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Max Davidson: Game, set and match ... why tennis is the true gladitorial sport of our age

WHAT would dear old Dan Maskell have made of that incredible men’s final in the Australian Open on Sunday, Novak Djokovic seeing off Rafael Nadal after nearly six hours of relentless, heart-stopping tennis?

How often would the Voice of Tennis have had to deploy his catchphrases, “Oh I say” and “That’s a peach of a pass”? It doesn’t bear thinking about. There were enough peaches from Djokovic alone to fill an orchard.

Maskell, who retired in 1991, plied his trade in an era when tennis was a gentlemen’s game, nobody seemed to break sweat and the spectators toddled off between sets for a glass or three of Pimm’s.

I doubt if he would have approved of Djokovic stripping off his shirt at the end of the match to parade his well-muscled torso – shades of Vladimir Putin at his most cockily macho. And he would have deplored some of the grunting, chest-pumping and first-clenching – the motivational tools of the modern tennis player.

But like the millions watching on television, he would have been awestruck by the spectacle unfolding in Melbourne.

The gladiator metaphor is overused by commentators, but when Djokovic was slugging it out with Nadal – or in the semi-final, when he was slugging it out with Andy Murray, in a match of equal intensity – it was the only metaphor that did justice to the beauty and ferocity of the man-to-man combat and the emotions it stirred.

Team sports are all very well, and have a compelling dynamic, but for the sporting purist, there is nothing to beat the clash of individual wills – a narrative that has been gripping spectators since ancient times.

At the games marking the opening of the Colosseum in Rome in 80AD, the highlight was a fight between Priscus and Verus, the two leading gladiators of the day. They fought each other to a standstill, displaying such courage and tenacity that the Emperor Titus awarded both gladiators – who were born slaves – their freedom. “Two men fought each other, but both were the winners,” wrote the poet Martial, who had a ringside seat.

We curse sportsmen when they let us down, and understandably. As England capitulated to Pakistan in Abu Dhabi on Saturday, bowled out for 78 after batting like nervous spinsters crossing a minefield, I hurled expletives at the TV screen that I had forgotten were in my vocabulary. Of the ugly side of modern football, the less said the better. But when our sporting heroes repay our loyalty with interest, we should not hesitate to show our gratitude. In a world short of feel-good stories, the script being written by the top men’s tennis players is the stuff of heroism: heroic ambition; heroic endurance; heroic passions.

Older tennis fans retain fond memories of the age of Bjorn Borg and Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe, but their showdowns seem insipid compared with the sheer pace and athleticism of the modern game.

From the moment Boris Becker appeared on the scene in the mid-1980s, hurling himself across Centre Court like a guided missile, a game that had previously relied more on grace than brute force grew closer and closer to boxing in timbre: raw, aggressive and physically punishing. The top players, whippet-fit, seemed to spend almost as long in the gym as on the practice court.

In the space of a very few years, we have seen Roger Federer scale unparalleled heights, Nadal eclipse Federer and Djokovic eclipse Nadal. And who is to say that Andy Murray – another warrior, Braveheart with a tennis racket and a copper-haired Boadicea for a mother – cannot eclipse Djokovic?

Like other armchair sports fans, I am already licking my lips at the prospect of the next Grand Slam men’s final, at the French Open in June. Nadal v Djokovic? Djokovic v Federer? Murray v Nadal? Patriotic considerations aside, it really doesn’t matter.

What is guaranteed is a ferocious competition between two supremely fit athletes, pushing their bodies to the limit, pulling off incredible shots, giving no quarter to their opponent, trying to blast each other off the court with the power and accuracy of their stroke play – before embracing at the net, all passion spent.

Whether the next Grand Slam final takes six hours or a mere four and a half, it will last longer than any Hollywood epic – five-star entertainment, with never a dull moment, served up by a cast of two.

How often do 22 Premier League footballers give so much of themselves? Or deserve so much admiration?