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