Archive for the ‘Sports’ Category

Elena Rybakina – navigating Wimbledon in wartimes

July 12, 2022

Last year, a player with the initials E.R won the US Open, creating history of all sorts.

This year, a player sharing those initials won the Wimbledon. She did so as history of the wrong sort was and is being created.

If the post-USO performance of Emma Raducanu along with the attention her burgeoning endorsement earnings and the non stop coverage from the media (particularly British media) has divided opinions, at least her victory brought largely positive reactions from one and all, a rarity in times in which even sport appears to be losing its ability to unite.

But things couldn’t have been more different as Elena Rybakina served her way to a Wimbledon title, her first grand slam title (just as the USO was Raducanu’s first…and only to date).

In the intervening months, there was the small event of Russia launching an invasion of Ukraine as February drew to a close. The invasion has ignited an intense debate between pro-Russian and pacifist voices on the one side and anti-Russian/pro-NATO and pro-intervention voices on the other. It is not a debate I will wade into here. Suffice it to say, though, that it has, amidst some carping from countries like Hungary, given Europe one common enemy to unite against after a long time. But an enemy neither they nor the US appear quite certain how to deal with. You can’t bomb the heck out of a nuclear power, especially not Russia. Ukraine is not a NATO member so NATO cannot lift the veil of neutrality too much though they continue to provide assistance to Ukraine. And so…sanctions, partly to inflict pain on Russia and partly to appease Ukraine and its supporters.

But sanctions can potentially put an individual sport like tennis in a spot. Especially tennis which counts Russian and Belarussian players in its top ranks. Tennis has largely dodged the bullet thus far with both French Open and US Open choosing to not enforce sanctions against the participation of Russian and Belarussian players.

Wimbledon was another matter. If Boris Johnson himself was among one of the louder anti-Russian voices among world leaders, Wimbledon also took the toughest stand, banning Russian and Belarussian players from participating. This meant Daniil Medvedev and Aryna Sabalenka among others couldn’t play at this year’s Wimbledon. This ban attracted just as much polarized debate as the war itself – one side saying the ban discriminated against individuals who had no role in a war launched by an autocratic leader and further would have no tangible effect on the war and the other saying such measures were necessary to build support to end the war and further, that the Queen or the Duchess of Cambridge couldn’t very well be giving a trophy to a Russian or Belarussian player in this moment.

The catch: Wimbledon ‘only’ thwarted players representing either of those two countries from participating.

So if, like Victoria Azarenka, you live in the USA but represent Belarus, you couldn’t play. If on the other hand, you live or lived in Russia but represent another country, say Kazakhstan…

And that’s the story of how Rybakina, who some would reckon is more Russian/Belarussian than Azarenka, got to play at Wimbledon. She was born in Russia and lived (by some accounts, still lives) in Moscow. At the age of eighteen, the Kazakhstan Tennis Federation agreed to fund her tennis development…IF she agreed to represent them. She signed on and thus became, last Saturday, the first Kazakh player ever to win a grand slam title. Except…

As strenuously as the pro-ban side argued that Rybakina represented Kazakh and her victory was A.O.K, the palpable unease and silence at Wimbledon spoke loudly otherwise. The crowd was all too aware of Rybakina’s antecedents and watched anxiously (offering the most perfunctory, the most feeble applause I have ever heard at the end of a singles final in Wimbledon) as Rybakina sealed her victory. Gawd, would she give a speech in Russian? Would she thank Putin? Such were probably the questions on their mind.

They were in luck. The extremely shy and introverted Rybakina is known for her celebrations, or lack thereof. Combine that with the sheer overwhelm she processed as she won a slam title (the stuff every tennis player who has never won one dreams of) as well as the unease of the situation and she chose…extreme restraint.

She barely made any gestures in celebration of her victory and simply walked up to her box and hugged her team. She accepted the trophy with warmth and dignity from the Duchess of Cambridge, the player for once having to put royalty at ease rather than the other way round. Thereafter, she kept her answers brief at the ceremony, injecting a touch of humour as she referred to how much Jabeur had made her run. There were no references to the war. But she had yet to pass all the tests.

