Monday, 1 September 2014

Mo Farah brings Olympic legacy to Hounslow


"What is really emotional for me is the involvement of Mo and Tania. To come back and put this much into the Hounslow community is something I am incredibly proud of. This is what Olympic legacy is about."

These were the words of former PE teacher Alan Watkinson, the man who helped runner Mo Farah grow into one of Britain’s most decorated athletes.

On August 27th, both men returned to the place the journey had started – Feltham Community College – to launch a new local sports programme called Motivate Hounslow.  This initiative aims to motivate young people in Hounslow aged between 14 and 25 to take up sport, or take their talents to the next level.

"I thank Sport England for giving us these funds so we can help kids," said the Olympic, World and European 5,000 and 10,000m champion Mo Farah at the launch.

"To be able to support young people is amazing and I want to spot the next Mo. I want to give them a chance and say look this is where I started, I was just like you at that age."

A generous cheque for £250,000 was handed over by Jon Horne, Government Relationship Manager for Sport England’s Community Sports Activation Fund.

"This is a £47.5 million project across the country and this is one of 160 projects so far that have been funded," said Jon when presenting with the cheque.

"It is not just about people doing more sport but about the impact regular sport participation can have on wider local outcomes, whether this is educational achievement, health, diversity activities – whatever this may be in the local area."

Brentford FC Community Sports Trust, The Mo Farah Foundation and Sport Impact are working together to deliver the programme, which centres around three Motivator coaches who will be working in the most deprived areas of Hounslow to get more young people active.

"The age group we are targeting (14-25 year old) is set up for a reason, and it is a challenge. But we believe we have the credentials to do it, we all have different personalities and are enthusiastic about sport," said Senior Motivator Abdoullah Kheir.

During the launch, young people from the community took part in a variety of different sports activities including basketball, football, tennis, American flag football, boxing, trampolining and sprinting.

Motivator Martin Bradshaw said the diversity of sports on offer reflected the nature of the programme, which would use as many different sports as possible to engage the target age group.

“We will start with schools and colleges, then look to go to youth clubs and talk to young people about what they want and what will make them motivated to come to our project," said fellow Motivator Kojo Sedefia.

Chair of the Mo Farah Foundation, Tania Farah, also attended the event, as did Mo’s daughter Rhianna – who enjoyed taking part in the activities on offer, especially the tennis.

"We are excited to work with Sport Impact and Brentford FC CST, who have experience at ground level working with young people," said Tania.

"By using Mo’s influence hopefully we can develop this into something across the UK. We started in Hounslow because this is where we are from and this is where our heart still lies."

Aspiring Olympian, and Great Britain 100m sprinter Clieo Stephenson, has already benefitted from the work of The Mo Farah Foundation. The sprinter is studying psychology at Brunel University while perfecting her ground speeds.

"When I joined Brunel I applied for a scholarship and the Mo Farah Foundation selected me as one of the four people they support throughout the year," said Clieo, who can run 100m in 11.7 seconds.

"They give me financial help through the course of year, help with injuries and look after me in any way they can. Physio, travel and equipment, that sort of thing."

While Clieo was tearing it up on the mini sprint track, vigorous bouncing on the trampoline took place inside the sports hall, and Brentford FC Club Captain Kevin O’Connor turned up to see the skills on the football pitch.

The Major of Hounslow, Corinna Smart, said the launch was the biggest sporting event of the summer because of Mo Farah’s motivational story and how young people respond to it.

"I am from Feltham Community College and am doing tennis, trampolining and dodge-ball. Mo used to go to this school and I have heard a lot about him. He won lots of medals at the Olympics," said 15-year old Vishal, one of the participants on the day.

If their hard work was spotted by the Motivators, the most impressive performers were awarded prizes by Mo Farah on stage.  With a handy right hook in the boxing ring, 19-year old Dominika was awarded a goody bag with a signed T-shirt from Mo.

"In addition to Sport England, I want to thank our supporters, ISIS Waterside Regeneration, Carillion Parks Management, The Heathrow Community Fund, Brentford Football Club and the London Borough of Hounslow," said Project Manager Neil Young,

"It was through the Hounslow Community, Sport and Physical Activity network – managed by the Borough Council – that this partnership was formed, so I would like to say thank you for bringing us together."

Monday, 25 August 2014

Gutsy Kerber on the prowl for first major

Sharapova (L) and Kerber are two of the WTA's toughest fighters

Two competitors who would not be beaten.

Two and a half hours of gritty and aggressive tennis you couldn’t take your eyes off for a second.  

Arguably one of the greatest battles of Wimbledon 2014 was between Angelique Kerber and Maria Sharapova in the fourth round.

It was a match that showed that at its peak, women’s tennis has everything its male equivalent has to offer.

It was also a match Angelique Kerber can draw inspiration on ahead of the final major of the season.

“That victory means a lot to me,” recalls Kerber. 

“It meant mentally I could take over a Gram Slam Champion, that I was able to focus that long and not let myself get distracted by her saving so many match points."

Seven agonising match points to be precise, it took to outmuscle Sharapova - the 2014 French Open champion who fought from the depths of her soul to stay in the game.

“It was a big mental victory, a great step. This is one of the matches you try to remember to give yourself a boost when you might be down,” Kerber tells me.  

Ahead of the US Open, the sixth seed will take every boost she can find as she comes up against a strengthening crop of female talent which includes Romanian Simona Halep and Wimbledon finalist Eugenie Bouchard.

"One of the most interesting aspects of the US Open for me will be to see whether Eugenie Bouchard can find her confidence again in a Grand Slam setting because she looks so much less of a player on the WTA tour," says tennis writer and broadcaster, Richard Evans. 

“There are a whole gang of hugely talented women players seemingly on the brink of a breakthrough.

“But for intensity, Sharapova and Kerber would be right up there as the most focused and determined competitors in women's sport, let alone tennis.”

Kerber is excited to be returning to 'the city that never sleeps' - a place where she reached her first Grand Slam semi-final in 2011.

"Everything started there for me, that’s where I started to get a significant result and see my hard work finally pay off."

"It’s the last Grand Slam of the year and the atmosphere both on site and in the city is amazing. I like the energy that New York gives you and I enjoy playing on hard court."

Another competition on the German's mind is the Fed Cup final against the Czech Republic in November. Kerber and Germany have the chance to win the tournament for the first time since 1992.

"It has been such a long time since the German team have been in a Fed Cup final, which gives even more intensity to our feelings and maybe pressure also."

"We are all really proud. It’s been an amazing experience, fighting for your country, with your friends and getting good results. It is just unbelievable."

Williams warren 

Kerber could have to draw upon her memories of that battle against Sharapova, if she comes face-to-face with another tricky customer - World Number One Serena Williams.

