Tuesday, May 24, 2011

United by the Four C's

For those of you unfamiliar with Balkan symbolism, there is an image/emblem that is dominant in Serbian history that features a cross surrounded by four C-shaped firesteels (Serbian: "ocila", "оцила"), which form an acronym of four Cyrillic letters for "S" (written like Latin "C").

According to legends and historians (and of course Wikipedia) it was coined in the 12th century by St. Sava, a Serbian prince and Orthodox monk, and the first Metropolitan of Žiča and Archbishop of Serbs of the Serbian Orthodox Church. It was at this time that Serbs, who lacked a national church, were under pressure by Rome to convert from Orthodoxy to Catholicism. According to the story St. Sava called for the creation of an independent church in Serbia that would remain Orthodox, and uttered the "ocila" phrase to urge the Serbian people to declare national autonomy and resist domination by the Roman Catholic Church.

With that in mind I read with interest that Manchester United captain, Serb Nemanja Vidic, is using a similar rallying cry to inspire his teammates to glory against the mighty Barcelona.


Said Vidic: "The players have to have courage and belief. We have to show commitment to believe in what we are doing in the game. We have to think about how to stop Barcelona but also how to score ourselves. It is one game where anything can happen and concentration is crucial.
"Concentration is vital in every game but in a Champions League final against Barcelona this is even more important. It is the biggest game of the season and it is important we also stay calm."

Wise words from a man who has become a cult figure with the Old Trafford faithful. Should he lift the Champions League trophy on the 29th May then his name will surely be spoken in the same revered tones as Eric, Keane, Robson, Charlton, and Best.

Despite running away with the English Premier League and decimating an overmatched Schalke in the semi-finals, the final is by no means a lock. In fact, United go in as underdogs. Barcelona are possibly the greatest passing team in the history of the game, with Messi, Iniesta, Xavi, Villa et al. playing the game like a pimpled teen plays football on PS3 with the setting on the easiest level. They destroyed United in the final two years ago, and will be looking to repeat that performance. They are downright scary.

Even scarier is the fact that the ‘Four C’s’ has never really meant that much to the Serbs other than being a great catch-cry. So I’m hoping that Vidic’s ‘Four C’s’ are a little more successful in inspiring United to glory.


UP: Sir Alex Ferguson. His reign has brought the club 12 English league titles, 5 FA Cups, 4 League Cups, 9 Charity Shields, 2 European Champions Leagues, 1 European Cup Winners Cup, 1 European Super Cup, 1 Intercontinental Cup and 1 FIFA Club World Championship. Amazing. This will be the third Champions League final in the past four seasons. Just phenomenal

UP: Football Fans: This is the sort of behaviour that sets football fans apart from all other sports in the world. Manchester United fans attempting to ensure maximum enjoyment is wrung out of the club's record-breaking 19th title took their cause to Anfield, unveiling a banner inside the ground before the Reds' game against Spurs. United clinched their landmark 19th title on Saturday, finally eclipsing Liverpool's total of 18, and the club's supporters went to great lengths to ensure those at Anfield were fully aware of that fact. As Liverpool fans began their customary chorus of You'll Never Walk Alone, United fans, organised by the Red Issue fanzine, unveiled a banner emblazoned with the words "MUFC 19 TIMES" in the Anfield Road End of the ground. Those responsible had a getaway car waiting outside the ground, plus fellow conspirators in the adjoining stand in order to get photographic evidence.

UP: Novak Djokovic. His unbeaten run has continued into the French Open. Should he lift the trophy at Roland Garros in a fortnight’s time, he will have set a new mark for games undefeated, and will more than likely take the number one ranking from Rafa Nadal. What’s so incredible about Nole’s form, and separates him from McEnroe, Lendl, Federer, Villas etc. during their unbeaten stretches, is that Nole is doing it as the world number two. He’s beaten the number one player in the world in four finals this year!!! All those other greats were number one when they went undefeated.

UP: Parramatta Eels. 40 -6 over the Cronulla Sharks. I know it’s just one win, and I know that the Sharks aren’t the cream of the crop, but a win’s a win.

DOWN: Mark Webber. Let’s just call his challenge for the 2011 F1 title done and dusted. Nice guy. Good driver. But he missed his shot last year and I’m predicting he gets pushed out of Red Bull for the 2012 season

UP: Robert Prosinecki. Check out this image. I still don’t know why Zvezda picked him to coach the team…but it’s nice to see he’s doing his best to fit in.

Friday, May 20, 2011

We're tied at one apiece

A couple weeks ago I got together with a buddy of mine Batman, and between a six pack of Carlton Cold while taking care of five rugrats – successfully ensuring no broken bones or setting of furniture alight – we analysed the upcoming NBA playoffs and put together our own playoff bracket.

With the playoffs now at the Conference Final stages our picks are more or less redundant. I will fess up though and say Batman was far more successful with his picks. Stupidly I thought Shaq would have an impact for the Celtics against the Heat. To quote Slade the Blade…"what a d#ckhead!!!"