The press conference would test her more as now the media had her all to themselves. And sure enough, one reporter asked her if she condemned Putin’s war. Fortunately for her, he asked that as the second part of a two part question.

So…how did Rybakina play this trick ball? She just hit right through. She said because her English was not good, she didn’t understand the second part of the question and answered the first part instead! Uh…in tennis press conferences, follow up questions are rare and there was none. Catastrophe averted.

And without saying a word, she addressed the complaints about her being robotically unemotional and unexpressive…by tearing up at a question about her parents. She asked, “You wanted to see emotion?”

As you may have gauged from some of my previous writing on the blog, I cherish nuance and dislike people who perpetually want to know what ‘side’ I am on. But in war, not picking a side can become a luxury and lead you to being misunderstood.

On the other hand (and not something that reporter or other ‘peace loving’ virtue signalling liberals apparently cared about), not picking a side can be pivotal to preserving life, of self and family in uh, non democratic environments. Had Rybakina appeased the frankly pathetic virtue signalling efforts and issued a full throated condemnation of the war, she may have potentially endangered family in Russia. Had she revealed herself to be a Putin supporter, her own safe or at least smooth passage out of UK could not have been guaranteed.

But, in the most intensely political of times, she carved out an apolitical path. And by doing so, she not only secured herself and family but also united tennis fans across the world and gave everyone, including the pro-ban group, permission to support and applaud her.

How many would still be able to look past her origins and simply respect and applaud a sporting achievement remains to be seen. But it certainly wouldn’t be for want of her efforts to navigate sport in times of war.

Barty’s retirement and the post-modernization of everything

March 23, 2022

Ashleigh Barty, world no.1 and defending champion of Wimbledon and Australian Open (which she won this year), retired. Yeah, you read that right. And no, it’s not April 1, I checked that for you. She really did retire. I know, right, WTF.

Barty, aged 25, won the Australian Open in front of adoring home crowds in emphatic fashion, crushing each one of her opponents in straight sets and was only moderately challenged at best by Danielle Collins in the final. Barty did so looking ice-cool and relaxed as well as being respectful towards opponents. Zero theatrics, in other words. If there was a player who looked to the manor born, in front of whom appeared to lay half a decade at least of domination, it was Barty. But we didn’t know what she was thinking.

Barty has said in her statement that she was physically done. I have no option but to believe her. But I cannot help but contrast this against the fact that she had only been playing a limited schedule anyway going back to 2019. It’s not like she ground her body to dust playing anywhere and everywhere like Graf or even peak Serena before injuries caught up and she resorted to smart scheduling.

Speaking of which, Serena Williams was thirty five and a half years old when she won her last grand slam title (the Australian Open 2017). And she was carrying. Yeah. Serena has had her own fashion clothing line for a few years now. She has also been a vocal advocate against sexism and racism. Some in tennis world, being that it’s predominantly white male dominated, would say too vocal and advocate but that’s a different discussion. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that there would be no equal prize money without the Williams sisters.

That is, the Williams sisters have shown that it is possible to be multi-dimensional, to follow interests outside tennis and still have a long, long career. This is to present a counter-argument to the notion that Barty has chosen as she has because she is a healthy and mentally well developed person who knows life is more than tennis. I do not want to compel Barty to be like Serena; Barty can only be true to herself. But I submit that a person can be in a healthy place and still believe life is all about tennis. They are not mutually exclusive concepts.

Barty’s retirement is not to be looked at in isolation but as part of a common thread running particularly through women’s tennis. Be it Andreescu pulling out of tournaments or Osaka continuing to pursue a limited schedule even now that her ranking has caved in. Again, I don’t blame them either for not being obsessed about tennis.

My question is, simply: if even these terrific athletes aren’t so obsessed about tennis that they can’t imagine life without it at least until their body starts to give way, what happens to the pro tour such as it is?

That raises a larger question too about the role of obsession in society and particularly in two walks of life whose value is ‘merely’ intangible in a utilitarian sense but which can provide a lucrative career in monetary terms – professional sport and show business. You do not need the existence of either for the world to carry on. But if everything on this planet only existed because it absolutely needed to, is capitalism inadvertently creating an utilitarian utopia that Karl Marx would be proud of?

