Friday, August 10, 2012

Super “Golden” Saturday for 30-somethings

Women's Singles Medalists (L-R): Victoria Azarenka (Bronze), Serena Williams (Gold), and Maria Sharapova (Silver)

Men's Doubles Medalists (L-R): Benneteau/Gasquet (Bronze), Bryan Brothers (Gold), Llodra/Tsonga (Silver
On Saturday, August 4, 30-year-old Serena Williams captured the gold medal in Women’s Singles with a dominating win over Maria Sharapova, 6-0, 6-1. Later, the 34-year-old Bryan brothers prevailed in a closely contested match (7-5, 6-4) to win gold in Men’s Doubles over the French team of Michael Llodra and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. On Sunday, August 5, Venus and Serena Williams added another gold medal in Women’s doubles by defeating the Czech Republic team of Andrea Hlavackova and Lucie Hradecka.

According to Steven Tignor, the Williams sisters and Bryan brothers have kept American tennis relevant. In the past few years, U.S. sportswriters have registered concerns about who would be the ‘next’ great American tennis stars. At the 2009 U.S. Open, 17-year old Melanie Oudin raised hopes by advancing to the quarterfinals. While some thought she could become the next “American sweetheart,” her results and ranking have dropped considerably (she was #109 on the WTA Tour as of August 10, 2012). In the men’s game, several promising players (including Mardy Fish and John Isner) have risen to top 10 rankings, but neither has broken through to capture a Grand Slam. Thus, it was left to the 30-somethings to anchor the 2012 U.S. Olympic team.

With Olympic tennis scheduled to play at Wimbledon in 2012, tickets to tennis were a hot item. Although the Olympics were last held in London in 1948, those were the ‘austerity’ games and did not feature tennis. Not since 1908 was Olympic tennis played at the hallowed grounds of Wimbledon. Recognizing that this would be an auspicious event, the world’s best players planned their schedules accordingly so they could be there. So did I! Although I was unable to obtain them through normal channels, I was able to land tickets through ebay for three days: Monday, July 30 & Tuesday, 31 (2nd round matches) as well as Saturday, August 4 (gold medal finals in Women’s Singles and Men’s Doubles). Below, I provide highlights and a few pictures from some of the matches I got to see.

On Monday, July 30, I saw Venus Williams’ first round singles against Italy’s Sara Errani (above). The match was played on Court 2, which has been referred to as the ‘graveyard court’ because of many upsets that occurred on it. Unlike Centre Court and Court 1, Court 2 did not have assigned seats, so fans were able to move closer to the action. Conditions could not have been better for tennis (playing or viewing) with temperatures in the low 70s, blue skies and a light breeze. Could this be the same Wimbledon that so frequently featured rain delays?

Fans greeted Venus warmly when she entered the court, no doubt a tribute to her being the holder of five Wimbledon titles, but perhaps also in recognition that this could be her last appearance as an Olympian (since then, Venus has said she believes she and Serena could win a fourth Olympic Doubles gold at Rio in 2016). In the past year, Venus announced that she had been diagnosed with Sjogren’s, an autoimmune disease that leaves those who have it feeling tired and drained. Venus had battled through the disease but her results had been inconsistent. So it was difficult to know what to expect from her play. Nonetheless, it was clear from the beginning that the elder Williams was in top form. In the first game, she hit three aces and a service winner to take a 1-0 lead. Behind a strong serve, Venus also hit multiple baseline shots for winners. Overall, rallies did not last long enough for Errani to gain a foothold in the match and Venus prevailed 6-3, 6-2 to move on to the next round. 

On Tuesday, July 31, Venus (above left) played her second round singles on Centre court, where she faced the Canadian Aleksandra Wozniak (above right). Williams picked up where she left off against Errani, taking the first set 6-1. I had not seen Venus play like this in a long time. Admittedly Wozniak was more erratic than Errani, but Venus' service game and groundstrokes were quite sharp. The second set was a bit closer, but Venus closed it out 6-3 to advance to the third round. In the third round, Venus lost to Germany's Angelique Kerber despite having leads in both sets

In the match that followed Venus Williams' win over Aleksandra Wozniak, Serbia's Novak Djokovic (above) and American Andy Roddick (lower) were slated to play. In what could have been an exciting match-up at another point of their careers, this one did not live up to expectations. Sadly, I have to agree with Greg Couch, who says "it's getting hard to watch Roddick play tennis" these days. Even though men's matches were shorter by virtue of playing best of three, this match took only 54 minutes. The British crowd wasn't entirely disappointed since that brought them closer to the "feature matches" of the day: first up would be Scotland's Andy Murray vs. Finland's Jarkko Nieminen, to be followed by the Women's Singles match-up of England's Laura Robson vs. Russian Maria Sharapova.

When Andy Murray was introduced on Centre Court (above), it was clear who would be the fan favorite. The majority of fans were decked out with anything ranging from tiny British flags to full-size flags that they waved whenever Andy won a point. Like the earlier match between Djokovic and Roddick, Murray dominated throughout, owing largely to erratic play of Neiminen. In the end, Murray prevailed to win 6-2, 6-4, setting up a third round match against the Cypriot Marcos Baghdatis.

