Why it’s all over for the big three of tennis

There’s many things I love about the pithy and insightful Mark Petchey as a tennis commentator and no doubt it says more about me than it does about him that I get irritated with him for referring to ‘The big four’ rather than ‘The big three’. He includes Andy Murray in that list of modern titans of tennis which as a former coach of Murray’s you might expect him to do. But with just three grand slam titles to Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal’s twenty and Novak Djokovic’s eighteen, as of April 2021, Murray does not deserve to be placed in such elevated company. The three of them have dominated the sport for more than fifteen years, defying the wisdom that they would in their early 30s give way to the next generation. But I believe that 2021 is the year that their dominance will come to an end and – big prediction – that Djokovic’s win at the Australian Open is the last grand slam that any of them will win.

Given Djokovic’s overwhelming dominance at the Australian Open, you might think that he looks likely to add to his tally. And in the autumn of 2020 Nadal did not lose a set on his way to winning his 13th French Open, and will be favourite to win the event again when it is played, probably in early June. But at the ATP Tour Finals in London in November 2020, both Nadal and Djokovic were beaten by Dominic Thiem and Daniil Medvedev. At the Monte Carlo Open in April 2021, Djokovic was beaten by Dan Evans who was number 33 in the world at the time, while Nadal lost to Andrei Rublev. Federer meanwhile has been out injured for most of 2020 and in the two matches he’s played in 2021, he struggled to beat Dan Evans and then lost his second match against Nikolos Basilashvili . So, there is definitely a sense of fragility among the big three. But I think that it’s the strength of the chasing pack that will be the telling factor.

The first four on the hunt for the big trophies are Thiem, Medvedev, Tsitsipas and Rublev. Immediately behind them is Alexander Zverev who can be a big threat if he cuts out his double faults and mental fragility at crunch moments.

Following hot on their heels is the toughest top 100 the game has ever seen, made up of consistently hard-to-beat performers like Robert Bautista Agut, Diego Schwartzman and Kei Nishikori; tough and grizzled veterans like Stan Wawrinka and Marin Cilic; exceptional young talents such as Jannik Sinner, Lorenzo Musetti, Denis Shapovalov, Casper Ruud and Felix Auger-Alliasime; one-off mavericks like Dan Evans, Fabio Fognini, Alexander Bublik, Benoit Paire, Nick Kyrgios and Gael Monfils; awkward power-servers like Milos Raonic, Reilly Opelka and John Isner; and surprise packages like the fastest rising star of 2021 so far, Aslan Karatsev.

For any of the big three to win another grand slam, they’ll have to play at least two extremely tough matches against these contenders, and probably more. And in a best of five set tournament the physical endurance of these ageing warriors is no longer a given. Of course Nadal will be hard to beat at Roland Garros, but his reign has to end at some point, and I predict it will be this year. Djokovic as a true all-court player could triumph at Wimbledon but faces a stern test on both the clay and the hard courts. I could be wrong, but I don’t think that Federer is going to be competitive again.

So my predictions for the next four grand slams:

French Open 2021 – Stefanos Tsitsipas

Wimbledon 2021 – Stefanos Tsitsipas

US Open 2021 – Daniil Medvedev

Australian Open 2022 – Jannik Sinner

Leaving the sewer that is Twitter

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey

Social media companies won’t tolerate hate speech, they say, yet they publish it every day. And I use that word ‘publish’ deliberately. They do publish it. They don’t just ‘host’ that content, or enable third parties to add their own content. They’re responsible for that content in the same way that the New York Times or Die Welt is responsible for its own stories. And that’s a problem. Because social media companies let racists and pornographers and misogynists add content on their platforms that they say they don’t tolerate. But if you publish it, you do tolerate it. And that makes social media companies racists and pornographers and misogynists too. Yet they’re excused by legislators and traditional media because the other option is now unthinkable. They have become too big to fail, too big to be brought to account.

