Thirty years ago: Beckermania and a rude then arid Anders Järryd

It’s almost exactly thirty years since Boris Becker became the youngest player to win the men’s singles title at Wimbledon. Having been in my final year of primary school at the time (and in my final days of childhood in London as we prepared to move to Somerset) I still have a pretty heady cocktail of memories of that time. We were shunting our worldly possessions down the much-feted M3/A303 route from the capital to South-West England every weekend, and we were relying on a decidedly dated black-and-white television to heroically summon up coverage from SW19 when in Somerset – if we weren’t making use of the radio in our Volkswagen camper van to follow Becker’s irresistible rise into the fame and fortune honeypot.

He knew we were in the Volkswagen listening

He knew we were in the Volkswagen listening

Irresistible is certainly how it felt at the time: like a few other Wimbledons since (in particular, Andre Agassi’s title triumph in 1992 and Roger Federer’s second title in 2004), there was a sense even at the time that Becker was completely dictating the narrative of the fortnight and therefore destined to win. Like just about everyone else in modern times, however, he actually had to win the seven matches to get there first, and this wasn’t some unimpeachable formality: it was probably the exact opposite when he twice had to break Joachim Nyström to stay in his third-round encounter and then made the walk to the net when injured (and therefore apparently ready to retire) in the next round against Tim Mayotte (Becker’s manager and coach both shouted and exhorted him to carry on; they got their way and Becker got his victory).

On a note of exacting Scandiness, one thing that stands from a distance is my memory of how the commentariat and purveyors of punditry on the BBC pronounced the name of Becker’s Swedish semi-final opponent, who again had Becker in trouble before failing to convert some points for a two-set lead and then coming out far less inspired after a rain-break took the match into the final Saturday. Anders Järryd was (I am convinced) Anders Yah-RUDE as far as they were concerned. In years to come, the RUDEness subsided and instead a rather flat aridity came to the fore as Yar-RUDE became YARID.

Why the change? I pondered this at the time, and then realised this week (for the first time ever) that in any case there is an omljod/umlaut/double dot/call it what you will over the a in Järryd. So therefore it seems to me that JAIR-ryd (not quite rude and not quite rid) is the optimum pronunciation, at least if around 1:10 on this YouTube clip is anything to go by.

My fetishistic desire for complete verbal and oral perfection when essaying accents notwithstanding (we know we’re culpable on this blog a lot of the time, so we don’t push the matter), what stands out looking at some old footage of the 1985 final between Becker and Kevin Curren is how restrained the crowd are at match point for Boris (see from about 2:49:00 onwards here). Key matches at Wimbledon nowadays seem to unfold in a permanent cauldron of noise, articulated spectator nerves and emoting (not that this is a bad thing; it has heightened the raw and sharp immediacy of proceedings). Certainly when we are fortunate (as we have been over the last decade or so) to have a succession of frankly absorbing and see-sawing confrontations at all levels in the men’s game, it rather deftly complements the niceties of whether you say Jar-RUDE or JARID or, in actual fact, neither.

Järryd for his part was a fine player, one of the last of the (now almost extinct) brigade to excel in both singles and doubles. In spite of that semi-final loss to Becker, he was in peak form in 1985, reaching a career-high number 5 in the singles list and number 1 in the doubles rankings. He won eight Grand Slam doubles titles in his career, three of them with Stefan Edberg, who may well resume his modern rivalry with Boris Becker, in a coaching format at least, should they respectively guide Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic to the men’s final on Sunday week. (Or Novak Đoković if you’re purist to a fault or double fault about that kind of thing.)

Not forever defined by Becker and the rain: Anders Järryd cutting a dash at Wimbledon 2011, where he got to the senior men's doubles final with Jeremy Bates

Not forever defined by Becker and the rain: Anders Järryd cutting a dash at Wimbledon 2011, where he got to the senior men’s doubles final with Jeremy Bates

50 ways of globally following Roger Federer

It’s early July, it’s a Sunday, and it’s still mostly lush and green at the All-England Tennis Club even if the grass has worn a little around the edges of the courts over the last two weeks of Wimbledon.

