Archive for the ‘Columns’ Category

Movie review: Senna

As an F1 fanatic, I have been eagerly anticipating the arrival of Senna in UK cinemas. But what if you’re not an Formula 1 fan? Can an almost two hour-long documentary about a guy driving around in fast cars keep you entertained? The answer is yes.

Senna is a fast flowing tale of man who truly lived fast and died young, shot in an unorthodox way compared to the standard, dry story telling pattern most documentaries follow.

The fiercest rivalry in F1, Ayrton Senna versus Alan Prost, features prominently in "Senna"

Director Asif Kapadia said: “For me, film is a very visual medium. I’m not the sort of person who will make a film that is really dialogue heavy”. Kapadia’s cinematic views present themselves on screen with the rejection of talking head and an objective voice over.

Instead, Kapadia relied on nearly 15.000 hours of period footage and audio-only interviews with first-hand observers such as Senna’s family, his rivals and team bosses.

For almost two hours, the screen is filled with sometimes unseen, always entertaining, footage of F1 cars battling through the streets of Monaco, spectacular crashes and the ongoing clash between the flamboyant and controversial Brazilian Ayrton Senna and his archrival, the calm and cool Frenchman Alain “Le Professeur” Prost.

Kapadia said: “Everything you see is real, and I didn’t shoot a frame of it. I didn’t need to. My team and I used the actual footage to create a three act-story of the life Ayrton Senna.”

This is where Senna shows its strength. The spectacular footage, proof that action can be delivered without special effects, combined with the Brazilian’s ‘Hollywoodesque’ life story, makes this documentary the most entertaining and realistic racing movie in decades.

In the eighties and nineties both Sylvester Stallone (Driven) and Tom Cruise (Days of Thunder) tried to bring NASCAR and the Indy 500 to the masses. Both movies lacked realism with over the top special effects and cliché scripting. Also, the US-centred racing leagues drove away European visitors from the cinema.

Arguably, the last good racing films popular on both sides of the Atlantic, were made in the sixties and seventies with John Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix and Steve McQueen’s Le Mans as the two front runners.

Racing fans hail both movies for their exceptional real life racing footage in an era without hundreds of cameras catching the drivers’ every move. Unfortunately both movies suffered from the lack of story line and only race fans were hooked to the productions.

On the brink of super stardom: a young Ayrton Senna and his "JPS" Lotus 97T (1985)

However, Senna strikes the right balance between entertainment and telling an emotional life story. Senna’s life is real, the racing is real, the emotions are real, the crashes a real. And so is death; waiting around every corner on the race track.

In short, Senna is the ultimate (fairy)tale of a racing driver. The Brazilian star, loved and admired by millions and feared by his rivals, lived a life which no Hollywood script writer could come up with, without loosing his or her credibility. This makes Senna a spectacle for both F1 fanatics as well as anyone who likes to see action, drama and emotion in a movie.

Stef Meens


The world needs to LiveStrong, more than it needs a guilty Lance Armstrong

The crusaders against seven time Tour de France winner and cycling legend Lance Armstrong claim they want to pursue justice in cycling as well as in worldwide professional sport. However, there is something more important at stake: the future of the LiveStrong foundation

In a simple straightforward world in which justice would be based on looking at facts, nobody would bother accusing Lance Armstrong of using doping. With over 500 drug tests in his career, all negative, it is hard to argue he ever used performance enhancing medication. Or in other words; it can not be proven in a scientific manner.

However, there is a bit of a problem. It is called professional cycling. From the hay days of Tom Simpson, who died attempting to beat the mighty Mont Ventoux on dope, and cycling legend  Eddie Merckx, till the era of Alberto Contador; the sport has always been surrounded by rumours, conspiracy theories and indeed evidence of dope users.

After the ‘Festina  scandal’  during the mid-nineties,  we thought the peloton learned its lesson. But the new millennium proofed otherwise. Cycling aces Jan Ullrich, Iban Mayo, Alexandre Vinokourov, Roberto Heras, Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton, were all caught with the finger in the cookie jar of biscuits that make you cycle a bit faster.

