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”
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.