The players have already met this month, with Serena defeating Kerber 7-6, 6-3 to win the Stanford Classic in California. Entering the competition as favourite and with the chance of claiming three home grand slams on the bounce, the unshakable Williams has put poor performances at the French Open and Wimbledon behind her.



“She is a real complete athlete and not the World Number One for no reason,” says Kerber.

“Technically, physically and mentally, she is really, really strong. Playing against her is always a big challenge, you have to be ready and focus on yourself, trust your game and try to forget she is the one on the other side of the net.”

At her home Grand Slam, it may be easier said than done to forget the Williams presence. 

If the American legend does win another title at Flushing Meadows, she will draw level with compatriots Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert on an astonishing 18 Grand Slam titles.

“Sharapova and Agnieszka Radwanska (winner in Montreal) are well suited to playing on the hard court. I think Simona Halep will leave her mark at this tournament,” says Jason De La Pena, sport presenter and broadcaster at Fox Sports.

"But Serena's win in Cincinnati makes her very dangerous. For me she will win. She was personally wounded by abject performances in Paris and London - she'll win this slam." 

Once more Novak Djokovic and Williams go into a Grand Slam as familiar favourites, but Kerber is one of many who believe a major title could be just around the corner.

"I can always improve everything; my game, fitness, mental strength," said Kerber.

"But I believe in hard work and I will keep working hard every day to reach my personal goal, moving into the Top 5, winning a Grand Slam and then more titles."

Whether a Grand Slam is in Kerber's destiny remains unclear, but she is not a face any rival will want to see at the other side of that net.

Monday, 28 July 2014

Dawn of the super athlete


These days, the technique which enables Portuguese footballer, Cristiano Ronaldo, to take the perfect free-kick is no longer solely dissected by football pundits but also by scientists, biomechanics and engineers. Every twitch of muscle, transference of energy and body posture is analysed by sensors and computers so that we can build a greater understanding of what it takes to make the ultimate athlete.



Designed By Jordan (JHecz) Crook For the Redbox Media Team

In the 1950s, the introduction of fiberglass poles saw pole-vaulters leap to new heights.

In the 1970s, the replacement of wood in tennis rackets with a combination of fibreglass and graphite saw tennis players smash former limits.

At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, swimmers wearing a new bodysuit sent world records tumbling.

Over the last few decades, technological advancements in sport have been moving the benchmark of human limitations. Some of them, like the examples above, are easy to understand: the poles became more flexible; the rackets helped accuracy; and the suits reduced drag – so much so that they were later banned.

But while these advances may have been game changing at the time, a new era of technology has arrived that seeks to lift the lid off the secrets to our biomechanics and help push both professional and amateur athletes to their limit.

In every sport, and at every level, companies are now supplying equipment, clothing and gadgets in a bid to revolutionise the way professionals and amateurs train, compete and recuperate.

If it wasn’t for 3D technologies, Australian skeleton racer, John Farrow, may never have competed in this year’s Winter Olympics in Sochi.

In 2011, whilst training, Farrow suffered a horrific knee injury which left him with a nerve paralysis condition called foot drop. After initially relying on a rigid carbon foot-brace made with friends, Farrow’s run-off times greatly improved after his doctor designed an ankle foot orthotic (ATO) based on a 3D model of his foot and leg.

“The ATO was more dynamic and gave me a fluid movement. It was comfortable and my performance improved greatly. It also allowed me to train better in sprints and at the gym in the lead up to the Games,” says Farrow, who finished 17th at his debut Games in Sochi.

Before Sochi, Farrow also underwent 3D body scanning to ensure his clothing was perfectly moulded to his body.

Although the difference clothing makes is minor, small margins increasingly matter in elite sport. And sports brands are doing everything to persuade customers that they can give them that winning edge.

One doesn't fit all

Professor of biomechanics at Brunel University, Bill Baltzopoulos, uses 3D technology specifically to map human motion and help athletes gain that split second advantage and at the same time protect them from injury. He has welcomed many sprinters, including Jamaican Olympic champion, Usain Bolt, to his lab.

“In the field of research, these 3D models tell us what factors contribute to Bolt’s performance. What makes him unique is his build and how it enables him to exert a huge force over a short period of time and maintain it.”

“Technology has advanced so much that you can measure whatever you want, but it is how you incorporate this into the athlete’s regime that’s important,” says Baltzopoulos.

Baltzopoulos and his team combine sensor technology with 3D software to measure movement in the athletes’ body against the forces that are applied to equipment, such as a treadmill.

When it comes to improving performance, Balzopoulos believes this kind of real-time feedback is vital as it allows coaches to alter a training session mid-way through to suit their athlete’s needs.

“Customisation is the key. Everyone has a different running style – from sprinters to long-distance runners. There are different stresses applied, so to be able to provide an optimal shoe [for example] you need to understand the way these people run,” he says.

David Epstein, author of the Sports Gene, agrees. “Every individual has completely inimitable biology and psychology so, for peak performance, they would need to have unique [requirements]. When we fail to understand the kind of training people with differing muscle types need, we lose them to injury.”

“There is no cookie cutter training that works for everyone, just as medical genetics has shown that there is no single medication that works the same for everyone,” says Epstein.

In recent years, a growing consumer appetite for customisation has seen sports brands embrace technology in order to creating the perfect footwear for individuals. While it is already possible to go online or into a shop to choose the colour and design of shoes, 3D modelling and printing technology is now being used to mould and shape trainers for customers to create the definitive bespoke design.

Although professional athletes have greater access to use and trial these kinds of technologies, Susan Olivier, vice president of consumer goods and retail at Dassault Systèmes, believes 3D modeling techniques will soon be readily available to the public.

“The cost and size of 3D scanning is going down dramatically. I can imagine in three to five years that before shopping we will visit a booth that scans our feet and other body parts. Then we can take the scan to our favourite sports outlet who will be able to design equipment, clothing and footwear to our specifications,” says Olivier.



Sensing change

This thirst for real-time feedback has propelled a rise in sensor technology which Olivier Ribet, vice president of the high tech industry at Dassault Systèmes, says has dramatically improved over the last two to three years and is accelerating.

It is now common for sensors to be placed in shoes and on bikes to track statistics such as distance, incline, speed and power. One recent breakthrough has seen French equipment company Babolat release a smart tennis racket, which uses sensors to give feedback on your game, including the power of shots, variety of shots and level of spin.

“The difference that sensors of this kind make to performance will probably be around 0.1%. But these margins can still be significant over a long match or race. It won’t turn a mediocre athlete into a world class one. It is more incremental than that,” says Ross Tucker, an exercise physiologist and high performance sports consultant.

Technological developments do not always originate from the sports industry itself.

Inventions created for the military, aerospace companies and Formula One are often adapted for the sports industry. When Formula One teams invent a new material, it is often used to design safer equipment and helmets for sportsmen and women.

Although technology has helped make helmets more durable, the last couple of years has seen the media highlight the dangers of playing high impact sports such as ice hockey and American Football.