The other aspect here is what I addressed above – the notion of obsession anywhere and everywhere being unhealthy (any resemblance to Friedman’s inflation maxim is intentional). The common counterpoint offered these days when we ask why a player wouldn’t want to aim higher, win more titles, more slams is that these are just numbers that matter to fans and don’t mean anything. Sure, that is irrefutable indeed. But again, if no player cares madly enough about these milestones, what happens to the tour? What happens to a tour where everyone is already dispelled of the illusion?

And this is where post-modernization kicks in. If everything is relative and nothing inherently has any meaning, then the only thing that matters is what it means to you. And would not the bank balance reign supreme in such a scenario? If things like legacy don’t count anyway and are to be waved away as irrelevant in the larger scheme of things, the only thing that matters is if you have already made enough to retire comfortably.

I mentioned show business earlier. Amitabh Bachchan is still acting in films despite him having nothing left to prove for a long, long time. Ilayaraja and Rahman are still composing. And this is a global trend. Pat Metheny is still performing shows. Antony Hopkins is still acting. And lest I appear to leave out the women, so is Helen Mirren. On the other hand, Don’t Look Up was Jennifer Lawrence’s first acting credit since Dark Phoenix and she has been acting in very few films post-2016 as such. Gosling’s career too has somewhat stalled.

So…it may be an illusion to believe that sporting achievements matter or making a great film or a great piece of music matters. But forgive me for saying this is a more beautiful illusion than the one that pretends there are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, that Ukraine is a fake country, so on and so forth. The joy that sports and art can give us is pure and unadulterated for that reason. Because we love it in spite of the fact that it has no ‘utility’. We know this and we don’t care because what it can give to us is beyond the understanding of economic theory.

But what happens if the performers themselves struggle to keep up the illusion? I don’t know, your guess is as good as mine. This feels like a very new thing, very unchartered territory. I am hoping already that Iga Swiatek will be different and will seek out longevity for the sake of it.

But I recognize that my hope is somewhat like Joe Biden saying on the campaign that he wanted to bring back the soul of America. Do you bring back anything in this world?

Will the world allow Emma Raducanu to just ‘be’?

September 19, 2021

I wrote a much more ‘positive’ article about Emma Raducanu here, if that’s what you’d like to read.

However, the moment that this incredible talent has walked into with her completely unexpected triumph has led me to wonder what she is in for.

My worry has been, simply: Will the world allow Raducanu to just be? To just keep playing tennis, playing it well and keep raking in the millions?

In case that gets you to scream hoarse about how ‘unfair’ that is, that is what Steffi Graf did and what Serena Williams has mostly been content to (apart from occasionally inserting herself in activist causes – which have ALL, by the way, been tennis related). Will Raducanu be afforded that opportunity?

The articles already pouring out of the standard bearer of wokeism The Guardian have me worried that she won’t be – read here and here.

You are perhaps perplexed as to why I have a problem with articles that, on the surface, appear to be sympathetic towards her.

But that is exactly the problem here.

You see, Emma Raducanu is not a symbol of oppressed teens. Raducanu is not a symbol of teenage wisdom shaming idiot boomers. Raducanu is not the youthful face of multiculturalism nor of Great Britain with a double capital G.

Raducanu is just…Raducanu, a prodigal tennis talent who achieved what nobody else to date has in tennis – winning a grand slam as a qualifier.

I very much apprehend that in this day and age, that notion that she is nothing but her tennis and, more importantly, doesn’t have to be anything more than that is unsustainable.

That, for all that we supposedly live in a deeply libertine passage of time, we have simply lost the ability to look at the individual and are compelled to look at the individual as a proxy for a specific identity group.

I should amend that: I think sports fans are perfectly capable of looking at Raducanu in that uncomplicated way (and which we have generally applied to sports figures) but the media, increasingly, isn’t. And the media will, as Guardian has above, anxiously seek to create an identity-centric narrative around Raducanu.

This may not even be as much of a problem if she is herself so inclined. But by all appearances, she doesn’t seem to be.

