Voting for the International Tennis Hall of Fame, 2018

I texted some mates last month: “Fans get to vote for the Tennis Hall of Fame this year. How many of them will take this role as seriously as we all know I will???” Laughter ensued. And so did my endless thinking.

While I’m not sure exactly what I expected, the design of the role that fan votes will play this year feels a little bizarre. For a player to achieve entry into the Hall of Fame, they need to receive 75% of potential votes from the International Hall of Fame Voting Group. However, the fan vote does not work on percentages at all. Instead, the player with the most fan support will receive a 3% boost to their score, the next player a 2% boost, and the third player a 1% boost. While individuals within the Hall of Fame Voting Group can decide each year how many players deserve their support, voting for as many or as few players as they deem worthy, the collective fans are treated entirely differently – we will support three players, regardless of how many players we as a collective appear to deem worthy of induction. If the third ranked player only received the support of 40% of fans, they’ll still earn a boost. Alternatively, if the fourth ranked player receives support from 80% of fans, they’ll earn nothing.

This means that ultimately, the fans end up ranking the nominated players against each other, rather than purely against the historical parameters that we assume Hall of Fame voters use when considering their votes. And the number three appears to be an entirely arbitrary number of players who will earn a boost through fan support. On only four occasions this century have three players from the ‘Recent Player’ category been inducted into the Hall of Fame, including the 2010 class when four doubles specialists in the Woodies, Zvereva and Gigi Fernandez were voted in. Otherwise, 15 of the 19 Hall of Fame classes from 2000-2018 saw only one or two players inducted.

The strangeness of the number of players who will be boosted by the fan vote is only exacerbated by this year’s nominees. The Hall’s eligibility rules state that prior to appearing on a ballot, a player must not have been “a significant factor on the ATP, WTA, or Wheelchair Tennis tours within 5 years prior to induction.” This means that we as voters know that Li Na, who retired in 2014, is on the ballot for the first time this year as her first year of eligibility for the Hall is 2019. What we also know, though, is that all of the other nominated players have appeared on the ballot previously and not received enough votes for induction. Jonas Bjorkman retired in 2008, Conchita Martinez and Mary Pierce in 2006, Goran Ivanisevic in 2004, Yevgeny Kafelnikov in 2003, Sergei Bruguera in 2002, and Thomas Muster played 3 matches in 2010-2011 after ostensibly retiring in 1999.

It is common to all Halls of Fame that some players are deemed worthy of induction well after their first appearance on a ballot. However it’s worth questioning the idea that this year, the collective fan votes will provide a boost to the chances of at least two players who the Hall of Fame Voting Group have repeatedly determined are not worthy of induction.

Looking up the eligibility criteria for the Player Category of the Hall of Fame revealed a marvellously vague statement: “a distinguished record of competitive achievement at the highest international level, with consideration given to integrity, sportsmanship, and character.” Fans are not provided with any clear sense as to what “a distinguished record” actually entails, nor are they instructed as to how much consideration they should give to a player’s integrity, sportsmanship and character. As such, the only obvious way to receive some clarification on what the eligibility criteria actually means is the career achievements of recent inductees into the Hall.

In 2018, the two player inductees into the Hall of Fame are Michael Stich and Helena Sukova.

This just makes everything even murkier. For let’s compare Stich with one of this year’s nominees in Conchita Martinez. Stich won Wimbledon in 1991 and reached the final of two other slams. Martinez won Wimbledon in 1994 and reached the final of two other slams. Both players had a highest ranking of 2, with Martinez finishing a year in the top 10 on 9 occasions to Stich’s 3. Stich won the Tour Finals once, but only had 18 titles on tour in comparison to Martinez’s 33. They both had some success in doubles, with Stich winning a major title and Olympic Gold while Martinez won three Olympic Medals. Martinez also won the Fed Cup five times with the Spanish team. Both players were – to my knowledge – sound of integrity, sportsmanship and character.

With two such relatively similar careers, it is impossible to determine exactly what caused 75% of voters to vote for Stich, but a certain percentage of those 75% not to vote for Martinez. Indeed, these two players are perhaps the best example of how the parameters of a “distinguished career” are defined by every individual voter, rather than through a common understanding. In everyday terms, both Martinez and Stich have distinguished careers, however in Hall of Fame terms, this is clearly debatable. And so, here we first-time voters are, needing to determine for ourselves how much worth we will place on various achievements. How much weight should be placed on Olympic medals? Doubles success? Davis and Fed Cup? Playing style? Press conference affability? As a rule of thumb, the tennis world appears to see two Grand Slam wins as leading to guaranteed induction into the Hall, and yet Pierce, Bruguera and Kafelnikov all aren’t yet enshrined. And what of rarer accomplishments, such as that of Hall of Famer Michael Chang who has a relatively similar record of achievement to Martinez, but who holds the record as the youngest ever winner of a men’s major singles title?

In a recent podcast regarding the Basketball Hall of Fame, Bleacher Report’s Howard Beck suggested that one unofficial definition as to who deserves a place in the Hall should be whether or not a player needs to be mentioned if you are telling the story of their era in the sport. The Hall of Fame is a museum, of course, and the players who are enshrined should be those who are an integral part of the story of the sport’s history.

