Thursday, 20 September 2012

Arctic meltdown sounds alarm bells

You would expect it to be front-page news, but with everything else going on at the moment, the story was shoved beyond page 20 in your newspaper or worse, consigned as a NIB.

Yesterday, it was confirmed by the US National Snow and Ice Center that the Arctic sea ice had shrunk by 18% (some 700,000 sq km) compared to 2007 levels, reaching a record low of 3.41 million sq km in the process. The culprit is clear; between 70% and 95% of the shrinkage can be explained by human activity, according to the Environmental Research Letters.

After the findings were released, Climate Change and Energy Secretary Ed Davey reiterated the UK’s policy to steer the 2013 climate change talks in Doha towards 30% emission reductions for all members. “The fact is we cannot afford to wait”, he said.

We certainly can’t. In fact, it’s more than likely that any resolutions from the summit will be too little too late from the Arctic’s point of view. According to Professor Peter Wadhams of Cambridge University, all of the ice will be completely gone by 2016, bringing with it destruction of local ecosystems and communities, while compounding the speed of global warming.

The warming process is a vicious circle of destruction. Progressively fewer of the sun’s rays are being reflected back into space, instead being absorbed by the darker body of seawater. The result is the melting of permafrost, which in turn releases methane, trapped since the last ice age. The global warming process could well accelerate.

What’s more, although this is much more difficult to predict precisely, extreme weather brought about by the effect to the jet stream is likely to become more common. The warmer air rising from the ever-expanding Arctic sea has both weakened the jet stream and caused it to move further north. The Met Office says the shrinkage has caused drier, colder winters in the UK which will continue for years to come.

And the sad irony is that as the ice melts, more opportunities are presented to offshore oil drilling, worsening the situation even more. There are 19 geological basins in the Arctic region altogether, which between them hold an estimated 13% of undiscovered global oil supplies. Since the 1970s, around half have been explored, although many projects have been botched due to soaring costs and safety concerns.

Many, including the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), are pointing the finger at Shell’s huge $4.5 billion offshore project, which was postponed until 2013 this week after spill-containment dome Arctic Challenger was damaged. This has raised deep concerns about Shell’s code of practice.

Not only this, but pollutants including “black carbon” have been darkening the ice since oil drilling began, exacerbating the melting process. Meanwhile, physical (and also noise) pollution in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas is likely to affect the 7,500 Inupiat people dependent on marine mammals for food.

The sooner the UN’s International Marine Organization comes up with a strict “Polar Code” outlining clear regulations on such matters, the better.

There is perhaps a crumb of comfort in all this. Precisely 0.1% of comfort, in fact. According to a Norwegian study, that is how much CO2 emissions could be cut each year if global shipping routes were re-wired to utilise the new Arctic shortcuts, although the impact of shipwrecks and soot were not accounted for.

But this crumb of comfort is crushed by the despair which confronts the world’s climate, the northern hemisphere weather system and, most of all, the Arctic region. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that if we are to save the Arctic ice, something extraordinary needs to be achieved very quickly indeed.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Murray's New York slam dunk

On September 10th 1933, Fred Perry claimed the first of his eight Grand Slam titles. The world number three overcame Jack Crawford, ranked number two, in five sensational sets of tennis. Everyone was stunned; the Australian Open champion of that year who was gunning for his sixth major title and regarded as one of the greatest players ever, was beaten. Fast-forward 79 years and you would be forgiven for thinking history was repeating itself.

Last night, the ghost of Fred was finally laid to rest as Andy Murray overcame Novak Djokovic 7-6, (12-10) 7-5, 2-6 3-6 6-2, a match which lasted almost five hours, and undoubtedly one of the great modern finals. The Scot averted the ignominy of losing one’s first five Grand Slams finals in the Open era to cap the finest year in British sport, from Sergio Aguero’s last minute strike for Manchester City, through to Bradley Wiggins’ Tour de France victory and the quite sensational Olympics and Paralympics.

Andy Murray kisses the US Open trophy, and kisses goodbye
to years of Grand Slam woe
Many thought the day would never come as Murray seemingly had the misfortune of crossing lines with arguably the greatest generation of tennis players. The unprecedented imperiousness of the Federer, Nadal and Djokovic triumvirate were like members of an exclusive club, taunting Murray with their membership cards and blocking his path to the sport’s ultimate prize. Despite his talent, Murray was seemingly destined to be left with an unfinished career.

The Olympic final match has been mentioned so much in terms of Murray’s development, and its importance cannot be understated. The manner in which he defeated Federer in a best-of-five set match after the heartbreak of Wimbledon led to coach Ivan Lendl, when asked at a press conference if Murray would ever win a Grand Slam, replying “He already has one”. We always knew he had the ability, but the stuff between the ears was holding him back. For instance, if you took away Djokovic’s five Grand Slams, their head-to-head was six apiece, with Murray leading 26-23 in titles. In many cases, it boils down to a few points here and there, and which man truly believes they can succeed.

But Murray’s road to this US Open final had been far from academic. After suffering early defeats in the Cincinnati and Toronto Masters, the Scot produced uncertain performances in the early rounds, before confidently dispatching the much-hyped Milos Raonic in round four. Hearts were in mouths as he went a set and a double break down to Marin Cilic before mounting a memorable comeback, after which a nervy four-set win over Berdych sealed his progress to the bitter end. Some will point out not he did not face either Nadal or Federer, both absent from semi-finals of a Grand Slam for the first time since 2004, but this in no way detracts from the scale of his achievement.