Is this the principled reason that I left Twitter, now some months ago? Well, yes and no. The reasons are based both in principle and in self-interest and mental self-preservation. I realised that Twitter is a particularly suffocating and unhealthy form of digital experience in a number of different ways. Like all social media, it’s bad not only for individual mental health, but, as ‘an aggregator of venom’, as one critic put it, it has had a pernicious and ruinous effect on us all. The most visible effect of this has been the presidency of that tinpot reality TV dictator and pussy-grabber-in-chief, Trump, who used Twitter as his mouthpiece to frame his own narcissistic version of reality. Twitter only pulled the plug on him in the last week of his presidency. But that belies the fact that Twitter was Trump’s most important means of getting his divisive voice heard in an uncritical way. Of course people post critical replies, but Trump chose the message he wanted to put out and he could broadcast it whenever he wanted. Twitter let him do that.

Twitter with its cute bird logo and cutesy name and pseudo-hipster entrepreneur CEO is actually a sham for an old media trick: divisiveness sells, antagonism sells, hatred sells. Sure, there are some good things about it as platform. As Owen Jones wrote: ‘Twitter is simultaneously many things: a means of elevating otherwise ignored voices, a platform for facilitating debate, a portal to access a bewildering array of information – and a cesspit of hatred.’ Twitter’s business model is built on friction and disagreement. It aims to polarise and fails to offer an opportunity for resolution. As John Poederetz put it in his article ‘Why I quit Twitter and you should too’: ‘It ­rewards bad rhetorical behavior, it privileges outrage of any sort over reason of all sorts, and it encourages us to misunderstand each other. It’s the devil on our shoulder.’

CEO of Twitter Jack Dorsey couldn’t be more out of his depth with his Frankenstein’s Monster. And just like Frankenstein, I don’t think he had any idea of what he was giving birth to. Twitter began as a simple way of letting people know your status in realtime. That word ‘status’ has a dual meaning, of course: it can mean what you’re doing at any given point, and your social standing. These two things are interlinked: by telling people what you’re doing you’re also relating an implicit narrative about your social status. Yet the widespread understanding of what Twitter’s true purpose was revolved around the first of these definitions when it first started out. Dorsey’s first tweet, remember, was ‘just setting up my twttr’. And there was lots of media commentary which now seems obtuse, but which was at the time I think written in reasonably good faith, about ‘not wanting to let everyone know what I’m doing at any given point in the day.’ If you look at 2007 screenshots of Twitter, such as those of tweets posted by Twitter co-founder Biz Stone, they fall firmly into this category. ‘Livy is making me watch the Giants game’, ‘Getting a Centro salad to go.’ etc. In an interview with the LA Times in 2009 Dorsey talked about the origins of the name Twitter: ‘We came across the word twitter, and it was just perfect. The definition was “a short burst of inconsequential information,” and “chirps from birds”. And that’s exactly what the product was.’

Everything points to the fact that Dorsey had no idea that Twitter would turn into a platform that people would use to develop complex personal narratives, advance political and celebrity careers, argue over intellectual and aesthetic points, and publish pornography and hate speech. I mean, ‘just setting up my twttr’ reeks more than anything of naivety – he sounds like an entrepreneur technologist with little or no ethical, philosophical or humanitarian sense, like a large number of people who work in Silicon Valley and other digital startups around the world. And subsequent events seem to have proven this. Of course, as anyone who has worked in the digital industry knows, products are iterative: they evolve quickly. Twitter is different now to when it started. It will continue to change. Yet it still has not yet addressed the hatred at its heart. My contention is that it cannot, because it realises that violent disagreement and outrage is an essential cog of its machine. The only way to undermine the power of social media platforms like Twitter is for people to vote with their feet and stop using them. There have been various short-term boycotts but until enough people boycott it not just for 24 or 48 hours, but for good, the blithely positive, entrepreneurial faux-naivety of the Dorseys and Zuckerbergs of this world will mean that the power and the hatred will continue to grow.