In August 2013, the National Football League, paid a $765 million settlement deal to thousands of football players who claimed the league hid the truth about head injuries, such as concussion and long-term brain damage. In the hope of minimising damage, specialised helmets with real-time sensors have been developed that track knocks to the head and send alerts to a device such as a smart phone.

Nobody can predict just how much more technology will improve performance and safety.

“Some people think one day we will swallow a pill and this pill will be in our body forever and used to track health and movement," says Rimet.

“Then there are those who say we will put a patch over or even under the skin to track changes contextually and in real time. Then there is the less extreme idea that we will wear a necklace or band which will process information very quickly and tell us exactly what pressure the body is under.”

With technological developments occurring at such a rapid rate in the sports industry, it is unclear how much more they can improve our fundamental biomechanics. From the American runner, Thomas Burke’s 100 metres in 12 seconds in 1896 to Bolt’s record breaking 9.58 seconds in 2012, who knows how many more milliseconds sprinters will shave off that time another century on.

As both professional and everyday athletes race towards perfection, technology sprints alongside helping to develop devices that could push them a little bit further.

Those chasing Bolt, or on the road to recovery like Farrow, will take every advantage they can get.

This article featured on the BBC World website. 

Monday, 7 July 2014

How Andy Murray got us talking about women


When Andy Murray and coach Ivan Lendl parted ways in March, the rumour mill churned into life.

Who could replace the man that had helped Murray become the first British male to win Wimbledon in 77 years.

The answer came in the form that many were not expecting: a woman.

Despite being a former Wimbledon champion herself, something Lendl never managed to achieve, Amelie Mauresmo's appointment raised a few eyebrows.

The reason was two-fold. Firstly, at the tender age of 34 Amelie had limited experience. Secondly, she was not the gender that many people expected to coach one of the world's finest tennis players.

In men's tennis women coaches are a rare breed. Other than Murray, there are only two men in the top 70 with female coaches.

Perhaps even stranger is that there is a noticeable lack of women coaches in the WTA with the top 20 women all coached by men.

While it would be easy to point the finger at a sexist attitude in tennis, the issue is far more complicated than that.

"It is hard for women to coach because there is a lot of travelling. Coaches have to be on the road for 20-40 weeks and for women with kids and family it is hard to be away," Israeli tennis player Shahar Pe'er told Al Jazeera at Wimbledon.

"When I was 12-14 I had a ladies coach but then she got pregnant and couldn't coach me anymore."

British Fed Cup coach and captain Judy Murray agrees that travelling and motherhood make it difficult for some women but believes there are other reasons for the lack of female guidance.

"There isn't a particular clear pathway for women to get to the top," Judy Murray said on the day her son Andy progressed to the third round.

"And there are financial considerations. Many players can only afford one person to travel with them so someone who can act as a hitting partner and coach suits men a lot better. Only the top players can afford big teams."

While the practicalities favour male coaches in the men's tournament Judy Murray rues the lack of women coaches on the WTA and says it would be good to have more women around.

Despite Judy and Andy blazing a new trail for women, there is little doubt the reigning Wimbledon champion wanted the best person for the job. That gender never was the issue.

This viewpoint is supported by another man who broke with tradition to appoint a woman.

"For me I just look if a coach can help," Mikhail Kukushin said after his first round victory over Dudi Sela at Wimbledon.

"I never look if that person is a man, woman, old or young. My wife has coached me for many years and we have good results together and that's why I continue it."

Can women do it?

There are those who question whether a woman can match up to a man.

Australian player Marinko Matosevic said he would never employ a female coach and did not think highly of the women's game, and former Wimbledon champion Virginia Wade mocked Murray's choice.

But Denis Istomin who is also coached by a woman, his mother, believes it can be an advantage.

"It is good being coached by my mother although she is not here for this Wimbledon. She watches on TV but even if she didn't see the match she still knows what I need to do!" Istomin said jokingly after his first round victory.

"It's not easy to say but women are smarter than men in some ways. Mauresmo could have some good advice and it may be a great decision. Andy was also coached by his mother so he knows how it works."

Judy Murray can find no reason why women cannot coach men.

"I've worked with girls and boys and most of my successes have been with boys, maybe because I had boys of my own. It is about dealing with who is in front of you and getting to know their personality."

After coaching Andy and Jamie Murray - who is competing in the doubles at Wimbledon - few would argue about her ability to coach boys. But what about men?

Gender bias

While travelling demands and maternal responsibilities are reasons for fewer female coaches reaching the top levels, it is unclear why former champions such as Martina Navratilova and Billie Jean-King aren't being snapped up.

Especially as there is a growing trend to bring former champions into the coaching set-up, as Roger Federer's appointment of Stefan Edberg and Novak Djokovic's recent partnership with Boris Becker has shown.

Is there still a conservative culture in tennis which would prefer the status quo?

"In tennis it is more difficult to put women in than other sports, even football," says Istomin.

"It is not easy to put a woman into a group of men because they cannot talk about some parts of their life with her. It is not that women cannot give advice to men - they can - but men feel like they cannot be the same team. I think this is the main point.

"In football the women coaches can coach women teams but in tennis it is not easy. Maybe one day when people change and everyone is closer to each other, it will be more equal."

This article featured on the Al Jazeera English website. www.aljazeera.com/sport. 

Friday, 20 June 2014

English players need to leave the country, for the country


Are there too many foreigners in the Premier League?

This is an argument we have heard for the last few years. How can our players develop when there are foreigners blocking their path at every turn. How can they learn to play with each other, when there’s always a Silva or Van Persie screaming for the ball next to them. When they are the only English player on the pitch.

Yes there are too many foreigners in the Premier League.

But there are also too few English players who dare to leave it.

Every single player in the England squad plies their trade in their home nation (this is, with only small doubt, the only nation in the World Cup where this is the case).

Maybe we need to question whether these homebodies should spread their wings and get out into the world – if our national side is to develop. To win.

England players don’t tend to play overseas, unless they are super good like Gareth Bale or super old like Beckham. They never leave home – or the comfort and fortune of the Premier League. And perhaps they are missing out on something – personal growth, knowledge of another country and their training techniques, youth system, learning a new language. But most important of all - being a little bit uncomfortable from time to time.

Travelling makes you grow, makes you stronger, opens your eyes – makes you realise that the English way is not the only way. And that you are not as good as you think you are. Gazza went to Lazio, Lineker went to Barcelona – two of our best English players dared to escape, to learn, to consider a different way.

Yes I know that the Premier League has its fair share of foreign influences now. Boy oh boy does it. It has foreign managers and coaches in abundance. But is this really the same as working in a different country, travelling out of your comfort zone and escaping the macho-anarchic institution of the Football Association.

Over this World Cup, we have seen as much criticism directed at the TV pundits than towards the players.