Although a few of Armstrong’s former team mates were proven dopers (Heras, Landis and Hamilton), they were not racing with the Texan in the same team at the time they were caught. However, this makes it undeniable that Lance was active in a peloton in which his main rivals used or were accused of using dope. So let’s make a bold statement: Armstrong lived in a culture in which ‘go-faster pills’ were normal.

As said before, ‘The Boss’ never failed a drug test, so despite the existence of dope around Armstrong, there is no scientific evidence for cheating. However, things were and are about to get a lot uglier after dope users and former teammates Hamilton and Landis accused Lance of using EPO and blood transfusions.

Why should we believe Floyd Landis? The short answer is we should not. For years he maintained he was innocent after winning the 2006 Tour full of dope. He asked people for millions of dollars to pay for his legal proceedings before finally ‘unburdening’ his mind by confessing he used forbidden drugs. But instead of taking the blame like a man, he cowardly drew all attention to Lance. Is it the act of a desperate man, a bitter rival, or a broke man looking for some media attention to cash in on?

If there is one thing we can learn from Landis, it is that we cannot trust cyclists for the their word until they are actually proven (not) guilty. Which brings us to Tyler Hamilton, who on CBS’s 60 Minutes ‘confessed’, he saw Armstrong use EPO when they were teammates, and even more controversial, he said the Word Cycling Federation (UCI) concealed a positive test belonging to Armstrong. This claim has been denied by the governing body.

So why does Hamilton bring out these statements regarding his former team captain? Also, why is he not he accusing other riders? Does it have something to do with Hamilton’s soon to be released book or because a federal investigation concerning Armstrong’s career is going on?

Again, like with Landis, it is Hamilton’s word against that of Armstrong and why would we believe two ex team mates who where caught after they left Armstrong’s team to ride for their own success? Both have lied for years and decided, after their careers derailed, to ‘confess’ their sins, or more so, Armstrong’s.

Another twist in the tale could be former teammate and friend George Hincapie, who remained Lance’s most loyal servant throughout all seven Tour de France victories. He allegedly confessed to federal officers of using EPO as well as helping seeing Lance take it. Unlike Hamilton, Hincapie was not interviewed by CBS. However, the show claimed he made the confession. He responded saying:  “I can confirm to you that I never spoke with 60 Minutes. I have no idea where they got their information.” At the moment it is unclear if and what Hincapie revealed. Thus Armstrong remains innocent, denying all claims made by his former team mates.

What if (a dangerous question to raise in a column) he is found to be guilty? What if they do find evidence? As I said earlier, it is not completely unthinkable that the best cyclist of the past decade who beat all his rivals, many of whom were accused or punished for the use of dope, used performance enhancing medication. So would proof of cheating make Lance any less of an athlete?

I do not think so. You cannot win seven consecutive Tours de France without being the best. You can argue that a single win, like Landis or Heras, could be the direct result of their drug abuse, since they were caught immediately during the height of their success.

However, winning de toughest cycling event in the world seven times in a row means you have a lot of talent, physical and mental strength. Undeniable, dope can enhance performance but not the amount that makes you beat the 200 hundred best cyclists in the world, year in, year out. So for me, Lance’s status as one of finest cyclists and indeed athletes of all time, will not be affected if he is convicted for dope use.

Am I worried about cycling, if its biggest star  of the past decade turned out to be a cheat? Again, no. As said before, cycling was, is and will be a sport of people searching for their physical limit, and thus crossing the line.

Eddie Merckx, seen by many as the best cyclist that ever, was accused and proven guilty of using dope. Yet, his reputation as a legend remains. Also, there seems to be an awareness, over time, that the best athlete will always win, despite the use of dope. And judging by the thousands of spectators along the Tour’s stages (after the Olympic Games and the Football World Cup the best watched sporting event in the world), the legendary bike race should not need to worry about its popularity.

Would I be worried about The Boss himself? Of course not, he is a wealthy man who has the means to retreat behind safe walls to protect himself as well as his family.

Although, he probably needs to flee the country since Americans, more than any other country men, hate people cheating in sport. However, I do not really care what happens to Lance. As longs as he stays out of jail (unlike Marion Jones) he will have to bear the consequences of his actions, like any other human being.