She speaks with an unmistakable British accent (posh or not I leave to native Brits to decide), proudly follows the English football team as well as Lewis Hamilton’s exploits in Formula 1. She recently did a photo op at a McLaren garage. In short, she is a carefree, almost stereotypically British, girl – as you would expect an 18 year old to be IF you didn’t know she was already a mega star.

I am afraid, though, that sooner or later, she will be enmeshed in the agendas of others. Be it the woke agenda of the media, the nationalist agenda of the British right wing or the unabashedly capitalist agenda of sponsors.

It would be one thing if Raducanu, wise as she is, was already wise enough to dodge this trap. But the sheer number of television appearances she has already done as well as the reports of huge endorsement deals in the pipeline (and promises to visit Romania/China next year) suggest that she is not or that her parents, being from the financial background, believe in maximising Return on Investment.

I don’t completely blame them. They think they are buying into the old pathway to success that once existed for sportspersons – win big titles, sign some endorsement deals and do the mandatory appearances in a bunch of advertisements and you have it made. This is the path that tennis stars have tapped into, particularly with increasing commercialism from the 80s onwards.

However, at least for female tennis stars (or perhaps, female sports figures generally), success is no longer an unalloyed blessing (if it ever was) or an uncomplicated pathway (if tiring). Now that she is mega-popular so soon, Raducanu will have to take sides, will have to weigh in. As images of Raducanu posing with stylish McLaren sports cars circulate through the internet, you can be sure she will be taken to task by angry environmentalists for setting a terrible example. Raducanu’s visit to Wall Street will also not go unnoticed. That is apart from the proxy war between the globalists and the nationalists with Raducanu as the pawn for both sides at one and the same time.

And at some point, the noise may start to take its toll, as it did, indeed, on Osaka. The more extroverted Raducanu (and one who is clearly very comfortable being British unlike Osaka electing to become a Japanese citizen) will have advantages over Osaka in dealing with the noise. But extrovert or introvert, you have to inhabit a bubble of nirvana all the same in professional tennis. So a distraction is a distraction and only the degree to which it bothers you may vary.

Notice I said female stars. This sort of intellectual wrestling is conspicuously missing when it comes to male stars. Male stars seem to have been given the leeway to just say “I don’t give a shit” and give the middle finger to the media. And they get away with it. Why, Zverev is dodging culpability over allegations of sexual assault and tennis world is keen to protect him as one of the rising stars on whose shoulders the future of the sport partly rests.

Why, again, is this space not afforded to female stars? Why is it compulsory that they must stand for something (and therefore, take a stand)? A frequent complaint of liberals about the attitude of men towards women is unfair expectations are held about the behaviour of women which are never applied to men. Well, do the two women writing for Guardian (both presumably liberals) also realise that in making a symbol, a brand out of Raducanu, they are in fact imposing expectations on her that Raducanu’s male counterparts don’t have to deal with? There may indeed be problems for teenage girls in many fields but does Miss Laura Snapes realise that Raducanu as a teenage tennis star is hardly an outlier in the sport (as recently as US Open 2019, a teen – Bianca Andreescu – broke through with her first and to date only slam)? You do not have to extrapolate the example of a Billie Ellish onto Raducanu because as a sport star, Raducanu is only expected to play, not think aloud or articulate.

At least, that’s what I thought. And I will conclude by explaining the fairly banal source of my angst. As a sports junkie, I want badly for Raducanu to succeed, to create history and leave behind a storied legacy, one that tennis fans will speak of with reverence for decades to come. I have been watching tennis since 1993-94 and in my opinion, she is the best thing to happen to women’s tennis since the golden generation of Williams sisters-Henin-Clijsters. The sky is the limit for a player who has shown the ability to problem-solve on court so astutely in just her second Grand Slam appearance and who is already stunningly devoid of weaknesses. I would love to see Raducanu win at least a dozen slams (note here, I would only love to see that, I am not expecting her to do so and won’t hold her captive to such expectations) and to be able to cheer for her years later when she winds down a brilliant, epoch-making career.

I do not want the corporations, the activists, the politicians and the over zealous media talking heads to take that away from me and millions of other tennis fans like me. Sports is my/our safe space (and presumably of Raducanu as well). Please, for heaven’s sake, leave her alone. Let us tennis fans figure out what to make of her. For I dare say we have a much better track record in doing that.