It was easy to see why many tipped Djokovic. He was on a remarkable 27-match unbeaten run at hard court Grand Slams, stretching back to the US Open of 2010. He had swept past his opponents with consummate ease, including a straight-sets victory over Juan Martin Del Potro. And he also beat Murray in their last Grand Slam encounter, an equally-epic contest in the Australian Open semis. That day, Murray was also a set away from glory but failed to deliver the killer blow. Not this time.

The first set was a tense affair with breaks being traded twice each, exemplified by an incredible 54-stroke rally in game five. Few believed this would go down as a classic until we witnessed that gripping tie break. Murray came from 5-3 down to put Djokovic on the ropes, squandering six set points against the Serb’s incredible defences before eventually claiming the set. It was a microcosm of Murray’s career; denied on so many occasions but finally engineering the breakthrough.

Then the form which won him an Olympic gold medal flowed early in the second set, despite a great comeback from Djokovic at 4-0 down. The inside-out forehand had more weight to it as well as the cross-court backhand, but such hitting completely deserted him in the third set. The fourth was arguably the most entertaining in terms of quality with so many unbelievable rallies, but Murray was always playing catch-up. Almost inevitably, we entered the tennis equivalent of a penalty shootout.

It seemed as though Djokovic was about to emulate Richard Gonzales’ feat 63 years ago, when he came from two sets down to beat Frederick Schroeder in five. But out of nowhere, Djokovic was broken twice, struggling both physically and mentally. All of a sudden, it was he who had legs like jelly and, towards the end of this gladiatorial carnage, he sounded like a wounded animal gasping for survival. Murray was composed throughout and, for once, used his challenges wisely to correct two marginal decisions when serving for the championship, shrugging off the pain of losing a toe nail and ending the agony of a nation. The impact on British tennis and the potential to inspire a generation could prove to be priceless.

Ivan Lendl was 24 when he won the first of his eight Grand Slams, and so, at 25, Murray has plenty of time to win more Slams. The remaining highlights of the year include the Shanghai and Paris Masters, both in October, followed by the ATP World Tour Finals at the O2 in November. For now, though, Murray deserves a good break to recharge depleted batteries before preparing himself to enter the 2013 ring. It is certainly a mouth-watering prospect with Nadal returning from injury, Del Potro getting closer to his 2009 peak, Federer still going strong and a hungry Andy Murray finally finally being unshackled by the game’s greats.

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Murray magic routs Raonic

Milos Raonic was in bullish mood during Monday’s pre-match press conference. “My job is to go out there and make my opponents adjust to me. I feel like I have the ability to be more dangerous than most players when I have the ball out of my hand on the serve… A lot of matches can depend on me.”

“Challenge accepted”, thought Murray, and, two hours later, “mission accomplished”, as he raced into the quarter finals of the US Open with a masterclass 6-4, 6-4, 6-2 victory over his opponent. Raonic, the 21-year old Moldovan-born Canadian and one of the rising stars in world tennis, was fancied by many to cause an upset with his booming serve. But the way in which he was dismantled by Murray will have fans of the Scot purring with delight. He may have been off the pace against Bogomolov and Lopez, and OK against Ivan Dodig, but this was a different level of tennis and one which sends out a clear message of intent to his rivals.

It’s easy to understand why Raonic thought he had a chance. Standing at a towering 6’5’’, his average first serve speed measures 138mph (his fastest is known to be a whopping 155mph) as he is able to generate incredible power from his huge legs. It led to John McEnroe commenting before the match that it could be the greatest serve of all time. At the end of 2010 his ranking was a lowly 156; he has since elevated himself 140 places up that list and it surely won’t be long until a top-10 breakthrough is accomplished.

But Murray, a player who relishes the challenge of big servers, made him look, well, ordinary. The number of shots he has in his locker is quite staggering, and the variety, as well as his exceptional return game, was too much for Raonic. The Canadian was pulled around the court like a puppet, a powerless figure subjected to Murray’s talent and imagination. Forehand drop shots brought Raonic to the net, disrupting his deep baseline rhythm, and lobs were used to send him scrambling back again. As the match went on, Raonic went for broke and committed six double faults and numerous forehand mistakes.

Murray’s pin-point backhand down the line was utilised perfectly in the second set, as well as the inside-out forehand, a shot Murray fans have craved to see more often. And then we saw those incredible passing shots, in both directions for both forehand and backhand, which left the Arthur Ashe crowd stunned on countless occasions. Unforced errors seemed a distant memory at times, putting Raonic under all sorts of pressure, and the serve was remarkably consistent; 88% of first serve points were won and precisely zero break points were even offered.

There was a point during the third set when Raonic had a chink of light at 0-30, but four first serves from Murray slammed the door shut. In previous years, Murray would have been conceding break points, buckling under the pressure and getting irritated with himself. True, Raonic needs to improve his returns if he is to make an imprint at the highest level (his reactions are slow and his swing somewhat exaggerated), but when Murray serves at 65% or above, there is usually only one outcome.

Murray’s performance has come at the perfect time as he prepares to take on another big server in Marin Cilic, who overcame another young rising star in Martin Klizan and defeated Murray in the 2009 quarter finals. But that was a different Murray to now, and if he can replicate anywhere near today’s performance, a semi-final date with either Berdych or Federer will be secure.