Nevertheless, I do worry about Lance’s legacy. I am not talking about his professional cycling career, but his role as founder and role model of the LiveStrong foundation, which has raised $80.000.000 worldwide, to battle cancer.

Armstrong, like no other, took his social responsibility. Wherever he went, with or without the peloton, he visited hospitals, talked with cancer patients, parents and survivors. He tried to help, listen pray and inspire them. It is easy to lend your name to a foundation but the way Armstrong became the face of the battle against cancer, makes him a role model for other athletes and powerful people in society who have the means to change things.

Armstrong is the first to admit that the success of LiveStrong is not down to him alone, despite beating cancer and/or cycling fast through France. Livestrong was build on the many members of staff and volunteers dedicating their time for the good of the foundation. However, all of this would not have been possible if it was not for the Lance, who by beating cancer and becoming a successful athlete, became a symbol of inspiration triggering a response from society which enabled the rise and success of LiveStrong.

If Armstrong’s reputation is to be damaged, the symbolic foundation on which LiveStrong is build will be destroyed. So let us hope, not so much for cycling or Lance himself, but for the sake of  his wonderful foundation, and the millions of people it helped and inspired world wide, that the Texan remains not guilty. Because it is vital that people are aware of the message LiveStrong spreads.

Stef Meens

In the battle of the sexes, the guys outrank the girls

Steffi Graf.  Monica Seles.  Arantxa Sanchez Vicario.  Martina Hingis.  Lindsay Davenport.  Even those with only a brief, passing interest in tennis around Wimbledon time will recognise some of those great champions’ names.  But what about Jelena Jankovic?  Dinara Safina?  Caroline Wozniacki?  The same fair-weather fans could be forgiven if these recent world #1s don’t exactly ring any bells.

In a recent interview with Spanish newspaper El Pais, the aforementioned Ms Sanchez Vicario commented that women’s tennis was much better in her 1990s heyday – the decade when those first five players reached the #1 ranking – than it is now.  “There was more variety, players with different games, stronger minds, more character,” she said.  “We had eight or 10 players who always had an extreme rivalry.  And to be number one, or winning a Grand Slam or two, that just didn’t come.”

Of the current crop she is less complimentary.  “Now everything is much more open.  You can be number one without being a great champion… If you ask people, they know the names of the Williams sisters or [Kim] Clijsters and [Justine] Henin, but don’t ask them to tell you the name of the [current] number one.”

She has a point if recent match attendance figures are anything to go by.  On Twitter this week, tennis journalist and commentator Guy McCrea lamented the lack of audience at the ongoing Madrid Open for current French Open champion Francesca Schiavone.  “Not even funny. Schiavone – RG champ no less – playing before 1 man and his dog on court 3 inMadrid,” he tweeted.  His hashtag placed blame on the fact that it is a combined men’s and women’s event, with the guys getting all the attention.

What he didn’t suggest in his 140 characters, though, were any possible reasons as to why this might be.  Because the sad fact is that, next to the glory and glamour of the men’s game, the current WTA tour lacks significantly in depth, drama, consistency and celebrity.

Some, mostly “serious” tennis fans, would argue that the current flatness of women’s tennis makes for a more exciting and unpredictable season, where players can rank outside the top 20 one week and beat bigger names to claiming a title the next.  You’re never quite certain who’s going to end up in each women’s final in the same way you know Nadal, Djokovic or Federer will inevitably win everything.

But what this argument ignores is the fundamental lack of match quality and technical superiority in the women’s game compared to the men’s.  The top four or five men have been ranked so highly for so long because of their skill and consistency in winning tournaments.  In contrast, the likes of Schiavone and Vera Zvonareva, currently in the top five, have been on the circuit for years and are only now reaching Grand Slam finals not because they’re getting any better, but because there is no new talent rising up to stop them.  The fact that Kim Clijsters could quit the sport, have a child, then come back two years later to win the US Open like she was having a casual knockabout in her local park is magnificent in some ways but tragic in others.

