Friday, December 31, 2010

My sporting year

As 2010 is cast into the litter bin of time and we finger the wrapping of 2011 with anticipation, I present my sporting highlights of the year, all events that I had the privilege to see in person and people who I interviewed.

The life of a sports journalist is not as glamorous as some would think. Lots of travelling but little sight-seeing and after a while the run of airports, hotels, stadiums, motorways and being away from my family can pall. But that is not a moan, I am privileged to watch sport for a living. Here are the moments I will remember best from 2010 and links to the articles (all behind the paywall, I'm afraid, but a snip at only 5p each or £1 for 20)

1) The marathon tennis match In terms of events about which you would like to say "I was there", the first-round match on Court No 18 at Wimbledon between John Isner v Nicolas Mahut trumps many a final. It went to five sets, spread over three days, and ended with Isner winning 70-68 in the decider. I was courtside for the final 20 games of the match, sitting a few seats away from John McEnroe and Tracy Austin. The things I most remember are not to do with play, but the fact that McEnroe was incongrously wearing a red baseball cap with his grey suit and tie and that Andy Roddick later described Isner's feet after the match as looking like "deli meat".

2) The Boat Race Because the right crew won in the best fashion. I'm biased, but this year's Cambridge side were particularly likeable and very welcoming whenever I went to visit them. Oxford had the Winklevoss twins, the Olympic rowers who claimed to have invented Facebook, but Cambridge had team spirit. Although they were almost a length behind at Hammersmith Bridge, they fought back to win. Helpfully, their victory netted me £70 at the bookies.

3) Rory McIlroy's first round at the Open My third Open Championship but my first in Scotland. When I arrived at St Andrews it was shrouded in mist and there were questions about whether play would start. I was first asked to follow Tiger Woods but when he failed to tear up the course or blow his top, I switched across to watch a promising young Ulsterman instead. With a round of 63, McIlroy took the first-round lead. Two days later, I played my first round of golf in St Andrews, at the Castle course, and went round in a mere 55 strokes more than McIlroy.

4) Somerset throw away the County Championship I had not been to Durham before - it's a smashing ground - but was sent up there for the final day of the county season as Somerset eyed a first ever Championship. Special request of the Deputy Editor, who is a Somerset fan. Alas, they were unable to beat Durham and so Notts took the title, but I did get to meet a fascinating character called Tractor Driver, who travels the country watching Somerset with his keg of cider and had managed to drink Durham dry.

5) Nadal v Soderling at Wimbledon I have several more special memories from Wimbledon, including watching Roger Federer and Serena Williams on Centre Court, but the quarter-final between Rafael Nadal and Robin Soderling on Court 1 stands out. As Soderling took a 5-0 lead in the first set, word went round that Federer had been knocked out by Toma Berdych. Could there be a double shock? No, Nadal found his mojo and won in four sets, but he had been briefly made to look mortal.

6) England v Pakistan at the Rose Bowl A one-sided match, England winning by 121 runs, but the end of a topsy-turvy one-day series, which the home side won 3-2, and the end of a fractious summer in which the game's morality was called into question. I spent the game chatting to the Pakistan fans, some of whom had travelled from as far as Glasgow.

7) Women's rugby World Cup semi-final They lost the final to New Zealand, although they competed all the way, but England's women looked wonderful on their way there, including this 15-0 last-four win over Australia. Maggie "The Machine" Alphonsi, the England flanker, was the star of the tournament for the way she bulldozed through everyone in her way.

8) Australia v Pakistan at Lord's The Ashes win started here, with Australia's batsmen made to look vulnerable. And all this while Pakistan's bowlers were deliberately underperforming for money.

9) England win Dubai Sevens In four successive must-win games, they beat the four sides who finished above them in last year's Sevens World Series to claim the title, playing spectacular rugby and proving that teams can win in orange shirts (eh, Holland?)

10) Yani Tseng wins the women's Open Royal Birkdale is one of my favourite golf courses, made all the better by the lack of spectators. Hurrah for women's golf. What those who didn't attend missed was some splendid golf by a 21-year-old Taiwanese golfer with superb iron play, a red-hot putter and a charming personality.

And the ten interviews I most enjoyed doing this year

1) Billie Jean King. I spoke to her on the phone for almost an hour while sitting on the floor behind the press box at the Oval as I supposedly covered a one-day match between Pakistan and England. Even an hour wasn't long enough as Billie Jean kept me engrossed with tales of the fight for equality 40 years ago.

2) Paul Collingwood. I had three one-to-one interviews with Collingwood in 2010 and each time he had something fresh to say. A modest, frank, intelligent cricketer, who gives good copy without coming across as a berk, unlike some of his team-mates.