Floydman v/s Pacman – Biggest hype of the century

May 4, 2015

Yesterday, boxing witnessed its most high profile, hyped duel since Lennox Lewis v/s Mike Tyson in 2002.  Hardcore fans of boxing may have own their views on the subject, but I am talking about the kind of match that generates enough buzz to pull in viewers who are not necessarily dedicated fans of boxing…someone like me, basically.  The last time there was so much anticipation about a boxing clash was indeed the aforesaid Lewis-Tyson clash.  Then, whether Floyd Mayweather v/s Manny Pacquiao, billed as the fight of the century managed to entertain as much as the only other clash from this century that generated comparable buzz is highly debatable.

Lewis v/s Tyson was one sided and got over quickly (in comparison to Floyd v/s Manny).  It took Lewis until the eighth round to finally deliver the knockout blow and bring the proceedings to an official conclusion but the result was ‘NID’ as they say.  It became clear pretty early on that Tyson would not be able to knock out Lewis and therefore Lewis would either win on points or simply wear him down and get him later in the match (which is what he did).

Nevertheless, what it did manage to do was entertain.  At least early on, when Tyson, albeit a shadow of the boxer he once was, charged towards Lewis who utilised great defence to come out of these early assaults unscathed.  There was drama at least for a while before the match eventually petered out to a somewhat anti climactic end.  And for sure, the fighting was often ferocious.

Yesterday’s match, by contrast, often appeared to feature a pair of reluctant warriors circling around desperate to AVOID the punch.  They weren’t even hopping around, Muhammad Ali-esque, in their attempts to dodge each other.  Just circling around slowly, wielding the threat of a punch and only sporadically acting on the threat.  And they were welterweights.

Yup, welterweights.  When I learnt that the fight of the century was to be fought between welterweights, I laughed.  Surely, this wouldn’t be the case if heavyweight boxing still attracted an audience…well, an audience of a comparable magnitude.  I am not judging.  It is not my case that welterweights aren’t worth anybody’s time.  But going all the way back to the days of Ali, it’s the classic heavyweight contests that captured the public’s imagination.  It suggested, as some columnists pointed out, a desperation to manufacture a bout that the public might want to see built up by humongous amounts of hype so that all parties concerned (except the audience, that is) could laugh all the way to the bank.

Anyway, so it took around round 4 for Manny to seemingly realise that he was the challenger and he would have to take the fight to Floyd.  Else, Floyd would happily bide his time ducking around and not fighting and collect the title.  Later on, Manny ranted that Floyd hardly punched at all.  That’s right, and nobody stopped Manny from providing the offence.  But he missed way too much on his own attempts and a few effective counter-attacks from Floyd appeared to discourage him.  So much so that the final round was utterly devoid of drama and frankly quite boring as both fighters appeared to have decided to settle for a points verdict.

I don’t wanna be a killjoy.  If you liked it, good on you.  If it pulls boxing out of what is arguably a self inflicted rut (with a multitude of associations making it difficult to know who exactly is the world champion), that would be grand.  But if this is the fight of the century, then at least boxing wise ours is an impoverished century compared to the 20th.  What I am going to do may be cliched but here comes the fight of the 20th century:

That’s what boxing is all about.  Yesterday, after the match, my father and I were watching this just for kicks and he said Ali and Frazier fought for the public and not themselves.  Perhaps, that’s what was most wrong about yesterday’s fight.  A fight where the players look fresh as daisies after 12 rounds cannot have entertained very much.

Tennis v/s cricket: busting myths from a playing perspective

December 27, 2014

Around end of March, I began to play tennis, having watched it since at least 1994, maybe 93.  I have been following cricket (or used to, rather) for roughly as many years.  The IPL spot fixing fiasco combined with the unsavoury Big Three takeover of cricket did it for me and I finally gave up on a game in which my interest had been waning over the last few years.  On the other hand, what with my now playing the game, my interest in tennis has only increased.  A comparison of cricket and tennis has been running in my head from the time I started playing the latter.  I used to play street cricket and was reasonably good at off spin (for the amateur level) but never put in dedicated effort to get better at it.  I have already upgraded to an intermediate racquet in tennis and I have voraciously devoured amazing youtube tutorials on the different aspects of the game, wanting to keep on improving at a game which I initially found frighteningly difficult to play.  The culmination of it was an ITF women’s singles match at the NMSA club, played on 20th December.  It was won by 18 year old Serbian player Nina Stojanovic, presently ranked 461 in the world.