The lack of recognisable names in the women’s game is also bad for the sport in promotional terms.  There might be yet another Nadal-Djokovic final on the cards this weekend but the crowds and the TV crews will be there regardless because they know what spectacle it promises.  But on the women’s side, when the Williams sisters and Clijsters don’t show up (and all are currently injured) most people don’t have a clue who is actually playing, so the crowds and crews stay away.  Even if Madridwas a WTA-only event, I’m willing to bet Schiavone would still only be playing in front of one other man and maybe a couple more dogs.

The WTA desperately needs two or three all-conquering new stars to outshine the men.  Venus, Serena and Kim will not be around for long, and promising bright sparks Maria Sharapova and Ana Ivanovic have quickly fizzled out and faded away.  It remains to be seen whether Caroline Wozniacki and co can become leading lights in the 2010s, but if they can’t, the girls risk being lost in the guys’ shadow for years to come.

I’ve just been watching the Madrid women’s final between Victoria Azarenka and Petra Kvitova on television.  Along with about four people in the audience.  Maybe it’s too hot or everyone’s gone to eat lunch.  Maybe it’s that ridiculous noise Azarenka insists on making.  Or, in reality, maybe they’re all waiting for the next Nadal-Djokovic showdown later this evening.

Martin McGale

World #1 Wozniacki must win when it matters

If there is any tennis player under the same amount of pressure to win a Grand Slam as Andy Murray – if not more – it is surely Caroline Wozniacki.  The 20-year-old Dane has been world #1 for six months now (bar one week in February where she dropped behind Kim Clijsters) but does she really have the game to claim one of the big prizes and justify her ranking?  The evidence, so far, is inconclusive.

Over on the “Yes she can” side of the fence, supporters point to Wozniacki’s consistency, her work ethic and her titles won so far.  Her defensive style of play is well-rounded with no obvious weaknesses, and her movement around the court is often exceptional; similar to her more experienced rival Clijsters in many ways.  

Wozniacki rarely misses a week on the tour and is more or less a dead cert for the latter stages of any tournament she attends; even when things look to be going against her she is remarkably resilient.  In 2010 she won six titles – more than anyone else – and looks very capable of beating that this year, having already won three including the prestigious BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells.

However, it is often these same elements that the “No she can’t” camp uses to play down the likelihood of Wozniacki winning a major.  A common complaint from doubters is that she is only #1 because of the sheer number of tournaments she contests, accruing more and more ranking points without winning any finals.  It’s a different approach from the likes of Serena Williams, who notoriously can sit out of the tour for weeks before swooping in to win Wimbledon.

She is also criticised for being too defensive, at times even passive, when the moment calls for her to step forward and take control of a match, as demonstrated by her loss yesterday to home favourite Julia Goerges at the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix final in Stuttgart.  The title (and sports car that comes with it) was there for the taking, but Wozniacki sat back and let world #27 Goerges take the driver’s seat, hitting just nine winners to the German’s 38.  She looked uncharacteristically tired – and perhaps, after an unmanageable number of matches and three-hour workout sessions, she was.

It seems that Caroline Wozniacki has the tools to make a real name for herself; she just needs to work out how and when to better use them.  Her good looks, sunny personality and graciousness in defeat make her a sponsor’s dream and a potential people’s favourite.  But to become a household name like Clijsters and Williams, she’ll have to plan her calendar more selectively, pace herself throughout the year and play more aggressively in crucial points.

With the Williams sisters, Clijsters and Victoria Azarenka all battling injuries, Wozniacki will go into next month’s French Open as the overwhelming favourite.  So far, it doesn’t seem to be a label she likes being stuck with, but she will have to get used to it.  Otherwise, like Jelena Jankovic and Dinara Safina before her, she could very possibly end up fading away as a former world #1 without a Grand Slam.

Martin McGale

Long live the King of Clay

Yesterday, Rafael Nadal won the Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters for the seventh year in a row – an(other) all-time record for the Spaniard.  Beating countryman David Ferrer 6-4 7-5 in the final of the Masters 1000 tournament in Monaco not only won him the title; it also extended his unbeaten run at the tournament to 37 consecutive matches, and means he has not been defeated on any clay court since 2009.  Novak Djokovic may have had the lion’s share of trophies and plaudits so far this year, but Nadal proved once again that he is the king of the red jungle.