3) An unnamed 17-year-old Afghan. I was unable to name the captain or any of the team who played cricket against MCC in a game I watched at Chigwell. That is because they were all child refugees who had escaped horrors in search of a better life. One of those interviews that really makes you appreciate how lucky we are.

4) Steve Brown Speaking of inspirational tales about people who fight adversity, I found speaking to Steve Brown, a wheelchair rugby player, very moving. After a fall from a balcony, he did not even know if he would survive surgery. Now he has his eyes on a place at the 2012 Paralympics.

5) John Woodcock The 83-year-old former Times cricket correspondent is one of the last survivors of a golden age of sports journalism, when reporters travelled by ship to Ashes tours and were able to socialise freely with players. Better still, they only had to write 400 words a month. I chaired a round-table discussion with Woodcock, Mike Atherton, Christopher Martin-Jenkins and Richard Hobson and then filmed a discussion about Woodcock's personal memories of playing deck quoits with Alec Bedser.

6) Pete Goss Returned to sailing 13 years after he rescued a fellow sailor in the middle of the Southern Ocean. I spoke to him briefly before the start of the Route du Rhum, in which he finished fourteenth.

7) Greg Searle Another great comeback. Eighteen years after winning an Olympic rowing gold with his brother Johnny, Searle decided to get back in a boat and try to qualify for the 2012 Olympics, when he will be 40. It was a pretty good season, in which he won a silver at the World Championships in the eight. We talked about his lucky socks, which are older than half his new crew-mates.

8) Jonah Lomu The former New Zealand rugby player talked about pimping his rides. Worth reading if only for the words "Tongan ukelele music".

9) Rebecca Adlington. Talking Delhi belly with the Olympic swimming champion after the Commonwealth Games at the site of the 2012 Olympics.

10) General Sir David Richards. Not a sportsman, but a highlight none the less. I was asked to interview the head of the Army, now Chief of the Defence Staff, about a new play on Afghanistan. Quite why I was asked, I don't know, but I was up in Birkdale at the women's Open and spoke to him on the phone from my hotel room while wearing only a towel. Certainly an interview I will never forget... It's nice to take a break from sport and use my brain occasionally.

Finally, three events I wish I had seen:

1) The Ryder Cup I was down to report on this but decided to pull out because my wife was due to give birth the next week. Naturally she was two weeks late...

2) England v Australia at rugby The third match of the year, when Chris Ashton ran the length of the field for his second try in a 35-18 win. I covered England's match the next week at Twickenham, but Samoa is a rather less glamorous tie.

3) The Melbourne Test Or any of the Ashes Tests for that matter, but Mike Atherton and Richard Hobson pulled the seniority rank on me there... Still, I am heading to the cricket World Cup in February, so that is something to look forward to.


Rich Abbott said...

Fantastic stuff Paddy. Made me very jealous, so maybe I can get my own back (in a tiny way): I was at Twickers for the Aus game, and it was fantastic.

I've been to Twickenham once or twice a year since 2003 but the atmosphere that day was something I'd never experienced. In my Twickenham experience, the action on the pitch dictates the atmosphere in the stands more so than any ground I know and for the first time in seven years England's young and promising players looked like they felt they belonged. Youngs, Croft, Palmer, Flood, Ashton, Hape, Cueto (how did he not score a try during the Autumn internationals?) - they all gave man of the match performances. My friends and I talked to plenty of more seasoned England observers after the game, and they were no less enthused by what we'd seen. A great day, shame you weren't there.

Still, sounds like you had a belter of a year for one reason and another! Glad you got the call-up for the WC...

Paddy said...

Lucky you, Rich. And quite agree about Cueto. he was one of the best players of the autumn for my money, even if he hasn't scored a try for about two years.

Happy New Year

Brian Carpenter said...

I enjoyed this, Paddy, and yes, you're very lucky. Unlike Rich I can't claim to have been to any of the events you were (or weren't) at, but the Twickenham afternoon he describes certainly looked pretty special from the vantage point of my sofa.

I was a regular at Twickenham in the nineties, but had become utterly disillusioned with the way the side had declined since the 2003 World Cup. That day's performance - and not just Ashton's landmark try - gave signs of real hope for the future.

Good to see you met 'Tractor' at the Riverside. As a regular on Gimblett's Hill at Taunton (you're welcome anytime) I'm very familiar with his drinking habits and the noise he makes. Good bloke, though, and he knows his cricket.

Paddy said...

Would love to share a cider with you at Taunton some time Brian. I didn't have the pleasure of seeing Somerset at home in 2010, but hopefully I'll get there again in 2011.

BenS said...

Not a bad year for a lad from West Mersea...

Rich Abbott said...

Cheers! Happy New Year to you and the family too.

I've finally moved up to London (and over to the dark side - working for a PR company) so I'll badger Mr Luke into arranging an Ashes celebration drink...