Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Fedex versus Raffa!!!

One of the things I miss while following a team sport, cricket, is that it doesn’t allow you a chance to compare an apple with an apple.
While there have been widespread comparisons between Lara and Tendulkar, one cannot really compare these two. Among all those international runs that Lara scored, not one of them came against the deadly duo of Ambrose and Walsh. On the other hand, Tendulkar never faced the guile and accuracy of Anil Kumble. They never really played “against” each other although Tendulkar may have bowled to Lara on a few occasions. Even on those occasions, it was Lara the batsman facing Tendulkar the bowler. The skill sets weren’t the same.
Warne, Kumble and Murali – they all bowled to different set of batsmen.
Cricket is a game between bat and ball – different set of people possess different skills, they form teams and teams play against each other.
That’s one thing a game like lawn tennis provides – a chance to compare your favourite player with someone you aren’t too fond of. Oh yes, I am talking about singles.
Individual games let you explore different aspects. One can compare skills of two individuals pitted against each other.
There is no hiding behind the team’s performance. For all the great stories I have heard about Mike Brearley’s captaincy which was supposedly shrewd enough to sell ice to Eskimos, his batting average of 23 in 39 tests doesn’t say much about the skill for which he was originally picked in the side – batting.   
In team sports, team’s pathetic performance can pull down all the positives of individual brilliance. We know it well, we the Tendulkar fans.
An individual sport exposes you against your opponent. It exposes your opponent in front of you. There is no hiding.
While I had heard a lot about rivalry between Nadal and Federer, this was the first time I watched them play against each other. Even though I wasn’t rich enough to buy the tickets, I was lucky enough to reach Federation Square in time – a place where more than a couple of thousands had already taken the vantage points to watch the most awaited duel of the tournament, live on a giant screen.
It was Fedex versus Raffa as they say.
I haven’t seen much of tennis but whatever I have seen; Federer’s shots are the most charismatic is what I have found. Forget the placement, at times it seems as if he isn’t playing against his opponent but against him – those chops where he makes his opponent look really silly as if just winning a point isn’t enough. He looks more of a craftsman than a tennis player.
At the other hand, Nadal seems to be a different player – more like a warhorse. Oh yes, there is a similarly. Like Federer, he seems to be fighting himself, even more than Federer. An injury in the palm, especially if the skin is peeled of, can be really tough. It is not just the pain but the irritating feeling that kills. Continuous sweat while playing doesn’t make life any easier. Yet, he kept playing. Even the backache in the final didn’t deter him. In fact he played his best in the set where he looked to have suffered most from the pain. It wasn’t just the opponents he was playing against. He was also playing against himself – let me see how far I can stretch.
Individual sports teach a lot about life. There is always a tendency to give up and give in – the surrounding, the challenges and the rest. Yet one has to pick himself up and fight. You need to fight your own battles. There aren’t any team mates to make the moves for you to become a hero, there aren’t any team mates running you out. You are all by yourself. That’s pretty much the story of life, isn’t it? No matter how much support one must have, one has to fight his own battles.
On that evening in Federation Square, I must have been the least knowledgeable about the tennis among that huge crowd. I didn’t even know what a break point meant till that evening. But I liked the way fans supported their individual heroes – the chants of “Vamos Raffa” or “Come on Roger” is what I could hear with each point. For each cheer of joy, there was a stunning silence somewhere. For each frown on a face, somebody somewhere else was smiling. It was as if different emotions on extremes had gathered at a single place.
There were Federer fans. There were Nadal fans. I was just a mere spectator not just watching the match, but them too.
To my bad luck, it was a no-match. I don’t know how often it has happened but losing a Semi Final in straight sets must have been rare for Federer. While Nadal wasn’t willing to give an inch, Federer looked like a wizard who had lost all his powers – unforced errors, not trying hard enough and an expression on the face which read as if he had resigned to the fate.
I was told later, “He tried to improvise but failed. In good old days, he could toy with the opponent with those improvisations. I think he had run out of steam by this stage”
 “Is that so? He looked no match for Nadal”
“You’ve seen all those videos of Federer, haven’t you? Didn’t you see how nobody was a match for him?”