I like this idea. “Distinguished career” for me in this instance can be translated into “distinguished enough to be someone who belongs in the museum of the sport.” Indeed, it’s this definition that leaves me thinking that Michael Stich doesn’t really belong in the Hall of Fame. In any condensed retelling of tennis in the 80s or 90s, does Stich’s name make an appearance? I wouldn’t have thought so. Ditto Martinez.

And yet, another player might have a shorter career, but a story that is more prominent in the sport’s history. Take Li Na. She won 2 Slam titles, and in comparison to the remainder of the nominees and a number of players already in the Hall of Fame, she hardly won anything else. She only won 9 singles titles and 2 doubles titles on tour. But she was the first Asian player to reach a Slam final, let alone win one, and the first Chinese woman to win a title on tour, let alone reach the top ten. She is a pioneer, and certainly an integral part of the story of the sport over the past decade. One needs her to be a part of tennis’ great museum.

But what of the others?

Bjorkman certainly doesn’t fit my criteria. The others are less certain.

Muster won a slam and was number 1 for 6 weeks, winning 8 Masters titles as well.

Bruguera won two French Opens, reaching the final once more, and was clearly one of the best clay-courters of his generation – alongside “King of Clay” Muster.

Ivanisevic won Wimbledon once after reaching the finals on three previous occasions.

Kafelnikov won two Slams, reaching the final in a third, won Gold in singles at the Olympics, won four major doubles titles, and was number 1, like Muster, for 6 weeks.

And finally, Pierce won two Slams, reaching the final in a third.

Cases can be made for and against all of these players, all of whom can make up some of the story of tennis depending on how you want to tell it. But for me, I agree with the voters who have previously declined them entry. They were all spectacularly brilliant players, who aren’t quite spend-time-with-them-in-a-museum-if-you-want-to-understand-the-history-of-tennis worthy.

My vote may change over time. I’m especially torn on Kafelnikov. But this year, I’ll do my bit to push Li Na up the list of the collective fan vote, and the collective fans will also reward two other players, whether the majority of us believe it’s the right thing to do or not.

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Posted in Sport, Tennis | Leave a comment

If I Were a Playwright

The audience would first see a woman on stage. She’s wearing pyjamas, walking across to the queen bed in which she is the only inhabitant. After sitting herself up under the covers, she scrolls through her phone. She settles on something and reads. Finally, she looks up at no-one in particular and asks a seemingly rhetorical question.

“Oh my God, what have you done?”

The stage goes black. Once our actress has disappeared off the stage, the back wall of the stage will be illuminated with GIFs from Twitter.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The remainder of the narrative would consist of a Copenhagen-style loop. A range of stories that are all potentially true, though just as likely to be false, would play out regarding the man who enters the stage as the lights slowly raise. The first of these tales begins as the bird’s face continuously peers out over our protagonist for close to a minute while the man puts down his luggage and opens mail on the dining table. His wife walks in, phone in hand. They look at each other for a moment before she quietly breaks the silence.

“What happens now?”

The play will return to this place and this question every time a new prospective narrative of the couple’s life begins to evolve on the stage. It’s a reminder of the tragedy at the heart of the story – the way that one person’s words can cause so many people to ask this horrifying, almost existential question. For there are no winners in this story. There is no place for even the wryest of smiles from the audience, nor any potentially joyful endings.

The dramatis personae are threefold: the man is Nico Hines, who we soon come to know as the London Editor of Newsweek and The Daily Beast. We also meet his unnamed wife and child. All other people in the world of the narrative never appear on stage, but rather are only raised in conversation or are the authors of the occasional projected Tweet.

In the opening narrative, we learn that Hines has returned from the Rio Olympics, during which he wrote a controversial story that caused him to return home early. The couple talk in disbelief over the events of the previous week – of how the story was published, edited and then removed and replaced with an apology. They talk of the hate that was directed to him online. He talks of how he went to ground in Rio while she talks of not being able to separate herself from her phone, watching the hate seemingly increase by the minute. Everyone they’ve ever met has texted or left Facebook messages for them – sometimes supportive, just as often asking how he could have done what he did. They worry about their son. They appear lost.

“What happens now?”

She explodes at him. It’s in this moment that she reveals to the audience what she calls “The moment you took the ground from beneath my feet without letting the Earth then swallow me.” Every sentence is a spitting rebuke, spewing forth so fast that it feels like she can’t bear to hold any of the words on her tongue. The headline: “I Got Three Grindr Dates in an Hour in the Olympic Village.” The premise, as read from her phone: “I expect you’ve heard the legend of the athletes’ village; tales abound that the Olympic Games is a hotbed of partying athletes, hookups, and sex, sex, sex….Can an Average Joe join the bacchanalia?” The identifying information included: “You named their country, their height, their weight, the position they finished in!” The result: “You outed them.”

She quietens only when their child enters the room. He’s so young that he cannot understand anything other than the undeniable anger of his mother towards his father. It surprises and scares him. His mother whispers scornfully. “How old will he be before you explain to him what they do to gay men in some of the countries you named? Or will he Google it, just like he’ll Google his Dad?”

His family leaves him alone.

He speaks aloud.

“What happens now?”