It was by no means Rafa’s best ever performance.  The final was strewn with errors from the rackets of both men and an overall air of malaise following a tough and tiring week.  Nadal had been pushed by a resurgent Andy Murray in their Saturday semi-final, dropping a set to the Scot.  Ferrer had, on paper, had the better run to the final, having not lost a set or more than six games per match on his way.  The difference came, as always, on the crucial points.  When it came to the crunch, Nadal was able to take the big breaks and capitalise on a poor penultimate game from Ferrer to serve out the match.

It was enough to strengthen the Mallorcan’s position as favourite for the French Open once again, and further justify his place in sport’s history books.  And he’s not even turned 25 yet.

After the match, Nadal was characteristically modest.  “I’m a lucky guy to have done this by age 24,” he said.  “I don’t think about defending points from previous years, only about playing well.  I just keep trying to improve every day, train humbly and improve.”

Humility is the trait that has made Nadal undoubtedly the most popular player on tour.  Certainly British fans have taken to the Spaniard like few others in recent years.  It is perhaps not surprising that the cheers in the O2 Arena were slightly louder for Rafa than for the habitually moody and monotone Murrayduring their ATP World Tour Finals match.  And while the turf of Wimbledon still very much belongs to Roger Federer, his flat form and flashes of off-the-cuff arrogance haven’t won him any favour lately.

Nadal is much tamer away from tennis than his regimented, roaring form on court.  He still resides in Manacor, the small town on the Balearic island of Mallorca where he was born.  He has been in a relationship since his teens with Maria Francisca Perella, who avoids media attention, and his close-knit coaching team is headed by his Uncle Toni, the brother of his father and former FC Barcelona player Miguel Angel Nadal. 

By remaining so close to his roots, Rafa is able to produce his best form on the clay courts he was raised on.  Like all players, it no doubt helps that this part of the season takes place largely in or near his home country, and it would be hugely surprising if he doesn’t go on to dominate every tournament over the next two months.  Admittedly, Djokovic had to miss out on Monte Carlo due to injury, and he might have caused more problems for Nadal.  But after extending his fearsome clay court record, it looks like the world #1 is on course to take back his throne.

Martin McGale

The Hell of the North; heaven for cycling legends

“Thousands line the road in this annual rite of spring cheering their larger than life heroes. Urging, at times, even helping them victory. They ride in the tracks of bygone legends dreaming of distant fame and glory. But glory is not without a price.

These bloodied and battered warriors struggle through the rain, the cold, the mud, on roads better suited to oxen cart than bicycles. But for the victor there is glory, immortality and a place in history amongst the giants of the road.

Since 1896, the greatest bike racers on earth have come to test their very souls in this brutal and beautiful spectacle”.

CBS Sports – 1987

Paris–Roubaix is more than a one-day cycling event. Together with the Tour of Flanders, the race is considered to be one of the ‘Monuments’ or Classics of cycling.

It has been called the Hell of the Northa Sunday in Hellthe Queen of the Classics or la Pascale: the Easter race.

Famous for rough terrain and challenging weather conditions, The Hell is, like the Tour of Flanders and Gent–Wevelgem, one of the cobbled classics. Hence, since 1977, the winner of Paris–Roubaix has received a sett (cobble stone) as part of his prize after crossing the finish line at Roubaix’ legendary Velodrome

This year, on the second Sunday of April, Belgian rider Johan Vansummeren won. Despite sunshine and the absence of rain and snow, the victory was heart fought and it ran at a destructive pace.

It’s hard to describe in words the beauty of this sport and indeed Paris-Roubaix. However, Dutchman Theo de Rooij tried.

In 1985, he crashed during Paris-Roubaix whilst fighting for victory. He told CBS’ John Tresh after the race:

“It’s a bollocks, this race! You’re working like an animal, you don’t have time to piss, you wet your pants. You’re riding in mud like this, you’re slipping … it’s a pile of shit.”

When then asked if he would start the race again, De Rooij replied:

“Sure, it’s the most beautiful race in the world!”