Quite rightly in my book, as I have been more impressed with the players. But is it any wonder that the pundits lack the insight or personality of foreigners like Thierry Henry – players that have, yes, left the country. Explored the world.

The problems for English football are complicated, but a major issue is we believe that if you played football once upon a time, you can do anything in football. You can manage, coach and commentate. The sad fact is this is not true.

Maybe if English football is to develop we must take a risk on coaches and pundits who have never kicked a darn ball in their life. Or on players who have at least escaped the clinical and outdated English system and can think outside the box.

Wayne Rooney go to PSG, Daniel Sturridge go to Milan, Joe Hart - taste the tapas – then come back and tell everyone all about it. Open your eyes to new coaching setups so you can return and refresh our tired coaching system. It will at least mean you can bounce onto the BBC couch with a few interesting tales to tell.

Immerse yourself into a different culture – so you can build the backbone of Luis Suarez. A player who has battled almost everyone in England and still managed to come out on top. A player who might not have developed into a football freak if he had never left Uruguay.

Yes there are too many foreign players in the Premier League.

But there are also too few English players who dare to leave it.

Sunday, 20 April 2014

The Marathon: Not always the final frontier

Regular folk are hot on heels of the pros when it comes to pushing limits

On Sunday 21st April 2013, Emma Caldicott and best friend Lucy watched and cheered exhausted runners around the London Marathon course.

Inspired by the occasion, Emma let the idea of competing race through her mind – despite the fact that, in her own words, ‘she couldn’t run.’

On the same day, a man born to run, Mo Farah bowed out at the half-way point – as part of his preparation for the 2014 race. Despite being advised to stick to track events, Farah, like Emma, could not resist the temptations of the London Marathon.

A year later, united as beginners, Emma and Mo were among 36,000 people competing in the 34th London Marathon.

Experts struggled to predict how Farah - the Olympic reigning champion at 5,000 and 10,000m - would deal with a 42,194m race around the streets of London.

On Sunday, it was the Kenyans who dominated with marathon world record holder Wilson Kipsang and Edna Kiplagat setting new course records under a cloudless sky. Crowd favourite Farah came home in eight position with a time of 2.08.2.

“For an athlete who is sixth fastest all time at 1500m to complete his first marathon in under 2 hours 10 minutes is quite astonishing," Alan Watkinson, the PE teacher who introduced Mo Farah to running while he was at school in West London, told me.

"With what he has achieved over the last few years there are some that will consider this a failure but it is far from it.”

Although Emma’s run did not generate the same level of coverage as Farah’s, her success was just as emphatic.

“A year ago I could only run for a few minutes on a treadmill," 25-year old Emma told Al Jazeera.

"But there were some people at work applying for the ballot and they told me to apply as nobody gets on… Well apparently people do get on.”

Running on time?

Crossing the finishing line over three hours after Mo, Emma finished the 26 mile marathon in 5 hours 11 minutes.

“I can’t put into words how amazing it was. I would recommend anyone to do it if they want a challenge – as long as you do the training,” says Emma, who has raised close to $2000 for the mental health awareness charity Mind.

There are many stories of triumph like Emma’s. But for others, crossing the finishing line does not always guarantee jubilation. Racing the clock is no longer the preserve of Mo and his fellow pros.

“I am happy I got through it but a bit disappointed I was 10 minutes behind the 4 hours 30 minutes goal,” says 31-year old Wesleigh Pancho, a keen tennis player and runner who has competed in half marathons. “I am already planning how I’ll go faster next time."

While the London Marathon is an occasion to celebrate human endurance, it can end in tragedy.

This year 42-year-old Robert Berry died after crossing the finishing line. His death - the 12th fatality in the race’s history – comes two years after Claire Squires died just a mile from the finishing line.

The risks (albeit small) are doing little to discourage runners from pushing themselves to the limit. In fact, the marathon is just a kick-off point for many.

“I’ve read ‘Born to Run’ three times and my goal will be to run an Ultra Marathon at some point. It is in our DNA to run long distances. There is a 62 mile run from London to Brighton I want to do next year,” says Wesleigh.

Having run the London marathon seven times and with a remarkable personable best of 2:33.50, Alex Gibbins has spent his running career getting the marathon distance perfect.

“I think a lot of ultra-marathon runners like the challenge of distance as opposed to the challenge of trying to run faster – in my view it’s a lot harder to run a 2.30 marathon than just jog round a 50/60/70 mile run,” says 37-year old Alex, who has represented England twice at Masters International Cross Country.

Neigh limit

With triathlons, ultra marathons, ice marathons, desert marathons in vogue, more and more normal beings are embarking on superhuman feats. Is there a danger some runners are pushing themselves too far?

“Ultra-marathons can be very damaging but some people thrive on them. The most important thing is to get a medical check-up, prepare as thoroughly as possible and to maintain a realistic intensity within your capabilities,” says Watkinson, Farah’s former mentor and close friend.

And when outrunning other humans loses its allure, there’s always the temptation to battle a horse.

The man versus horse marathon sees runners race against riders on horseback over 22 miles. It takes place annually in Wales and has been running since 1980 after a pub landlord overheard a discussion of whether a man or horse is faster across country.

“I did run the famous Man v Horse race in 2012 – I’d read about it over the years and always wanted to give it a go just for fun – it’s a very unique event,” Alex tells me.

For Emma, one marathon against humans is probably enough, but the buzz of achieving something she thought impossible a year ago, means she will not be intimidated to try another challenge.

“It is funny what your body can be resilient to – you hear these stories of people running six marathons in seven days. I don’t know how people do that.”

And for those who think they should have gone faster, longer, harder, Alan offers these words of advice. (Words Farah has probably heard once or twice before...)

“The twin imposters line from Rudyard Kipling’s ‘If’ is often quoted in reference to sport. ‘If you can meet with triumph and disaster, and treat those two impostors just the same.’”

“I would say either take great satisfaction in your efforts or prepare as thoroughly as you can for another shot at it next year.”

There will be many already planning a strategy. To defeat their ultimate rival, themselves.

To donate to Robert Berry’s Just Giving page for the National Osteoporosis Society click here:http://www.justgiving.com/Rob-Berry-uk

Friday, 28 February 2014

Afghanistan sport: Closing the Gap

Cricket leads the way as Afghan sport grows by the day 

“It was a well deserved decision but our aim is not associate membership but full ICC membership”

If any statement could capture why Afghanistan sport is flourishing, this might be it. 

Afghanistan Cricket Board CEO Noor Muhamma Murad is not about to get excited about associate membership - he wants more. 

Considering the recent accomplishments of the Afghanistan cricket team, he is well within his rights to be aiming high. 

Since the overthrow of the Taliban, sports such as cricket, football and rugby have been growing at a phenomenal rate. A nation banned from playing most sports between 1996-2001, has entered the competitive fray with a refusal to look back and a glint in the eye. 

