Another Roland Garros and another win for Nadal. Nothing unusual about that. During the course of the match, my daughter asked me who I was rooting for.  Having figured me out for a Federer fan, I guess she was curious to know who I was rooting for in this particular match. I answered “Djokovic” and then she stumped me by asking why. Almost ashamed to admit that I did not want Nadal to win, I said “because I like Djokovic”.  This was a half truth or more truthfully a half lie. Yes, between the two, I like Djokovic, but my overriding reason was I did not want Nadal to win. Which brings me to the fundamental question as to why I do not like Nadal or more accurately why don’t I want Nadal to win tennis matches.

I do not claim to be a big tennis buff. I have never played the sport and all that I know about tennis is by watching it on television. I think the first match that I saw was Wimbledon 1980 0r 81 (I think it was 81) when Borg beat McEnroe in the final. I absolutely loved McEnroe and was terribly disappointed when he lost. McEnroe had a lot going for him, especially from a 10 year old’s perspective. He was aggressive, rebellious, manic, served and volleyed compulsively and looked adorable. In contrast, Borg was an automaton. Completely devoid of character, at least the kind of character a 10 year old can identify with. With tennis, my idolatry affections continued along similar lines. I abhorred Lendl, Wilander, and all the clay court specialists. Paradoxically, some of the players who, it could be said, matched McEnroe’s on-court personality like Connors and subsequently Becker, left me cold as well. Possibly, their style did not equal the grace and obvious genius of John. I did have a brief, short lived flirtation with Edberg. Moving on, I rooted for Agassi against Sampras. But till Federer came along, I was more or less a tennis widower, without no one in particular to shower my affection on. And how handsomely did Roger make up for my period of widowerhood. More so than even McEnroe, he was winning and winning all the time. I could hold my head high and proudly proclaim that I was a Federer fan. In fact, there was a time when I pitied Rafa and even commiserated his fate for being a contemporary of Federer. Possibly, the seeds of my not liking Rafa were sown when he started overseeing the demise of Roger, especially when it came to Grand Slam matches. And then there was obtuse joy when Djokovic threatened to do a Rafa on Nadal. Alas, that is also proving to be a false dawn. Rafa is continuing on his merry winning ways, while the wannabes are falling by the way side. I am slipping into a period of mourning awaiting the arrival of the next Rafa slayer. I am reliably told that there is no one in sight other than a career threatening injury.

After careful and deep introspection, completely out of place and uncalled for in terms of this issue’s priority relative to other pressing issues in my humdrum life, I have come to the conclusion that I do not like Nadal, only and only because of his style of play. He is the ugliest player I have seen on court. He makes tennis look like an effort which will scare away a lot of kids from taking up the sport. He is singularly responsible for making extinct serve and volley tennis and the sport is lesser off because of this. Take away his racquet and he cannot beat Leander Paes. Contrast that with what Lendl had to say, more or less, after receiving a thrashing from McEnroe in, if my memory serves me right, a Masters Final. He could have beaten me even if his racquet was strung with noodles. I rest my case.



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.

I have great admiration and respect for people who do either. But it is my submission that most of us fall into neither. I never ever miss an opportunity to be introduced to people who fall into one of the two buckets. It was one such chance introduction to a friend’s friend a couple of days back that has prompted this post. He endured the agony of a 5 year engineering programme from one of India’s leading engineering colleges and then had the courage of his conviction to chuck it up for what has till date been a torturous journey into the world of film making, his passion. And when you do interact with such people it is wonderful to experience the simplicity to which existence can be reduced to. I honestly believe that much of the unhappiness that we think is part of our lives can be attributed to falling in between these two serene and harmonious states of being.

I have a vague notion of what is it that I would like to do. But nothing of my life thus far has prepared me for liking what I do. I am not even sure if these states are mutually exclusive. To make it abundantly clear can you do something that you “don’t” like and still have the maturity to like what you are doing, if not for anything else, at least for the specific purpose of remaining in harmony. As is standard practice for me, I wander into the realm of sport and keeping asking the following questions:

1. What is it that makes a Federer a Federer. Is it the sheer joy of playing the sport or is it the high of winning that keeps him going.
2. What does it feel like to be, for instance, a Diinesh Karthik during the Dhoni era when you know that unless things improbably wrong, you know you have no hope in hell of playing for the country for a reasonable, extended period of time, or a Roscoe Tanner to be playing at the same time as a McEnroe or a Borg or a Connors when you go into tournaments knowing fully well that you have to be able to beat at least 2 of these legends to emerge a winner. And after how many such tournaments and humiliations do you realise that there are other ways to earn a living in this world.
3. How does one ensure or even try to ensure that the attribute to like what one is doing is instilled in people. Can this be done at all or are a few condemned to suffer in its absence.
4. Can education (not necessarily of the schooling type) be helpful here – will it help us to identify what we like doing and at the same time prepare you for the times when you may have to do things that you do not fully enjoy.
5. How relevant is parenting in this whole scheme of things

I think the ability to handle choices is one of the building blocks for developing this perspective and I am not sure that enough effort is put into helping young adults in the matter of choosing and equally importantly understanding the whole business of consequences of their choices. In our own Indian society, concepts like Karma and Destiny tend to obfuscate and confuse, rather than be used as development frameworks.

Also, the fact that we are an economy that has been starved of capital for a long time also tends to skew a whole lot of things towards a bias that can be minimised only over an extended period of sustainable, widespread and deep rooted economic wealth creation. After all, unless we have something to feed and clothe ourselves, issues like liking what we are doing exist only in hypothetical vacuum. The economic progress that we have been seeing over the last decade and a half has a lot to do with the fact that even people like me are indulging in such flights of fancy. Once even a basic level of economic security, real or perceived, is assured, these issues become much more real and felt.

I guess what is important is an acknowledgement of the fact that learning to like what one does is has also a bearing on ultimately getting to do what one likes. It comes with the territory and as long as we are clear about why we doing what we are doing, we will move into one of the buckets.