Remaining fourth round predictions:

Tipsarevic vs Kohlschreiber: Tipsarevic in 5 sets

Richard Gasquet vs David Ferrer: Ferrer in 5 sets

Juan Martin del Potro vs Andy Roddick: del Potro in 4 sets

Stanislas Wawrinka vs Novak Djokovic: Djokovic in 3 sets

Monday, 27 August 2012

Andy Murray targets US Open glory

There was a moment in the London Olympics final when you knew Andy Murray was going to strike gold. Federer, crushing a forehand most players would have left with a resigned look, thought he had won the point. But Murray stunned the Swiss with a sensational backhand down the line at full stretch to a standing ovation from the Centre Court crowd. And with a 6-4 6-2 6-3 victory, the first best-of-five set triumph Murray ever had over Federer, the gold medal was around his neck. So with the US Open kicking off on Monday, is this the turning point in Murray’s career?

Well first of all, this is Murray’s first US Open with coach Ivan Lendl and it’s impossible to underestimate his importance here. Lendl, an eight-time Grand Slam winner, was famous for his brash style and ability to wear down opponents from the baseline with aggressive tennis; they called him “The Terminator” for a reason. Everyone can see how this has rubbed off on Andy in recent months. There is more bite and length in that forehand now than 12 months ago. The second serve has improved immeasurably of late and his ability to hold himself together mentally on crucial points has been encouraging. What’s more, there is a curious symmetry between the two men as well; Lendl lost his first four Grand Slam finals, as has Murray.

But critics will say that we have often hyped up a Murray “turning point” which never happened all too often in the past. No Grand Slams final appearances followed from the 2008 US Open final for 18 months and he seemed as powerless against Djokovic in the 2011 Australian Open final as the year before against Federer. And this year, his unbelievable performance in the Australian Open semis was also meant to herald a new era, despite losing to Djokovic. But disappointingly, Rome aside, he didn’t replicate such form until Wimbledon, in July. Unfortunately, until Murray wins a Grand Slam, many will look back on his career as incomplete.

Due to the absence of tendonitis-ridden Rafael Nadal, who has appeared in the last two finals, only four players have any realistic chance of glory in New York – Andy Murray, world number one Roger Federer, defending champion Novak Djokovic, and 2009 winner Juan Martin Del Potro. Many have Federer down as the favourite, having won five times here between 2004 and 2008, and demolishing Djokovic in Cincinnati last week. Should he reach the semis, Federer could face Murray. And should he reach the final, he could face Djokovic or Del Potro, who are likely to wage war in the quarters.

There have been some fascinating battles at Flushing Meadows between this trio over the years. Having lost to Federer at three consecutive US Opens, Djokovic has beaten the Swiss in the last two semi-finals, saving two match points in each encounter. It was always going to be hard to replicate the form of 2011, but Djokovic has still had a very good year, winning in Canada, Miami and Australia. I’m not too sure we can read too much into his Cincinatti defeat from a mental perspective, since best-of-three set matches are a different ball game to five sets. Nevertheless, Djokovic may have missed a trick in not skipping either Cincinatti or Toronto the previous week to rest; he reached the finals of both competitions after all. Time will tell how much this will affect his US Open, but at the end of the day, it’s about who can hold their nerve during those crucial points.

And don’t be surprised if a certain Argentine upset the Serb and reached the final. Juan Martin del Potro’s US Open victory over Federer in 2009 will go down as one of the great modern finals; the quality was breathtaking and del Potro rattled Federer with those sledgehammer serves and forehands. He is back to his very best after a serious wrist injury which ruled him out for 18 months; the marathon 19-17 set in the Olympics against Federer is testament to that. He also took a two-set lead against Federer in the French earlier this year, before the Swiss mounted a memorable comeback. On his day, he can beat anybody, and on arguably his favourite surface of all, he can settle into an ominous attacking rhythm.

The fast courts at Flushing Meadows may also suit the big-serving Americans, notably Andy Roddick and the giant John Isner. Roddick has a decent draw in front of him and will fancy his chances of making the third round, not a bad deal considering his injury problems of late, while Isner will hope to please the home crowd by at least matching his quarter final appearance of last year. Meanwhile, Tsonga and Berdych, two talented players who would have won majors in any other era, are in Murray’s half of the draw and will be difficult obstacles to overcome. Don’t underestimate the qualities of Feliciano Lopez or Milos Raonic either, other potential opponents for the Scot should he overcome Alex Bogomolov in the first round.

Murray will have his work cut out if he is to win his first Grand Slam, since this is a surface which many players adore. But no player has really dominated the season so far – we have had three different Grand Slam winners after all – so now is as good a time as ever for Murray to do it.

Predicted winner: Andy Murray

Predicted runner up: Juan Martin del Potro

Dark horse: Milos Raonic

Recent US Open finals:

2011Novak DjokovicRafael Nadal6-2, 6-4, 6-7, 6-1
2010Rafael NadalNovak Djokovic6-4, 5-7, 6-4, 6-2
2009Juan Martin del PotroRoger Federer3-6, 7-6, 4-6, 7-6, 6-2
2008Roger FedererAndy Murray6-2, 7-5, 6-2
2007Roger FedererNovak Djokovic7-6, 7-6, 6-4
2006Roger FedererAndy Roddick6-2, 4-6, 7-5, 6-1
2005Roger FedererAndre Agassi6-3, 2-6, 7-6, 6-1
2004Roger FedererLleyton Hewitt6-0, 7-6, 6-0

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Roger that?