Stef Meens

Time to play on clay

The tennis calendar has reached an important turning point this week as the season switches surface from hard courts to clay.  The game’s big names have packed up their kits and flown from the humid heat of the southern US to the milder climes of the Mediterranean.  But what’s it all about, where is it all happening and who’s going to power their way to victory on the red dirt?

The clay courts of most high profile tournaments are actually made of crushed brick that is flattened and packed together to form the surface.  The main European tournaments are played on red clay though some others, like the Family Circle Cup in Charleston, US (won last weekend by Caroline Wozniacki) use green clay.

The main difference in moving from hard courts to clay is the speed of the game.  The composition of the clay means that the ball bounces higher and slower.  This gives players more time to return shots but, on the other hand, makes it harder to hit a winner.  The result is generally a baseline game with longer rallies that favours powerful, defensive players, as opposed to quick strategists who like to use all areas of the court.

If you’re looking for a man to bet on through the clay court season, you’d be safe with Rafael Nadal.  The world #1 has not earned the nickname “King of Clay” for nothing; with a record 81 consecutive wins on the surface, he is often considered the greatest clay courter of all time.  Last year he came back from an injury-plagued, title-free hard court season to claim every clay court Masters 1000 title and his fifth French Open.  If Novak Djokovic has got the better of the Spaniard so far this year, expect that to change over the next couple of months (not least because the Serb is currently sitting on the sidelines with a dodgy knee).

Another man who has proved his clay court crediblity is Robin Soderling.  The Swede has made the previous two French Open finals and will be hoping this year is third time lucky.  Also worth watching are Nadal’s Spanish compatriots Fernando Verdasco, David Ferrer and Nicolas Almagro, all of whom were also raised on the red and often produce their best stuff on the surface.

In contrast, some top players struggle to shine on the dirt.  Roger Federer won his first and only French Open just two years ago and is more formidable on the forthcoming grass courts of northern Europe, so any significant wins from him would be a surprise.  Expect Andy Murray’s drought to drag on a bit longer as he lumbers around his least favourite surface.  And the Andy Roddicks of the tour who rely on serves and speed will find things frustrating.

Over on the ladies’ side, the sudden second retirement of clay court queen Justine Henin after her Australian Open exit has left the door open for new challengers.  Wozniacki will be confident for more wins after a decent start to the year and earning her 15th title in Charleston.  There certainly seems to be a lack of any obvious competition following Kim Clijsters’ unfortunate announcement that she will miss most, if not all, of the clay court season due to injury.  Likely contenders, however, include the in-form Victoria Azarenka, who has broken into the top 5 after following up her Sony Ericsson Open triumph with victory on the clay of the Andalucia Tennis Experience last weekend; and current French Open champion and crowd favourite Francesca Schiavione.  Don’t rule out a resurgent Serb in the shape of Jelena Jankovic or French Open champion Ana Ivanovic either.

So where can you catch some clay court action before its classy climax at Roland Garros?  Well, if you’re not lucky enough to be in France, Spain, Portugal or Italy through April and May, here are the biggest tournaments to catch on TV over the next couple of months:

ATP Tour
10-17 April: Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters (Monte-Carlo, Monaco)
18-24 April: Barcelona Open Banc Sabadell (Barcelona, Spain)
1-7 May: Mutua Madrid Open (Madrid, Spain)
8-15 May: Internazionali BNL d’Italia (Rome, Italy)

WTA Tour
16-24 April: Porsche Tennis Grand Prix (Stuttgart, Germany)
25-30 April: Barcelona Ladies Open (Barcelona, Spain)
1-7 May: Mutua Madrid Open (Madrid, Spain)
8-15 May: Internazionali BNL d’Italia (Rome, Italy)

Grand Slam:
23 May – 5 June: Roland Garros (French Open) (Paris, France)

Martin McGale

The BlogCast – Premiere

The BlogCast is Champions Chat’s newest podcast in which sports journo Paul Barnes takes the reigns to discuss all that matters in this packed week of sports.

He’s joined in the studio by Lyall Stuart and David Waddell.

Stuart comes packed with some unmissable hard hitting opinions on everything from under fire-football managers to the glorious traditions of The Masters.

David Waddell likes to keep a close eye on all sports but is particularly well versed in tennis. David is also our resident bookmaker and will be giving you the best tips for this weeks sporting action.

