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Thursday, April 24, 2008

Many happy returns, Robert

There was a lot of coverage this week of the fact that Robert Dee, the young British tennis professional, won a match on the tour. This meant he was no longer "the worst tennis player in the world". Ho ho.

This is the kind of reflexive abuse that Tim Henman used to come in for because he never won a Grand Slam. Characterising professional athletes as "useless" is never a good idea but it seems particularly inappropriate with tennis players and doubly inappropriate coming from anyone in this country where tennis barely exists as a competitive sport.

If the average smart-arsed comic who fancied himself as a sportsman ended up on a pitch in a professional game of football he just might get to make contact with the ball on a few occasions. Put him on a professional cricket pitch he might make a catch or even score a run or two. But put him on the other side of the net from a professional tennis player and he would instantly realise that the game he was in bore absolutely no resemblance to any of his previous experiences on a tennis court.

I've played tennis against good amateur players and here's what I learned. I learned there was no point at all in my being there. The combination of skill, physical stature and racket technology in the game has now advanced to the point that the serve, like Shock and Awe, is a weapon used to make sure that your opponent never gets to actually oppose you. Do it right and he just trudges from side to side, going through the motions of assuming the position and then, just as the ball is clanging into the netting at the back of the court, lunging in the direction of where it previously went.

This is brought home once again by this ESPN piece in which their writer tries to face the serve of young American player John Isner. Isner has a serve that travels at 140 mph. That wouldn't be so bad if he weren't 6ft 9in tall. Therefore the ball is also coming down from God knows what height. The hapless hack is standing miles behind the base line and yet on the rare occasions he gets even the frame of the racket to the ball his arm is way above his own head height and therefore the chances of playing what you might call a shot are slim. Most of his "returns" end up on a neighbouring court.

And this doesn't mean that John Isner is obviously going to be the next Federer. I once took some lessons from a good young English pro and, just for a laugh, he would play a few points against me. I rarely got anywhere near the ball and he wasn't even trying. He explained to me that the British number one was better than him by the same factor that he was better than me. We really have no idea. We should shut our traps and wish Robert Dee the best of luck.