You would think that, after winning a momentous gold medal in the singles and silver in the mixed doubles, Andy Murray would want to put his feet up for a week or two. The last month has been extremely busy for the British number one, going the distance at Wimbledon before claiming gold at the London Olympics when he crushed Roger Federer in the final.

Not so. Yesterday, Andy Murray jetted off to Canada to take part in Toronto’s Rogers Cup, a Masters 1000 event which marks the start of the hard court season. It is one of the key warm-up events ready for the US Open later this month and is a tournament which Murray has recently excelled in, winning twice in the last three seasons.

Andy Murray wins gold at the London Olympics

But is Murray taking a physical risk playing so soon after his Wimbledon and Olympic exertions? By Sunday, Murray will have played in 22 tournaments so far this year, and considering he only played 19 tournaments for the whole of 2011, it appears Murray is going the distance in 2012. Cincinatti, another Masters 1000 event, is coming up next Monday as well. Will Murray have enough energy for the US Open?

Many will remember there were 14 retirements at the 2011 US Open, an unfortunate record for the tournament. Whether this was a one-off fluke or a result of the busy tennis schedule is up for debate, but one man is taking no chances. Perhaps wisely, Roger Federer has pulled out of the Rogers Cup, saying: “After a long stretch of tournaments, I will need some time to recover”.
Milos Raonic, the Canadian world number 24 and Murray’s opponent in today’s third round match, seemed to attack Federer’s decision to pull out: “I’ve only been on the tour two years, but I’ve gone back-to-back from San Jose to Memphis, which is nine hours of travel, and you deal with it. You try to get past those first few days and you know it’s just going to get better and better.”
It was a naïve thing to say; Raonic does not go deep into the tournaments like Federer and can therefore participate in more events. In the past, Federer’s decision to miss tournaments here and there has paid dividends, saving his energy for those which matter.
Murray must be wary of suffering the same fate of 2011 when excessive playing time lead to him pulling out of the ATP World Finals at the O2 in November. Of course, if he is feeling good physically then his plan may prove to be a masterstroke in preparing for the US Open and overtaking Rafael Nadal as world number 3. With these different approaches, it will be interesting to compare Federer and Murray’s prospects for the rest of the year.

Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Ye Shiwen accusations are insulting

On Saturday evening, one girl stunned the world of swimming and indeed the Olympic Games. The women’s 400m individual medley final was won in sensational style by 16-year old Chinese Ye Shiwen, who smashed Stephanie Rice’s previous world record of 4:29:45 by swimming 4:28:43. Many have mentioned that, incredibly, her time in the last 50 metres was faster than men’s 400m IM gold medallist, Ryan Lochte.

However, instead of praising this quite remarkable achievement, one man’s shameful public comments created front pages this morning which are sadly unnecessary. US swimming coach, John Leonard, stated that Ye’s last 100m was “disturbing”, going on to say: “Every time we see something unbelievable it more often than not turned out to be some form of cheating… No woman has ever split the men.”
Ye Shiwen dominated the 400m IM final on Saturday

These are very strong words and quite frankly he should be punished. First of all, if he was so concerned about Ye cheating, why did he not have the guts to go straight to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) who deal with these cases? Instead, he has just thrown a very loose accusation with no support whatsoever into the public domain, creating a “row” which never should have existed.

It’s easy to see how China’s reputation may have been tarnished by instances of cheating.  Their swimming team was hit with doping scandals throughout the 1990s, in particular during the 1994 Asian Games, while another 16-year old, Li Zhesi tested positive for performance-enhancing drug erythropoietin just last month.

But crucially in this case, Ye Shiwen was cleared by WADA (World Anti-Doping Association) before the Games, enough proof from the outset that she is not a cheat. In the unlikely event that she is, she and every other gold medal winner’s samples have be retained by the IOC for another eight years. This means if testing evolves (which it will do) then the new technology can be run on the samples to double check the results.

In any case, it has been well documented how brutally intense some of the Chinese training regimes can be for their promising athletes, which is why we are seeing some brilliant performances at these Games. There have been many reports of children being whisked away at an early age to camps going through regimes which are far more intense than anything experienced here in the Western world.

This indeed is what happened to Ye. She swims several hours almost every day and could perform 20 chin-ups at the age of seven. Her large hands and limbs, and her masculine upper-body structure, were immediately recognised by her coaches, and they have put her through everything imaginable and more to ensure she fulfils her potential at these Olympics. She must have felt deeply insulted, after all this hard work and effort, to have heard Leonard's comments.

Furthermore, the last point which coach Leonard makes above, that “no woman has ever split the men”, although factually correct, is interestingly placed in relation to the previous comments. Is he suggesting that the only explanation behind women going faster than men in swimming, or any sporting event for that matter, is that they cheated and took drugs? If so, it is also completely unnecessary to say during an Olympics which has embraced female participation across every nation.

So these comments by Leonard are shockingly misguided and baseless. We should believe in Ye’s brilliance until we are proven otherwise by the IOC and WADA. And we must remember the Olympic motto – “faster, higher, stronger”. Sadly this has been forgotten by some. Ye Shiwen is a remarkable athlete and one wonders when her achievements will be replicated.

Monday, 30 July 2012

A trip to Brontë Parsonage Museum

The story of the Bronte family, and the stories they penned themselves, have captured the imagination of book lovers for over 150 years. Charlotte, who wrote the beautifully crafted Jane Eyre, and Emily, author of Wuthering Heights, were the literary geniuses of their era and their influence lives on to this day.

