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.”



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.

Monday, 28 October 2013

The transatlantic football exchange

While soccer grows in US, American footie is makings its name in London 

Walking down my road this week I spied a group of 30 beautiful women in matching blue lycra uniforms bundling into a minivan.

This was not a sight I expected to see on a West London street. It was like I'd walked into a Hollywood movie.

My mind raced. Who were these perfectly-formed ladies speaking in American accents?

I've had a while to think about it and I'm almost certain they were cheerleaders. It seems a rational explanation because on Sunday evening the Jacksonville Jaguars play the San Francisco 49ers in the International Series at Wembley Stadium.

Whether NFL cheerleaders are staying on my road is up for debate. But there is no denying that American Football has arrived in London in a big way.

Despite a busy fixture list of Premier League football – or soccer, whatever you say – most English sports fans know there is a NFL game being played on the weekend.

NFL banners flutter above Regent Street and if you walk around central London you are sure to bump into an excited 49ers or Jaguars fan.

Americans in London are hardly rare but what is interesting is that these American Football fans are not American, they are European.

Ordering-in bulk

While the NFL has been popular in Europe since the 1980s, Wembley started entertaining America's biggest and bulkiest stars in 2007. Since then a game has been held annually although this year two games are being played in the capital.

I spoke to Norwegian 49er fans Sebastian and Eric who were staying in Knightsbridge ahead of the main event.

"We've travelled to London to see the game. It's a bit cheaper and easier than the trip to San Francisco. I might have to save for that!".

Sebastian made the trip to London to join in the fun but he can also see the more serious side.

"It's good publicity for the NFL to play a game in Europe. We have two other 49er fans in our hotel from Switzerland. There are many fans from Europe around as it's cheap to get to London and a good opportunity to see a different sport in a huge venue like Wembley."

But what about English sports fans? How do they feel about NFL arriving on their doorstep?

Al Jazeera English's production crew certainly don't have any complaints. Six are taking part in a fierce NFL fantasy football league. They have even created their own table which they have pinned to the wall in the director's control room.

"There is a fanbase of more than one million in the UK and then there's the rest of Europe," says camera supervisior Craig Mellors, who is being named and shamed for his woeful display in fantasy football.

"I support the Chicago Bears and went to see them play in 2011. I have always followed the game but it's expensive to get a ticket to Wembley."

Despite tickets costing over $100, Wembley has not struggled to get bums on seats. Anything but.

The 2013 fixtures sold out in two days, nine months in advance (the Pittsburgh Steelers played the Minnesota Vikings last month). On-going popularity for the Series has seen the Jacksonville Jaguars sign a contract from 2013-2016, and in 2014 there will be three games played at Wembley for the first time.

NFL's London future is looking bright – so bright that rumours are still bubbling about a team setting up camp in the capital permanently.

While speaking to Al Jazeera English sports correspondent Lee Wellings this week, Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shahid Khan did not close the door on this possibility.

Exploratory

"I don’t think you can rule anything out or in. This is an exploratory experimental phase to see what fans want and what the league can provide," said Khan.

It is perhaps only fair American Football gets a taste of London after the rise of soccer in the United States.

"NFL is really big in the States – and now we are exporting our product to the UK. It is a good thing," American sports fan Ron Ringer tells me.

"Soccer was not a big part of the USA but now it is. Beckham was principally responsible for soccer growing and becoming popular. There are more juvenile leagues now.

"What seems to be happening is a cultural exchange between the U.S. and the United Kingdom."

Ron has put his finger on it. All forms of football are being shared - and this transatlantic football exchange shows no signs of waning.

In fact, with four American NFL owners running Premier League clubs (Fulham, Manchester United, Aston Villa and Arsenal) things are likely to get more integrated.

But is there space for another brand of football, with the Premier League so strong in the UK?

"It's not just about the sport, it is about American culture. Americans do things big and they know how to party. NFL games are just one long celebration," English Jaguars fan Sarah Knight tells me.

"It's a totally different experience to watching a soccer match at Wembley. I think we have space for both."

It could be a while before a NFL team sets up camp in the UK but signs are showing that demand for American Football has never been higher.

And if that means more cheerleaders on the streets, very few sports fans – male ones at least – will be complaining.

This piece was featured on the Al Jazeera English sports website.

Saturday, 27 July 2013

Murray: 'This one is for Lendl'

Murray's run of success has coincided with the arrival of Ivan Lendl 

Ivan Lendl lost two consecutive finals at Wimbledon.

His pupil Andy Murray did not.

