Category Archives: Sport

A love-hate game

I normally try to refrain from excessive negativity on this blog, but the BBC’s coverage of Wimbledon has been driving me round the bend. I feel the need to rant.

What is it that annoys me? Well, if I may be permitted to serve for the match…

15-0! ‘Today’ at Wimbledon
Why oh why are the highlights scheduled when play is still going on? Every year it baffles me. Not only does it create a headache for those returning home late from work, it inconveniences the BBC itself. Last Wednesday was the most dramatic day of the championships, but because Federer didn’t lose to Stakhovsky until around 8.20pm, the highlights programme got squeezed to little over half an hour. Why the inflexibility? Why not schedule the show from 9.30-10.30pm instead of 8-9pm? For all its boasts about the extent of its coverage, it’s like the BBC fears reprisals if the tennis encroaches too much on primetime.

30-0! Highlights? What highlights?
It’s not just the timing of Today at Wimbledon – it’s the content too. They’ve only got an hour, so why clutter the show with patronising VTs and introductory montages to every bleeding chunk of a match they deign to show? Even in the tournament’s latter stages, there’s more than enough enthralling action to fill the hour, but that doesn’t seem to be the point. Instead of targeting those who’ve been unable to see the tennis live, the highlights show feels more like a cosy summing-up for those who’ve been watching all day.

40-0! Make your mind up!
Why the endless flip-flopping between BBC1 and BBC2? It just feels so… archaic. I know that some people stick to watching one channel all day long, but I guess that’s because they like the usual content – so why irritate everyone (including, presumably, BBC schedulers) by shaking things up? I guess it’s about ratings, but in a world where more people are watching their chosen content on their own terms, the patriarchal sensibility feels outmoded. The BBC should respect the audience’s ability to decide what it wants to watch – and respect its own multi-platform infrastructure enough to know that we have the means to find it.

Game, set and match! Fear of depth.
This is the clincher: the fundamental divide between quantity and quality. And by ‘quality’ I mean ‘depth’. The tone of the TV coverage is resolutely superficial, presumably because the BBC is addressing a broad spectrum of people, many of whom have only a passing interest in the game. To me, however, that’s just an excuse for laziness – particularly when, as its presenters are so fond of telling us, the BBC has red buttons and online streams coming out of every orifice, readily enabling them to be more ambitious in how they engage with the action. But it doesn’t happen. Instead there is a determination to address an unhappy medium – one which feels increasingly anaemic in a world where digital media and dedicated sports channels have created a new orthodoxy for those who want to ‘go deep’ with their passions.

There are, of course, honourable exceptions. McEnroe, Becker, Henman and Davenport are all to be admired for bringing insider insight to the MOR TV coverage. And 5 Live’s Wimbledon output is a model mix of accessibility, depth and adaptability.

But I worry that’s no longer enough – for the BBC’s sake, as much as anyone else’s. I recognise that the corporation faces pressures quite unlike those of its commercial rivals, but that’s no excuse for such a complacent ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach. In the digital age, the mainstream is no longer a comfortable place to be; our tolerance thresholds for content which isn’t quite right for each of us is diminishing with every new gadget and Wi-Fi hotspot that throws itself upon us. And that’s what I’ve experienced with Wimbledon 2013. For all its multiscreen prowess, the BBC’s coverage has felt like a dinosaur – its head in the present, but its heart in a forgotten past, where people’s tastes, behaviours and expectations were very different beasts.

Just tell me the score

I sometimes think tennis is the greatest sport. I love cricket and football too – the latter is my constant companion – but when the tennis hots up, it has an intensity and rawness that’s as hard to beat as Rafael Nadal on clay.

A lot of things make this the case, but the gladiatorial element is key: one human being, pitted against another in a rarefied battle of skill and psychological poise. Team sports, of course, provide plenty of extra nuance, but there’s something thrillingly fundamental about the self-reliance of the on-court tennis player, and the turmoil he or she must endure, alone, that aces me every time.

It’s like boxing, but without the whole people-actually-hitting-each-other thing. Instead, tennis has that metaphorical mystique which distinguishes all the best sports, raising them above mere pastimes or competitions into something properly theatrical. We understand what our heroes experience because what they’re actually doing – hitting balls to and fro for points – provides an abstract canvas onto which their fears, dreams and demons are projected in the most comprehensible form.

This remarkable purity – call it theatrical, call it dramatic, call it performative (actually no, don’t call it that) – raises interesting questions when it comes to how we consume sport. After all, there are now as many ways of watching tennis as there are strokes in Novak Djokovic’s shot locker. You could be at the match, watching on TV, listening to Five Live’s (and in particular Jonathan Overend’s) superb radio coverage or – if you’re stuck in an office – following play-by-play updates online.

Loving the latter for cricket (step forward The Guardian, and in particular the brilliant Rob Smyth), I automatically default to game-by-game coverage of big tennis matches when I’m at work. But over the years, however immediate the updates or brilliant the writer, I’ve come to find that this kind of coverage fails to capture the real ebb and flow – the dramatic heartbeat – of a match. It’s as though tennis has an elusive quality which, unlike cricket, makes game-by-game updates unsatisfactorily retrospective. The drama’s there, but it’s being relayed after the event, having already to some extent been digested to make a tidy whole-game summary.

It was because of this that, last week, I discarded Katy Murrells’s game-by-game Guardian coverage of Laura Robson’s Australian Open victory against Petra Kvitova (right), and went seeking a point-by-point approach instead. Since timings preclude written summaries of each point, my only option was to watch the unembellished scoreboard, updating in real time on the tournament website. And what happened? To my surprise, the simple statistical experience of watching the scores accumulate was every bit as intense as watching the match live.

In a way, I suppose, this isn’t surprising. Given even the most sketchy details, we’re all blessed with the capacity to overlay prior knowledge, experiences and emotions to flesh out any given scenario. And since those embellishments come from deep within us, the impact is often more powerful than if we’d experienced events in their original form. Hence the pictures being better on radio, and the potency of the written word, where even the most assiduous authors will have their descriptive efforts enriched by the reader’s imagination.

In sporting terms, however, it’s not so simple. I’ve never got the same thrill from watching a cricket scorecard or, heaven knows, a football score refresh in real time (sorry, Ceefax). Perhaps it’s a sign of my own limitations, but there’s just not enough context – not enough sense of unravelling tactics, statistical detail, near-misses or disciplinary incidents – to make emotional sense of the raw data I’m being fed.

So why is tennis different? After all, given just the scoreboard, all you really know is… well, the score, plus some prior knowledge of the players, and a vague sense of each rally’s length, based on how long the score takes to refresh. Yet somehow the standalone tennis scoreboard still works, firing the imagination into vivid evocations of a game’s tension and drama. And the reason, surely, is all to do with tennis’s astonishing, one-in-a-million scoring system.

It’s hard to articulate why this is so special. For me, it’s the fact that, with just four needed to win a game, every single point exerts psychological pressure on one or other player, combined with the fact that success isn’t winning as many points as possible, but winning the most important. That, of course, has to do with the paramount significance of service breaks, which invests each moment with game-changing potential, and creates all manner of curiosities, like the person serving first in the final set having a real psychological advantage – the numbers alone applying potentially match-winning pressure.

I could go on, but thankfully there’s no need. Because, as I discovered last week, the best advice to anyone unfamiliar with the joy of tennis scoring is to pick a match, choose your favoured player, then watch the points unfold on the scoreboard alone. Unencumbered by the distraction of images, commentary or stadium atmosphere, it’s the perfect distillation of tennis’s greatest asset – and arguably all you need to experience the amazing emotional flux of one of the world’s greatest sports.

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