This afternoon, I had a glimpse into their lives at the Bronte Parsonage in Haworth, a picture-postcard village in West Yorkshire, about ten miles west of Bradford. Needless to say, Haworth is now a major regional tourist attraction. People all over the world flock at this time of year to soak up the history, culture and landscape of plunging hills and stunning views which surround the settlement. It became clear how the Yorkshire moorland influenced the setting of their work and the nature of the characters.
The room in which the Bronte masterpieces were written

Cramped little shops snake up the hill leading to the village square and are well worth a look. Inside the square and at the summit of the hill is the famous Black Bull pub, which proudly overlooks everything else of importance in the village. Inside you can see the chair which Branwell Bronte (brother of Charlotte and Emily) sat on to enjoy his pint of beer.

These sights set up the trip to the Parsonage very nicely indeed, and we were not to be disappointed. We learned the Brontes moved in the residence in 1820, when Emily and Charlotte were small children. Their elder sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, succumbed to an early grave due to a typhus epidemic caused by disgracefully poor sanitary conditions. Their father, Patrick, had secured a job as the Perpetual Curate of Haworth Church and somehow ended up outliving his entire family, finally passing away in 1861 at the grand old age of 84.

Patrick’s study – a den of quiet concentration – was meticulously presented, epitomised by the magnifying glass used to assist his extensive reading and writing, placed on the table. As the major political figurehead of the village, one can imagine he spent many hours here. Among other commitments he founded a Sunday school in 1832 and campaigned for a clean water supply to Haworth, secured in 1856.

Perhaps most interesting was the dining room, one of the more most spacious areas in the house. It was where the sisters’ literary triumphs were forged, including Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. A rocking chair in the corner next to a grand fireplace would have been regularly used to ponder the next sentence, while, on a more sorrowful note, the sofa opposite was the piece of furniture on which Emily died.

We were also taken around the tiny kitchen, the generous servants’ room and the art studio of Branwell, filled with paintings – some excellent, others rather amateurish. Most interesting was Branwell’s bedroom, where he eventually died as a result of his all-too-frequent trips to the Black Bull and dire alcoholism.

So, if you’re living in the region and interested in your literature, I would recommend a visit! I’m hardly a bookworm but it was a thoroughly enjoyable experience.

Sunday, 29 July 2012

Team GB clinch first medals

Relief. That’s the feeling in the Team GB camp after day two of the London Olympics, as two medals were collected and several other crucial victories were notched to move swiftly on from the struggles of day one.

A new star was born to the British public in Yorkshire’s Lizzie Armistead, who claimed silver in the women’s cycling road race, before Rebecca Adlington relinquished her gold from Beijing in the 400m freestyle but still secured an impressive bronze medal.

Elsewhere, the beach volleyball pairing of Zara Dampney and Shauna Mullin won a nail-biter at Horse Guards Parade, the Riverbank Arena played host to a brilliant 4-0 victory for the women’s hockey side over Japan and the men’s footballers eventually secured a 3-1 win over the United Arab Emirates at Wembley.

And Beth Tweddle demonstrated age didn’t matter in the artistic gymnastics, as her mesmerizing performance on the uneven bars inspired her teenage teammates to a second-placed finish behind the might of the USA. It continued Team GB’s good run from yesterday when the men impressed.

For Armistead to achieve silver in such tough conditions makes the moment all the more special to savour. Her expertise in sprinting from her track career certainly counted in her favour, namely winning gold and silver at the 2009 and 2010 World Championships respectively.

Her promise in the road race event was recognised in 2010 as she won stage events at the presitigious Tour de l'Aude and the Tour de l'Ardeche, while last year she claimed the 2011 British road race title. So if you’re a cycling fan, today’s result might not actually be that surprising.

Meanwhile, Adlington’s emotional post-match interview epitomised just how much the 400m freestyle category has evolved since Beijing. The field has become remarkably stronger since 2008 when Adlington won by a fingertip, as more swimmers are comfortable in a range of distances. With the 800m coming up, Adlington will be the favourite to defend her gold from Beijing in her favourite distance.

All of these events listed above experienced terrific atmospheres inside their respective arenas, which was highly encouraging to see during the ongoing debate over empty seats. Understandably, a lot of anger has been vented today on the issue, and what happens over the next few days will be crucial as to what actions Locog take.

In fact, some are so incensed that a new Twitter page, @OlympicSeat, has been established, which tweeted earlier: “It was my lifelong ambition to be an Olympic seat. To provide rest and comfort for cheering sports fans. I feel like such a failure.” Sometimes I wish people would stop moaning and cheer up.

Saturday, 28 July 2012

Slow start for Team GB

China have already raced to six medals, while the USA and Italy boast five each, but Team GB are yet to capture a single one in their quest to topple their 48-medal target.

It was a disappointing day overall, epitomised by a 29th placed finish for Mark Cavendish in the cycling road race. Sickeningly, it was the former drug cheat, Alexandre Vinokourov, who crossed the line first thanks to a horrendous error in the final 100m from Colombian Rigoberto Uran.
The strategy worked perfectly at the World Championships and the Tour de France, but unfortunately few others helped out this time around, as Cavendish and co were not able to adapt.

Furthermore, there were problems of empty seats at venues from the Aquatic Centre to the North Greenwich Park, which depleted atmospheres at some events. When Team GB needs all the help it can get from home support, it is disappointing that spaces reserved for “members of the Olympic family” – whoever they are – were not taken.