He leaves the stage as the lights go down. Numerous headlines from websites are projected on the back wall. The BBC: “Daily Beast ‘sorry for outing gay athletes”. The Washington Post: “Trash, unethical and dangerous’: Daily Beast lambasted for Olympic dating article”. The Los Angeles Times: “Bad form at the Olympics in Daily Beast’s Grindr-baiting story”. Queerty: “Everyone’s Pissed At This Straight Journalist Who Used Grindr To Out Gay Athletes.” Mic: “Seriously, F*ck That ‘Daily Beast’ Gay-Baiting, Life-Threatening Olympics Piece.”

He re-enters from the other side of the stage. Alone. Drowning in regret. He hasn’t left the house. It’s shame. Or fear. He turns the phone on and it rings. He doesn’t answer it. It rings again. This process repeats itself ad nauseam until he turns it off. He glances at a bottle on the table and pauses. He pours a glass, turns the phone back on and listens to the sound of it ringing intermittently, along with text message and email alerts. He ignores them all and drinks some more.

His child runs in brandishing a “Present for Daddy!” His wife follows, exhausted. He opens the shopping bag the kid’s handed him. It’s a new phone. He turns to his wife. “You’re home way too earl-” “Until this precise moment, you wouldn’t answer my calls. I was sitting there and didn’t even know if today was the day when you decided to top yourself.” He tries to console her. Tells her that Internet shaming always slows down and then disappears. She is not comforted.

“What happens now?”

The couple sit together warmly on the couch. “It’s not about what happens to us,” he says, “it’s about what happens to them. Whatever happens to me might mean nothing in comparison.” She finds herself agreeing, they discuss with horror what they have researched about the treatment of gay men in various countries. They talk with reverence about Amini Fonua, the Tongan Olympic swimmer and his Tweetstorm. They can quote it, they’ve read it so often.

He is desperate to apologise and presents a plan to his wife – he’ll travel to meet with each of the men he’s effected to apologise and learn about the impact that the story had on them. “What if we’re worried for nothing and they’re all absolutely fine?!?” His wife looks at him and smiles. She knows he wants to make amends and yet making amends is impossible. “But that’s still about how you feel, Nico. The world knows what you look like now. No-one’s meeting with you.”

Her final comment then escapes her lips almost before she realises. “And it’s not just about them, either. How will you apologise to the gay kids who read your article, huh?”

“What happens now?”

The bird reappears on the back wall. For all the audience can tell, life in the Hines family appears calm. Nico types away as his family come home from their day. He’s living life as a hermit, but has a new life as a journalist with a pseudonym.

Once the kid’s off to his room, The back wall glows with @nicohines’ Twitter feed – a feed that has not changed since the events of Rio.

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He suddenly turns to his wife. “I can’t live like this.”

She walks over and holds him.

“I know. You may be here. But my husband is forever at ‘Rio for the Olympics’.”

The curtain falls.

Posted in Olympics, Sport | Leave a comment

What they knew when they traded for him

I was heading out for a feed last Sunday night and found myself reaching for my New York Knicks hoodie in the wardrobe when I froze. There was no way I was going to be seen wearing that logo.

In his thoughtful reflection on life as a Knicks fan in 2016, a year in which the team traded for Derrick Rose after he was charged with sexual assault, Jason Concepcion asks “How do I root for a person when, in the context of the real world, I believe that person acted abominably? Maybe just asking the question is enough. It doesn’t feel like it, though.”

I asked the question for a split-second before knowing the answer. I can’t look at the Knicks the same way.

I won’t repeat all of the pertinent information about the case here – the documents are available online – but here’s the tl;dr version: Rose and two of his friends are accused of gang-raping his ex-girlfriend while she was unconscious at around 3am in August 2013. An ex-girlfriend who had consistently declined to have group sex. An ex-girlfriend who’s refusal to participate in such activities played a role in their break-up. Rose and his fellow defendants are contesting the case on a few grounds, including debating how drunk she was on the night and whether she consented to sex with the three men, although Rose has stated that he doesn’t know what consent means. Here’s Concepcion again: “To agree with Rose’s version of events, then, is to believe that Jane Doe, though she had never before agreed — again, per Rose’s testimony — to participate in group sex, decided to have consensual sex with Rose and two other men in August 2013, and is now lying about it. Maybe that’s what happened. Maybe Rose placing his used condom back in its wrapper and taking it away with him, as he stated he did in his deposition, is no big deal. I don’t find Rose’s version of events believable.”

I too find Rose’s version of events to be incredibly unlikely. But I’m not here to crucify Rose himself. Instead, I’m here to examine my inability to support a team – an “organisation” as the Americans so often call them – that chooses to employ a player who is quite likely to have committed such a crime.

For there is a whole organisation at fault here. There’s an owner, a president and a general manager. There’s a head coach.

The President, NBA Hall of Fame coach Phil Jackson, said last week that “There’s a lot of stuff in our newspapers that [raises] concerns about a variety of things. One thing I’d like to address about Derrick Rose and the process he’s going through — we anticipate it will not affect his season, hopefully, training camp or games. We’re going to let the due process of the justice system work its way through the next week and a half. We want to put this to rest. There doesn’t need to be a lot of talk about this.”