2013 saw a number of sporting triumphs. 

In September, the nation's football team won their first major tournament with a 2-0 victory over India in the South Asian Football Federation Championship. The result put Afghanistan on the football map and positive headlines emanated from the country for many days.

At the Ballon d'Or ceremony, the Afghanistan Football Federation received the FIFA Fairplay award for its work developing grassroots football, building infrastructure and nurturing a professional league.

An international trophy boosts football’s popularity but it still lags behind cricket – the sparkling jewel in the nation’s sporting crown.

The sport became popular amongst Afghan refugees in Pakistan during Taliban rule and it was in Pakistan, not Afghanistan, where the Afghanistan Cricket Federation was born. The conservative attire and manner of the game helped convince the Taliban to accept the sport in 2000, a year before allied troops arrived. Cricket has certainly made the most of its head start.

Already part of the T20 World Cup furniture, Afghanistan made history in October 2013 by defeating Kenya to qualify for the Cricket World Cup for the first time. They will join Australia and England in Pool A at the 2015 tournament in Australia and New Zealand.

The victory sparked scenes of celebrations throughout the nation. More than 24,000 cricket fans gathered peacefully in Khost province to welcome their sporting heroes. In this video another side to Afghanistan is shown – one that is centred on unity, not war and destruction.

All levels of the sport are developing. This month saw the Under-19 team beat cricket powerhouse Australia in the ICC World Cup. After reaching the quarter-finals they were knocked out by another superpower South Africa.  Not bad for kids.

“Cricket in Afghanistan is more than a game, it is a tool for national unity and hope for youth in Afghanistan. Qualifying for the World Cup will give us a new sporting identity and we can prove we are a talented nation,” Noor Muhammad Murad told Al Jazeera English. 

While Afghanistan is a huge nation punctuated by clans and tribes, when a cricket bat or football is thrown into the mix, divisions are marked only by the team you fall on.

The CEO of the Afghanistan Rugby Federation, Asad Ziar, believes there are no limits to what sport can achieve in the country.

“Its intrinsic values such as teamwork, fairness, discipline and respect are understood all over the world and can be utilised in the advancement of solidarity and social cohesion,” Ziar told Al Jazeera English.

“There are no dangerous areas when it comes to spreading sport, in fact there is no sect or groups against the development of sports in any part of the country.”

With the ARF launching in 2011, rugby in one of the nation’s youngest sports. However, Ziar and his colleagues have already achieved an outstanding amount.

At the 2013 West Asia Rugby Sevens in Dubai, the Afghan Rugby team defeated the UAE and Lebanon. In a nation where travel is unfamiliar and difficult for many of its inhabitants, organising the trip to Dubai for his players was an impressive feat alone.

“I received hundreds of messages through cell phone, emails and social media from around the globe which really was a proud moment. We got the runner-up shield in this tournament and it was the first international victory by an Afghan team in the field of rugby,” said Ziar.

The female factor

In addition to developing the national team, and spreading the word of rugby around his nation, Ziar and the ARF have taken the bold decision of introducing rugby to girls.  

In June 2013, Ziar gathered 600 girls at a Kabul school and distributed leaflets about rugby before providing some introductory sessions.

Unsurprisingly, the cultural complications when it comes to developing women’s sport are a minefield.

“Promoting women’s rugby requires a lot more from us, since there are no private grounds for rugby yet and it is not possible that the women side should be trained in public,” says Ziar.

“We need secured and proper facilities for the development of women’s rugby. When we have these facilities we will start working on the development of a women’s team.”

It might surprise some that Afghanistan does have a women’s cricket and football team up and running. This is a huge (perhaps bigger than huge) development considering social factors and the infancy of competitive sport since Taliban rule.

Most of the players draw from the Afghan capital Kabul where there is a more liberal attitude towards women.

“We developed a women cricket development strategy in 2013. Training camps have been conducted in five provinces and we are planning to participate in the Asia Challenge Cup for the first time in our history,” said Noor Muhammad Murad.

One woman who has played a vital part in encouraging women to pick up bat and ball is Diana Barakzai. She is the cricket captain of the national team, a qualified ICC coach and the Women Cricket Development Manager of the Afghanistan Cricket Board.

“I got into cricket in 2009 because I wanted to bring Afghan women into the structure of cricket and sports,” Barakzai tells Al Jazeera English.

“The future of cricket is quite brilliant. If the resources are used properly for women’s cricket, it should have a good future.”

Another exciting development for Afghan sport is the planned introduction of cricket onto the school curriculum. If the Ministry of Education approves the new programme, the training of school teachers will begin in April 2014.

Physically strong and competitive-minded, there is no shortage of sporting talent in Afghanistan. However, the nation struggles from a lack of qualified coaches and sporting expertise. 

“The international sporting community has always helped the development of sport in Afghanistan but we are yet to witness an Afghan with graduate or postgraduate degree in the field of sport or sport development. I think for long-term development and strategies we need some professional Afghan sport development professionals,” says Rugby chief Ziar.

Considering the absence of sport from educational institutions and the turmoil of war, it is remarkable (or perhaps simply brilliant) how far Afghanistan sport has come over the last few years.

One can only hope peace and democracy blossom in a similar vein when NATO troops leave in 2015. Perhaps sport can help it to do so.

“I do not make judgments about an individual’s participation in the war, but simply hope to encourage young people to do something positive, fun and competitive, in the hope that they will avoid becoming part of the violence and avoid the temptation of drugs,” says Ziar.

“It is not just the sporting international community who should take an interest. If the international community as a whole want peace and stability in Afghanistan they must support the development of sport by any means they can.”


This article featured on the Al Jazeera English website. 
www.aljazeera.com/sport

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Are the grand slams more open than ever?


Wawrinka cracks open champers - but has he cracked open ATP Tour?

In the late 1990s Swiss sensation Martina Hingis burst onto the grand slam scene at the tender age of 16. 

Despite her age, she notched up nine grand slams in a period of ruthless dominance. When Hingis lay down the racket in 2002, it wasn’t long before Roger Federer replaced her in the affections of Swiss tennis fans.

At the start of 2014, it seems Switzerland’s run of tennis success stories may not be over.

On Sunday Stanislas Wawrinka stepped out from Federer's shadow to become a grand slam winner.

Wawrinka’s first major win lifts him to world number three and above Federer in the rankings. But his triumph over Rafael Nadal is remarkable for many other reasons.

Firstly, few saw it coming. In grand slam tennis, only the brave and foolish back a player outside the big four.

This is for very good reason. For the last ten years, Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray have dominated the four slams. Argentine Juan Martin Del Potro was the last player outside the big four to win a grand slam at the 2009 U.S. Open.

There have been 16 grand slams, and over four years, between Del Potro and Wawrinka's victories.