For Ivan Lendl – Wimbledon was the one that got away.

The former world number one won eight majors over a 15-year playing career, but never got to caress the most beautiful tennis prize of them all.

On Sunday July 7 – let’s hope he gave it a little pat.

Because on Sunday – Murray lay some of his coach’s demons to rest by avoiding another Centre Court defeat - in a way he could never muster – to become the first man to win Wimbledon in 77 years.

Murray smashed Lendl’s pattern of two consecutive Wimbledon defeats to pieces - thrashing Novak Djokovic in hot conditions in front of thousands of doting fans.

Czech-born Lendl has clearly not let the ghost of Wimbledon haunt him out of the All Lawn Tennis Club.

His decision to take on Britain’s Andy Murray – a nation’s best hope at winning the ultimate prize - ensured Lendl and Centre Court would come face to face again. This time Lendl left Wimbledon a winner.

It was a victory that put a smile on the face of a coach who rarely smiles.

“I just think for him, obviously ideally he would have won it himself, but I think this was the next best thing for him,” Murray told the press in his post-match conference.

The press laughed, misreading the Scotsman’s intonation for jest.

“I'm saying it seriously,” said Murray.

This time Murray was being serious, deadly serious.

Perfect match

Whether it was to prove a point against the tournament or his passion for coaching Murray, Lendl was fuelled by an intense desire to conquer Wimbledon.

After Murray held the trophy aloft to British fans, he dedicated it to his coach. This was a joint victory. Not between the crowd and Murray, but between Murray and his master.

“I think he believed in me when a lot of people didn't. He stuck by me through some tough losses the last couple of years. He's been very patient with me. I'm just happy I managed to do it for him.”

Murray will rightly take the plaudits, but it seems Lendl has taught him how to win.

“Last year after the final he told me he was proud of the way I played because I went for it when I had chances. It was the first time I played a match in a Grand Slam final like that.”

“He's got my mentality slightly different going into those sort of matches.”

Murray has blossomed under Lendl – who became his coach at the start of 2012 after a string of disappointing results.

It didn’t take long for Lendl to jumpstart the Scot’s motor.

Just eight months later Murray won an Olympic gold with victory over Roger Federer, and a month after that his first grand slam at the U.S. Open. In eighteen months, Murray has reached four grand slam finals under the tutelage of his new coach.

The Scotsman's success under Lendl may be more than just a meeting of tactics, but a meeting of minds.

“You know, he doesn't smile in public too much, but when he's away from the crowds and the cameras he's a very different character,” said Murray.

An interesting comment since it sounds a lot like Murray himself.

United by failing to win their first four grand slam finals and a clear dedication to their sport - these men have a lot in common, away from the cameras funny and engaging, in front of them disinterested and bored.

Tennis has long been considered an individual sport but Murray and Lendl are making it look a lot more like a team pursuit. Would it be naff to call them the Barcelona of tennis? Yes it would.

But this team is beginning to look unstoppable, and one that Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer should be pretty fearful of. A Wimbledon champion coached by a multi-grand slam winner is a pretty potent combination.

The champagne is likely to have flowed on Sunday – and perhaps whilst taking a sup Lendl gazed at that trophy and saw his Wimbledon ghost float out the door.

Or, more likely, he felt a surge of envy run through his veins.

This is the passion that makes him a force to be reckoned with.

How wise of Murray to have made him his closest ally.

It's one man's Wimbledon

There's no mistaking the lead actor at this year's championships

This year I have been privileged to attend Wimbledon as a journalist and a sports fan.

Working for international broadcaster Al Jazeera English has given me the opportunity to come at the tournament from a different perspective to national media. While many are off chasing their home hopes, I have been hunting down players from all over the world.

Over the last two weeks I have spoken to men and women from Latvia, Bulgaria, Japan, China, America, Taiwan and Thailand about their Wimbledon experiences. They all had two things in common: firstly their love of this special tournament and secondly their love of winning. You will not find a tennis player at Wimbledon who doesn’t one day want to be world number one. They don’t exist.

It’s been great learning about the different environments players come from – from those with thousands in the bank to others who need to win matches to afford their flight back home. Most players are rightly guarded when talking to the media – but I’ve discovered they are not scared to swear or have a laugh.

But while it has been nice to cover a range of players form diverse backgrounds, as time has flown by, the presence of one man becomes harder to ignore. Impossible to ignore.

His presence hangs constantly over Wimbledon, whether he likes it or not.

It no longer does much good to approach Wimbledon from a global perspective  - not when the national story becomes the main story.  