But there does need to be a lot of talk about it, Mr Jackson.

Let’s remind ourselves of the stunning article by sexual assault victim Stacey May Fowles regarding baseballer Josh Lueke. Every time the pitcher would take the mound, some people would remind the world – usually via twitter – that Lueke is a rapist. Fowles argues that “the onslaught of tweets calling Josh Lueke a rapist is…for the thousands of rape survivors who watch games and know that what they love is sullied by baseball’s willingness to turn a blind eye to the kind of suffering they themselves endured. It’s a gesture on the part of fans who know it’s unlikely Lueke will ever see his career end as a result of those actions, but refuse to tolerate his inclusion, who believe that, while a team may opportunistically decide to field a talented player who has committed an act of sexual violence, it shouldn’t be immune from the disgust of the public.

“Apologies to those for whom these Josh Lueke tweets interfere with their enjoyment of a game, but the threat of sexual assault interferes with how a vast majority of women enjoy life. The collective vitriol over his ongoing employment by the Rays has everything to do with the fact that he is a high-profile example of the way rape works in everyday life. The act—the trauma—often leaves a life-long mark on the victim, influencing her ability to navigate the world safely and comfortably. In a very large percentage of cases, the perpetrator sees little or no consequence, and the victim’s suffering is exacerbated by his freedom and success.”

In my mind, the balance of probabilities leads me to believe that in all likelihood, Derrick Rose and two of his mates gang-raped a woman. The most-quoted moment from his testimony would be hilarious if it weren’t so incomprehensibly horrendous:

    Question: So they just said, “Hey, it’s the middle of the night. Let’s go over to Plaintiff’s     house,” and they never gave you a reason why they wanted to go over there?

    Rose: No, but we men. You can assume.

He’s right. We can assume. And until there’s any clear proof that consent was given on that night, there’s no way I’m associating myself with the Knicks. Not until Rose and anyone who was involved in approving his trade to the team is long gone from New York.

Until then, I doubt I’ll be watching often enough to remind people that Derrick Rose is a rapist every time he scores. For he’s wearing a uniform that I’ve loved from childhood right up to a month or so ago.

It was a simpler time then, you know.

Posted in Basketball, Sport | Leave a comment

One Innocent Question

Can you hear them? Ever so slowly, kids are noticing and turning around to their Mum or Dad, their older brother or sister. And these are just the first few. Within weeks, almost every kid in every AFL-loving house across the land will have asked the question that one of the players so desperately hopes they’ll ask:

“Dad, why is Jimmy’s hair and beard so long?”

This is as powerful as an awareness-raising campaign can be. Those people who walk or cycle mammoth distances in the hopes of raising money and awareness for various charities are beautiful in their sentiments, but they can’t hold a candle to this. One footballer, one season, no haircut and no shave from Round 1 through till season’s end. Seeking to raise awareness not through the question, but rather through its answers.

For almost every parent in every AFL-loving house across the land knows that Jimmy Bartel’s father physically abused him, his sisters and his mum during his childhood. His interview in the Herald Sun has been appropriately praised for its courage, honesty and import. In it, he revealed memories so horrendous – stories so unfamiliar and yet so familiar – that he immediately became one of the most famous survivors of child abuse and domestic violence in Australia

And now, he is forcing all of us to answer the question.

How each of us answers will be slightly different of course. When the four year-old pipes up at some stage later in the year, I assume that Mrs EPO or I will respond with something along the lines of: “Jimmy’s Dad was a really bad man who was really mean to Jimmy and his family. And whenever we see Jimmy’s hair and beard, he wants us all to remember to make sure we’re always really nice to each other.”

We’ll field any follow-up questions, of course, just as Bartel would expect us to. When he was four, his Dad was throwing him across his house “into an old-fashioned bureau.” It seems only reasonable that we accept that our little blue-eyed, blonde-haired ball of innocent energy in his Tigers jumper can cope with losing some of his naivety. It’s probably not too early for the kid to begin to understand that sometimes people can be unfathomably cruel.

Of course, it’s the personal touch that Bartel has forced upon parents that is the true brilliance of his approach. He simply said, “I would love it if a father has to explain to his son or daughter that I’m doing it to raise awareness around domestic violence, and to also explain the issues surrounding domestic violence, and to have an important conversation around it.” There are no catch-cries he wants us to preach or statistics he wants of us to learn. There is no one story he wants to be told. He wants us to think of the right phrases, the right stories, and the right concepts to share with our individual kids when they ask the question. He trusts we’ll know how to respond.

Now, can you pause ever so briefly? Can you bear to take a moment to think of those you rarely think of? Those children of Australia who are cowering from abuse as you read this? For many of us, parenthood makes such thoughts more difficult to face than ever – we even hide from the suffering of fictional children on tv or in films, just so that we aren’t faced with any thoughts related to the potential suffering of our children at the hands of others. But leave that aside and take a moment now. It’s so important. Think of those kids asking the question. For whatever the answer, whether it comes from their brave but vulnerable mum or from a mate in the playground, they aren’t hearing “Jimmy wants us all to remember to make sure we’re always really nice to each other.” Instead, they’re hearing a phrase that’s indescribably worse yet infinitely more powerful: “Jimmy knows how it feels.”

