Tie-break, 6-5, match point, Alex Bogdanovic.
World no. 5 Andy Roddick challenges the call on Hawk-Eye, successfully, wins the set point in his favour, and goes on to scrape a narrow victory, 4-6, 7-6 (7-5), 6-4.
The smallest of margins can have the most decisive impact. One might suspect that Bogdanovic’s mixed career could have turned out differently had he gone on to claim the scalp of an in-form Roddick who had reason to believe that he could challenge for Wimbledon in 2007 (when, ironically, the loss of a tie-break changed the complexion of his own quarter-final match with Richard Gasquet). Instead, Boggo was left to face the thought of what might have been – a place in the top 100 – with Roddick’s encouragement that “he should be top 50 by the end of 2007, that’s a very realistic goal for him” all too bittersweet.
I have been a Bogdanovic fan since his first Davis Cup appearance in Sydney in February 2003. A team dilapidated of its talismen, in this case Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski, had sent rookie debutants to challenge a high-quality Aussie lineup. Without the burden of expectation, Bogdanovic performed. He gave then Wimbledon champion Leyton Hewitt considerably more trouble than the 7-5, 6-1, 6-2 defeat suggests, and claimed a dead rubber, ousting then 7-times Wimbledon doubles champion Todd Woodbridge 6-2, 7-6. No Aussie, even a singles retiree, will gift a Pommie a gimme victory.
There are undoubtedly parallels with 2009. With Andy Murray side-lined with a virus, and out-of-form brother Jamie dropped by coach John Lloyd in favour of fellow doubles-specialist Ross Hutchins, Britain were facing an uphill struggle once again, and the unenviable question of who to select amongst the lower echelons. The difference this time was the decision masterminded by Davis Cup coach Paul Annacone last year for Wimbledon: to stage a six-man play-off between British hopefuls, which would replicate the playing conditions and physical requirements of the ties themselves.
The idea has merit. The higher up the rankings you go, the easier it is to translate form. On the other hand, with the remainder of Britain’s top ten ranked between between 190 and 580 in the world, the assumption must be that anyone is capable of defeating anyone else on the right run of form. Indeed, why not let the higher ranked players prove their worth rather than have their places granted? The play-off also provides a useful defence mechanism: the LTA would take the credit for their innovative policy if the selected players were to succeed against Ukraine; or defend themselves in defeat with the disclaimer that those proven best were chosen.
So, useful in theory, but, as ever, shaky in practice. With no ‘live’ Davis Cup victories to his name, Bogdanovic, who started the year as Britain’s no. 2, was not even considered for the play-off, nor was current no. 7, Chris Eaton, who made stunning inroads in qualifying for the 2008 Wimbledon main draw and a terrific first-round victory. Eaton’s reprieve, eventually joining the play-off group after the withdrawal of British no. 19 Jamie Baker, was to battle out an epic victory over no. 4, James Ward in, unofficially, the longest match in tennis history. With two victories from two, prompting embarrassment about the procedure the play-off was designed to eradicate, Eaton had upset the traditional selection by rank policy, and he was picked along with Josh Goodall, the highest ranked player available, who had earned his place in similar fashion.
All of this proved somewhat immaterial, and the ties cooked up a traditional British recipe: flashes of brilliance, noble effort, but ultimately just not quite enough on the day. The pressure rested on Josh Goodall, purely because his world ranking suggested that he could, and should, have overcome Ukranian opponent and world no. 224, Illya Marchenko, who instead prevailed after three tie-breaks, 7-6, 7-6, 7-6. Eaton, without this comparative burden, played with greater freedom, and had the audacity to steal a set from the Ukranian spearhead Sergiy Stakhovsky before going down 3-6, 6-3, 3-6, 4-6. Fine margins, but no reward. Murray, for the record, had beaten Stakhovsky twice already in 2009, including Dubai just two weeks ago where Murray contracted the virus. No doubt the Ukranian would have been delighted by Murray’s withdrawal, but with Eaton’s levelling set came, arguably, more optimism about the possibility of victory, than has been seen for a long time. No, he wasn’t able to complete the job, and even if he had, it would have been to no avail. Eaton saved the whitewash by defeating Marchenko in the dead-rubber, returning shades of 2003. Britain cannot hide their frustration at promising failure, but we will accept an unsung hero. Freedom does something to a player, as shown by Alex Bogdanovic, and the pursuing commentators.