Maybe the same kind of description befits Roger Federer: a little worn around the edges career-wise at nearly 33, but still capable of finding green pastures results-wise when the occasion demands. He’s no longer a dead cert to be in the men’s final on a yearly basis, but on this early July Sunday in 2014, he’s there once again, with a chance of a record eighth Wimbledon singles title that would finally claw him free from fellow seven-timers Pete Sampras and William Renshaw. That said, he’s going to have to claw himself free from, and win three sets from, the redoubtable Novak Djokovic first. Subjectively speaking, it’s only Federer’s sense of occasion that seems to make this anything other than a pretty even, 50-50 battle in terms of pre-match prognosis.

There’s plenty of fervent and rhapsodic commentary across the Internet about the tennis skills and the personal charm of Federer: certainly enough for us to suggest that there’s not much more we can add to what’s already been said. But one thing about the Internet age (and the age of relatively cheap air travel) is that it has become easier to follow news and sport from all manner of locations.

Just as Paul Simon offered fifty ways to leave your lover (the number being symbolically important rather than mathematically accurate in the context of the song), we proffer some places and circumstances in which following Federer matches and catching up on the Swiss player’s results became a bizarre yet palpable rite of passage in its own way. Bizarre because a) we’re unlikely to ever meet the man; b) our tennis skills are rudimentary and we have a pretty good life of our own to be getting on with; yet palpable because, as former Wimbledon women’s champion Virginia Wade once perceptively articulated, a lot of tennis fans feel that they are living vicariously through Federer when watching him play even if they happily acknowledge that they can’t match his particular brand of talent. Plus c) where one happens to follow any sporting event is particular to oneself and takes on a vividness in its own right. We can only hope that what we have to write about this might chime with others instead of sounding self-indulgent. If it does we answer for that.

Let the list commence.

Completely wiped out from night shift work and going on a morning caffeine and pastry special in order to watch Federer’s victories on the other side of the globe against Marcos Baghdatis and Fernando Gonzales in the respective 2006 and 2007 Australian open finals. Being way too fidgety and sleep-starved in the early stages of both matches when both opponents demonstrated the sheer strength in depth of men’s tennis since around 2003 and really forced Federer onto the back foot;

Completely wiped out from night shift work and having to re-embark on afternoon living in the middle of a night shift watching the 2003 and 2004 Wimbledon finals. Same characteristics as above only more protracted. Somehow Andy Roddick’s frightening yet productive thwacking of the ball for the first couple of sets in the latter final seems more pertinent a memory than how Federer finally dealt with it;

All of the 2004 Wimbledon tournament and how others appeared to be living vicariously through Federer themselves. No sporting occasion in my lifetime has ever seemed more like a festival, as if people badly wanted the chance to see Federer playing even if they knew that in itself wouldn’t secure him the title. Two good examples being the eagerness of 1999 Wimbledon women’s champion Lindsey Davenport to watch a Federer match on her day off and Goran Ivanisevic almost surpassing himself for mercurial excitability when discussing the man himself on BBC television. I remember being in a CD chain store (one of those which has not outstayed Federer’s career) on the first or second day of the tournament and the woman serving me empathising with my anxiety to rush back with CDs in hand to watch the man himself: ‘It’s not about the serve, it’s not about the return, it’s about the everything.’

Watching on Ceefax (the prehistoric computerised BBC forerunner to the Internet) as the scores blinked up and renewed themselves in the 2005 Australian Open semi-final. A reminder that other people do know how to keep Federer at bay. Maybe the sheer torture of following a match in such laborious fashion might have eclipsed watching Federer unsuccessfully play a hot dog (a shot between the legs) at match point up against Marat Safin (who played brilliantly to beat Federer and then defeat Lleyton Hewitt to take the title). The match in its entirety is here; the hot dog is at 2:54:00.