And take a moment, too, to think of the mothers. To think of their internal response when they hear a man at the stereotypical pinnacle of Australian masculinity say of abusers “They are not real men.” When they hear him speak directly to them and their families, saying “You are not alone. There is help available. You are valued. You don’t need to be imprisoned by it or defined by it. You are not responsible for the inexcusable actions against you. You are worth a lot. It’s not embarrassing. It is not a stain on your life. You don’t have to blame yourself.”

Jimmy Bartel is Geelong’s softly spoken Brownlow medallist. He’s the humble on-field general who’s won three premierships, a Norm Smith Medal and league-wide respect for his tough, smart style of play. Despite not yet having finished his career, there’s already a place reserved for him in the AFL Hall of Fame. On the day of his enshrinement, we’ll again be called upon to remember his story and his cause. Mrs EPO and I might discuss Bartel’s message in a slightly different way with our eldest child then. He’ll have a clearer understanding of cruelty’s place in the world and in some other people’s homes. But at heart, thankfully, I know that our message will still be the same: “Jimmy wants us all to remember to make sure we’re always really nice to each other.”

It’s utterly horrendous to truly comprehend that Australia needs to have an awareness raising campaign about an issue such as this. Here’s to its need lessening thanks to an incomparable ambassador for survivors of abuse. A man who has subtly forced his way into the lounge rooms of Australia, simply by encouraging kids to turn around and ask one innocent question.

 

In Australia, 1800 RESPECT is a free, confidential national family violence and sexual assault counselling service. Those needing support can also look at other services on the Department of Human Services website

Posted in AFL, Sport | Leave a comment

It was a good run

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Upon writing Sports Illustrated’s eulogy for the late Grantland website this week, Richard Deitsch said “The site wasn’t perfect but it was refreshing, creative and honest, and it allowed writers to be writers. It supported unique voices, and it helped define the value of a podcasting network at a sports and culture site…And now, after four years, it’s gone. For those who love words and sports content beyond the bloviators of the day, Friday was a horrible day.”

In 2011, Bill Simmons and ESPN launched Grantland as a sports and pop culture website where writing would reign supreme. Writers were chosen before stories and content, with award-winning writers and best-selling authors being employed alongside a bunch of up-and-comers.

For we devotees of sports and writing, it was the site we didn’t know we desperately wanted until it arrived. A site where intelligent, engaging people wrote intelligent, engaging pieces for an audience who they assumed to be intelligent. A site so confident in the greatness of its writing that it posted fewer pieces than any other site aiming to attract people to return each day. There wasn’t any click-bait or Extra Mustard-style sections to be seen.

By publishing so few pieces, Grantland managed to do what good magazines and newspapers have often achieved, but what websites so often fail at: bringing a dose of serendipity to one’s daily media intake. You would logon not knowing that you’d end up reading about juggling or Jurassic Park or Ferguson or Radio Wimbledon, but you’d read about them anyway because they were on Grantland.

With digital journalism, it’s hard to mark history. One doesn’t simply add Grantland to the magazines stored in their dusty boxes in storage around the house. But for those of us who visited the site daily for these past four years, we already feel ourselves reminiscing about a cultural joy that we may never experience again. In the future, we’ll meet over drinks, referring to our favourite writers by name and remembering their presence in our collective lives.

For now, who knows. We mourn the loss of Grantland not because we’ll never read the works of these supremely talented people again, but rather because they’ll never be in the same place and we may have to make choices between them if they are placed behind various paid firewalls.

And so, but days after my favourite website was shutdown, many Grantland readers are posting their favourite memories of the site, and I can’t but help to similarly reminisce.

For starters, there were two occasional writers, who wrote with particular interest on sport’s violence and the everlasting impact of concussions. Here’s Malcolm Gladwell in discussion with Bill Simmons:

“I was recently reading, by the way, about the work of a researcher at Virginia Tech named Stefan Duma who put electronic monitors in the helmets of 7- and 8-year-olds playing Pop Warner football. He found that those kids were routinely getting hits to the head in the 40 to 60 g range, with some even upwards of 80 gs. To put that in perspective, imagine that you put your son in the front seat of your car, told him not to wear a seat belt, and then smashed the car at 25 miles an hour into a brick wall, so that your son’s forehead hit the dashboard. That would be 100 g. Then you reverse and do it again, 30 to 40 times over the course of two hours, at speeds between 20 and 25 miles per hour. That’s a football game. If you reversed and did it again, 1,000 times, that would be a season. This is massively screwed up, Bill. Your son is 4½ years old. Is there any chance you’d let him play football?”

And here’s ice hockey hall of famer Ken Dryden on the heartless question that is regularly asked to sufferers of brain injury in their retirement:

“‘Would I do it all over again?’ It is a cruel question for anyone. To answer ‘no’ is to deny all we’ve done and all we are and those who are most important in our life, who have loved us, helped us, believed in us. ‘No’ also means that the one chance we get in life we’ve wasted. If the possible answers to Dorsett’s question are ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ the answer, proudly, defiantly, protectively, must be ‘yes.’ And if it is ‘yes,’ the last defense for football leaders, after ignorance and nonchalance, after denial, after inconsequential change, becomes choice. Players have a choice, and it’s theirs and theirs alone to make. Who, after all, has the right to stand in the way of that? But what is the choice offered, and who frames it?”