However, there were glimmers of hope in the men’s gymnastics, table tennis and women’s football. Team GB reached the final of the men’s team gymnastics for the first time in modern history as they finished third overall in qualifying behind heavyweights China and the USA.

Individually, Max Whitlock and Louis Smith will both appear in the final of the pommel horse. Smith was particularly impressive and admitted the vociferous crowd helped him; his emotional reaction afterwards showed just how much it all meant. Meanwhile, Kristian Thomas reached the finals of both the vault and the all-round categories, with Dan Purvis also joining him in the latter.

In the table tennis singles, as Joanna Parker and Paul Drinkhall moved into the second round of their respective events, while the women’s footballers saw off Cameroon 3-0 as they secured qualification for the quarter finals.

Tomorrow, we have many more of today’s sports as well as seeing our men's basketballers for the first time, Ben Ainslee in the sailing and also the water polo side (anything close to the drama of the Roses match would be perfect).

I’m confident that Team GB will reach their medal target and that these Olympic Games will be one of the greatest ever. Let’s hope the today’s problems serve as a wake-up call for the organisers and that our athletes can shake off their understandable nerves.

Stay tuned to The Bradders Blog for posts throughout the Olympics as well as York Vision for more in depth comment pieces. And most importantly, enjoy the action!

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Olympic Dreams: David Florence

Name: David Florence

Event: Canoe slalom

Date of birth: 8/8/1982, Age 29

Career highlight: Winning silver in the 2008 Beijing Olympics

Did you know? Before the 2008 Olympic Games, Florence had applied to become an astronaut at the European Space Agency.

Scotsman David Florence is regarded as one of the main men to bag at least one medal for Team GB at the London Olympics. Not only is he competing in the single canoe but also the two-man canoe along with Richard Hounslow. If he achieves this, which is not completely beyond the realms of possibility, he will become the first British paddler to win medals in different disciplines at an Olympic Games.

Florence will be aiming for at least one medal at London 2012

Born in Aberdeen and raised in Edinburgh, David always had a role model in his family, namely his father George who was a former Scottish canoe champion. He began canoeing at the age of 14 along the River Leith which weaves through Edinburgh, and quickly joined the Forth Canoe Club – the oldest such organisation in Scotland. He later moved to Notttingham not only to study for a degree in mathematical physics, but to further his canoeing career at the National Watersports Centre.

After finishing 4th in the 2005 European Championships, David secured 5th at the 2007 World Championships, before making history last month. He won two World Cup gold medals in the C1 and C2 events in Cardiff, which has never happened before, and is the reason why many are tipping him to do the same in London.

His main rival in the C1 will be Tony Estanguet, the double Olympic champion from 2000 and 2004, while in the C2 there could be an interesting battle against British pair Tim Baillie and Etienne Stott. However, David says it is important that he and Richard focus on their own race: “Rivalry is almost irrelevant. You don’t go down the course at the same time and there is nothing anyone else does which affects what I do. If you can put down a great run, you have a chance.”

Canoe slalom requires huge levels of commitment in training, and the technical challenges faced by the paddlers can appear daunting to spectators. Competitors must navigate through 25 gates on a 300 metre course, including a 5.5 metre drop, in the fastest possible time. Penalties of 2 seconds are imposed if a paddler hits a gate and 50 second penalties if the gate is missed altogether. The venue for the canoe slalom is the Lee Valley water Centre, located nine miles north of the Olympic Park.

Thursday, 19 July 2012

Great Scott takes early Open advantage

Everyone at Royal Lytham and St Annes feared the worst for the 141st Open Championship yesterday, as practice sessions were plagued by horrific conditions; bunkers, full of water, masqueraded as rock pools and the players dreaded what was in store for them.
Today, we expected pars to be a bonus and birdies to be a heavenly blessing, but the rainclouds never seriously threatened the course, leaving warm, calm conditions and a beautiful playing surface. Hence many surprisingly low scores appeared on the leaderboard as the players tried to make the most of the opportunity presented.
And none were more impressive than 32-year-old Australian, Adam Scott, who finished with a six-under-par round of 64 and is one of the few players in the top 10 not to have won a major. A 63 would have been a record-equalling first round score at a major, something only 26 other players have achieved in the entire history of the sport.
Scott is regarded as one of the best players not to win a major
His start of two pars and a bogey was not the most encouraging, but Scott turned on the style with birdies at holes 4, 5 and 7 to tie for the lead. He bettered this with a sensational back nine with five birdies to lead outright. If he maintains this momentum, Nick Faldo’s 1992 Open record for the lowest score after two rounds (130) will be under threat.
It bucks the trend which Scott has experienced in majors so far this season, with opening rounds of 75 and 76 at the Masters and US Open respectively saddling him with uphill battles. For a player who usually improves as major championships go on, it is something of a concern for rest of the field.
Occupying second place at five under are Paul Lawrie, Zach Johnson and Nicolas Colsaerts, a 30-year-old Belgian who made the cut at a major for the first time at this year’s US Open. He was briefly tied for the lead in the third round of that tournament, symptomatic of an impressive season having beaten Graeme McDowell in the final of the Volvo World Match Play Championship in May. He will be full of confidence and is one to watch over the next three days.
However, defending champion Darren Clarke’s hopes of retaining the Claret Jug look in dire straits after a round of 76, fully ten shots off the lead. When he starts his second round at 14:10 tomorrow, his first aim will be just to make the cut, never mind be in contention.
As for the British cavalcade, McDowell and Rory McIlroy, on three under par, are in the best shape. The former enjoyed an excellent front nine in which he hit four birdies and is prepared for whatever weather Lancashire has to throw at him: “I’m under no illusion that this golf course has teeth and could be a sleeping giant for sure.”
The latter, after a solid front nine, endured a bumpy ride afterwards in which he hit a spectator on the head from the 15th tee, but held his nerve to hole a birdie on the 18th to give himself every chance of catching Scott.
Westwood endured a frustrating first round, despite a bright start
Elsewhere, James Morrison (who played in the same England youth cricket teams as Alastair Cook, Ravi Bopara and Tim Bresnan) played the round of his life with a magnificent two under par 68. World number one Luke Donald finished on 70, but squandered numerous birdie puts before bogeying the 18th.
However, it was a frustrating day for Lee Westwood, who suffered four bogeys in his last six holes to finish three over, while 2010 champion Louis Oosthuizen did not look himself at all with a disappointing round of 72. Both will be praying for good conditions tomorrow as there is work to be done if they are to climb back up the leaderboard.
As for the Tiger, who was the bookies’ favourite before the tournament, the word “ominous” was being muttered around the course after his first seven holes as he knocked in four birdies. His swing looked as good as ever and his aggression paid off; write him off at your peril.
So as expected, this year’s Open is finely balanced after day one but there will be many more twists and turns before we reach the climax on Sunday. For now, Adam Scott will be the happiest of the group and all eyes will be on the Australian when he resumes his quest for a maiden major title at 13:43 tomorrow.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Olympic Dreams: Richard Kruse