VE Day: Excitement and relief, but people were anxious, the country was broke and the war in Japan continued

This article appeared in the iPaper on the 75th anniversary of VE Day

By Kevin Telfer

Some politicians have suggested that we are at war with coronavirus. It is a ridiculous analogy in many ways, but there is a strange sense in which the build up to the end of lockdown does in some respects resemble the wait for VE Day in May 1945. There is the same constant focus on government announcements, for instance, and grumbling about regulations, and their enforcement, that are seen as bureaucratic, or mistaken, or mistimed, or all of these things. There is also the same sense that when the lockdown is lifted, just as when the war was over, there will be a price to pay that cannot yet be counted.

Churchill summed this up when he wrote about his feelings as he travelled through central London in an open-top car on 8 May, 1945. ‘Apprehension for the future and many perplexities filled my mind as I moved beyond the cheering Londoners in their hour of well-won rejoicing.’ It was only at 3pm that day that he formally announced to the public on the radio that the war in Europe was over.

A national obsession was publicly renewed on the morning of 8 May: the weather forecast could be printed in newspapers and broadcast to the nation for the first time since the war began – it had been classified as sensitive information since 1939. There had been thunderstorms overnight in many parts of the country and the day was warm and humid – hitting 78°F in London. The weather meant that the streets of many towns and cities across the country were filled with people celebrating in one form or another.

The churches were full of worshippers who came to give thanks, remember loved ones they’d lost, sing hymns and pray. Some churches ran hourly services from morning until late into the night.

And although the day was dominated across the country by flag-waving, drinking, bonfires, fireworks and singalongs, Churchill’s own apprehension was felt, even on VE Day itself, by many others.

The end of the war also brought all kinds of uncertainties with it. Conflict had been a constant companion in people’s lives for six years. Now people looked around and saw poverty and rationing, towns and cities ravaged by bombs, and an uncertain economic future. People waited for loved ones to return with a mixture of hope and trepidation. In victory, with its promise of freedom and peace, it was indeed the best of times, but for many fear and anxiety made it feel like the worst of times had not quite ended yet.

More rationing was introduced in May with less cooking fat and less bacon. There was less meat available in 1945 than there had been in 1944. Edmund Wilson, an American writer living in London was surprised to find a shop in Holborn with ‘rows and rows of dead crows’ in it. He assumed that they were for people to eat. He wrote that ‘Where our efforts have gone towards destruction, we have been able to build nothing at home to fall back on amidst our ruin.’

There was a widespread desire to build a better country out of these ruins – a country with universal healthcare, a national insurance scheme to protect vulnerable people, and adequate housing. There was some bitterness from servicemen about ‘the fruits of victory’ – or lack thereof. Britain was broke and broken, tatty and weary, and thousands of those who would be demobilised, or ‘demobbed’, in the coming months would have to find new careers and start from scratch.

But on VE Day itself, most of those servicemen across the world could not even fully rejoice that the war was over. In Europe, the fighting may have ended but conditions were still tough. Private Sid Verrier from Stoke Newington sent a letter home to his parents to describe VE Day in Germany. ‘Believe me, folks,’ he wrote, ‘I’ve never felt so fed up since I joined the army. No beer here, no decent grub worthy of such an occasion, no mail, no fraternisation with civvies, absolutely nothing.’ He spent his evening chatting with an ex-German soldier who was now the interpreter for his unit.

It was even worse for many servicemen in the far east. In Burma, Captain I A Wallace of the 115th Army Field Regiment, Royal Artillery, spent VE Day engaged in tough fighting with Japanese soldiers in the dense rainforest. Near the end of the day he described his platoon commander breaking down in tears after a corporal had been killed in action. ‘The tears poured down his cheeks and he sobbed bitterly. That was how we spent VE Day.’

Just over a month after VE Day George Orwell wrote the first pages of his new novel – Nineteen Eighty-Four. It captured a general mood of pessismism. People had seen and experienced terrible things that they could not easily forget, and the war had given them what might have felt like an enduring insight into human nature. Further events of that summer, such as the bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, only seemed to cement the central vision of Orwell’s novel: ‘If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.’


