Winning formula

There's something seriously wrong with tennis, writes Adrianne Blue. Anyone for F1?

Life in post-socialist Britain is a horse race, not a duel in the sun. But that is not the only reason why tennis fans are anticipating Wimbledon with less than their usual fervour. Nor is it quite why we are so stuck on the British Formula One racing car super-jockey Lewis Hamilton. This year, something is seriously wrong with tennis, and seriously right with Hamilton.

As the French Open made apparent, men's tennis has peaked too soon and the women's game, which used to be far more interesting than the men's, has become an utter bore.

In Paris, the key women's match, the quarter-final between the defending champion, Justine Henin, and Serena Williams, turned out to be such a walkover that Serena, the loser, told the press conference that she felt "violated". In the even more embarrassingly one-sided final, we saw the psychological rape of Ana Ivanovic. The newcomer, who had wiped the court with Maria Sharapova in the semi, nonetheless surprised everyone, especially the champion, by breaking her serve in the very first game. But Henin immediately broke back, and Ivanovic's confidence and forceful forehand fled. Ivanovic choked. After that it was easy for Henin to wrap up yet another French Open title.

In the men's final, one yearned for the great Wimbledon champion Roger Federer to conquer the consummate clay court specialist Rafael Nadal. Rackets were wielded like swords and the agile and astute Federer played well. But the outcome, Nadal's third French Open crown, was predictable. It was not a match to remember.

We had already had that one, the match of matches, on 20 May, a week before the Open. At the Hamburg Masters, Federer, the world number one, ended Nadal's 81-match undefeated run on clay, proving that skill, will, sheer talent and perseverance can overcome probability. That is what we watch tennis for.

Sports writers are famous for picking the wrong horse, but I was right about Team McLaren at the Monaco Grand Prix last month. The official investigation exonerated them from cheating, deciding that it was allowable team strategy to rein in Lewis Hamilton.

At this month's grand prix in Montreal, the story was completely different. "The car was sweet. I didn't make a mistake," Hamilton said after winning pole position. On race day, just as the best contenders do in life, he converted the advantages he started with - best car, best reflexes, best place in the queue - into an exhilarating victory, keeping his head while all around him were losing theirs. From now on, it will not be just British sports writers who are crowing about Hamilton.

What I could not predict was that the reigning Formula One champion, Hamilton's teammate and chief rival Fernando Alonso, could be so thoroughly psyched out so soon. No one disputes that Alonso lost his cool at Montreal. He made elementary mistakes, running off the bumpy and slippery track more than once, nearly colliding with Hamilton. Having started the race with an almost assured second and a decent chance at first, Alonso messed up so badly that he had to charge through the field just to finish seventh. Meanwhile, the victorious Hamilton, leading the championship, was "over the moon" and "off the planet".

And that's exactly what we watch motor races for - no, not to see crashes, but to sense how good it feels to press hard on the throttle of life.

Adrianne Blue is a senior lecturer in international journalism at City University and the author of many books on sport.

This article first appeared in the 18 June 2007 issue of the New Statesman, New Britain - The country Brown inherits