James Lawton on the French Open: Roger Federer's genius and humility show it's only Ernests Gulbis who is talking trash
The claim the big four might profit from trash talk could not be more detached from the meaning of their achievements
Shameless, incorrigible, that's Roger Federer. Despite last week's strongly-voiced disapproval from Ernests Gulbis, which received a degree of support from the former hellraiser John McEnroe, the old Swiss master just trundles on. He keeps winning Grand Slam matches to the exasperating point of 36 consecutive quarter-final appearances.
Has no one except the 24-year-old 40th ranked Gulbis of Latvia, who has known since his toddling days that family riches would always insulate him against the worst consequences of dropping the odd vital set, the sturdy independence of mind and spirit to stand up and say that enough is quite enough?
Apparently not at Roland Garros, where Federer is now re-arranging his old bones for a joust with the thrilling, brilliantly inconsistent Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in his infuriating attempt to win his 18th major title.
Astonishingly, the patrons cheered Old Po-face to the echo when he rallied to beat their compatriot Gilles Simon in a five-setter on Sunday, which merely confirmed one of life's more tedious realities.
Didn't they know the result was written in the Paris sky and when it came in Federer would then give us another eye-glazing speech on the verities of sport and his own experience of it, how he plays on for no better reason than he knows it will be the best, most accomplished thing he will ever do?
Please, will somebody pass the ether, says the profoundly bored Gulbis.
The main problem, he says, is that so many young tennis players are hell-bent on following in the footsteps of this self-righteous paragon.
"I don't like it," said Gulbis, "when young players try to imitate him. I would like his interviews to be more like the ones in boxing. When they face each other down at the weigh-in they bring what the fans want: war, blood and emotion."
Unfortunately for the extremely-talented, sometimes amusing but rather irresolute Gulbis, this is where his argument degenerates in one long and hapless double fault. More than anything it suggests that if he has found time to keep company with the fight crowd it has not been long enough for him to note the often dismal dichotomy between how fights are waged before the cameras at a weigh-in and what actually happens when the first bell rings.
He cannot, for example, have been in Hamburg when David Haye was a figure of huge machismo right up to the moment he stepped into the ring with Wladimir Klitschko. Afterwards, having scarcely thrown a punch, Haye showed the world his painful, disabling big toe.
Nor can he have been at ringside in Las Vegas when Mike Tyson chuckled at the declaration of one of his entourage that Evander Holyfield was going to leave town in a casket.
Boxing, of course, needs no defence in the matter of often conspicuous nerve and skill but the claim that Federer, or any member of tennis's Big Four, might profit from a little trash talk could hardly be more detached from the meaning of their achievements.
Another place plainly uninhabited by Mr Gulbis was Wimbledon in the wake of possibly the greatest tennis match ever played, the 2008 final between Federer and Rafael Nadal. Then the post-match talk of the winner Nadal and the loser Federer was of the highest quality. Nadal spoke of his sense of achievement in simply being part of such a collision. Federer, who may have played the best shot ever seen, a backhand down the line which some of us believed might have broken the spirit of any other opponent, said that he too was proud to have been part of such an engagement.
There was no bile, no spite, no aberration of the spirit; all that had disappeared in the course of a superb commitment in the Wimbledon dusk.
One of the more interesting reactions to Gulbis's outburst came from Andy Murray.
The man who fought so hard to prove, to himself more than anyone, that he had not been born at the wrong time in the company of the most formidable elite his game has ever seen, gave a rivetingly honest account of his own attempts to protect his image without too much cost to the force of truth.
He said, "Whether people like you or not should be irrelevant. But to be honest I've found it difficult to open up and be a bundle of laughs in a press conference or interview. I have always tried to give honest answers but they are fairly boring so I don't have to deal with the aftermath of scandals. I will say I'm different to what a lot of people think I am like."
Gulbis dismisses such agonies, saying, "I respect Roger, Rafa, Novak [Djokovic] and Andy but for me all of them are boring players. Their interviews are boring. It's a joke. It's Federer who started the fashion. He has the superb image of a perfect Swiss gentleman."
Yes, we should blame it on Federer. The man is without conscience in his obsession to win. He just refuses to leave it alone. He gnaws away at an old bone. Take the French Open, the current stage of his outrageous ambition. He won it at his 11th attempt, six years after his first Wimbledon title and five after breaking through at the Australian and US Opens.
It was most patiently explained to him that he didn't have the game to win on the red clay of Paris. Now he is being told that he is too old to win for a second time. But of course he doesn't listen. What can you do with such a man except, with apologies to Ernests Gulbis, put him among the top few sportsmen who ever lived.
Farrell's short fuse ignites Wilkinson whispers
We know the Lions hierarchy get very cross when you mention the W word. So we just have to hope that Owen Farrell quite soon begins to suggest he is going to be more than a liability if he is called upon to replace Ireland's Jonny Sexton when the Test action begins in Australia.
No doubt Farrell is a young player of immense promise but it is equally true that a Lions tour Down Under is not a place to acquire overnight composure in a most pivotal position. His recent performances have been alarming in the lack of such quality.
So much so that you are bound to wonder all over again, especially with captain Sam Warburton and fellow forwards Gethin Jenkins and Sean O'Brien obliged to prove their fitness, why such a perfect bill of health was demanded from the man who would surely have helped fill the plane to Perth with several rows worth of reassurance.
If Jonny Wilkinson has become the great unmentionable it will not, you have to suspect, be for long.
Keep faith with Rooney – he's the best we've got
If a footballer is required to push open the doors of his last-chance saloon, where better to do it than in the one named Maracana?
Wayne Rooney may not have shot the lights out there on Sunday night, any more than his team-mates clambered out of a hole of their own digging, but here at least was evidence of a certain will. Hopefully it was an understanding that in the year since his disastrous late appearance at the European Championship in the Ukraine all the certainties of his old talent have been swept away.
He is indeed fighting for his place in the game and English football is not so strong that it can ignore a significant stirring in its still most talented player.
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