The last scheduled match on Centre court featured another British favorite, 18-year old Laura Robson, facing the No. 3 seeded woman, Maria Sharapova. Although I had vaguely heard of Robson, I had never seen her play. I was in for a pleasant surprise as she gave Sharapova a more competitive match than she may have wanted. And the crowd was clearly behind Robson. In fact, at one point, I asked my friend from England if the British crowd was more excited about Robson than they were for Andy Murray - I really got that impression. And her play did not disappoint! Even though Robson had only gotten into the Olympic draw as a last-minute substitute, her play proved worthy of the setting as she extended Sharapova to a tie-breaker in the first set. In fact, Robson came close to taking the first set before Sharapova took a 3-0 lead in the second set. Even then, Robson fought back to 3-4 before losing the second set 6-3.

If the tennis on centre court was not enough, there was one more match to see before leaving the historic Wimbledon. A doubles match that had been scheduled much earlier had to be moved back after a long afternoon of rain. However, by the time Sharapova and Robson had finished, the rain had stopped and play was resuming on the outer courts. As a result, we got to see the Williams sisters play the tough German duo of Angelique Kerber and Sabine Lisicki. Originally scheduled to play on court 2, they had been moved to a much smaller court (#12) where seating was scarce and fans had to bunch around the court to catch a glimpse of play. While the Williams sisters dominated play in the first set, winning it 6-2, the second was much closer as it went to 7-5. The win earned the Williams sisters a spot in the Women's doubles quarterfinals.

Thus, ended a perfect day of Olympic tennis - for which I was grateful to be there!

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

BBC, Opening Ceremonies, and Ticket Backlash

Britain's Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins (R) in 2012 Olympic Men's Cycling.

The BBC has had great coverage of Olympic events. After attending the men's road cycling race on Saturday, July 28, we returned home to watch Olympic coverage on the BBC until midnight. Two aspects of BBC coverage really impressed me. First, the announcers did not yap continually and that was wonderful! Second, there were few if any breaks for commercials. [I discovered later that the reason for an absence of commercials was that people are charged 145 pounds per year for licensing fees. It might well be worth it as I think about it!]. Unlike NBC which may have 7 minutes of coverage followed by 3-5 minutes of commercials, there was no need to flip around the channels since there was constant action shown on BBC. This allowed the announcers to include coverage of a greater variety of sports, while also going into depth about who medalled in events of special interest.

I especially enjoyed watching the coverage of Opening ceremonies in England with my friend from High School, Laura Stewart, now married to a native Londoner, Mark Bradshaw. Their insights gave me a greater appreciation of the meanings of various aspects of the presentation that began with a panorama of the English countryside (which I had just seen on my flight into England the night before), followed by an enactment of changes that occurred as a result of the Industrial Revolution. Of course, the scene with "Mr. Bean" took little explanation and was apparently John McEnroe's favorite part of the Opening ceremonies. Mine was probably the scenario with the Queen, especially since I got to pose for a photograph with her in Wimbledon Village the next day:-)

The fireworks and torch at the end were magnificent. I'm not sure what it would have cost to attend the Opening Ceremonies, but I'm sure it would have been far too expensive for me to afford to have been there. Which brings me to my next point... the (un)availability of tickets.
Tickets were especially difficult to find before coming to the Olympics - which discouraged many from making plans to attend the Olympics. Once here, I thought it might be easier to obtain tickets, only to find that there were few options available even for Londoners. It came as a surprise then to see so many unfilled seats at various venues, especially Wimbledon. Apparently I was not alone in making that observation, because several articles have appeared citing a ticket backlash amongst British fans. I can certainly understand why they were upset. Initially, Sebastian Coe (who was in charge of the organizing committee) explained that many empty seats (on Saturday) may have belonged to sponsors or family members of Olympians. He speculated that perhaps the lateness of the Opening Ceremonies may have accounted for many not showing up for early events. Yet, when huge chunks of empty seats remained open on Sunday, the backlash intensified, as reflected by the above article. Officials have promised to fill the seats in the remaining days. But what is the plan to do that?

Here are some of my suggestions: 1. Why not use seat fillers? At the Academy Awards, seat fillers are used to replace people who leave to use the restroom. In this case, fans who might have to wait in a queue would be more than happy to watch tennis - even at a reduced price - until or if the ticket holder showed up for their seats. And if that person showed up, why not let the seat holder find another seat nearby? A similar system was used at the Australian Open (in tennis) and seemed to work well. 2. One problem with using seat fillers is that those who paid exorbitant rates for tickets might be upset if newbies took nearby seats at a reduced rate. However, what if all tickets were offered at the same price? Again, at the Australian Open, all seats cost the same, so it wouldn't matter if someone seated in the last row got a chance to move down to the first row before allowing those who bought reduced rate tickets to fill in the remaining seats. 3. Wimbledon offers a solution at its grand slam by allowing those with tickets to turn in their stubs after attending so that waiting fans can re-purchase them (again, at a reduced rate) to re-enter and take over seats for remaining matches. The Australian Open had a similar policy and it kept people circulating into the more prestigious seats. 4. Both Wimbledon and the Australian Open also attract swarms of people who buy grounds passes to walk around to various courts. Many of them would more than likely be willing to stand in a queue if they knew they might have a chance to move into more attractive seats - especially on the covered Center Court. When the only court that is covered remains unfilled during rain delays, there should be no excuse for empty seats, especially when there are likely to be literally thousands of people who would be ecstatic to occupy those seats - if only for a brief time. Perhaps we need an "Occupy the Olympics" Movement here!