Another reason the win will be remembered is the way Wawrinka blasted Nadal off the court during the first set. 

It was an achievement few players have managed and showed he had the best backhand in the game.

Unfortunately for Wawrinka, his feat comes with the sidestory of Nadal's injury in the second set.

Nadal said in his post-match press conference 'It is Stan's day' - but winning against an under-par opponent is rarely ignored in sport.

"It would be sad if there is an asterisk put against Wawrinka's name as Australian Open champion because of Rafael Nadal's injury," tennis commentator and sports writer Richard Evans told Al Jazeera.

"The Swiss who is obviously benefiting from the shrewd advice of coach Magnus Norman played brilliantly in the first set and, as things turned out, that was enough to win him the match.

"Wawrinka's mind was scrambled because it is very difficult to play an injured opponent in any match, let alone your first grand slam final. He got his head together again in the fourth set and thoroughly deserved his victory after putting out defending champion Novak Djokovic in the quarter-finals."

Grinding it out on the ATP circuit for over 10 years, Wawrinka has left it late, at 28, to deliver his best.

The turning point came with the arrival of former world number two Magnus Norman to his team last year. Wawrinka went on to impress at the U.S. Open reaching the semi-finals and in under a year with his new coach has beaten Djokovic, Nadal and claimed his first grand slam. 

Wawrinka always had the ability but it seems Norman has given him the belief.

Open-ing Era?


Wawrinka's victory should also give belief to players outside the big four.

Early signs suggest they could all struggle this season. Roger Federer is not the spritely youth he once was, Andy Murray is returning from back surgery, Nadal is fighting a body prone to breakdown and Djokovic is getting to grips with new coach Boris Becker.

"Hiring Becker has surprised many, and raised a few eyebrows, especially as Djokovic was on an unbeaten streak from last year. It was his worse Australian Open performance in four years, his forehand looked erratic and he was getting riled - just like Becker did in his pomp," BBC sport reporter Simon Mundie comments.

"It seems strange for Djokovic to change a winning formula. And with Murray and Federer out of the top four - they are now going to bump into difficult players in the quarter-finals. It will not be easy for them to get back up the rankings."

These are all good signs for veterans Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, David Ferrer and Tomas Berdych who are still without major wins, and youngsters Grigor Dimitrov and Milos Raonic who are rising through the rankings.

Unpredictable times lie ahead for the men's game. And if Serena Williams doesn't return to her scintillating 2013 form, the same can be said for the WTA. Both male and women grand slams appear more open than ever.

Other than Williams, a consistent feature of the women's game has been the insignificance of age. Last season Serena became the oldest player to reach world number one at 31, and on Saturday 30-year old Li Na claimed her second grand slam victory.

"Li Na is one of the more remarkable stories in women's tennis. Having almost quit last summer the work she has done with Carlos Rodriguez since has contributed hugely to a second grand slam success", according to tennis broadcaster and former professional Nick Lester.

Defeating 24-year old Dominika Cibulkova convincingly in the final, China's popular star is now eyeing up more grand slam victories and her coach Rodriguez believes Li Na will go far at Wimbledon. 


With her victory speech revealing a fun and amiable personality, more grand slams for Li Na could be great for the women's game. The speech, which resembled a comedy stand-up at times, quickly went viral as she thanked her agent for 'making her rich' and her husband who she said 'is a very nice guy' and 'lucky to have found her.'

With two popular outsiders lifting the trophies in Melbourne - the first grand slam of the season has not disappointed.

Next up, the French Open - where Rafael Nadal is unbeatable. Or is he?


Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Transfer buzz: Women's game follows men's footsteps


Alex Scott's Arsenal no longer have it all their own way!

Mention the transfer window to a European football fan, and their mind jumps to January and the last opportunity for their club to buy players that could determine Champions League spots, relegation or more likely mid-league mediocrity.

The January transfer window blows open with such ferocity that it scarcely matters if any big signings are made. Even if high-profile moves are lacking, the rumour mill grinds its teeth to chalky stumps while fans' excitement accelerates to fever pitch until the window slams shut in everyone's faces.

However, over the last month, a more understated transfer market has been quietly ticking along quite nicely. Better than ever before, in fact. This transfer market has also seen the movement of players from Arsenal to Manchester City, Birmingham to Chelsea, England to North America - but without such fanfare.


And while none of these players call the Premier League home, they owe their growing demand to the success of the men's game. 

It has been a long time coming but the UK's big clubs are finally awakening to the potential of women's football. And the flurry of transfer activity in the Women's Super League is clear evidence of that. 


While 2013 was a landmark season for the WSL, 2014 promises to be even more significant.

The 2014 season sees the arrival of Manchester City - and a second tier of ten teams entering the fray. With the possibility of promotion and relegation, the WSL is starting to resemble a league with greater sponsorship and marketing opportunities.

The arrival of the UK's richest club is certainly a good sign. But before we talk about City, we should spare a few words for Liverpool.

The 2013 season was a landmark season because it was the first time in a decade Arsenal did not win the league. It was also the first time anyone other than Arsenal held the WSL trophy, since its inauguration in 2011.

The was not due to a slump in quality from the Arsenal players but rather the growing importance of signing talent, either from home or overseas.

"It hurt," Arsenal and England defender Alex Scott told me when the Gunners' historic failure came into the conversation.

"It was a really competitive season. Liverpool Ladies pretty much got rid of their whole team and bought a new one, and then went on to win the league."

Buying a new team seems a lazy way of achieving success - but in the competitive world of football, transfers cannot be avoided.

After releasing 10 players, Liverpool manager Matt Beard signed foreign acquisitions from the United States, New Zealand, Iceland, Sweden and Germany. This was a watershed moment for the women's game, as overseas players rarely moved to England. A nation obsessed with the men's version had always lagged behind countries like the United States, who were at the forefront of development.

"The league is getting more competitive. It's great for women's football that it is going this way and that we are getting backing and financial support from the men's team," says Scott at England's national training headquarters, St. George's Park.

"I never get bored of winning with Arsenal but at the same time it's good for women's football overall."

Competition

But Scott's Arsenal have more to worry about than Liverpool next season.

Manchester City have blasted into the WSL with all guns blazing and are spending cash in a similar vein to the way Roberto Mancini did with the men's team (albeit with a few zeros missing from the weekly wage).

Last week saw City add Arsenal's top talent Stephanie Houghton to a haul that includes three other England internationals - Jill Scott, Karen Bardsley and Toni Duggan.

Defender Houghton, who scores more than most strikers, is a massive loss for the Gunners who have also sold Kim Little to Seattle Reign in the U.S.

"I'm so glad that City came in for me because as soon as I heard their plans for the future, I knew I wanted to be part of it," the former Sunderland and Leeds player told City's website.

City used to compete in the Women's Premier League, the division below the WSL, but were approved by the FA to join the top tier of the WSL – while Doncaster Belles were demoted.