Name: Richard Kruse

Date of Birth: 30/7/1983, Age 28

Event: Fencing – foil

Career Highlight: Finishing eighth at the 2004 Athens Olympics when just 21

Did you know? In the build-up to Beijing Olympics, Kruse worked part-time as a civil engineer on the London 2012 site.

Fencing has not historically been one of Great Britain’s strongest sports at the Olympics. However, the influence of one man has given Britain real hope of a medal this summer at London. Foil fencer, Richard Kruse, burst onto the scene in 2001 when he became the youngest ever British champion at the tender age of 17, and his career has gone from strength to strength.

In 2004, he surprised the whole nation by reaching the quarter finals of the Athens Olympics. It was the best finish for a British fencer since the Tokyo Olympics forty years previously.

He followed this up with an excellent silver medal in the European Championships in 2006; Britain’s first fencing medal in any international event since 1965. Although Kruse dissapointingly missed out on an automatic qualifying place for the Beijing Olympics, he still managed to compete as a wildcard entry, reaching the round of 16.

The 2009 season was arguably his most consistent, as he won gold at the Copenhagen World Cup and silver at the 2009 European Fencing Championships. He almost retained his World Cup medal in 2011, but lost by a single point against Italian Andrea Baldini.

Kruse’s recent form has been good, defeating world champion Andrea Cassara en route to a bronze medal at the Japan Wakayama Grand Prix in April, before claiming another bronze at the European Championships last month.

Now Kruse is part of a nine-strong Team GB squad, along with fellow foil fencers James Davis and Husayn Rosowsky. His main rival will probably be Germany’s Peter Joppich, who has finished within the top six in the previous two Olympics and has four foil world titles to his name.

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Tennis' one-trick pony

There is no doubt that when Andy Roddick hangs up his racquet at the end of his career, he will be remembered as one of the greatest American tennis players to play the game. Back in 2003, we saw a young, dynamic, 21-year old trounce the rest of the field in the US Open, securing his one, and only, Grand Slam and claiming the world number 1 spot. His status as America’s new tennis hope in the post-Pete Sampras era was born. His triumph, along with Roger Federer’s maiden Wimbledon title earlier in the year, undoubtedly sparked a renewed global interest in the sport. He has carried the American flag in men’s tennis almost single-handedly since, while his sharp and witty character has won many fans around the world. And with that serve, so emphatically exhibited in 2003, we fully expected Roddick to go on and dominate men’s tennis for another decade.

Looking back from 2012, we realise our forecast was wrong. No more Grand Slams have followed Roddick’s 2003 success, although he has come mightily close at Wimbledon on three occasions, only to be denied on each occasion by Roger Federer. Now ranked 27 in the world, third in the US behind Mardy Fish and John Isner and on the verge of turning 30, it appears as though Roddick’s ability to compete at the highest level is over.
Roddick beats Juan Carlos Ferrero to win the 2003 US Open

Roddick’s serve has been described by some commentators as the greatest in history, but it has not been enough for him to achieve consistent Grand Slam glory. Let’s look at some statistics. Clearly, Roddick’s serve performance has been remarkably consistent over the years as the table shows. His first serve percentage in 2003 was distinctly average, yet he was able to crush his opponents. As we can see, however, although Roddick’s first serve percentage has steadily improved over the years, the percentage of points won on his first serve and service games won have not followed this trend; they have if anything regressed.

First serve %
First serve points won %
Service games won %


However, if we dig deeper the reasons behind this serving paradox become much clearer. The tennis players which Roddick is facing today are vastly different to what they were back in 2003. Taking the top ten players from June 16th 2003, the average height measured up at exactly six feet and the average weight 175 pounds. Today’s top ten have an average height three inches taller at 6’3 and a weight of 194 pounds. Roddick, who is 6 feet 2 and 195 pounds, was bigger and stronger than most players in 2003, but is now probably just below the norm today. Perhaps if Roddick was playing instead of fellow American Pete Sampras in the 1990s he would have won just as many Grand Slams, but today’s incredibly competitive field has limited his chances.

