To be fair, I have never been in the sort of physical condition that you need to be in to contest a Grand Slam tennis final. Few on this planet would be able to claim they were. The endurance and effort put into just one set, let alone a potential five, is enough to make even the most hardened sportsman wince. In Andre Agassi’s quite brilliant autobiography ‘Open’ he describes how, after competing, it would take him the best part of an hour to stand upright after a night’s sleep. Yes, an hour, from lying down to standing up.
How a body reacts to severe physical exertion is down to that individual, at that particular time. Our mindset surely governs how we register pain. I’m no scientist but I should think there are all sorts of reactions to be seen. What Novak Djokovic went through in the men’s Australian Open final was unusual and although I am certain he was enduring injury complications, I’ve watched enough sporting contests to recognise someone ‘shooting an angle’.
The phrase ‘shooting an angle’ is poker parlance. And poker is a sport (let’s not enter the debate as to whether it is a sport right now, you’ll just have to go with me) which has come very much into vogue in the last ten years. It has cleaned up its image; taken itself from dingy, dimly lit, underground dens to ESPN prime time with all its sparkly, clean, above-board status. Men who were previously seen on a par with petty thieves and vagrants are now lording it with sporting royalty. Poker is teeming with young, athletic competitors who would be just as likely to down a vegetable smoothie and go for a run, as Andy Murray himself.
‘Shooting an angle’ is all but cheating. It is a controversial part of poker but essentially still within the rules. Poker.com, one of the games foremost websites says, ‘While not quite cheating… [angle shooting] is essentially finding ways of exploiting ambiguous or weak areas of the rules in order to gain an advantage over other players.’ It exists in the darker recesses of the sport. The shadier edges of town. It’s not a part of the game people are encouraged to visit, but they acknowledge that it is part of the game.
Was Djokovic shooting an angle in Melbourne on Sunday? Backed into a corner, faced with a resurgent Scot, and a thumb and ankle that was giving him gip, did he pick a path that meandered towards the outskirts of the rules? And if he did, was this ok? Let’s face it, there is nothing in the governing body’s lawbook that suggests how you should react to discomfort during a tennis match. But Novak’s convulsing and flailing was almost comical. He looked, to all intents and purposes, as though his injury would stop the game at any moment. Everyone was expecting a white flag. This must have registered with his opponent. Murray must have contemplated the possibility of Djokovic withdrawing and him being crowned Australian Open champion. But Novak played on. No trainer came forward. No towel was thrown.
This run of events affected Murray, he has come out and said so. Murray lost focus and proceeded to lose three crucial games on the bounce and the match turned, and for Britain’s number one, it turned fatally. Just over an hour later, the Serbian was holding the Norman Brookes trophy aloft and smiling victoriously; and he didn’t flinch once. He’d won within the rules. But was it fair?
There are countless other examples of angle shooting in sport. One of my favourite features Gary Player, one of golf’s holy trinity. The diminutive South African was once playing in a tournament when he noticed an incoming squall. Not wanting to play his shot amidst the wind and rain, he called for the match referee to make a ruling on his lie. It took the PGA official fifteen minutes to make his way out to Player, they had a lengthy conversation about rule 24.2.a and concluded that the ball should be played as it lay. Player asked after the official’s wife’s health (he knew her by name), shook his hand and thanked him for his expertise. The storm had passed over and Gary Player asked his caddie for a 6-iron – the club he knew he’d hit over twenty-two minutes previously. All of this was legal and, in the eyes of the game, fair. But without doubt, Player had shot an angle.
In rugby, with its plethora of laws and nuances, shooting an angle comes into its own. Indeed, speak to any rugby player about the first golden rule of rugby, and most would say ‘Play the referee, not the laws’. If the man in the middle is letting you stand offside, then stand offside. If he is letting you use your hands in a ruck, get those paws in there. In the international game, with its hair’s breadth margins, games are won and lost on the edge of the law.
In the modern era, rugby’s greatest exponent of this is also renowned as one of the game’s greatest players. As supporters of any team up against the All Blacks will testify, this fabled open-side is quite brilliant at doing things right on the precipice. The breakdown in rugby (the ensuing moments just after a player is tackled) is so open to interpretation, it is all about the angle you shoot. At test level, you have a fraction of a second to make your decision and so many factors have to be considered. In those tiniest of moments, getting it right is all about knowing your variables. It can look as though he is cheating; but he’s not. He’s shooting an angle; Richie McCaw doesn’t just live in the shadier part of town, he’s the mayor.
McCaw, Player, Djokovic all have such an extensive knowledge of their sport and the armoury needed to play it, they are able to call upon any weapon of choice. They have such a steadfast desire to win that no issue of fairness enters their mind. They only ask: ‘Will it work to my advantage and will I get away with it?’
For me, these men enter the pantheon of sporting greatness without even the briefest of checks on their credentials. And yet they are exponents of the dark art of shooting an angle. Not because they need to, far from it, their expertise alone positions them amongst the chosen few in their sport. No, it’s because they can. Such is their expertise, such is their talent, such is the breadth of their knowledge they are able to call upon every square inch of the game to get them passed the winning post.
As for Novak Djokovic, congratulations on winning an 8th Grand Slam title; it really is unfair you are that good.
Sam Roberts © 2015. (Text only). All Rights Reserved.