Sit back, relax and enjoy the BlogCast’s company for the next 45 minutes.

Scots pin hopes on Dutch Courage

Edinburgh Rugby and potential Scotland international Tim Visser speaks to Stef Meens about his club and country career.

Winger Tim Visser does what he does best: scoring tries. Pic: PA

Scotland finally scored their first try for 17 months at Murrayfield in their win over Italy in the final match of the 2011 Six Nations, but their next source of tries could come from an unlikely source.

As the Magners League Young Player of the Season for 2010, and top try scorer with 11, Tim Visser is eager to help the Scots when he becomes eligible to play for them.

The 23-year-old Dutchman, who plays on the wing for Edinburgh Rugby, says he is relishing the prospect of playing in the big international tournaments for his adopted homeland.

“The possibility is still a year away, but if I keep working hard and developing then I think I’m ready for it,” Visser said. “I feel at home here and it would be an honour to represent this country and their rugby tradition.”

While most of his team mates were playing in the Six Nations, Visser enjoyed some time off. As his allegiance lay with the Scots, “The Flying Dutchman” watched most of their matches.

“Quite a few of the Edinburgh guys are part of the Scotland team so I supported them. I also know a few lads that play for England from my time at the Newcastle Falcons but since I hope to play for Scotland next year, I cheered for the Scots.”

For Tim, watching the Six Nations has become a household tradition. “My dad played 66 times for the Dutch national team so I grew up with rugby watching him play,” he explained. “Every year we would tune in for Six Nations coverage.

“This year, I particularly enjoyed Italy versus France. The Italians have tried so long to beat one of the big teams in the Six Nations and in a tense match they finally did it. The look on their faces after their victory was priceless.

“In terms of players I would say Chris Ashton and Chris Paterson were the stars for me. The latter was outstanding especially in defence. Ashton has impressed over the last couple of seasons and keeps on scoring. He is a good role model for me in terms of getting the tries”

With England crowned as Six Nations champions, Edinburgh Rugby’s players have now returned to Murrayfield to prepare for the remainder of the season. Visser is glad the team is back together.

“It was good to have a week break. I went back to Holland to catch up with friends and family but I’m glad everybody is back now. You always get a bit disorganised when there’s time off so I’m glad we are returning to full training.”

In his teens, Visser played for Rugby Club Hilversum. His talent was spotted while representing the Dutch national team at the Amsterdam Sevens before joining the the Newcastle Falcons Academy.

When Visser made his debut in the Guinness Premiership in September 2006, he scored the winning try after replacing Jonny Wilkinson.

Despite a good start for the Falcons, Visser played on loan for Darlington Mowden Park in 2006/07 and Northampton Saints in 2007/08. In his last season at Newcastle he scored five tries in 21 appearances before making his move to Scotland

Tim joined Edinburgh Rugby as the club went through a good spell, which helped him find his way in the Magners League.

“I was a bit surprised that I started so well. I never reached my full potential in England but here at Edinburgh they believed in me and after my first try I had the confidence to go on a keep scoring, developing and putting the performance in for the team.

“So it was fantastic to become top try scorer and it was an honour to be named talent of the year.”

For most of the current season, Edinburgh have struggled to find their form. They are out of the Heineken Cup and in the league they are keeping fellow Scots Glasgow Warriors company near the bottom of the table.

However a 23-16 win against Ospreys last Saturday, including a try by Tim, proved Edinburgh have not given up this season and Visser thinks there is enough quality for them to be competitive against any opponent.

“Frankly, I think we were just playing below our par. We fail to eliminate mistakes so it’s getting harder and harder to see games off. “

However, Visser is pleased with his own development this year with five tries in the first four games of the season.

“It’s not as easy to score many point when as a team we are struggling. But in terms of positioning and tackling I feel I improved a lot. The main thing is to get back winning with the team because we have the quality to do just that.”

In a year’s time, “Dutch delight”, as he was called in Newcastle, will become eligible to play for Scotland. With Thom Evans ending his career and Scotland going through a tough period, Visser’s chances to play for Scotland are on the up.