The Summer of ’45: Stories and Voices from VE Day to VJ Day by Kevin Telfer


The Labour case for conservatism (thoughts on the 2019 election)

The Conservatives are not conservative. In fact, it is one of their greatest tricks to convince the electorate that they are. Because one of the most well-known truisms about the British electorate is that we are innately conservative, with a small ‘c’. We are collectively resistant to change; suspicious of radicalism; mistrustful of ideology; and scared of revolutions. The Conservative Party learned this essential lesson long ago, which is why it has always tried to portray itself as the party of law and order; of strength and stability; and of unwavering belief in those institutions that uphold what they see as the decent British character: the monarchy, The Bank of England, the military, the Institute of Directors, etc.

Yet all the while the Conservatives have been much more radical than this portrayal might suggest. Radically destructive. Their project, in essence, is to usurp the 100 years of progress that have seen workers get more rights, consumers get more protection, and the vulnerable get more care. This is a combination of ‘red tape’ and ‘sponging’ as they see it. And they want to return to Victorian times; both in terms of hypocritical, anachronistic morality and a deregulated state that allows for capitalism to be unfettered by responsibilities. All accompanied by a prototypical Victorian foreign policy of ‘splendid isolation’. These things, of course, are all intertwined. And the Conservatives have shown themselves to be highly pragmatic when it comes to respect for those institutions that they claim to espouse, as shown by the reaction to the verdict on proroguing parliament. They will respect state institutions so long as those institutions support their ideological project.

Continue reading “The Labour case for conservatism (thoughts on the 2019 election)”

The impossibility of filming Catch 22

STARLIFESTYLE ONLY Catch 22 — Episode 1 – Young American flyers arrive in war and discover that the bureaucracy is more deadly than the enemy. Yossarian (Christopher Abbott), shown. (Photo by: Philippe Antonello/Hulu)

I’ve been watching George Clooney’s TV adaptation of Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 and it did that great thing of making me want to read the book all over again, which I have not done for a long, long time. Too long, as it turns out, because it is indeed a unique piece of writing that seemed so much fresher and full of energy than I remembered it.

The Clooney adaptation is very different to the 1970 film but I think that both show the impossibility of capturing the wild, contradictory spirit of the book.

Catch 22 is a novel that has contradictions at its heart. The main one being that in the novel, set in the later years of the Second World War, as a member of a bomber crew you could be grounded and not have to fly any more missions if you were insane. But before you could be grounded you would have to ask to be grounded. And if you asked to be grounded it proved that you were actually in full possession of your faculties, and so could not be grounded.

‘That’s some catch, that catch 22,’ says Yossarian after Doc Daneeka explains it to him.

‘It’s the best there is,’ says Doc Daneeka.

Continue reading “The impossibility of filming Catch 22”

The genius of Rhasan Roland Kirk

This year has for me been the year of the saxophone – from rediscovering the music of Coleman Hawkins and John Coltrane, and going to see Pharaoh Sanders at Ronnie Scott’s in Soho in July and Too Many Zooz at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire in March, to getting to know Austrian saxophonist Guido Spannocchi, who regularly plays at the Bloomsbury Hotel basement bar just off New Oxford Street. But the crowning glory of the year for me has been finding out about the unique, multi-instrumental  talent of Rhasan Roland Kirk. And I’ve had to ask myself: how has it taken me so long to begin listening to this giant of 20th century music?

I should have arrived at this stage earlier. I came to Rhasan Roland Kirk via Jimi Hendrix. I knew that Jimi Hendrix was a big fan of Kirk’s – it is a well-documented fact that Hendrix had the Kirk album Rip, Rag and Panic in his luggage when he arrived in London from America in 1966. But for some reason I had never checked out his music. I wondered after I had listened to him if this was because Kirk, in a genre of individualists, was such an arch-individualist that he didn’t logically fall into any of the standard family trees of jazz – he was way out there doing his own thing.

Continue reading “The genius of Rhasan Roland Kirk”