After I watched Stojanovic beat Russian Natalie Dzalamidze (no. 348), comparisons with the two IPL matches I was able to watch in the stadium, I once again began to compare the two games and the level of play I had seen in this ITF match v/s IPL.  I know what the objection to that (from a cricket purist point of view) is going to be.  IPL is not cricket.  It cannot be compared with the pure form of tennis.  Sure, but I am talking women’s tennis and I am talking about a $25000 ITF tournament played, in tennis terms, between Ms Nobody and Ms Nobody.   So the comparison is not really unfair.  In the IPL matches, I saw players who represent the team at the highest level, like Tendulkar and Zaheer Khan, play, for instance.  So with that out of the way:

1.  Complexity:  The biggest myth held up by cricket lovers is that it is the most complex sport in the world and that there’s absolutely nothing else that compares.  This is a superficial view based on armchair observations and possibly a not very unbiased perspective of other sports.  Here’s what I think.  First off, yes, it’s true that a cricket captain has 9 fielders at his disposal and 4 specialist bowlers, at the minimum, to choose from.  So in terms of number of tactical options, yes, cricket is one of the most complex sports.  But let’s look at what it is like to play the game.  The thing is, there is a lot of inertia in cricket, phases where all players are in resting position.  I don’t mean literally resting but they just have to hang back in their chosen positions as the bowler runs up to the crease to deliver.  Likewise, the batsman just has to stay put in the crease.  It is in the bowler’s interest, if he desires to get him out, to make him play the ball.  So the batsman may have to use some footwork to get to the pitch of the ball at times, yes, but mostly the ball is directed such that the batsman can play it from the crease.

Perspective:  the only shot in tennis that you hit from an initial inert state is the serve!  That’s the only time in the entire point that you get to absolutely dictate play.  If you hit a great serve, you can force the opponent to make the shots you want him/her to and thus dictate the pattern of play.  But even so, and especially when your serve gets the treatment from the receiver, you have to anticipate where the opponent is going to hit the ball to.  How short or how deep is it going to be, how quick is it, where in the court you ought to be to receive it and what shot would be your best response to it.  Based on this, you may have to move forwards or backwards or sideways and prepare to hit a forehand or backhand drive or a slice or a volley. All this information is processed in a matter of mere seconds even at the amateur level of the game.  You do not have the luxury of time.

Additionally, unlike cricket, you do not have the option of leaving the ball unless it’s sailing long or wide anyway.  You have to make a shot.  And if you don’t make a good shot each and every time, you will lose the point unless your opponent makes a mistake.  One may have fewer options to process in tennis but the processing has to be done very quickly.  In top flight tennis, it’s basically done on the move.  He who hesitates pays the price.  To believe this does not require great sporting IQ is sadly deluded.  It is not my case, again, that cricket is not a complex sport. But so is tennis.  Just in a very different sense.

2. Skill and repertoire:  Cricket fans also love to boast about the skills and repertoire in the game vis a vis other games.  The different kinds of delivery and the wide variety of shots available to the player.  This involves a sleight of hand in oversimplifying (and thus diminishing quantitatively the repertoire of other games).  If you say the only shots in tennis are the drive, the slice and the volley, then likewise, the only shots in cricket are the drive, cut and pull.  Now if you distinguish between an along the ground drive and a lofted shot or a square cut and a late cut, then let’s talk about top spin forehands v/s flat.  Let’s talk about a deep slice v/s a short, knifelike one.  Let’s talk about drive volleys v/s drop volleys.  And how about grips?  You can hit the same shot, say a forehand, with a Continental, Eastern, Semi Western or Western grip.  This is not exotic jargon; rather each grip has a different purpose and acts differently on the ball, starting from the flattest and easiest grip (Continental) to the most extreme and top spin based (Western).  Oh, how could I forget down the line, inside out and crosscourt?  Nope, just like Tendulkar possessed a rich array of strokes to target every part of the ground, so too Federer possesses an incredible variety of shots for every part of the court.  You may rue the increasing dominance of baseliners and the decline of all court tennis but so too dextrous wristmasters and the merchants of timing are making way for bashball batsmen in cricket.  That has more to do with the improvement in equipment than the nature of the game.

