Frustrating ……

January 29, 2010

The first Grand Slam of the new decade, The Australian Open, 2010 is drawing to a close. As an Indian, there was precious little to cheer about. Hopefully, as a Roger Federer fan, there will be lots. As I post, Fedex is getting ready to commence his match with Tsonga.

Catching glimpses of the ladies’ half of the tournament, it was difficult not to wonder at the strides that tennis, and in particular, women’s tennis has made in China. With some more luck, it could have been an all Chinese women’s singles final. And our own Sania Mirza made her customary exit in the first round. Ironically, as the Chinese girls were working their way up through the draw, Sania was in the headlines, at least of Yahoo! India for having broken up her engagement. Yahoo! considered this bit of tripe to be more news worthy relevance to the Indian audience than the fact that Nadal had made his exit from the tournament. Does say a lot about our news quotient.

It was not so long ago that Sania was the toast of the country. She was running the Williams sisters close in marquee tournaments. Pundits were predicting a top 20 ranking for her. The country was expectant. The number of times she appeared on television (sadly in TV spots and not on prime time tennis) suggested that she had arrived. As it happens so often in Indian sport, she turned out to be yet another meteorite. Selling herself way too short and content with the perks of her fleeting success. Unlike Leander who left no one in doubt about his hunger for achievement, in the case of Sania, Indian tennis fans cannot be faulted for wondering if she even gave it her all.

On the other hand, the persistent rise of the Chinese women and Federer’s reign at the top tell us what could have been. Ignoring the patriotism that makes me cheer for the Indian cricket team, I have always supported the sporting underdog. It was always McEnroe, the upstart when he arrived to challenge the champion Borg, always Sabatini as strove “manfully ” to lay Steffi low, always Senna as he set out to decimate Prost, never Tiger as he scythed through the rest of the field. But in the case of Federer, in spite of his virtual hegemony, I continue to root for him. Considering all that he has achieved in the last decade or so, it is amazing that he still finds the motivation to, forgetting everything else, even turn up for these slams. My admiration for him has turned to something bordering on respect and the only other sportsman who commands this from me is Sachin. When there are such stories so close at hand to draw inspiration from, what is it that stops fellow sportsmen to be similarly inspired. What is it that stops Indian sportsmen with obvious talent from reaching the top of the ladder. I was reading Michael Jeh’s post on cricinfo where he refers to the rapid strides made by Aussie U19s in general after a certain point in their evolution as cricketers, and in the process leave the other Asian U19s far behind ; inspite of having significantly lagged behind the Asian in terms of sheer talent. He is not alone in his inability to solve this puzzle. But for the notable exceptions of China, Japan and the Koreas none of the Asian countries have a history of sustained domination in any sport. In a few cases, as is with hockey, the rise of the other countries has coincided with the precipitous fall of erstwhile Asian super powers like India and Pakistan. The tragedy of this state of affairs is compounded when you consider that, at least here in India, there is a full fledged Ministry under the Central Government whose job it is to oversee the development of sport in the country.

The relative “non-success” of sportsmen like Narain Karthikeyan also lays low the excuse of lack of economic resources for excellence in the sporting arena. Karthikeyan came from as privileged a background as one could expect to come from, in a statistical sense, in a country like ours. If this is indeed a valid excuse, I would submit that we wind up all sports related activities and focus on building economic wealth and subsequently try our hand at creating champion athletes. The rest of the world can wait. For a country that fails to attain world class standards at almost everything that it does, is it not avarice to be expecting our sportsmen to be world class performers.


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