I agreed. On the other hand, I was surprised to see how Nadal could play with a palm which was virtually skinless.
“But he could have tried. He could have at least tried stretching the game to 4th set, 5th set?” I asked back.
“To be fair, it has not been his game. If a game goes into 5th set, Federer is more likely to lose. That’s how Nadal started winning against him, by extending the games and testing his fitness.”
“But he looked to have given up in 3rd set?”
“That’s another problem with him. He is quite like South Africa – can choke. Once it starts going against him, he often loses the plot”
“And you call him the greatest ever”. I don’t like such players.
“South Africans choke. They are a laughing stock because of this. Yet, they are considered as one of the best sides. One of the criticisms of Tendulkar has been is that he often failed when India chased a big target. Yet he is considered as one of the greatest ever. They all have weaknesses”
“Okay” I tried to convince myself.
“See, if you are looking for a player who would sweat it out for five sets to win a match, Federer may not be the one you are looking for. That’s what Nadal does best – he will always make you play one extra shot and is fit enough to play one more match after a five-setter. If you are looking for a player who would make a comeback from the match point and win the match, Federer may not be the one you are looking for. Agassi was one such player”
“I liked his play. He was good”
“Federer is more about finesse, class and elegance. He is more about playing the game nobody has ever played. He is more about bringing back the tennis from the days of being a power-game. In his best days, he didn’t need to play long matches because he never let them go that far. 17 grand slam titles do mean something, don’t they?”
“Yes they do but whatever I have seen so far, I tend to like Nadal more”
“Look at the way he keeps playing even with injuries and more so, without even complaining about injuries”
“That’s what he is. He would never show these things. He once played with an injury, played the entire match, went back and didn’t even let people know about it. When asked in the press conference about it, he credited the victory of his opponent to the opponent’s game than cribbing about his own injury. That’s Nadal for you”
“So, Nadal or Federer”
“What do you mean by Nadal or Federer?”
“You have to choose one. Whose fan would you be?”
“Do I have to choose?”
“Yes my friend. In this biggest rivalry of the game, you have to take sides”
“Well, I would prefer being a Nadal. I like the spirit with which he plays”
“You don’t like the elegance of Federer?”
“Well, he does play unbelievably well. He used to, rather” I sounded to be favouring Federer.
“But he doesn’t win come-back-from-behind kind of matches”
“Well, I refuse to take sides. Is it necessary to take sides? Both of them are great in their own regards. Why can’t I be a fan of both of them?”
“Nope. You have to take sides. Reason is – when you follow tennis, you would like someone to win and someone to lose. You need to feel both – joy of winning and sorrow of losing. There is no fun in following a game as a neutral. There is no emotional ride in that”
“Yes, you are right. But how do I take sides here?”
“You take sides in cricket, don’t you?”
“Yes. That’s easier. I support India. How do I take sides here?”
“How do you take sides when India isn’t playing?”
“I support the underdog” I said.
“None of them are that. The underdog”
“How do I take sides, then?”
“See, here taking sides is difficult for you. But it is interesting too. Depends upon what you like more?” I was told.
“Yes you are right. It is more difficult to pick sides when you have find reasons to justify your loyalties. You need to find reasons in the quality of players, their game, the way the play, in the spirit they play. It is not just my country hence my team kind of thing”
“Yes. You need to know the game well enough to qualify as a true fan. The fandom has to be justified. If it isn’t, it will not last the test of time”
“Yes. It is not just the player but the qualities you have put your faith in that matters. A loss is loss of your reasons to put your faith in those qualities. Hence the disappointment. A victory is victory of that belief. Hence the joy” I looked like discovering the secret.
“Yes. You are getting it now. So tell me, Federer or Nadal”
“Both. I am not knowledgeable enough to make that choice. What do I know about tennis after all?”