Stepping away from sport, what about tv writer Andy Greenwald, easily the best of the net’s bazillion tv-recap writers? The man who could turn a recap of a random episode of Homeland into a beautifully phrased consideration of adolescent identity:

“Teenage years are defined by a strong, almost contradictory desire to brand oneself as an individual by aligning with something larger: think going goth or pledging emo. At that flexible age, the cozy, welcoming confines of a preexisting ideology can provide a safe space within which to figure oneself out.”

Or those other reviewers who come out with similar pearls, like Jason Concepcion writing on Whiplash:

“Believing that you have something to say is a pretty universal human sentiment. Thinking that the world actually needs to hear it is pure hubris and pretty much the definition of being between the age of, say, 16 and about 25.”

And Wesley Morris! I had no idea that in 2012, the Boston Globe had a film critic who would win the Pulizer Prize for Criticism, writing “smart, inventive film criticism, distinguished by pinpoint prose, and an easy traverse between the art house and big-screen box office.” But he headed to Grantland just as we Aussies needed to replace David and Margaret, and his writing on films big and small was consistently challenging and inspiring. Choosing but one here is almost too hard a task, but let’s go with his response to Inside Out:

“It’s a strange, unconscious despondence over all the accumulated waste in a life — where’s the line between instrumental and excremental?…This is where your mind goes during this movie: to the pricelessness and preciousness of time, to a consideration of the unknowable zones of human consciousness. And confirming what goes on as we live is actually as impossible as truly knowing what happens after we die: We know and yet we don’t. Pixar’s attempt to render this is a bit boring, but perhaps boring in the way that certain master directors, like Andrei Tarkovsky, can be boring: as a dare to contemplate existence and time.

“More than once, I wondered where Inside Out would go. Given the surplus of color and the honest range of feeling, the answer is as much under the rainbow as over it.”

In their sports pieces, Grantland used images in ways that had never been done before, whether it was a Kirk Goldberry-inspired shot chart, or the NBA Shootarounds – some of the greatest match reports of the past 4 years – that use gifs in a way that takes readers back to the memory so beautifully clearly. Want to remember the Spurs’ clinching win over the Heat in 2014? Here it is.

There was Zach Lowe x’s-and-o’s-ing basketball like no-one had ever successfully done before, there was Katie Baker writing on hockey and on the New York Times wedding announcements, and there was Rembert driving across America.

And then there was Brian Phillips – perhaps my favourite find of these past four years – one of the most brilliant sports writers on the planet, writing about tennis and basketball and anything else that came to mind.

“So I watched Jarkko Nieminen upset 14th-seeded Feliciano Lopez from way up close. And it’s true what they say: Until you’ve seen really good players way up close, you have not fully appreciated tennis. The combination of Black Sabbath ferocity and Mozartian deftness with which these relatively unheralded and unknown players move on the court — well, it boggles. There was a rally in the fourth set, at 0-0 with Nieminen leading 5-4, and I don’t know how this thing would have come off on television, with its multiple drop shots and diving snap-forehands, but in person it left me sort of hopping on one foot and speaking languages I don’t know.”

His profiles were masterpieces, occasionally so good you could find yourself laughing at their sheer brilliance while simultaneously thinking that he had encapsulated the player at hand better than anyone ever had before.

On Kobe Bryant:

“Kobe never seemed as dominant as Jordan because, unlike Mike, he refused to recruit us into the construction of his dominance. He couldn’t trust us with it. He had to do it himself, the way he did everything. This made him fascinating, not that he cared. He was a narcissist, but a strangely impersonal narcissist, like a general whose army happens to be deployed inside himself. Over the years, his success, his vivid bitterness, and his adherence to his own impossible standards created this confounding paradox: He made misanthropy look like a key ingredient in a team sport. Or, to see it from the other side: He made a team game look like a viable path to a life of chosen solitude.”

And his writing that appeared to be on deadline – his version of a match report – was equally incredible:

“It was wild, thrilling tennis, the sort that leaves you gasping and clutching at the couch cushions, and Djokovic’s rage after it was understandable. It’s what he did next, though, that seemed telling. Still cursing at himself, he unsealed the lid of a Tupperware container, took out a small nugget of whatever gluten-free recovery food the engineers are pitching these days, and nibbled it down. Which of course he did — so would any player; the between-sets micro-snack is as much a part of the routine of the game as the service toss. Think of Rafael Nadal and his ritualized tiny bite of banana.

“But it was the way Djokovic did it, with a careful deliberateness totally at odds with his ongoing outburst of temper, that foretold the rest of the match. It said that his mind was running on two planes at once. It said that he was melting down, but also attending to detail. It was funny to watch — a man eating a protein cube in wrath — but also a little terrifying. Scream, but dot your i’s: That’s Djokovic’s version of mental strength in 2015. The machine can catch fire, but the machine keeps running.”