Being in tropical Brazil when Federer won the 2005 US Open and was (unusually) reduced to second fiddle in terms of sport geekery on my culpable part. Blame England’s cricketers for finally winning an Ashes series against Australia on yet another continent or land mass around the same time. The Brazilian beaches and gorgeous acai sorbets awaited me; doing some Internet gannetry on Kevin Pietersen’s epic moment of series-clinchingness somehow got in the way. 

Moving house the day of THAT 2008 Wimbledon final. A curiously flat experience, or perversely vivid because it was flat. I just didn’t expect Federer to beat Rafael Nadal in a third Wimbledon final in a row. I’m sure millions did get absorbed in the match, and I did indeed find a Federer – Nadal Wimbledon final truly absorbing – just in 2007. Then I really had no idea who would win and Federer somehow pulled it out of the fire in the face of a mesmerising onslaught from the young Spaniard. Same can be said for the 2009 Australian Open final, when Nadal produced a masterful piece of matchplay over five sets to prevail on his less favoured surface (hard court) and provoke that rareity: Federer moved to tears by defeat. Maybe it’s a sign of real life and bathos intruding when you find yourself doing the laundry before the removal man arrives and following the match on a bad-quality analogue radio where the breathless passages of commentary don’t actually lift you from your torpor. I apologise to all Wimbledon 2008 finalites if that does sound like heresy.

And so to the Scandi connection. It doesn’t actually entail a match, much less following the lesser ATP tournaments, although I was doing that a lot via a very good internet cafe in London that served up sluicingly refreshing tonic water and lime cordial during the course of 2004. That was the same year I went to Stockholm for the second time and found myself wandering the side streets running parallel to the main shopping drag, Drottninggatan. They seemed ridiculously civilised and quiet compared to London (just as Drottninggatan often has about as much in common with Oxford Street as it does with Easter Island).

Amid the urban greenery, as if driven to a quiet moment after a frenetic work-hard-play-hard existence back in the big London smoke, I suddenly thought: ‘It’s the French Open soon. And Wimbledon. It’s Federer’s acid test. If he wins these both then the sky’s the limit.’ That was the holiday when I first saw the Gustav Vasa ship, improbably retrieved and brought to the surface of the water in Stockholm in 1961 some 333 years after it sank. The effort of building and then retrieving the vast ship denotes humankind’s capacity over the centuries to the test the skies.

On a smaller (yet still intimate) scale, Federer reached for, but did not completely scale, the sky heights in 2004. He went out to three-time former French Open champion Gustavo Kuerten at Roland Garros but still finally realised his position as the truly dominant force in the game, winning three majors and the end-of-year Masters and going 72-6 for the year.

For all the statistics, it’s the manner in which Federer in that year produced one of the most beautiful yet devastating displays in sporting history, his demolition of Hewitt in the 2004 US Open final, which evokes that old ain’t-just-what-you-do-it’s-the-way-that-you-do-it truism (especially true of an athlete where, as we have seen, the aesthetics play a big part). I severely doubt that if – and if – he beats Djokovic today, it will be as easy. That’s why I also hearken back to what I thought on that May evening in Stockholm ten years ago which serves as good advice as the final looms: it’s sport. Don’t get precious about it. Enjoy it while it lasts. Vicariously or otherwise.

Magnus Carlsen – the most normal guy to be ‘strongest ever’ in any sport?

It hasn’t escaped our attention as chess nuts and Scandifriends that Norway’s Magnus Carlsen has become the highest-rated player in history, this achievement having taken place only a few weeks after his 22nd birthday and without Carlsen having yet claimed the world title (he’ll have a chance later this year).

Magnus Carlsen: strongest chess player ever but still no world crown

Magnus Carlsen: strongest chess player ever but still no world crown

We’d try and tell you that there are some parallels but there’s nothing that clearly fits the bill. Garry Kasparov and Mikhail Tal both claimed the world championship via a decisive title match before they had turned 24, but Kasparov was still some way off his peak at that point and Tal would reign for only a year at the top (although he may have reached an individual peak in terms of performance when he jointly won the Montreal ‘Tournament of Stars’ with Anatoly Karpov in 1979, some 18 years after he ceded the title).