Anyway, with both conferences tied at a game apiece, here’s my recap of the NBA Playoffs to date, highlighting my favourite 19 moments (in no particular order). If you’re wondering why 19 moments…ask a Liverpool fan. Although I’m not sure Scousers can count that high:

1. The Mighty Memphis Grizzlies: Behind the stellar post play of Zac Randolph and his bruise brother Marc Gasol, the Memphis Grizzlies put a fork in the San Antonio Spurs and potentially the Tim Duncan Era. It’s rare that an eight seed wins in the playoffs. Rarer still when pitted against a championship tested team of veterans like the Spurs. After securing the leagues best record the Spurs faded quickly, with the superstar trio of Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker unable to match the youth, length and athleticism of the hungry Grizzlies. Which begs the question…has the window closed for the best power forward in NBA history?

2. Sweep: I’ll admit I tipped the Lakers to three-peat again. I thought they were a lock to make the Finals. However the Dallas Mavericks had other ideas. The Big D took it to the dysfunctional Lakers and put on a basketball clinic. Backed by only one legit superstar the imperious Dirk Nowitzki, the Mavs took teamwork to another level. Their trademark ball movement was in-synch as they tore apart the defending champions, leaving Black Mamba Kobe Bryant still one ring shy of Mr. Jordan

3. Is it a Bird? Jumping ahead to Game One of the Western Conference Finals. How ridiculously amazing was that performance by Dirk. 48 points off 15 shots. Only three misses. No treys. 24 from 24 at the charity stripe. Off the f#cken charts!!! As a seven foot white guy who shoots the three, Dirk has long lived in the shadow of (unfair) comparisons to Larry Bird. This performance not only stamped his own greatness, but laid the platform for a legacy in line with Larry the Legend

4. The shoulder bone is connected to the elbow bone: In one of those “the human body isn’t supposed to bend that way” moments, Boston Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo dislocated his elbow against the Miami Heatles. He lay on the floor in excruciating pain. Teammates who rushed to his aid looked visibly sick when they saw the damage. Off course Rondo came back later in the game and inspired his team to a gutsy win over a hot Heat outfit. Talk about inspirational. He may not be able to shoot for sh#t, but he’s a hard nut

5. Taj Gibson over D-Wade http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BmN-MIbvLks

6. Comeback King: Every now and again sport will deliver one of those spine tingling moments that will live with fans forever. These playoffs are no exception. Brandon Roy scored 18 fourth quarter points to lead the Portland Trailblazers to an amazing comeback against the Mavs. After multiple knee reconstructions the career of Brandon Roy has been on a precipice. If he can produce performances like this off the bench he’s definitely got a major part to play for a contending team http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oGgFySE-x4k

7. What an animal: I don’t like the guy but Amar’e Stoudemire is a beast http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=94TMgp0xNhI&feature=related

8. An instant classic: The OKC Thunder and Grizzlies fought out a classic that went three overtimes deep and included a number of buzzer beating threes. This is what keeps basketball fans coming back http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tJpsUNsgAXk

9. D-Rose…I questioned whether he was the league MVP. Highlights like this shut me up quick smart http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kszk_UpjTGg

10. I just love a good block: Dwight Howard shows why he’s the best defensive player on the planet http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YcNfWXjWoeg

11. Payback time http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lUlU70pjq-A

12. Killer crossover Part One: D-Wade showing KG how the young brigade does it http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WMEAYXx-A9U

13. Killer crossover Part Two: CP3 letting Kobe know he’s getting old too http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v3Zgg5iZfGU

14. Bigger than the NBA: The Queen of US TV Oprah Winfrey put the NBA Playoffs on hold so that she could film her show finale. Pretty impressive. And here I thought her popularity was just a fad

15. Handbags at ten paces version 1: Things always get a little heated in the playoffs http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PoU5lLtpcuo

16. Version 2: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VrePcPY9vE0

17. Cheap shot artist: After getting blown out of the park by the red hot Mavs, LA’s Andrew Bynum did his best impersonation of a WWE superstar with a cheap shot on little JJ Barea, followed by some theatrics when leaving the court http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q3q6eHHeffU

18. Three point clinic: Peja Stojakovic leads a three point show against the hapless Lakers http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gl89gOnSpEs

19. Saving the best till last: I just can’t get enough of this one http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KZSKL9pYz4I

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Unleash Hell

There was a moment only a few minutes into the Oscar Award Winning movie Gladiator, when Russell Crowe’s Maximus instructed his trusty lieutenant…’on my signal, unleash hell’. From that point on you just knew that regardless of what the poor villagers brought to the table, Maximus and the Roman’s were going to tear them all a new ar#ehole.

This morning I woke up to the amazing news that Novak Djokovic beat Rafa Nadal in the Master Series final in Madrid – on clay no less – to extend his amazing unbeaten record in 2011 to 32 matches (34 dating back to last years Davis Cup final). All weekend I was readying myself for the inevitability that Nadal would emerge victorious and I could write about how Nole’s magical run had to end sooner or later. And the stage was perfectly set for a Nadal victory. Seeking revenge after two straight finals loses to Novak this year, playing on his favourite surface, in his home country and following the death of a great Spanish sportsman, Seve Ballesteros, the writing was on the wall. Nadal was going to enter Terminator mode and keep coming and coming until he broke Novak’s will. But here’s the catch. Out of everything that has improved in Novak’s game in 2011, it’s his will that has taken the greatest stride forward. And right now, it cannot be broken.

