball and predicted more great Federer-Nadal contests. Well, the year's first Grand Slam is over, and amazingly, neither of these two even made the final, let alone against one another!
Instead, it was Novak Djokovic and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga who fought out an absorbing, if error ridden contest. In the end, Djokovic won in four sets, and claimed his first Grand Slam title. That after disposing of Federer in the semi-final. Tsonga, for his part, destroyed Nadal and if he can keep up his level of play, then 2008 promises at least four awesome performers, and that does not include a number of other prospects.
On the note of Djokovic, I was a big fan of his before this tournament, but what I have seen in the final week has only undermined that opinion. Djokovic comes across as petulant, supported by his family of four cheering him on with T-shirts emblazaned with letters spelling out N-O-L-E, which I'm told is his nickname.
But in yesterday's final, and in the match against Federer as well at times during previous games, Djokovic displays a petulant arrogance, even going so far as to shout and gesture aggressively towards fans. At one point during the final, someone in the crowd shouted "Stop" when Djokovic bounced the ball about 15 times before serving (Djokovic has this very annoying ball bounce routine, which has seen opponents complain to umpires, including in the final). In response, Djokovic angrily told the umpire to ask for quite (still acceptable). And then on winning the subsequent point, Djokovic first gestured aggressively to his family, and then turned specifically in the direction of the unruly fan and gave a very angry fist-pump, shouting something at him. It was a taunt more worthy of a drunken soccer fan, not a soon-to-be Grand Slam champion.
This kind of behaviour leaves a bad taste in the mouth, and it was not the first time. On many occasions, on winning a competitive point, Djokovic pumps his fist for the fans' benefit, posturing and preening, almost expecting their adulation. Unfortunately, in this final, he didn't get it - instead, Tsonga, who is all heart and spirit, was the fans' favourite. And whether this unsettled Djokovic, I don't know. But it seems quite clear that he has an attitude of disrespect towards the fan - yes, they are wrong to shout out as he's about to serve, but a great champion recognizes that the bad must be taken along with the good, and is gracious and humble enough to roll with these 'blows'. Instead, Djokovic shouts at fans to 'shut up', gestures angrily towards those who don't support him, and postures like a prize-fighter or WWE wrestler waiting for the respect and admiration.
Perhaps he can take a lesson from the man he beat in the semi-final, for Roger Federer has dominated with humility. Djokovic, on the other hand, is a new kid on the block, and has displayed little of the respect that Federer clearly has.
And sadly, it would be wishful thinking to suggest that Djokovic's support group and family will advise him in this regard, for it would seem that they encourage it. I have often seen people wearing T-shirts with slogans or letters that spell out the name of their favourite player. Usually it's the fans. But when the family of the player resort to that, I have to wonder. At one point early in the tournament, one of the four family members (it's him father, mother and two brothers) failed to stand up and cheer - the result was that their shirts spelled N-O- -E, rather than the intended N-O-L-E. In response, his mother turned and gestured rather angrily to her son to stand up, as he clearly wasn't doing his bit. Well, that seems somewhat unhealthy to me.
And in a world of tennis, where the parents of the players often court controversy and negative press more than the players (think of Pierce, Sharapov and Dokic), I'd prefer to see Djokovic just play tennis, rather than perpetuate this rather perverse affinity to a family that is only spurring on a WWE wrestling attitude on court. If any sports psychologists are reading this, please do weigh in and give your take on this behaviour that seems especially typical of tennis players...
Nevertheless, it's great for the game that Djokovic, and hopefully Tsonga, are so competitive, beating Federer and Nadal. It makes for a fascinating 2008, and a mockery of our crystal ball!
The week ahead
So that's it for the Weekend Sports wrap. This coming week, we'll get the series on Exercise in the cold moving. So do join us then!
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Monday, January 28, 2008
Signals of intent for the athletics season and a Grand Slam without Federer down under