Tal - champion at 23, ex-champion at 24, peaking (possibly) at 42

Tal – champion at 23, ex-champion at 24, peaking (possibly) at 42

The most plausible precedent is (perhaps inevitably) the most feted and notorious player in the history of the game, Bobby Fischer. Like Carlsen, he managed his ‘strongest player ever’ rating as a non-champion (the much-accepted Elo rating system used to calculate the strength of a player put Fischer at a record high of 2785 prior to his defeat of Boris Spassky in their 1972 world championship match).

But. And but. Carlsen, unlike Fischer still isn’t champion. Most people expect him to claim the crown this year by winning the relevant candidates’ tournament and ending the six-year tenure of reigning world champion Vishy Anand, but the fact he has been determined ‘best ever’ by mathematically-based projection rather than by virtue of title clearly won and held for x number of years enhances the notion that he has scaled a not quite tangible, still vaguely virtual, Everest. Should he emerge as champ this year, he will have to hold the title until he is 50 if he is to equal the record of the second world champion, Emanuel Lasker (who in fairness belongs in the same ballpark, if not at the same base, as Fischer, Carlsen and Kasparov, nearly 100 years after he ceded the title).

Emanuel Lasker - 27 years as champ is 27 years, so there

Emanuel Lasker – 27 years as champ is 27 years, so there

Thus Carlsen – for the time being at least – does not have the gong of a champ to go with the aura of one, making him appear slightly more human. But this got us thinking about how the other world champions and greats of the game do have an aura that makes them seem rather other-worldly and removed from the fray of mortals (whilst practicing what many would call a rather esoteric discipline as it is). To wield a broad brush, the official undisputed world champions and the other plausible contender for ‘best player ever’, Paul Morphy, can be sketched thus:

Morphy offered the bizarre dichotomy of looking dainty and vaguely Little Lord Fauntleroy-esque whilst playing chess like a cold-blooded killer. He retired from chess at the age of 21 and became a rather sad figure, a social recluse in his home city of New Orleans and a man whose best (only?) way of externalising properly was through chess but who for whatever reason could not return to the game. Kasparov and Fischer were similarly ruthless as chess players, but their respective personal case histories are clearly not those of mild-mannered laymen: in Kasparov’s case we see a man with very fierce political ambitions away from the chessboard, in Fischer’s case we see a man ultimately haunted by undue and ugly suspicions about the powers that others yield.

The first world champion, Wilhelm Steinitz, and Lasker after him, also embody an odd strand of cerebral pugilism. Steinitz reminds us of a smaller version of the late English wrestler Giant Haystacks (whose utterance that wrestling was the only activity that enabled him to express his emotions without being arrested has disconcerting echoes of Fischer’s conscious enjoyment, expressed in this interview, about the moment his opponent’s ego cracks). Lasker, a doctor of maths and a German Jewish polymath, spent more or less his whole career embracing the philosophical-type-away-from-the-board/street-fighter-on-it conundrum (although in relative terms he was as cultured and worldly as someone like Fischer was paranoid and self-destructive).

Steinitz: a Little Giant Haystacks

Steinitz: a Little Giant Haystacks

The real Giant Haystacks: chess abilities unknown

The real Giant Haystacks: chess abilities undetermined

Certainly many champs either genuinely are academics (mathematician and computer science professor Max Euwe and engineering doctor Mikhail Botvinnik also fall in this category), pretend to be academics (Alexander Alekhine never completed his law doctorate but, being a ‘notorious trimmer’, to quote the first edition of the Oxford Companion to Chess, didn’t mind taking a few liberties and adding a ‘Dr’ prefix), or look like high-flying academics. Vasily Smyslov and Anand both remind us of cool, detached economics lecturers. Tigran Petrosian, Vladimir Kramnik and Karpov remind us of economics head librarians (the kind who would charge you £4000 on an overdue book without blinking).