After formalising their partnership with Manchester City Football Club, the Sky Blues now have the bonus of financial backing and support from the men's team. This decision is part of an ongoing campaign to expand and strengthen City's national and global brand - which has seen them purchase a major league soccer franchise in New York and unveil plans for a $160m training facility across the road from their Etihad Stadium.

Instead of Arsenal running away with the title, there are now four teams (Bristol also finished above the Gunners in 2013) who consider themselves up for the cup. The competitive edge once missing is now there.

The English FA has been busy paving the way for this process. Chairman Greg Dyke intends to grow women's football into the second-largest participation sport in England, and last year general secretary Alex Horne pledged just under $6 million to develop the game over the next four years.

Alex Scott is one of many footballers feeling the difference.

"There is a market for women's football in this country and the men's teams are seeing the benefits of working with the ladies team and integrating the two markets alongside each other," she says.

"Clubs are becoming one. There is 'One Arsenal' and that can be a powerful club ethos and marketing tool.

"The thing that makes me happy is when I'm at games and I have young boys asking for autographs. That's the most important thing. They are the next generation and they don't think anything of going up to a woman footballer. They don't believe that only men should be playing football. They are used to seeing women as role models on TV and in the public eye and it is a normal thing for them."

If women playing football has become "normal", then there is nothing unusual about this recent transfer activity. 


WSL signings are yet to cause waves among mainstream football fans. But the fact they are happening is a sign of intent from a women's game that has been waiting in the wings for a long time.


Monday, 9 December 2013

English football in safe hands

Game on: There's grass outdoors and indoors at St. George's

Anyone still questioning the site of England's National football centre will be tested on arrival.

Located 132 miles away from the hallowed Wembley turf, Burton-on-Trent's beautiful countryside instantly calms the nerves and clears the mind. This is a place where taxi drivers strike up conversation, to the shock of muted Londoners.

For a national team under exceedingly high levels of expectation, it is easy to see why the FA opted for this 330-acre Midlands site to develop the nation's favourite sport.

Bought in 2001, it took over a decade of financial negotiations - and three World Cup failures - before the vision of St. George's Park came to fruition. The $170 million complex which now homes 24 England squads, 12 pitches - including an exact replica of Wembley down to the cut of the grass - was opened in October 2012 by Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge. (Only a few weeks before another important George was on his way).

While plenty of attention follows the men's national side through the gates of St. George's Park, there is far more to the national centre than Roy Hodgson's men.

In addition to housing all England's squads, St. George's Park has been used by over 200 community and grassroot clubs in its first year. Premier League and European sides frequently visit the Park and away from football, the England Rugby Union team, GB Hockey, British Basketball and Olympic athletes use the state of the art facilities and stay in the centre's Hilton hotel.

"Yes the idea of the site is to support the senior teams but we also cater for the game on various levels, at the grass roots and community level. In an agreement with Staffordshire council local teams play league matches at St. George's Park; adult men, senior women, under 15-teams, various local teams will play their fixtures here," Community Manager Lee Brown tells me.

Whether you are a player or coach, no level of football is ignored. 

"The question is how do we support the game in this country? How do we get better players and coaches? How do we get England winning? We are striving to do that all the time by utilising the site and what it can offer in terms of development," says Brown.

"And with the community aspect - how can we maximise what we have to support and benefit the local community. We offer football experiences so grassroots teams from all over the country can come and use the indoor 3G surface and train on areas where the professional players would come."

Facts and stats back the centre's early success, but it is perhaps only on visiting St. George's Park that you start to appreciate how important it could be to the future of English sport. After dragging myself away from my friendly taxi driver, I entered the multi-functional indoor sports hall to watch members of the England women's U17 team play with children from a local primary school.

My visit coincided with the women's Under 17 European Championship which saw all eight finalists stay at St. George's Park.

As the spirited Italians played table tennis, the Scottish chased England player Alex Scott for an autograph and the Spanish finished up their lunch in the banqueting hall, it was a rare moment to see rival teams socialising side by side.

Such a positive and inclusive atmosphere should not be taken for granted by today's rising stars - these are facilities previous generations could only dream about.     

"It really makes a good home base for us. The pitches, the hydrotherapy pool, they are such good quality and we get to use the same facilities as the senior team," England under-17 player Mollie Rouse tells me.

With over 100 caps for the senior women's England team, Alex Scott knows what it is like to train in lesser environments.

"We have everything on one site here - we don't need to travel. You can go straight from the pitch to do your recovery in the contrast pool - and then back to the hotel. It is so professional and makes you feel like a professional," said the Arsenal player, who took me on a tour of St George's facilities.

However, while the players dominate the media spotlight, St. George's Park is also a centre of coaching and medical excellence.

In November 2013, its sports medical centre - run by partners Perform, part of Spire Healthcare - became the first in England to be awarded the coveted FIFA F-Marc accreditation. St. George's Park is now one of 36 elite facilities across the world to be recognised as a FIFA Medical Centre of Excellence.

"The F Mark is so crucial. it means all the research from the medical team is pulled together and will then flow through the FA learning, so to the 22,000 licensed coaches. The more we can get information out to them the better," Phil Horton, Director of Perform, tells me.

"It's about the people. These are wonderful facilities, state of the art, unbelievable technologies, but it's about the people who operate it." 

Former Manchester United defender Gary Neville, and current United player Ryan Giggs, are both studying their FIFA Pro Licence at the facility but St. George's Park is open to coaches of all levels. 

As well as its ability to house teams and coaches, St. George's Park impressively manages to combine superb facilities with a clinical, yet not sterile, environment. There is little flashy about the centre, it is an entirely professional space - with only inspiring quotes from sporting legends breaking up the walls of white.


The emphasis is on developing English talent in the best facilities possible. With Premier League academies working hard to spot talent - St. George's Park's immediate goal is to make sure there are English coaches to develop it.

Rio 2014 is too soon to judge whether the national football centre has changed England's fortunes on the field. But early signs suggest English football is heading in the right direction.

And even if it is more World Cup gloom for England, the centre will continue to provide opportunities for teams and coaches in the community. That may not be headline grabbing news - but it's arguably more important.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

The charitable side of tennis stars

Pakistan player Qureshi was appointed a UN Goodwill ambassador

Rafael Nadal - $11,057,935
Novak Djokovic - $9,274,947
David Ferrer - $3,944,953

These are the vast sums the world’s top players have earned in 2013.

World number one Rafael Nadal has raked in more than $61 million in prize money over his 11-year career and in his current form shows no sign of having to eat baked beans any time soon.

The amounts are excessive but thankfully players are finding more and more ways to filter the money down to those that need it most.

At the ATP World Tour finals in London's O2 I have been reminded almost daily of the different foundations and causes players support.