Especially when right now hundreds of people wait patiently outside the All Lawn tennis club. People with a remote chance of entrance into the park and no chance of a ticket – people who want to sit (more likely stand) on a blade of grass to show their support, rather than watch it on TV. This doesn't often happen in the UK for an individual.

The big sports story, perhaps news story, of the day is Andy Murray playing Jerzy Janowicz in the semi-finals of Wimbledon. Turn on the TV in the UK and you will be greeted by Murray’s face or Centre Court.

Rationality cannot be used to explain why Andy Murray means so much to the British people both inside and outside Wimbledon park. He is just a very good tennis player... and yet, the park comes alive when he is in action and a sense of relief washes over it after he has won.

The calm, business-as-usual attitude Murray brings to proceedings echoes Wimbledon itself. Wimbledon and Murray share many similarities which go some way to explaining why he encapsulates the tournament.

Around Wimbledon there are people waiting to catch a glimpse of their hero on every corner – whether this is by the media area, players reception or on the practice courts. This is the man they hope will become the first male British tennis player to win Wimbledon in nearly 80 years - since Fred Perry did in 1936.

But there’s another reason why he is so much loved – and that is his normality. His celebrity hangs on the tears he shed at last year’s final – when he lost out to Roger Federer – and the fact everyone could imagine having an Andy in their lives. Someone who is motivated by a pure love of sport and really wants to win the Wimbledon title for his nation.

Because it feels like Murray will not just be winning the title for himself, his mum, his girlfriend or his coaching team, he will be winning it for everyone who has ever cheered him on from Centre Court, Murray mound or in front of their TV screens over the last five years.

Many took a while to warm to Andy Murray and some will never like him. But if you enter Wimbledon and see the way kids beam when they talk about him, you’ll realise he has become important to sport. In a way not dissimilar to David Beckham. He has become more than a sportman, but an inspiration, a guy who has captured the public’s affection without trying to be someone he’s not.

To the British, particularly the Scottish, Wimbledon is now about one man. Everyone is thinking about, everyone is talking about Murray.

There were over 600 competitors at this year’s tournament but only one could create such a level of expectation, and dread.

Once again a nation holds its breath – but win or lose he has already delivered.

Expectant fans wait for Murray moment

I met this young man and yes he was supporting Murray

Joanna Tilley live from the Wimbledon queue


77 years of hurt never stopped these tennis fans dreaming.

Just hours before Andy Murray aims to make history against Novak Djokovic in the Wimbledon final, hundreds of fans were joining the queue despite being told they were in for a five hour wait.

There is just no stopping these fans, who would go to the ends of the earth to show their support for Murray, tennis and sport.

Not all of these fans are British though, many nationalities have been swept up in Murray Mania.

I ask Joanne Lucic from New Zealand why she was sitting in the scorching sun waiting for hours to see a British tennis player.

“I’m crazy! I’ve been swept away by the hype, my friend Amy is a huge fan. It’s fun queuing with these guys, the whole day is a ball,” the 33-year old said.

“I’ve also been influenced by the media coverage on Murray. I wasn’t keen on him before but now I’m ‘Go Murray’ all the way. The media have brought out his personality a bit more – last year when he cried it was a big winner with the crowd.”

For brand Murray - those infamous tears on Centre Court cannot be underestimated. That was the moment the doubters let Murray into their hearts.

Hill heartbreak

“I was on the hill last year. It was a heartbreaking moment. Everyone was in tears and the whole place went silent. That turned a lot of people to support him and the Olympics as well. People have turned to sport a lot more,” says 28-year old Brit Rachael Evans.

The Olympics showed British people love their sport, but with numerous sporting events taking place over the summer, this love affair isn’t ending anytime soon. Particularly when British sport is on a high with recent cricket, rugby and golf success.

Tennis on the other hand is a different story.

“For 17 years I’ve been camping here in the hope of someone British winning the final.”

Not continuously,  57-year old Brit David Brown informs me.

“Wimbledon is fabulous and quintessentially British. It’s everything about Britain, the queuing, the politeness – I was talking to some Americans tennis fans earlier who said it was light years ahead of other Opens.”

Whether it's better than other tournaments is debateable, but what makes Wimbledon special is that Murray is contesting a Grand Slam on home soil. Something rare, with a Serbian, Swiss and Spaniard making up the top four.

American Andy Roddick was the last man to win his home grand slam at the U.S. Open a decade ago.

“Everybody is interested, everybody knows he is in the final even those not into sport. They all want to know about it,” says David.

