Last on MOTD: 2001, a tennis odyssey

1997 must have been a rubbish year for British sport. Did Greg Rusedski really win the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award just for reaching the US Open final? And was Tim Henman really second on the basis of reaching the last eight at Wimbledon and winning an ATP Tour event? Apparently so.

I am, just about, old enough to remember the days when Des Lynam would get terribly excited (well, OK, he’d raise an eyebrow and allow a smile to play at the corner of his moustache) if Jeremy Bates or Chris Bailey had somehow slogged through to the second round at the All England Club.

And so, when Rusedski and Henman came along, and started beating some of the journeymen who had been knocking out Brits in the first rounds of Grand Slam events for years – and better than that, actually started reaching the second week of Wimbledon – it was a cause for celebration. We, the Great British public, probably over-reacted. We certainly did in 1997, by the looks of it.

Thanks to the complete lack of depth in British men’s tennis, those days of Bates and Bailey will probably return once Andy Murray calls it a day. I still don’t think Murray should be on the BBC’s final 10 for this year’s Sports Personality award – after all, he hasn’t won a Grand Slam – but perhaps we should enjoy what is, relatively speaking, a British golden era while it lasts.

Murray is one of the best tennis players in the world. It is his misfortune that there has always been someone slightly better in his way. If it hasn’t been Roger Federer, it’s been Rafael Nadal. If it hasn’t been Rafael Nadal, it’s been Novak Djokovic.

People who know more about tennis than me suggest that Murray’s problem isn’t really his temperament. They argue that the tantrums and the accusations of choking are red herrings. No, Murray’s problem is that, as good as he is at tennis, he’s not quite good enough. As a result, he makes harder work of the early rounds of Grand Slam tournaments, so he doesn’t quite have enough left in the tank when he gets to the latter stages.

I’d love him to prove me wrong, but I don’t think Murray will ever win Wimbledon. He will always be the No.3 or No.4 seed – at least as long as he is at the top of his game – so he’ll always need to beat a No.1 or No.2 to lift the title. Sometimes, you need a little bit of luck.

To my mind, Murray has never had a really big chance to win at SW19. Yes, he blew a big chance to get to the 2009 final by losing to Andy Roddick, but would he have gone on to beat Federer? Not in my opinion.

No, the big chance for a Brit to become the first Wimbledon champion since the 1930s fell to Tim Henman. He was the one who really let glory slip through his fingers.

For years, Henman had the same problem as Murray. He was good, but not quite good enough. During the first half of his career, Pete Sampras blocked his path to the Wimbledon title. Then, when Sampras declined, Federer emerged.

But there was one year when Henman had his opportunity to seize the day. In 2001, there was a power vacuum at the top of the men’s game. Sampras was no longer the demon server of aces who had inspired Father Dougal (from Father Ted) to name a pet rabbit after him. Federer knocked him out in round four, but was still on the way up, and lost to Henman in the quarter-finals.

In the last four, Henman faced Goran Ivanisevic, a player so erratic that he had dropped to 125 in the world rankings and only qualified for Wimbledon at all after being given a wild card entry. Henman led by two sets to one, was comprehensively outplaying Ivanisevic and looked set for a final against Pat Rafter, which he would surely have won.

Instead, the rains came down. And in those days, Centre Court didn’t have a roof. The match ended up being played over three days. Ivanisevic came back to win, and beat Rafter in the final. It was the only Grand Slam title of his career. It remains the only Grand Slam ever won by a West Bromwich Albion supporter. I can’t see Adrian Chiles or Frank Skinner turning that statistic on its head any time soon.

Last on MOTD: QPR 1 West Brom 1
Commentator: John Roder

I say Ivanisevic is a West Brom fan. Until this weekend, he’d never actually had an opportunity to see them play.