Nadal, Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Richard Gasquet all have foundations which assist the underprivileged. However, it isn’t just the top ranked players doing their bit.

Pakistan’s number one tennis player Aisam-Ul-Haq Qureshi is using his name to spread peace to war-torn countries.

Qureshi collected a cheque for $10,000 from the ATP World Tour to support his charity, Stop War Start Tennis, on Tuesday evening at the O2 Arena.

“Tennis has taught me that sport can cross all barriers. It is above any cultural, religious or political differences,” Qureshi said on receiving the grant.

"Stop War Start Tennis focuses on people affected by wars and gives them wheelchairs for tennis and tennis equipment. It gives them a reason to smile and make their lives better in some way if possible.”

Ace initiative 

With tensions simmering over Kashmir, Qureshi cannot ignore the territorial dispute between neighbouring nations Pakistan and India.

He has spent his career trying to unite warring factions. In November 2010, Qureshi was appointed a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations and as part of the Indo-Pak Express, with Indian Rohan Bopanna, showed that co-operation between the nations was possible.

“I already have projects in Sri Lanka and Iraq under way and would like to do one in Pakistan,” Qureshi said when asked how he would spend the grant.

"It’s been an honour and privilege to be part of the ATP organisation. This grant doesn’t just signify money but boosts charities like mine and I’m sure a lot of other players are doing things to help people.”

The ATP is inundated with applications for Aces grants – an initiative set up in 2011 to support charities run by current and former players.

“We have given a total of 40 grants over the past three years to tournament players and alumni, resulting in a total of more than $400,000 since 2011,” ATP Spokesman Simon Higson told Al Jazeera English.

“These grants help to support our members’ charity efforts, as well as promoting and showcasing the great work they are doing in their local communities.”

Along with Qureshi, Spaniard Tommy Robredo - who upset Roger Federer at the U.S. Open this year - has gone above and beyond his call of duty.

“Robredo has done some amazing work through his annual wheelchair tennis event he organises in his hometown, Olot, near Barcelona," Higson said.

"His event has become one of the highest ITF events for wheelchair tennis in Spain,”

High demand

With such busy schedules - David Ferrer has played seven tournaments in seven weeks - it would be forgiveable for a tennis player just to focus on their day job. Yet many still look to help however they can.

Another player hoping to get a grant in 2014 is Brazilian Bruno Soares, who qualified with Alexander Peya for the doubles semi-finals on Friday.

“We are applying for a great friend of ours, Marcelo Ruschel, who is a photographer and worked for the Davis Cup for a very long time,” Soares told me straight after his doubles victory over Fernando Verdasco and David Marrero.

“He has a special charity in Belem Novo, Porto Alegre.It is a poor neighbourhood and he not only uses tennis to bring people together but does a great job teaching English and various other things.

“For so many years he been taking money out his own pocket and it’s very tough to do because not every year you can get sponsors. So we are trying to help him.”

Unfortunately, the high demand for ATP Aces grants means Soares will have to wait, along with many of his fellow ATP professionals, to see if his cause is allocated funds.

Perhaps, I suggest, competition for grants is almost as tough as competing for trophies?

“It’s very tough. But whoever wins one is doing a good thing. It’s a fight for a very good reason."

To find out more about the Aces initiative and what players are doing for charity visit here.

This article appeared on the Al Jazeera English website.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Leander Paes no attention to age

Paes is hunting down his first ATP World Tour title in London

Indian tennis star Leander Paes is not likely to forget his age.

Journalists just won't let him.

Paes became the oldest male grand slam winner by winning the U.S. Open doubles at 40 years of age in 2013. An impressive accolade – albeit one that now follows him wherever he treads.

Thankfully Paes is not a character to let a trifling number get in the way of success. And in part, he has 18-times grand slam winner Martina Navratilova to thank for that.

There is a charming synchronicity between Paes and Navratilova. In 2003, Paes partnered Navratilova in the doubles at the Australian Open as she became the oldest female grand slam winner at 46. Navratilova then went on to win the U.S. mixed doubles in 2006.

It only seems right that players holding the 'oldest to have...' award should have shared a court, and won, together.  

"Yes I do!" Paes told me at London’s O2 on Wednesday when asked if he got bored of the age question.

"It’s such a funny thing. Martina won a grand slam at 49, and she played until she was 50. I have got 10 years to go. I don’t know what you are talking about!"

It is this sort of attitude that keeps Paes competitive and journalists questioning their obsession with age. However, with athletes increasingly breaking through age barriers, it is no surprise certain players are becoming iconic for their enduring sports talent.

"Sport has changed. Federer is still going and Serena is dominating. She is not 19 any more but is still in great physical shape," said Paes after his doubles defeat to Fernando Verdasco and David Marrero at the ATP World Tour Finals.

"When you are 19 every point is frustrating but you learn a lot with age. You have to be better than you were today – the experience actually helps."

Fierce

Perhaps, instead of glorifying (or pestering) ageing racketeers, we should spare a thought for youngsters trying to break through.

"I don’t feel sorry for them because they are going to come and bite you and take your spot," Paes says.

"Don't ever feel sorry for them! But it’s much harder to break into the top of game than it was earlier. Competition is so fierce."

Competition could not be fiercer than at the World Tour Finals where the top eight doubles partners play the final tournament of the season.

The title has special value to Paes – being one of a few that have slipped through the net. India’s former number one has 14 doubles grand slam titles and a career grand slam, but in 14 attempts at the world tours has failed to claim the title.

"Don’t remind me," Paes jokes when I ask him about his lack of success at the competition.

"I want to win it a little bit," the four-time finalist teases. "Just a little bit – I have had such an amazing career to be in 31 grand slam finals and winning an Olympic medal in singles."

"It would be the icing on the cake…To go out there and add it to my showcase would be fun. A lot of fun."

It seems fun, along with good genes, could be the secret to his long-lasting career. Paes certainly has plenty of fun with his doubles partner Radek Stepanek out on court.

"I’ve had a great three decades of playing the game of tennis – a wonderful career. I love what I do and I’m very passionate and work very hard.

"To play for my fans, people, team is great. I have been with my coach Rick Leach 19 years, Sanjay Singh 24 years, fitness coach 23 years and my father is my doctor – I play for these people."

Tennis fans back in India couldn’t have dreamt of a better spearhead for their sport. Paes is articulate, fun and extremely professional – he knows he is playing for far more than just himself.

"I put bread and butter on the table for my children, I have an orphanage with 10,000 children in India. I look after my family and all my coaches and trainers and their family."

He may have a lot of responsibility back in India, but right now Paes’ attention is on London’s O2 court. With one win and one loss in the competition, the final round robin match is an all-or-nothing encounter.

The best thing Paes can do for his team, nation and anyone who has cracked the 40-year mark is lift another title against exhausted, younger opposition.

But if he does, there is little chance of the age question going away.

This article featured on Al Jazeera English.