3. The effect of equipment:  However, if the argument of equipment is going to be made against tennis, its effects have been far more deleterious on cricket whereas the jury is out on tennis.  Understanding this requires watching the game in a stadium as opposed to television.  TV does not do justice to how intensely tennis is played at the professional level.  I dare armchair serve and volley ageists to try net rushing against the powerful groundstrokes of Stojanovic and Dzalamidze.  Even the decline of the one handed backhand becomes easier to explain when you see the power and bounce with which players attack the backhand corner.  I can only hypothesize as to how good Wawrinka’s one hander must be if he could take on heavy topspin strokes from Nadal and beat him at the Australian Open.  A one hander that incredible is out of the grasp of most mortals and accordingly most tennis players choose the double hander.  When you watch a tennis match in the stadium, you are not whining about the lack of volleys (by the by, Stojanovic did produce a few volleys that extracted gasps from the spectators, most of whom were recreational players themselves).  You marvel at the extreme athleticism and precision with which players are able to play the game today.  In cricket, since the advance in equipment has been lopsided with the ball staying the same as bats have improved exponentially, the contest has become increasingly one dimensional and the thrust ever more on the batsmen than the bowlers.

4. Physicality:  Cricket is a game with  much English baggage.  Not surprisingly, cricket watchers look for an underdog angle all the time.  So, the argument goes, cricket rewards the underdog.  A player does not have to be supremely strong, physically, to play cricket well because it’s all about skills.  While tennis is all about physicality (so, in theory, a gigantic dumbo could pick up the racquet and win grand slams).  There is no doubt that tennis has a pronounced bias in favour of tall players.  Not necessarily giants (most 6 foot 5 plus players don’t win the big titles) but the 5’10” to 6’2″ range.  This is lately noticeable in cricket too so it’s not completely immune from it.  Tennis does require a high level of athleticism because it is played at much higher intensity.  But it’s not all about physicality.  How hard you can hit a forehand largely depends on your swing, your hip rotation and your transfer of weight.  If this were not the case, giants like Del Potro would not be applying the same fundamentals of technique that Federer or Djokovic adhere to.  So, no, he is not exempt from it either just because he is much taller.  Justine Henin could out hit much taller and stronger players than her because of her technique.  I am 5’6″ and very overweight and I often hit bigger forehands than really tall and athletic opponents.  If anything, the advancement of equipment has only made players go for even more extreme grips and more torso roll, more bodily momentum in hitting the shot.  Tennis today is played at a higher level technically than in the days when a continental grip was de rigeur.  Whereas the improvement in bats has allowed for more of “see-ball-hit-ball” batting and long held conventions of footwork and position have been ditched as outmoded.

5. Live experience:  It is often repeated, almost as an article of faith, that cricket is meant to be watched in the stadium.  In terms of the almost festive atmosphere what with fans screaming at the top of their voices, maybe.  But the sport as such does not translate well to stadium spectating.  The long periods of inertia I referred to, as in the time taken by the bowler to get back to his mark or for fielders to change ends at the end of an over, take their toll and leave the spectator yearning for action.  And unless the bowler is a real tearaway, the experience of watching a pace bowler deliver the ball is not particularly exhilarating.  At times, what I saw in the IPL matches may have captured my imagination but it wasn’t anything that made me go “How is this even possible?”. It was not jaw dropping stuff.  On the other hand, the lowly ITF match I watched produced many such moments, almost throughout.  When the match was over, I was left wondering what it would be like to watch top 10 players play each other and realised why tennis is such a brutally elite sport.  The sad part is Dzalamidze is probably already too old to ever make the cut in premier WTA tournaments.  Stojanovic has a chance if she has a great 2015 and 16.  Else, she’ll get ‘timed out’.  At 18, she’s already running out of time to make it at the highest level of tennis.  Rank 461.  In cricketing terms, that would be a Ranji level player deemed unworthy of playing for India or maybe somebody who plays for the likes of Bermuda (and even that is being too charitable).