The story, told in a 2006 Daily Mail article, is an odd one. During the 2004/05 season, the Croatian was a regular on the Merrill Lynch Tour of Champions. During the Tour, he spent a lot of time working with an Albion fan who really got on his nerves. (It might have been Chiles. After all, he is half-Croatian himself.)

This was the season of Albion’s Great Escape, when they managed to survive relegation from the Premier League despite being bottom going into the final day. That fan clearly had an effect on Ivanisevic.

“When they were trying to survive in the Premiership, he was always in a bad mood – very jumpy,” Ivanisevic recalled. “He was really getting on my nerves, but then I started looking out for West Brom’s results and became hooked.

“I caught myself with Teletext on, looking for the results. As soon as I did that, we survived.”

When Ivanisevic reached the final of the BlackRock Masters in 2006, he walked out on court at London’s Royal Albert Hall in a West Brom shirt to knock up. The shirt had been sent to him by Albion as a good luck charm, and signed by all the players. It didn’t work – he lost to Paul Haarhuis. But by then, Ivanisevic was beyond help.

So far beyond help, in fact, that when he returned to the Royal Albert Hall this week, he found himself rushing to finish a match so he could see Albion for the first time.

Ivanisevic was due on court at 1pm yesterday to face Mark Philippoussis at the AEGON Masters. After the match, he had a car waiting outside to take him the two or three miles to Loftus Road, to see West Brom play at QPR.

“It’s going to be a race against time, but it’s my first live game and I’ve been waiting for this for a long time and I hope I make it,” he said beforehand.

“I need to try to win my match first but, for sure, I want to ‘Boing’.”

Perhaps thoughts of Shane Long and Chris Brunt battling away up the road proved too much of a distraction. Ivanisevic lost 6-7 2-6 to Philippoussis. He did, apparently, make it to Loftus Road, though.

And just as at Wimbledon in 2001, perhaps he got a bit of luck when he needed it. Rangers, leading to a Heidar Helguson header (and trying saying that quickly) should have gone two ahead through a spectacular Shaun Wright-Phillips finish, but the winger was wrongly flagged offside. Eight minutes from the end, Long equalised to make Ivanisevic’s day.

Rangers should have had the victory, really. Their manager Neil Warnock might just have had an insight into how Henman felt all those years ago. Then again, Warnock did at least win at Wimbledon once – as manager of Sheffield United in September 2003. So really, he has more in common with Ivanisevic.

Gubbometer 2011/12
1. Fulham: 4 (2L: 1, 3L: 0)
2. Aston Villa: 3 (2L: 3, 3L: 2)
2. West Brom: 3 (2L: 3, 3L: 2)
4. Sunderland: 3 (2L: 1, 3L: 0)
5. QPR: 3 (2L: 0, 3L: 1)
6. Wigan: 2 (2L: 4, 3L: 3)
7. Swansea: 2 (2L: 3, 3L: 1)
8: Wolves: 2 (2L: 1, 3L: 3)
9. Bolton: 1 (2L: 2, 3L: 3)
10. Blackburn: 1 (2L: 1, 3L: 3)
11: Liverpool: 1 (2L: 1, 3L: 2)
12. Norwich: 1 (2L: 1, 3L: 1)
13. Tottenham: 1 (2L: 1, 3L: 0)
14. Newcastle: 1 (2L: 0, 3L: 0)
15. Everton: 0 (2L: 2, 3L: 3)
16. Arsenal: 0 (2L: 2, 3L: 1)
17. Stoke: 0 (2L: 1, 3L: 1)
18. Manchester United: 0 (2L: 1, 3L: 0)
19. Chelsea: 0 (2L: 0, 3L: 2)
20. Manchester City: 0 (2L: 0, 3L: 0)

2L = On second last (Aston Villa 0 Manchester United 1)
3L = On third last (Wigan 0 Arsenal 4)

(Teams receive one point every time they are last on MOTD. Teams level are separated by the number of times they are on second last, then by the number of times they are on third last. MOTD2 not included.)

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