“But you wouldn’t know unless you start following the game. To follow the game, you need a hero. Nobody follows a game for the love of it or crap like that. People follow because they want to feel the adrenal of winning or losing. Love for the game and all those things come later”

“Well, I would rather stick with cricket in that case” is what I said. I really don’t know who to pick as my favourite player, Federer or Nadal. Maybe I would never be able to find that out.
I took a pause and did a bit of Rahul Gandhi, “Let me ask you the same question. Who is your favourite player, Federer or Nadal?”
Who is yours?

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Following Fed!!!

Okay. I am not a tennis fan or follower. Last time I followed a tennis match seriously, it was India playing France in the quarter final of Davis cup in 1993. Ramesh Krishnan won the match which had to be extended to next day.
Why I followed it?
DD was supposed to show cricket but they kept showing Davis Cup in the name of “cricket broadcast will resume shortly”, I remained glued to TV in hope of seeing some cricket action, got interested in tennis and was glad to see Krishnan winning the match.
I liked the way Boris Becker used to place his volleys. I liked the way Andre Agassi returned the serves, always. Wimbledon 1992 final, between Agassi and Goran Ivanišević, was the last Wimbledon match I followed with complete seriousness. What a match it was. What. A. Match.
Then came Pete Sampras and started winning everything. Everything. Every time I saw him winning a point, it was either an ace or impossible return. I didn't see opponents get a chance to succeed against him. Maybe there were many other aspects of his game but this is what I noticed. In short, I found him boring, extremely boring.
For a sportsperson to generate interest either his game has to be extremely stylish or his matches have to be constantly interesting. Copybook play generating one sided matches are more likely to kill the interest. That’s what Sampras did to my interest.
I gave up on tennis. Another reason was that by late 90s, cricket broadcasting had changed. Reliance on DD was gone. I had ample supply of cricket on TV and forcibly following tennis like that Davis cup incident was out of question. Oh yes, we had started doing well in cricket as well by the time 2001 arrived. I didn't really need an alternate option. I never took it.
Ashes 2005 arrived, one of the best test series ever.  I got totally engulfed in the quality of cricket in that series.
Sometime during that series, a friend posed a question to me “Have you seen Federer play?”
“Nope. Who is he? Some batsman playing in County?”
“Tennis. Tennis is what I am talking about”
“No. I don’t follow tennis”
“You must”
It started a series of discussions. While every evening I used to go on and on about Simon Jone’s swing, Hayden’s swagger, Ponting’s authority and Flintoff’s audacity as a bowler, he would enlighten me about Federer’s play. While my friend got always involved with me in cricket discussions, his talk about Federer always remained monologues.
I kept hearing about Federer after that. People kept going on and on about him. It never interested me. It reached a point where I started thinking – if you follow tennis, you have to be a Federer fan else you are not following tennis. It reached a point where I started to wonder if people followed tennis or they followed the game because someone named Federer played it.
My first project was about Basel II accord. First thing my manager told me about Basel II accord was, “You know what Basel is? It is a small village in Switzerland. Roger Federer was born there”
What the hell do I do is what I thought.
One fine day, I heard another name – Rafael Nadal. I started hearing it more and more. I was told that Nadal was Federer’s biggest nemesis.
A friend went to the extent of saying, “They are quite like Batman and Joker, like Sherlock and James Moriarty. Nadal the David is challenging Federer the Goliath and he will bring him down”. He was surely a Nadal fan.
I wasn’t sure of any of these stories. I asked, “Who are they?”
“Oh my bad. You are too rustic, aren’t you? They are like Veer Singh and Rajeshwar Singh of Saudagar. Get it now?”
All I could understand was that some tennis great was being challenged by an upcoming player. That’s the normal lifecycle of sports, isn’t it? What was so great about it?
“Oh, like Tendulkar and McGrath you mean” I asked back.
Soon it became like – either you are a Federer fan or a Nadal fan. If you didn’t belong to any of these categories, you were a tennis moron like yours truly.
Every time I happened to ask a Nadal fan, “I have heard Federer is the greatest tennis player ever”, I was told, “He would have been had Nadal not exposed him”
Every time I happened to ask a Federer fan, “I heard Nadal is giving really tough time to Federer”, I was told, “Nadal is nothing but a worker ant. He thrives on his fitness but lacks the charisma Federer possesses”
I still didn’t follow the game or watch them play.