Kramnik: if he was a librarian, you wouldn't cross him

Kramnik: if he was a librarian, you wouldn’t cross him

Tal spent much of his life looking like a scatty professor, living like the last bohemian standing and playing the most idiosyncratically brilliant games ever produced by one individual; his first wife’s comment in this interview that she sometimes thought Tal flew in from another planet to play chess sits well with what we would call his ‘benevolent witchdoctor’ ambience. At the other end of the spectrum, the chess of Jose Raoul Capablanca is so crystalline and logical that he earned himself the sobriquet of ‘The Chess Machine’.

That leaves us with one undisputed champ we haven’t yet profiled. The man who probably found being champion a burden from the moment he took the title. The man who many people inclined towards simplistic arguments claim ‘never recovered’ from losing his title – but also the man whose happiest moment may well have been marrying, third time lucky in this respect, and moving from the USSR to the West, a few years after he had indeed ceded his crown. The man who earned his living playing chess and who found ways to be healthily detached from it. The man who always looked as if he would be happier with a glass of wine or a game of tennis in his later years but who still stayed in the world’s top ten until his late forties.

Whether you feel Boris Spassky is indeed, as this Guardian article termed him, ‘the most gentlemanly and, whisper it, sane of chess players’ might hang on whether you can reconcile some bizarrely uncharacteristic utterances from a few years ago with the fact that he does possess an easy charm and is not averse to the good things in life.

Spassky: not averse to the good things in life

Spassky: not averse to the good things in life

But given that Magnus Carlsen reminds us every bit of a chilled-out big kid or young adult wearing a hooded top and baggy pants, shooting basketball hoops in a very nicely-tended Oslo municipal leisure area and then breaking off to let his mum know via his iPhone that he will slouch back in time for tea, we proffer a hypothesis (with tongue not totally in cheek and with some corroboration from the man himself) that Carlsen is the most emotionally-balanced, laid-back ‘all time number one but not yet champ’ in any sporting discipline, although Switzerland’s Roger Federer has managed something similar in tennis whilst winning every title going (the Olympic singles excepted).

Is it too much to suggest that it is more than coincidence that at least twice in this post-Cold War, 21st-century era of sport that affluent and relatively stable (but not superpower, or indeed G7) countries have had a very prominent look-in at the sporting table of superlatives in this respect? Has there been a new dawn where countries not synonymous with aggressive ambition and a hugely successful sporting heritage can produce one-offs that go the whole whole hog in a way they didn’t before?

(Whilst remaining balanced and normal?)

PS In all fairness to Max Euwe, Bobby Fischer himself reportedly claimed of the Dutchman: ‘There’s something wrong with that man. He’s too normal.’ It is difficult to think of a more upright and dignified world champion, that is for sure. Like Spassky and Carlsen, he certainly had a life beyond chess. It is Euwe’s incredibly zealous, workaholic nature throughout his life, including being a tireless globetrotting president of the FIDE world chess federation well into his late seventies, that sets him apart from a bon vivant such as Spassky (and as we said, there is no inalienable metric for defining normal). Which side of the coin Carlsen will fall on remains to be seen..

Max Euwe: nice guy and superhumanly productive

Max Euwe: nice guy and superhumanly productive

PPS, April 11th 2013. It has given us no pleasure to become aware after writing this article about the traumas that Boris Spassky and his family have recently suffered. This is not a fate we would wish on anyone – particularly given the dignified way Spassky reacted to his 1972 defeat by Fischer and the ensuing hostility from the Soviet authorities. It seems like a cruel twist of fate when Spassky, despite not being the strongest or most continuously focused player in history, has always reacted so well as a player and as a human being in the face of adversity (his victory as deposed world champ in the super-strong 1973 USSR championship being a case in point). We did write this article in good (and, if we say so, rather impish) humour at the time in an attempt to compare the psychological make-up of the champs but we are acutely aware of how important it is to be discreet and discerning. Therefore we wish Boris and his close family and friends all the best at this extremely difficult time.