x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Lifting the lid at Wimbledon

On current form, against current competition, Andy Murray will not win at SW19 any more than Ringo Starr could have kick-started a global counter-cultural revolution with Octopus's Garden. He is good, but not good enough.

Describing Andy Murray as the world's fourth-best tennis player is like describing Ringo Starr as the world's fourth-best Beatle.

It is technically true but gives no clue to the gulf in class between the top three and the back marker. (I know what you are thinking. Let me save your valuable time: Djokovic = Lennon, Nadal = McCartney, Federer = Harrison. Move on.)

Not that I am knocking either achievement. Being the fourth-greatest tennis player on earth is an incredible feat. And who would not want to have been a Beatle, any Beatle?

All I am saying is that, on current form, against current competition, Murray will not win Wimbledon any more than Starr could have kick-started a global counter-cultural revolution with Octopus's Garden. He is good, but not good enough.

Fortunately, I have a solution for this unhappy situation: biscuit-tin-lid tennis.

Judy Murray, Andy's formidable mother, has written a book to help parents encourage sportiness in their offspring.

To illustrate how a sporty childhood need not be expensive, Mrs Murray explains how she would get Andy and his brother Jamie (also a professional tennis player) playing ping-pong on the kitchen table, using biscuit tin lids as paddles and a row of food cans as the net.

To help publicise mum's book, the Murray boys dusted off their old lids for a rematch. The change in Andy's demeanour was astonishing. Put a lid in his hand and the Incredible Sulk is a different man: relaxed, carefree and totally in The Zone. He was cooking on gas. Cooking biscuits, probably.

So how hard can it be to tweak the rules at Wimbledon? Let's ban modern rackets - all they do is encourage game-killing power serves - and replace them with biscuit-tin lids.

Imagine how exciting tennis would become as lid selection strategy became as crucial to the game plan as serve or fitness.

Do you go for the large round lid from some cheap, mass-produced cookies (large hitting area but liable to flexing, with associated power loss) or the small square lid of a high-quality shortbread (greater power but smaller sweet spot, and that embossed lettering could cause unwanted spin)?

Yes, lid tennis may give a slight advantage to the British players raised in a nation obsessed by biscuits. But surely that would counterbalance the obvious disadvantages of being raised in a nation obsessed by biscuits. Namely, having very few playing partners who were not morbidly obese.

Besides, non-British players should feel free to improvise a racket from the packaging of their own national delicacy. I'd like to see Federer make accurate returns using an empty Toblerone box.

For too long, professional sport has soared beyond the reach of normal people, its players hoisted on to lonely and bewildering pedestals, sometimes with devastating consequences (See: Tiger Woods).

Lid tennis would bring the game back to the common man and cause a sporting participation boom not seen since the Great Rollerblade Rush of 1991.

And where tennis leads, other sports will follow, introducing their own reality checks to ape the grass-roots experience.

Stand by for Olympic swimming races disrupted by dive-bombing teenagers, Formula One drivers getting stuck behind slow-moving caravans, and Champions League football taking place on a park strewn with broken glass and dog dirt (and you always wondered why British teams rarely play the ball on the deck).


Villa supporters getting too big for their boots over McLeish

What a week to be an Aston Villa fan.

The managerial transfer of Alex McLeish from bitter rivals Birmingham City dominated every sports page and news bulletin.

Such media exposure must give Villa fans a taste of what it feels like to support a proper big club like Manchester United or Liverpool.

You know, the sort of big club that continues to win trophies rather than grinding one out in 1982 (the dullest European Cup final ever, by the way) then banging on about it ever since.

So you’d think they might be happy to land a cup-winning manager, albeit only the Carling Cup and a few worthless Scottish baubles.

But no, they are furious.

Thousands signed a Facebook page objecting to “Big Eck’s” appointment, while around 600 turned up to protest outside Villa Park on Wednesday night. That showed great commitment, considering how few of them probably live in Birmingham.

(For those who neither know nor care about Villa fans, which is practically everyone, they tend to come from sleepy market towns in Wales or the English Midlands, often combining their biannual trips to Villa Park with a chance to see the big city – escalators, multi-storey car parks, ethnic diversity, etc.)

One angry fan even scrawled “Bluenose Scum Not Welcome” on Villa’s Bodymoor Heath training ground, which was rather crass. You would not catch me engaging in such bilious invective.

The beautiful irony of this situation – and one which may give some succour to Blues fans like me (had you guessed?) – is that Villa fans have only themselves to blame.

Randy Lerner, the owner, wanted Steve McClaren, a man with a proven track record in English, Dutch and European football, and McClaren was up for the job, but the fans decided the club was too big for him.

So Lerner backed down and had to root in desperation through Birmingham’s backyard for something salvageable.

Because that is exactly what big clubs do, right?