Words: Nemesis

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THERE WAS a moment in Tim Henman's game against Jim Courier, wrote Mike Dickson of the Mail, "when you sensed he was ready finally to face down his nemesis", and I wondered for a minute just what Mr Dickson had in mind here. "What's the problem?" I hear you say. "It means he was going to win, that's all." Maybe, but maybe not.

Sportswriters are a well-educated bunch on the whole, and tend to favour a courtly style. (Note the care with which Mr Dickson avoids the split infinitive in the sentence above, unlike Guardian leader-writers, who split them on purpose, if only to show that they're not the pedants we might have thought they were.) I refuse to insult the Mail by accusing its writers of not knowing who Nemesis is. She is, of course, the Greek goddess of vengeance, wheeled on to destroy mortals who get above themselves; the native English word for her is comeuppance. Could Henman, egged on by his squealing fans, have had a touch of what the Greeks would have called hubris?

Well, it depends on what dictionary you use. If you go for the current (1989) edition of the big Oxford, you will think in terms of Nemesis the goddess, and yes, the suggestion here is that Henman was in danger of getting too big for his boots. The Shorter Oxford (1993) adds that a nemesis can merely be "a persistent tormentor" and that this meaning originated in the States. The New Oxford (1998) says it's an implacable agent of someone's downfall, "especially when deserved".

The 1998 Chambers has as one of its definitions, "a rival or opponent who cannot be beaten", which is the obvious one in this case, and I doubted it only because sports writers' way of expressing themselves is different from other journalists. They like to describe things in epic terms, with heroes meeting in hand-to-hand combat just as they did on the plains of Troy. Courier is "a nerveless warrior", said the Times. The battle between Rusedski and Philipoussis, the Express said, was expected to be "cataclysmic"; and Jim Courier "knew too much about the ebb and flow of action at the highest level" while the scoreboard "announced a classic statement", according to the Express. Struggles are sometimes described as "titanic", not so much because the warriors involved are large, as because of that Olympian battle that the Titans fought against Zeus.

The metaphors and similes, too, have much the sort of elaboration and lateral thinking beloved by the author of the Iliad. The Times compared Rusedski's self-confidence to a bathful of water draining away after the plug's been pulled. The Times described the match between Williams and Kournikova as though it had been a battle of wits between an FBI agent and a "golden temptress" in the pay of the KGB. It's a fine tradition. Don't knock it.