The statistics essentially prove today’s top players are fitter than ever before, which has meant many can match Roddick’s serving ferocity. The need to deal with these serves has in turn led to an emphasis on the returning game; just look at how good the likes of Murray, Nadal and Djokovic are at returning the huge serves of Karlovic, Isner and Roddick himself. The diagram below shows Roddick’s serve placement against Federer in the 2005 Wimbledon final. What is most fascinating is that although many of Roddick’s serves are placed close to the corners, he hit only seven aces to Federer’s 11. In most cases, Federer was able to execute most returns with a simple backhand block.

Roddick's serve in the 2005 Wimbledon final did not hurt Federer
Then, once the serve is returned, today’s fitter, stronger players excel in the longer rallies. This is where Roddick has historically struggled; his touch at the net and his ability to hit backhand winners, for example, often lets him down. His inability to mix up his game contrasts with the array of shots the best players possess in their armoury to keep their opponents guessing. For example, Federer can deploy a range of drop shots, slices, squash shots, you name it, which is why he is still going strong into his 30s. In addition, although Federer’s serve averages at 115-120mph (around 20mph slower than Roddick’s) his ability to hit different spots with equal success makes him highly unpredictable to face. You could also argue Rafael Nadal has adapted his game hugely from his comfort zone on clay in order to win Wimbledon twice.

By contrast, Roddick’s style has barely evolved in his career; he is still hoping his powerful, and increasingly predictable, serve can blow away increasingly more formidable opponents. It is true that Coach Larry Stefanki has improved Roddick’s tactics, fitness and overall performance, but even this hasn’t been enough to win another Grand Slam and stay in the top ten. Roddick’s only remaining chance of Grand Slam success is going to be at Wimbledon, because the surface does not tend to favour tall players with the ball staying low. He surprised everyone back in 2009 by reaching the final and pushing Federer all the way, but I can’t see any Ivanisevic-style heroics happening; far more players are adapting to grass in the top ten nowadays, particularly Nadal and, as we saw last year, Djokovic.
Was this year's Wimbledon Roddick's last?

This last point links to another evolution in modern tennis – the slowing pace of many surfaces. This is particularly the case with grass, the fastest surface in tennis, as Roddick’s serve used to be able to stay very low and fast after hitting the ground. Today, though, the ball reacts differently to courts such as Wimbledon as it bounces up higher. This is crucial when we analyse Roddick’s serve as players have approximately a tenth of a second longer to react and play a decent return than they did 20 years ago. Even the hard courts have become noticeably slower recently, especially at the US Open, which was probably among the fastest courts in the world a few years ago. In short, players such as Roddick are getting fewer free points on their serve, which is why we are seeing more gruelling rallies which today’s bigger, stronger players excel in.

It seems to me that Roddick and his coaches have been so transfixed by his powerful serve that other aspects of his game are being ignored, with significant consequences. The courts have slowed, and the players Roddick faces today are physically superior to a decade ago, but Roddick has proved too often he has no Plan B. Of course, Andy has suffered from a number of injuries over the last few years which have limited his ability to play over 20 tournaments a year. However, I would argue blaming Roddick’s decline on injury is very short-sighted; the inherent problems stem from his consistently narrow game plan in every tournament and on every surface he plays. The Andy Roddick case has demonstrated to the tennis world that you cannot afford to be a one-trick pony any more. Variety, adaptability and all round physical strength are now highly valued attributes which are top of the priority list for a place in the top ten and, ultimately, Grand Slam success.
From the first issue of Into The Sunset magazine.

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Hexham Courant newscast

Here's my Hexham Courant newscast from Wednesday, as heavy rain failed to deter several key events going ahead in Tynedale. Also, the burden of VAT on air ambulance services was debated in the House of Commons. You can read the full transcript of this debate on Guy Opperman's blog here:

Friday, 13 July 2012

Olympic Dreams: Rajiv Ouseph

Name: Rajiv Ouseph

Date of birth: 30/8/1986, age 25

Career highlight: Won the 2010 US Open Men’s Singles

Did you know? Originally wanting to pursue a career in journalism, Rajiv studied Media and Communications at Loughborough University.

Brought up in Hounslow, the London Olympics will be a very special occasion for Team GB’s men’s singles representative, Rajiv Ouseph. As he says:

“The Olympics is a once in a lifetime experience and I’m honoured to be representing Team GB in my home city of London. Having grown up here, it’s even more exciting to be competing in front of a home crowd and knowing you have great support on the door step.”

His badminton potential was emphatically showcased from an early age as Ouseph won the 2005 European Junior Championships, as well as every English national title between the ages of 13 and 19.

And with a series of impressive results over the past couple of years which has seen him become British number 1 and world number 19, there is a new level of expectation on Ouseph’s shoulders, something he has not experienced before.

He won the English National Singles in 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011, the first to win four in a row since Darren Hall in 1991. He attained his highest ranking of 18 after winning the 2010 US Open, before claiming bronze in the European Championships and silver in the Commonwealth Games the same year.

The format for the singles at the Olympics will be a group stage followed by knock-out, while the favourite to win overall is the Chinese Lin Dan, regarded by many as the greatest badminton player in history. He won gold in Beijing and is also the reigning world champion, so will take some beating.

To read all the other profiles in the Olympic Dreams series, visit York Vision's London 2012 page.