The decision to omit him from this play-off was criminal. Boggo’s record has not been good, and this spreads to Wimbledon too, but it is not all bad news. Dreadfully unfortunate to have faced both Federer and Nadal in opening rounds at Wimbledon, which has made his wild-card entry precious little use, Bogdanovic’s crowning achievement in 2007, carrying some momentum from the aforementioned Roddick match just weeks before, was accompanying Melanie South in the mixed-doubles to send hot favourite top seeds, the USA’s Mike Bryan and Lisa Raymond, crashing out. The victory is all too quickly forgotten about; the BBC didn’t even consider it worthy of terrestrial coverage. The pair cleaned out the 13th seeds as well, if anybody remembers. As British no. 2 for some time, that fact alone means that Bogdanovic is as equipped to lead the team as anyone, and certainly entitled to challenge for a place. Yes, he could have been defeated, even humiliated, during the play-off, but more soul destroying surely to be considered less suitable than Colin Fleming at a world ranking of around 580, or Jamie Baker at around 830. The play-off would have shown what Bogdanovic had to offer, and had he been selected on that basis, both coaches and player would have had the evidence of selection on merit: “Alex proved that he was the best we had”. One wonders if Bogdanovic might not have risen to the challenge without the Roy Keane-esque snarl that Andy Murray seems to adopt especially on Davis Cup duty. Already, post-mortem comments are claiming that rankings should have prevailed; Lloyd, whether in wisdom or folly, allowed that loop-hole.
The role of ranking villain was played on this occasion by Goodall, who may prove a future success, but realistically we just have to accept the personnel we have. Certainly, I think it is time to leave Bogdanovic alone. Perhaps it was understandable that the focus was almost entirely squared on Bogdanovic before the Davis Cup tie against Austria, but with labels such as loser, a gamble, a bottler, a flop and ultimately a joker in the pack, “cursed by a lack of tactical nous and mental gumption“, one could be forgiven for thinking that those of the great ruling instrument find greater thrill in Bogdanovic’s grim statistics, and that no such verbal eloquence would be staged for victory as that for reporting defeat. He does not try to lose matches and become a greater laughing stock in the unforgiving and cynical eyes of the public any more than John Terry intends to slip and miss the vital penalty in the Champions League final. The press this time around have spoken of paucity of talent rather than landing the blame directly on the shoulders of the contesting players, which is justifiable if not merciful. Neither this defeat, nor the paradigmatic ‘state of the sport’, is the fault of the squad (one wonders, given Andy Murray’s training in Barcelona, and Anne Keothavong’s recent dig at the LTA, quite how the organisation runs). Nor is it the fault of the absent Bogdanovic, although he has taken far more than his fair share of implied blame.
In an age where sport offers more than its fair share of the spoils, it is time that we put tennis into context and offered more respect to our tennis pros if we hope to see results back. Footballers earning many tens of thousands per week are rested because of a vital 90 minutes in midweek. Two games in a week is labelled ‘heavy schedule’; try succeeding in an ATP tournament or Grand Slam, gentlemen. Financial rewards in tennis don’t come from sitting on a bench, sitting out injured, sitting out suspended, or for otherwise not making the playing squad. Footballers can have a poor game, their team loses, they get pick up a *6* in some ratings column, collect their substantial wage, and move on. I’m not suggesting it doesn’t affect them, and the vilification of Stewart Downing at international level shows an unhealthy parallel in looking for someone to chastise, but I am suggesting that the David Bentleys, Darren Bents, Peter Crouches and Roque Santa Cruzes will earn close in a week or two to what many British tennis professionals, landed with the expenditure of international travel, will earn in a year, and for what better product by this season’s demonstration? Is David Bentley within the world’s top 200 footballers? Even if he came close, he would not exceed Bogdanovic’s rating in his own sport by much, and yet he is not pilloried to nearly the same extent despite his vast earnings. It is alright to label Darren Bent a ‘confidence player’, but any hint of Bogdanovic as a ‘gallant loser’ is apparently a ‘recurringly unhelpful motif‘ (‘Intelligent life on the web’, but unhelpful nonetheless).