But soon, cycle turned on me. In a foreign land where cricket isn’t the most watched and hence most broadcasted game, I had to watch something on TV. In the same foreign land, Australian open is going on. Oh yes, I got a chance to lift the trophy during one of the promotional campaigns. Not that it meant much to me, I would have preferred holding on to the cricket world cup trophy.
After telling some of Federer stories, my friend advised me to watch some of Federer videos. In absence of options to kill time, I did so.
First thing that impressed me about his game was – it was quite like VVS Laxman, full of magical wrists. I was awed by his placement and timing. The way he chopped the ball was amazing.
In most games, fans aren’t impressed by just victories of their heroes; it is the manner in which those victories are achieved. As a neutral observer, I would rate Ponting’s test runs way above Chanderpaul’s. I’ve never seen a batsman playing with so much arrogance and authority. I would rate Warne a much better bowler than Murali as Warne’s bowling wasn’t just about taking wicket – it was more about dramatizing the event taking the wicket. Mind you, I’ve mentioned the term – neutral observer.
You watch to get entertained and not for just score lines.
I could see this quality in the player I had heard so much about.
Next thing I did was to watch what I had heard so many times – Federer’s match, on TV off course.
Being a complete rookie in tennis, I had to rely on commentators and my friend to judge how he was playing.
With every good shot he played, my friend jumped and told me, “See, this is Roger”.
With every point he lost, commentators said, “A younger Roger wouldn’t have made this mistake. I hope his back is fine”.
There was an online survey done and results were shown on TV, “Do you think he is playing at is usual best?” More than 25% said no. 25% didn’t agree that he was at his best when he was winning the third set in a row? As Sanga would have said, “Expectations”
I made a few comments, “But he wouldn’t get these kinds of points against better players. Is Tsonga a good player?” Tsonga did make lot of unforced errors.
“He isn’t playing well today. But Roger is back” is what the reply I got.
It was as if everyone wanted Federer to play well and win. Commentators weren’t really worried about the points. They were more interested in the quality of Federer’s game – if his backhand was fine, if he was placing it well, if he was serving fast enough. They were also talking about how he was coping with new rackets, if he was fit enough and the ultimate question – has he still got it in him.
My heart went for Tsonga. He was looking like nothing but a toy and at his cost, everyone was enjoying what could be termed as orgasmic pleasure generated by sporting brilliance of a great.
This is the thing with heroes – we just don’t want them to win. We want them to win in style, like heroes. In cricket, you want your team to win with a six or pace bowler to send the stumps flying back and celebrate as if he owned the batsman. In movies, you don’t want your heroes to kill the villain without giving him a full bashing – the tere liye to mere hath he kaafi hain phenomena. You want politician to be ideal and yet achieve results at a super-fast pace. Not just the destination but the path they follow matters too.
For fans, the manner in which their heroes achieve victory is as important as the victory itself.
At the match point I said, “Well, he has got three match points. Game over”
“No. Once, Tsonga has beaten him from this position. He has also lost to Djokovic once. It happens with him sometimes. He loses from this position” my friend was looking visibly nervous.
Oh yes, another quality which is a must-have in crowd pulling heroes. Although we always want them to him and win in style, they should also carry an element of fallibility. They must. Because if they don’t, they become too boring – you know they would always win. What’s fun in following the game if you know you wouldn’t lose. The uncertainty of result is what keeps you glued.
Finally, he won.
I told a friend of mine on chat, “For the first time in life, I saw him play today. Some of his shots were audacious”
“Audacious? It means bold. Watch Nadal play. He plays audacious shots. Some of his shots look like falling out of the court but they always fall inside. That’s audacious. Federer is more about elegance” is what he replied. Need I tell you whose fan he is?
Looks like, even though Federer has grown too old for the game or so I have been told, the rivalry among the fans is still alive.
Hope to see a Nadal-Federer match soon.