And finally, here he is on life, sport and confidence – during a profile of Sharapova:

“It’s hard for me to side with fatalistic determination over flash and fun and dazzle. I’d rather watch Nick Kyrgios, always and forever, than whatever cyborg of humility and respect for cricket Kyrgios’s critics wish he’d morph into. I’ve been thinking about confidence lately, though, about the types and stages of it, about adult confidence versus childhood confidence, about which sorts of confidence I’d like to have more of and of which I could stand to have less. The confidence of athletes often strikes me as useless in the setting of real life. It’s easy and artificial, enabled and maintained by people with a stake in maintaining it. It comes from having your life streamlined, from keeping within routines that are effective in the context of sports but infantilizing outside it.”

But most importantly, Phillips and Grantland left us with perhaps the greatest piece of sports writing that this Century has yet seen. Phillips’ “62 most astounding, inspiring, and alarming takeaways from Monica Seles’s new YA romance series.”

Do yourself the favour:

http://grantland.com/features/monica-seles-love-match-us-open/

Vale, Grantland. And thank you.

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Grand Final Day, 2015

Seasons and Grand Finals aren’t the same anymore. Now, they are inescapable reminders of the passing of time.

It’s not the players, with 20 of those glorious Hawks who received medals on Saturday being the same as last year, hardly appearing a day let alone a year older than they were when they destroyed the Swans 12 months ago. But rather, it’s my company in the form of a now 3.5 year-old who had slept through the first half of last year’s Grand Final, but who this year was so excited for the day and the game that he couldn’t get to sleep the night before despite the fact that his beloved Tigers weren’t to be involved.

His sister is here now too, a tiny 7 month-old bundle of energy and smiles with giggles just desperate to burst out any day now. She slept for a while, right up until Bradley Hill kicked the Hawks’ 5th goal as the first quarter approached its conclusion. She’d slept that morning too, though decided she needed my shoulder to assist in the morning nap while her brother and Mum could be heard in other corners of the house, playing, reading, chatting and occasionally sharing fits of uncontrollable laughter.

I recently noted to a friend that we’re currently experiencing the period of our lives that would feature as the flashback in our respective biopics. Towards the end of the film, there we’d be in our twilight years, sitting next to our wives while looking out upon an overtly symbolic sunset. Slowly, the shot would dissolve into a clichéd montage of our wistful memories of days spent with our young nuclear families: playing under doonas and in backyards, visiting with grandparents and cousins, taking family holidays and visiting favourite locations.

It feels pathetic to speak in such nostalgic ways when in one’s 30s, and yet Saturday could only but remind me of how vastly different he is now, and how unimaginably different he and she will be when the next Grand Final comes around.

For the boy is not the same boy who he was last year.

12 months ago, we thought he liked footy and then we thought he really liked cricket. But suddenly, the 2015 footy season hit and the obsession – his first true passion – was born. His most memorable weekend of the year involved meeting a bunch of the Tigers after their Saturday training at Punt Road before watching them defeat the Magpies at the MCG the next day, allowing him to be one of the smallest punters belting out ‘Tigerland’ at game’s end. And now, he’s the kind of child who was recently found at the breakfast table laughing at the absurdity of his parents’ revelation that Buddy once played for the Hawks, demanding that images be quickly sourced so that such hilarious nonsense could be enjoyed in all its visual splendour.

All of which was why he couldn’t sleep on Friday night, and why – the best part of two hours after the evening’s bedtime stories ‘Why I Love Footy’ and ‘I Barrack for Richmond’ had been replaced on the shelf – I was called back into his room to answer an all-important request: “Dad, can you tell me again what’s going to happen on Grand Final Day?”

And it’s why he was up well before 6am, being cajoled into some quiet reading until the newsagent finally opened so that we could grab our Saturday Age and the Grand Final Footy Record. It’s why his aunt showed up in sneakers for our Grand Final afternoon so that she could join in the inevitable games of backyard footy during the breaks in play just as soon as she was called off the interchange.

It’s why you can’t call him by name during these backyard games, but rather need to refer to him as whichever Tiger he’s pretending to be at any given moment. It’s also why you need to come prepared with your own persona – though throughout Grand Final Day, we were provided with our own. His Tigers-supporting grandfather was informed he was Jack Riewoldt for the day, while I started the day as Breust, becoming Cyril by half-time, Jordan Lewis by three-quarter time and Gunston after the Cup had been won, often reflecting the impact that various Hawks had been having as the Grand Final played out.

It’s why his father dragged him in from outside prior to the start of the match to make sure he saw the parade of retirees around the MCG, as he’d been waiting for weeks to farewell Chappy and Chris Newman.

It’s why late in the second-quarter, during the only moment when he wasn’t actively watching the game, his mother caught him sitting in front of his new Tigers poster, serenading them with a song on his ukulele that seemed to be entitled “We’ve got the Footy Record”.

It’s why he considered himself to be in the safest, happiest place possible on Saturday: surrounded by family, eating his chipolatas, salad and giant handfuls of smarties, and joining in the general, endless commentary of the game.

Since Saturday, the Hawks aren’t just the premiers, but they’re all-time greats. Their three-peat is an achievement that only one other club has managed since the 1950s and is surely something they won’t repeat in my fanhood. This is beyond any fan’s wildest dreams; it’s truly as good as it gets. I’ve loved this team since I was as young as the little fella, and yet now when I’m older than all of the players, they have provided me with joyful wonder, everlasting pride, and sheer delight in that daft way that successful sporting teams enliven their fans.