“I spoke to Andy Robinson on a couple of occasions and he asked if I would be prepared to play for Scotland. He said that if I keep improving there is a chance for me so that is a great motivation for me to work hard and keep training.

“Also there is still a lot of competition on the Scotland wings with the likes of Sean Lamont, Simon Danielli and Nikki Walker. They are all physical and the same kind of players like me. A lot will come down to the guy that displays the best form.”

His fellow team-mates are pleased for Visser that he could play in the big international tournaments in the near future.

“We’re all friends and they took me aboard in a great way. I have to say the Scots in general are really friendly. They never gave me the idea I’m an outsider.”

His potential international debut for Scotland is still a year away, which gives him the time to learn the words to Flower of Scotland.

“My teammates asked me the lyrics not too long ago and I think I managed the first two sentences so I’ll have to work on that. But if I get the chance to play for Scotland I’ll sing Flower of Scotland to honour the tradition and to pay respect to this country”

Groundhog day for Andy Murray

After the Australian Open, I wrote that Andy Murray should be given credit for reaching the final and not criticism for losing it.  Two months on and the greatest Grand Slammer of all time, Martina Navratilova, says he needs “a change in attitude”.  Who am I to argue?

Murray has played singles in three tournaments since Melbourne, losing in the first round in all of them.  In Rotterdam he lost to then #21 Marcos Baghdatis.  At Indian Wells he was embarrassed by qualifier Donald Young, then world #143.

Last week, at the ongoing Sony Ericsson Open in Miami, he was dumped out by #118 Alex Bogomolov Jr.  In total he won twenty games and zero sets.  And with the hard court season (Murray’s favourite surface) effectively over and the top players looking to the clay (Murray’s least favourite surface) of the Monte Carlo Masters in a couple of weeks, things aren’t exactly looking up.

Of course, we’ve been here before with Murray.  Last year, in fact.  In a slightly astounding turn of events, the Scot’s trajectory in 2011 has so far been almost exactly the same as in 2010 – though, depressingly, even worse.

Last year, after losing the Aussie Open to Federer, he lost the second round in Dubai, made the quarter finals of Indian Wells before losing to Soderling, and – again – lost his first match in Miami, in that instance to Mardy Fish.  If we called that a slump then this is an all out collapse.

So, what’s the problem?  Well, if Martina is right (and she is) it’s all in his head.  “He’s got the talent but he’s got to get tougher mentally,” she says.  “He’s too quick to pass the blame, looking at his box and yelling at them as if it’s somehow their fault he missed that forehand.”

It is undeniable that, compared to the rest of the top 5, Murray is a whirlwind of emotion on court.  Federer and Soderling are machine-like with their expressionless composure; Djokovic reserves his animation for when he’s winning; and even hot headed #1 Nadal is able to keep his cool when it really counts.

But with Murray, the eye-rolling, the face-scrunching, the whinging at the umpires and sniping at the line judges – it looks like complete mental torture.  And when he starts hitting his knuckles with his racket until they bleed, physical torture too.

Murray isn’t the only one having a stinker of a year so far (though he is the most prominent).  Tomas Berdych seems to be stuck in the quarter-finals stage at the moment, and Fernando Verdasco has been off kilter since losing the San Jose final to Milos Raonic.

Interestingly, the women’s Australian Open runner-up, Li Na, has also not won a match since losing the Melbourne final.  Arguably, though, none of these players have the same pressure or expectation to succeed at the top level as Murray does.

Something’s gotta give.  The Scot has just recently announced his new full-time coach as hitting partner and best mate Dani Vallverdu.  Great, but given Murray’s exhausting history with (and without) coaches, this quick fix is surely not the answer to a run of form almost as bad as his stint on Outnumbered for Comic Relief.

To put The Slump into perspective, Murray teamed up with the dazzlingly dominant Djokovic for doubles in Miami.  They promptly lost in the first round.

Maybe he needs to sit down and hear some words of wisdom from Martina, who still believes he has it in him.  “I would have thought he would have won a Slam by now, though he still has plenty of time on his side.”  Funny, I’m sure I’ve heard that before…

Martin McGale

NOTE: I’m off for a break next weekend so the column will return in two weeks!

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