The smallest of margins can have the most decisive impact. Ask Alex Bogdanovic.
Tie-break, 6-5, match point, Alex Bogdanovic. But no…
World no. 5 Andy Roddick challenges the call, wins the set point, and goes on to scrape a narrow victory, 4-6, 7-6 (7-5), 6-4.
Bogdanovic’s mixed career may well have turned out differently had he gone on to claim the scalp of Roddick, who expected to challenge for Wimbledon in 2007.
Instead, Boggo faced the familiar 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” all too bittersweet.
I have been a fan since his first Davis Cup appearance in Sydney in February 2003. A rookie then, he gave Wimbledon champion Leyton Hewitt more trouble than the 7-5, 6-1, 6-2 defeat suggests, and claimed a dead rubber, ousting the 7-time Wimbledon doubles champion Todd Woodbridge 6-2, 7-6. No Aussie, even a singles retiree, will gift us a gimme.
There are undoubtedly parallels with 2009 when GB faced Ukraine. Delapidated by injury, six hopefuls contested a play-off for Davis Cup places – a move that gave the LTA grounds to defend their selection if it went horribly wrong.
So, useful in theory, but shaky in practice. Bogdanovic, who started the year as Britain’s no. 2, was not considered for the play-off. Nor was current no. 7, Chris Eaton, who qualified for the 2008 Wimbledon main draw and reached the second round.
Eaton’s reprieve, joining the play-off after British no. 19 Jamie Baker withdrew, was to battle out an epic victory over no. 4, James Ward in, unofficially, the longest match in tennis history. Eaton 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, as GB bowed out in tame fashion to the Ukranians. Goodall’s ranking suggested that he should have overcome world no. 224, Illya Marchenko, who prevailed after three tie-breaks, 7-6, 7-6, 7-6.
Eaton played with greater freedom and took a set from Ukranian spearhead Sergiy Stakhovsky in a 3-6, 6-3, 3-6, 4-6 defeat. Fine margins, but no reward. With Eaton’s levelling set came, arguably, more optimism about the possibility of victory than has been seen for a long time.
Eaton later saved a whitewash by defeating Marchenko in the dead-rubber, returning shades of 2003. Britain detests promising failure, but accepts an unsung hero. Freedom does something to a player, as shown by Alex Bogdanovic.
The decision to omit him from this playoff was questionable. While Bogdanovic’s big-game record is weak, he cannot be faulted for defeats to Federer and Nadal in opening rounds at Wimbledon.
Following the 2007 defeat to Roddick, he and Melanie South sent top seeds Mike Bryan and Lisa Raymond crashing out of the mixed doubles – a match the BBC didn’t consider worthy of terrestrial coverage. The pair cleaned out the 13th seeds as well.
As British no. 2 for some time, was he not entitled to challenge for a place? Had he been defeated during the playoff, the decision is still justified. Dismissing him looks foolish on rankings alone. 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.
The role of ranking villain was played on this occasion by Goodall. But it’s time to leave Bogdanovic alone – especially for ties he has not played.
Perhaps it was understandable that the focus was almost entirely squared on Bogdanovic before the tie against Austria, but with labels such as loser, a bottler, a flop and ultimately a joker in the pack, “cursed by a lack of tactical nous and mental gumption“, it’s clear that greater enjoyment is found in his defeats than would be found in his victories.
Without Bogdanovic, the press has spoken about paucity of talent rather than squaring blame on contesting players, which is merciful if a little hypocritical. Yet Bogdanovic is still subject to far more than his fair share of implied blame.
Consider tennis into context for a moment. Footballers earning tens of thousands per week are rested because two games in a week makes a ‘heavy schedule’. Try succeeding in an ATP tournament or Grand Slam. You earn nothing in tennis from sitting on a bench, sitting out injured, or for not making a squad.
The David Bentleys, Darren Bents, and Roque Santa Cruzes will earn in a week or two what many British tennis professionals earn in a year, and for what better product? 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.
Also, it’s ok to label Darren Bent a ‘confidence player’, but any hint of Bogdanovic as a ‘gallant loser’ is apparently a ‘recurringly unhelpful motif’.
How does confidence develop? Winning matches is the best tonic, and victory over Roddick could have changed the course of Bogdanovic’s caree. Glimpses of form have been punctuated by the depressing Davis Cup.
Encouragement must come a close second. A raucous noise from the student crowd at Glasgow in the recent tie was just the ticket. Little chance of that kind of help for Bogdanovic. The tie against Austria in September 2008 was held at Wimbledon, where organisers did little to raise a crowd.
Murray slated his team mates’ desire afterwards, but we shouldn’t forget Murray’s own struggles with five-set matches earlier in his career, nor Chris Eaton’s potential world-marking marathon just trying to qualify this time around.
This was passed as almost exclusively down to Bogdanovic. The whole air his 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 such an expectation of failure.
Reverse the fear factor by saying little. We can talk 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? Instead, there’s John McEnroe cutting off a TalkSport caller for mentioning Bogdanovic’s name.
More to the point, these are young players. Bogdanovic is the veteran at 24. Transformation does not happen overnight, but Anne Keothavong’s terrific surge in form, backed by positive coverage, has lifted her into the top 50. Mel South, who partnered Bogdanovic in the Wimbledon doubles victory, closes in on the top 100, and hot on her heels is 25-year-old Elena Baltacha.
The expectation level of the women’s game has been calm and collected, offering positive, if surprising, encouragement at the right time. Margins can have a huge impact, but they are still 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.