I’ll watch the dvd time and again in the future. It will serve as my own flashback to 2015, when Hodge kicked that goal from the pocket, when Cyril seemed to be all alone in the forward 50, and when many of my most memorable moments of the day on which the Hawks achieved their greatest feat were generated at home rather than at the MCG. I’ll be watching again in order to remember them all.

On Sunday night, I received an email from an old mate and fellow Hawks fan who’d shared Grand Final week in Victoria with his own young family. He said that he didn’t want the week to finish. I couldn’t have agreed more, and continued to marvel at the great paradox which I seem to have inhabited since the dawn of my parenthood: the understanding that this indescribable, endless delight in life’s tiny moments comes with a desperate wish that no day, week, or weekend – Grand Final or otherwise – would finish.

When it was finally time to leave the backyard late on Saturday night, the kid turned to his Dad as we strolled towards bathtime. “Dad, we need to put a cricket pitch in our backyard now for cricket season.”

So we beat on.

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Changing the Game

I wrote this post a month ago, just prior to the death of Phil Walsh and the Adam Goodes story dominating the AFL news cycle.

Throughout this time, it’s seemed so…I dunno…relatively pathetic to talk about football purely as football. But now, with Goodes heading to Geelong to play tomorrow and the Crows playing the Tigers in Adelaide tonight, it feels like we might have reached a moment where we can just sit back and enjoy the pure entertainment of this great game once more. As such, I offer a delayed posting of my thoughts on a Hawthorn favourite. Bring on the Finals.

 

 

Asking whether Cyril Rioli is over or underrated, as was posed in The Guardian on Wednesday, only serves to create debate where one needn’t exist. Clearly, Rioli isn’t a superstar bound for the Hall of Fame – only once has he been selected in the All-Australian team as one of the best 6-7 forwards in the AFL, and he’s only tallied 29 Brownlow votes in his career. But arguing that Rioli is no more than an occasional excitement-machine who lifts Hawthorn fans from their seats once or twice a match fails to address his real legacy. For Rioli is one of the few players who has changed the way the game is played.

In 2008, Rioli’s rookie season, he was one of only three players to kick 20 goals and make 85 tackles during the season. The other two, Gary Ablett and Jimmy Bartel, opposed Rioli in that year’s Grand Final.

Prior to 2008, the 20-85 combination had only been achieved 25 times, with Aaron Hamill the first to accomplish the feat in 2000. But while a few small forwards such as Byron Pickett, David Rodan and Leon Davis had managed it prior to 2008, it was the rookie Rioli who led a revolution in the defensive pressure that small forwards would come to force upon opponents.

For Rioli’s play was less that of a traditional AFL small forward and more that of an ice hockey forecheck, where forwards rush, check and battle for the puck while it’s in their offensive zone. But unlike many of hockey’s best forecheckers, Rioli was also a consistent goal scorer and he would change the expectations upon elite small forwards around the league.

In the 6 seasons since Rioli’s rookie year in 2008, the 20-85 milestone has been reached on 80 occasions – an incredible rate of 13 per season considering it had previously happened only 25 times. Indeed, only 3 of the past 12 Grand Final participants have not had at least 2 players on their team with 20-and-85 for the season. Suddenly, as if to echo Rioli, small forwards like Schneider, Blair, Garlett, Gray, LeCras, Zorko, Giansiracusa and Jetta have been tackling in the forward 50 like never before. Rioli’s fellow Hawks Breust and Puopolo have also followed suit, and last season they joined the Swans (Parker and McGlynn) and Cats (Selwood and Murdoch) as the three teams with two 20-85 players – and all three sides finished in the top four.

Tackles are only one metric, of course, and this is a clear example of an arbitrary statistical cut-off being used to enhance an argument. But Rioli’s forward pressure, whether it results in a tackle or not, felt incredibly new in 2008 in a way that it doesn’t in 2015. A modern expectation upon elite small forwards is that they conduct their AFL version of forechecking throughout games by chasing, disrupting and tackling in ways that were unheard of prior to the turn of the century and extremely rare prior to Rioli’s emergence.

In the history of the AFL, only two players have had 5 seasons in which they have scored 20 goals and made 85 tackles. Midfielder and future Legend in the AFL Hall of Fame Gary Ablett is way out in front with 9 such years, leaving Rioli second with 5. Paul Chapman (4), Jason Akermanis, Luke Breust, Keiran Jack and Ben McGlynn (3) are the only others to have achieve the feat more than twice. Who’s to say if the small forwards amongst them would have ever done so had it not been for the example set by Rioli as to how disruptive and valuable a speedy pest in the forwardline can be.

Rioli will never reach the Hall of Fame and is not regarded by many as a genuine star of his generation, particularly as he only averages 15.5 possessions a game. However he is one of the best defensive forwards the game has ever seen, and his play has changed our expectations of what greatness in the forwardline should look like.

Each season, the NHL award the Frank J. Selke Trophy for the forward who demonstrates the most skill in the defensive component of the game. If the AFL ever decides to inaugurate an equivalent honour, it may just be best placed to be named after a trail-blazing Hawk.

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