Novak’s service is not a great weapon, but it’s no longer a glaring weakness. Opponents who used to prey on a wobbly first serve and an even worse second are now faced with a tough first look and a much more confident second that doesn’t allow for many easy points anymore. A forehand that used to vacillate between the ridiculous and the sublime is now pretty much permanently in sublime territory. The backhand has become a master class that all budding tennis stars should examine if they want to see what poetry in motion on a tennis court looks like. Novak’s return of serve is now in the Andre Agassi stratosphere, and his court movement and overall defence is better than any player past or present.

Then there is the question of will.

The one glaring weakness in Novak’s game in years gone by has been his drive, his intensity, his will to win. The physical skills have always been apparent, but it appeared that he lacked the heart of a champion. All too often he wilted in the face of pressure, heaving, huffing and puffing whenever facing a point of significance. A long list of physical ailments seemed to be a by-product of a mindset that wasn’t built to compete at the highest levels. Shortness of breath, cramping and nausea were just some of the physical symptoms that became a common facet of a Djokovic semi final or final.

Greats such as the ice-cool Bjorn Borg, robotic Ivan Lendl, fiery John McEnroe, relentless Nadal, emotionless Pete Sampras and even more emotionless Roger Federer have built their domination based on an ability to step up when it mattered most.

Now Novak is entering this equation.

During the course of this years’ Australian Open Jim Courier made comment that although Novak was already a Grand Slam champion, winning Serbia’s first ever Davis Cup, with the final on home soil, was perhaps the toughest mental test Novak could / would ever face in tennis.

It seems that this was the moment that had unlocked the secret to winning. Novak absorbed the pressure and expectation of an entire nation and didn’t wilt. Since then he has unleashed hell on the entire tennis world. A second Grand Slam title included the destruction of an ageing Federer and dispirited Andy Murray. Then consecutive Master’s wins followed, beating Nadal in both finals…coming back from a set down each time no less. And now he has ended Rafa’s two year domination on clay, in his own backyard of all things.

Longest ATP winning streaks
46 - Guillermo Vilas (1977)
44 - Ivan Lendl (1981-82)
42 - John McEnroe (1984)
41 - Bjorn Borg (1979-80)
41 - Roger Federer (2007-07)
35 - Bjorn Borg (1978)
35 - Thomas Muster (1995)
35 - Roger Federer (2005)
34* - Novak Djokovic (2010-)
32 - Rafael Nadal (2008)
* active streak

The win in Madrid has made Nole’s rise to the number one ranking a distinct possibility it has also made him a legitimate contender for a third Grand Slam at Roland Garros. Not only has he discovered the secret, he has also planted a seed of doubt in Rafa’s impenetrable mental wall that perhaps his reign as the undisputed King of Clay may be coming to an end.

And with that continues the amazing journey up the list of longest winning streaks. He’s surpassed Lendl and sits eleven wins away from setting a new record for the greatest season start in history (McEnroe had 42 consecutive wins to start the 1984season). Two more wins after reaching that milestone and he’ll overtake Guillermo Vilas for the longest undefeated run of all time.

Novak himself acknowledges that despite some subtle changes to his game over the past couple of years, it’s the mental element that has made all the different.

"It has changed, I have a different mindset right now, I'm more stable and I know how to think right."


UP: Sir Alex Ferguson and Manchester United. Following their overnight 2-1 win over Chelsea at Old Trafford, the 19th domestic title that moves Man U into the number one spot is now signed, sealed, to be delivered with just one point earned from remaining games against Blackburn and Blackpool. Glory, glory

DOWN: Parramatta Eels recruitment. After wasting cap space on a collection of has-beens and never-weres – I’m looking at you Carl Webb, Reni Maitua, Chris Walker, Chris Hicks and Paul Whaturia – the Eels just blew a massive part of their salary cap on little Chris Sandow. I know good halves are difficult to come by, and acknowledge that Sandow is a vast improvement on Jeff Robson, but if some of the $$$ being bandied about are true, then the club has mortgaged its future on a player in need of drastic improvement before he can lead a team into contention. And Sandow isn’t the final piece of the Eels puzzle. We also need another winger, centre, back rower, prop, hooker and a better bench. Still a long way to go for the Blue and Gold army

UP: Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull racing. After securing his fourth consecutive pole in Turkey, Vettel’s stroll to a third F1 victory this season had an air of inevitability. The driver, the car and the tactics have come together and have given this season, even this early in, an aura of Groundhog Day

DOWN: NSW State of Origin. After watching Queensland dominate New Zealand in the recent ANZAC Test, I convinced it’s going to be another long year for NSW in the State of Origin arena. It kills me to say this, but I’m at the point where I think the best option is to dress the St George-Illawarra Steelers in Blue jerseys and put them up to represent the state. This team has dominated the NRL for over two years now, and could do no worse than the teams that have conspired to lose the past five series