Cruel chance

A thrilling tennis final in Oz was marred by inane reporting

Poor Andy Murray. Just how unlucky is he? Having put a frustrating year of injury behind him, he starts the new tennis season afresh with a win in the Qatar Open, and is hyped to the heavens for the first Grand Slam tournament of 2008, the Australian Open. The papers fete him as the man to bring down Roger Federer in Melbourne, but he stumbles on an unseeded unknown called Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the first round and gets dumped out of the competition. Jeers all round.

Now we know just how good Tsonga can be. He beat the world number two, Rafael Nadal, in straight sets in the semi-final and rattled Novak Djokovic, the number three, in the final. He was eventually beaten, but only after an evenly matched game of extreme excitement. Yet it makes no difference for Murray - go back to archived reports of his first-round game, and they register a "hugely disappointing performance". Sporting upsets can be cruel.

The Aussie Open organisers must be stoked, as they say, with this year's competition. There has been discussion about moving the tournament to China (it has been the "Grand Slam of Asia and the Pacific" officially for the past four years), and antiquated facilities and recent hooliganism have counted against Melbourne. This, however, was the ideal sporting production, from casting to plots to conclusion. The women's final had a "Glam Slam" between two of the sport's most popular figures, Maria Sharapova and Ana Ivanovic; the men's had the surprise final between unexpected challengers.

All good news for the BBC, which had the rights to broadcast the final live. Climate change has thrown it a freebie with that one: because of Australia's increasingly hot conditions, games are being scheduled later in the day, which is more convenient for UK audiences. Djokovic-Tsonga began at 7.30pm Melbourne time, which made for a pleasant Sunday breakfast showing over here.

Which brings me to the strangest thing about the match - and it wasn't one of Tsonga's superlative smashes or Djokovic's dodgy dropshots, but something that occurred before the game even began, as the players made their way to the court. It has become de rigueur for television cameras to follow players from the changing room door to the courtside entrance. Halfway along, the pair were required to stop and answer bland questions about the match they were seconds away from playing.

Both bore this intrusion phlegmatically, humouring the interviewer with the kind of platitudes only sportsmen can deliver with a straight face. But what else could they say? "Yes, Sue, I've spotted a weakness in my opponent's approach to the net and I'm looking to exploit it"? The idea that it's not enough for a player merely to make it to the court - that he must talk about what's in his head - has tipped the balance too far from player to spectator. We know we're spoilt when it's our needs, not the players', that are catered for in the last few seconds before a final.

One commentator - desperate to enhance the "value" of this insight into the sport - told us to look at "Tsonga's impassive face". What the world was so keenly scrutinising was the expression of someone trying to keep his concentration while a cameraman scuttled backwards from him at speed. Me, I'd rather experience the drama of the players' sudden appearance on court along with the paying punters.

Emma John is the deputy editor of Observer Sport Monthly.

Hunter Davies returns next week

Emma John is a sports journalist and deputy editor of Observer Sport Monthly magazine. She writes on the arts for The Guardian and is a former Time Out theatre critic.

This article first appeared in the 04 February 2008 issue of the New Statesman, God