How does confidence develop? It is difficult to say. Winning matches must surely be the best tonic, and to claim the scalp of Roddick at that time could have changed the course of Bogdanovic’s career, which has since stagnated. Glimpses of form have been punctuated by the depressing run in the Davis Cup. If selected as British no. 2, in the face of ‘psychological fragility‘, encouragement must come a close second. The raucous barrage of noise from the student crowd at Glasgow in the recent tie was just the ticket (not unsporting either; those at the front warmly clasped Stakhovsky’s hand on his departure having seen the second close encounter taken by the Ukranians). Little chance of that kind of help for Bogdanovic. The tie against Austria in September 2008 was held at British tennis’ spiritual home, yet a depressing lack of advertising around SW19 and ticket prices closer to the summer’s showpiece than a GB team event belied the desperate need for followers. Murray slated his team mates’ desire afterwards, but that his ferocity stirred a stagnant crowd at Wimbledon was partly the result of his natural born aggression, and partly personal retaliation against Jurgen Melzer’s provocative taunts preceding the tie. Let us not forget that Murray himself was struggling to cope with demanding five set matches earlier in his career, never mind Chris Eaton’s potential world-marking marathon, and that even the motivated Murray called time on acclaimed coach Brad Gilbert’s confrontational style. This was passed almost as exclusively down to Bogdanovic, a mismatch made in Blunderland. The whole air behind Bogdanovic’s matches in September, even more so than Goodall’s, was one of defeat. It is not in many men’s natures to act defiant in front of an apathetic home public expecting failure; those who can handle it are more often found in politics, not tennis.
In the absence of victory or encouragement, the best option is to reverse the fear factor by swallowing pride and saying little. And that doesn’t mean John McEnroe hubristically cutting a caller off TalkSport for mentioning Bogdanovic’s name. We all know without needing to say that England is not a world force in tennis, but wanting to believe it still leaves many a critic with an impromptu desire to berate a battered side which needs willing on by just small margins to victory. Why downplay the Eaton victory in the dead-rubber? With the emergence of Sergei Bubka and Ivan Sergeyev, Marchenko had his own place in the next squad to play for. If ‘it mattered‘ for John Terry in an England friendly against Germany, it matters now to a bruised Great British squad. We can talk all we like about ‘grass-roots’ tennis, but is not the most off-putting thing to an up-and-coming player the chronic fear that defeat leaves you more the villain for trying?
More to the point, these are all young players. Bogdanovic is the veteran at 24. Transformation does not happen overnight, but if trust is reserved over judgement, there are results to be shown. 25 year old Anne Keothavong’s terrific surge in form in the last twelve months, backed by positive coverage, has lifted her almost 100 places in the women’s rankings into the top 50. Melanie South, who partnered Bogdanovic in that understated doubles victory, closes in on the top 100, and hot on her heels is 25 year old Elena Baltacha, who pulled off one of the shots of the Australian Open to take a set off former champion Amelie Mauresmo in the second round. The expectation level of the women’s game has been sufficiently calm and collected to be able to offer positive, if surprising, encouragement at the right time. Margins can have a huge impact, but they are only margins. It may not take as much as seems for results to begin turning. At least give the British men the chance to follow suit.