“British love sport and the Olympics proved that. It raised the feeling across the country and it’s the same today. Everybody will be watching Murray and if he wins the happiness factor will be through the roof. And maybe there will be some tears of happiness this time.”

If you scour the Wimbledon queue hard enough, you will bump into a Serbian fan. And the beauty of it is they won’t be surrounded by aggressive Brits lobbing bottles at their heads.

Tennis, at its best, is very different to football at its worse. Win or lose, fans of all nationalities are going to have a good time. Goodwill defeats aggression.

“I’m not very confident to be honest, it’s intimidating the amount of support Murray has. I support Djokovic but I will be pleased for everyone if Murray wins,” says Serbian Anna Ivanovitch.

One man I passed even sported a sign saying “Keep calm and support Djokovic,” he told me he had received no death threats so far.

Other than the Andy Murray clan itself – the people taking the event most seriously are the kids. During the two weeks I've spent at Wimbledon I have been infected by their youthful enthusiasm and unquestioning support of their hero.

Today, right in front of the big screen, will be a group of little ones screaming his name until their voices run hoarse. And in amongst them perhaps there will be a future Andy Murray.

Lots of these children are right now waiting hour after hour to see him - a remarkable feat achieved without bribery or corruption from parents.

I spoke to brothers Michael and Joseph, from Murray's homeland Scotland, who had been queuing for five hours with their father.

“I don’t care how long I wait as long as I see Andy Murray,” said six-year old Michael.

Children waiting patiently in queue – perhaps this is the best way to describe the Andy Murray phenomenon.

Wheelchair tennis returns to London

 Retirement of legendary Vergeer gives opportunity to Shuker and co

Have you heard the story of Esther Vergeer?

With a 470-match winning streak she is arguably the most successful individual athlete to perform in any sport. The Dutch wheelchair player retired this year unbeaten to open up the sport to competitors who were never good enough to beat her.

One of those rivals was England’s Lucy Shuker who took part in the Wheelchair doubles tournament at Wimbledon on Friday.

She and her partner Marjolein Buis were knocked out in the semi-finals, but Shuker was happy to talk about her growing sport with Al Jazeera English.

“Esther was unbeaten the whole time I played tennis – she was a phenomenal player and athlete. The psychological aspect of never being beaten is incredible but she wanted to have a family and demands are high in our sport,” says Shuker.

Surely her rivals were celebrating when she departed?

“It’s the end of an era, the beginning of another one. There is a German world number one now and I think inside the top 10 everyone has beaten everyone. It’s very mixed at the moment with Brits, Japanese, German, Dutch. It’s quite exciting.”

The profile of wheelchair tennis was raised by the success of the London 2012 Paralympics.

“There is definitely more interest in the news and I’ve had numerous emails to my website from people asking how to get involved in wheelchair tennis. That’s fantastic, it’s hard when you don’t know where to start.”

The Dutch topped the medal table at London 2012, and their success is continuing at Wimbledon. In fact, half of the finalists hail from the Netherlands. I ask Shuker why this is.

“The government in Holland give disabled people a sports wheelchair so it enables people with disabilities to get into sport without funding it themselves. They cost around $5,000 to $6,000 and that’s a lot of money for us. In the UK there are charities to write to but it’s not a given you’ll get one.”

“Holland is a small country and they have a centralised training base. They train together so the men will hit with the women which obviously raises their game. The nation has had expertise for many years which is fantastic.”

Future expansion?

The Wimbledon tournament is very short for the wheelchair athletes with only four teams competing, and no singles. It has been taking place at the All England club for years but there’s a good reason for the short format.

“The grass court isn’t ideal for wheelchair tennis – so it’s being integrated with this grand slam with the doubles first. As chair technology improves, we should start to see a singles draw and a bigger number of entrants.”

Away from Wimbledon, Shuker and her wheelchair rivals have just as busy seasons as the able-bodied tennis players.

“We are in all the grand slams, the others have singles and doubles. We have tournaments every week of the year ranging from grand slams to super series, IGF 1,2,3 and Futures – which are aimed at beginners. I do around 20-25 tournaments a year.”

Obviously with the huge popularity of football, rugby and cricket – wheelchair tennis has a long way to go until it is a mainstream sport. In fact, all Paralympic sports face an uphill battle. But anyone lucky enough to see a wheelchair tennis match will know that it is an incredibly entertaining game. And the fitness and skill of its competitors are not to be underestimated.

“I think wheelchair tennis is fantastic to play and fantastic to watch. The more we can grow the sport around the world, the better. South Africa has a massive development programme going on and they’ve produced some fantastic players.”

“It’s good that it’s reaching countries that you wouldn’t otherwise think it would, especially ones that are deprived and a bit more poverty stricken.”

While Shuker looks forward to competing at Rio - the real test will be seen in the years inbetween. Whether the legacy left by London leads to more people taking up and watching the sport Shuker and others dedicate their lives to.

Mirza and Bopanna fly flag for India

Mirza has been receiving lots of support from people back home

“When I started playing we used to play on courts made out of cow dung, they were literally made out of sh**. I’m not joking, I don’t know why they were but they were made out of cow crap. There were no hard courts in Hyderbad,” India’s top tennis talent Sania Mirza tells Al Jazeera English.

With Hyderbad now hosting WTA tournaments - it is fair to say Indian tennis and Mirza have come a long way in the last 20 years. While seven out of the eight Wimbledon semi-finalist hail from Europe, the doubles competition is showing that Indian tennis is a force to be reckoned with.

Rohan Bopanna, Leander Paes and Mirza are all still in their respective doubles competitions, giving the UK’s large Indian population a lot to cheer.

Bopanna has still got two balls in the air after reaching the semi-finals in the men’s doubles and the quarters in the mixed.

“It feels good to be alive in both events. This is a playing surface I’ve always loved. I am happy to be in the semis and quarters. Now my target is to win these titles,” says a relaxed Bopanna with smoothie in hand.

However, there is a tennis wall of epic proportions in front of Bopanna and his partner Edouard Roger-Vasselin – doubles golden-boys - the Bryan brothers.

“If you are to win a grand slam you have to play the best pair in the world. They have been playing exceptional this year but we are high on confidence. We have got the momentum and have a really good shot at winning.”

But Bopanna, like any other doubles pairing, realises he is facing a phenomenon.

“They are the perfect partnership. They have helped doubles so much as a sport, promoting it all over the world… Doubles teams get recognised through these guys and they give fans interest.”

While Bopanna and Paes are well-known male figures in Indian tennis, the one who has achieved the most is female player Mirza.

The highest ranked Indian female to ever play, Mirza and partner Romania Horia Teciaran ran away with a straight set victory to make the mixed doubles quarter-finals.

Seeded second in the tournament, they will be hopeful of making the final, although Mirza is quick to point out seedings can be academic.

“Seedings as this tournament has shown mean nothing. People you don’t expect win. In mixed doubles they mean even less, most are playing with new people and it's about chemistry and how well you play as a team.”

Parental support

Mirza – who had to quit singles tennis last year because of the toll it took on her body – realises she is lucky to be at Wimbledon.

“As a kid you dream of playing at Wimbledon. And on Centre Court. It’s the mecca of tennis. I am lucky to be achieving my dreams.”

For a female growing up in Hyderabad – the chances of playing grand slam tennis were at best remote. So how come she made it?

“Destiny plays a role. I was lucky to have parents who believed in sport, even with me being a girl. And with my sister too. But they didn’t think I would play at the highest level of a game that is so global,” Mirza says.

“Today is better than 20 years ago when I started playing, but even today people still have certain notion of what women should do, and it is definitely not holding a racket and hitting tennis balls.

“I hope that mentality changes and I’ve played some kind of role in trying to get people to realise you can be a professional sports woman and still be married and have a good family life.”

Both Bopanna and Mirza told me they were glad to find out that their previous rounds had been broadcasted on Indian TV.

"It definitely helps that people are getting to see it. By watching, that’s the start. Hopefully in 10 – 15 years more players will be coming up," says Bopanna.

Asked about the Indian support Mirza says, “We are everywhere – England has one of largest Indian populations. On Twitter I have a pretty big following. They showed one of our matches yesterday which is pretty big. I found out after the match from Twitter messages saying they watched the match.”

“That’s really big for tennis. Especially as cricket is the biggest sport there and almost like a religion. Not that we are competing with it but it’s good to know people are interested.”

Tennis does have a long, long way to go until it reaches the dizzy heights of cricket, but with Indian players continuing to shine at Wimbledon, and being watched back home, it might be sooner rather than later that Mirza has an Indian rival on tour.

“There is only one top female tennis player which has been me. There was never any other woman really.”

“When I made it big in 2005 everyone was a little shocked – or pleasantly surprised – everyone took notice. Who was this 18 year old girl who was in the top 30 within a year. Nobody thought that was going to happen from India.”

With Mirza and Bopanna still going strong at the All England club, India’s tennis players could soon be courting more success.