In spite of its punishing system, tennis has great depth at the grassroots level.  I was left to wonder whether the same can be said anymore about cricket.  It is time for cricket lovers to consider these questions and shake out of their complacent “cricket is the best ever game” illusion, which by the way is not true.

Melbourne, the new Perth

February 11, 2008

The title might suggest a cliched celebration of a landmark ODI victory for a young, brave Indian cricket team….after all, Perth was just a month ago, right?? However, my proposition in this piece is quite the opposite. The ghost of Perth, the unconquerable Aussie hell-on-earth for visitors, has been exorcised in as dramatic a fashion as cricket could have conceived. The truth is out: notwithstanding their defeat to India yesterday, Melbourne is indeed the one ground where it is hardest to beat the Aussies.

Traditionally, visitors have run for cover at the thought of battling it out at Perth. It has a monstrous reputation as a bowlers’ paradise, generating pace and bounce not seen anywhere else in the world, with only Durban and Australia’s own Brisbane – though friendlier in comparison – coming close. In that lies the closely guarded secret of Perth: it also plays true all five days and therefore presents no demons to the set batsman. Besides, the sheer bounce generated on this pitch makes the short pitched delivery a liability and forces bowlers to bowl length or pitched up to make a contest. Ergo, Perth definitely assists the bowlers, but only if they bowl accurately and incisively. And a bowler of that calibre would probably do well on any pitch that ain’t dead as a Canberra dodo, oops, sorry!!!

Even if one takes India’s victory out of the equation, there are other pointers to the real Perth: South Africa and New Zealand both drew their last-played match at this ground…both teams comfortable with pace, seam and bounce. So too, a positive approach by India from the outset undid the Aussies and their failure, except Brett Lee, to penetrate the corridor of uncertainty on the first day cost them dearly. By contrast, the extra bounce made the Indian seamers – who tend to pitch it up as they don’t hit the deck as hard as the Aussies – lethal and unplayable. This could be the analysis of a match played at windy Wellington or Edgbaston …so that is what Perth is indeed, a harder, zippier and hotter version of those venues, with the sea breeze, more than anything else, aiding the seamers.

Sections of Australian followers have said Perth simply wasn’t what it used to be this match. That is not really true if you listen to Chris Rogers’s pre-match statements. He said his highest score for Western Australia at Perth in the season of 06-07 was 60, despite having played there all his life. He did indicate it would be a brute of a pitch and hoped to roll over India in 3 days. Going by that, the pitch seems to have been true to type; the Australian approach was what was wrong.

Right, over to Melbourne. The reason it is tough to beat Australia in Melbourne is that the ground is just very difficult to play in. It is the largest cricket ground in the world, has a lush outfield and in recent history has a slow pitch with occasionally uneven bounce. A ground of comparable dimensions would be India’s Eden Gardens; however, it is significantly smaller, has a quick outfield and shorter boundaries and generally plays true though that ground too has produced its share of quagmires, notably the 96 World Cup semifinal. Ergo, at the G, the ball doesn’t quite rush onto the bat, the boundary is a distant object in the horizon and even after a good strike, the thick grass stops the ball in its tracks. Hello, this also makes life tough for the bowlers; they have to maintain a tight line and length relentlessly and neither half volleys nor long hops will do. And the fielders have to run long miles all day long. The sheer Herculean labours of performing on this ground daunt most opposition players…except, for a strange reason, they never seem to expect it. The ground’s deceptively benign reputation and the apparent absence of demons in the pitch lulls opposition into near-complacency and by the time a long, hard day of chasing leather has undeceived them, the initiative is lost. And you know what they say: give Australia an inch, they will take a mile.

On the other hand, Australia know MCG for exactly what it is and always approach it cautiously and watchfully, quite unlike their normal tendency to dominate the opposition from the start. Matthew Hayden said a zillion times during the Melbourne Test of last year against India that it was the toughest Melbourne pitch he had batted on; India came to realize this…with a huge deficit staring them in the face at the start of Day 3. This is why, on precisely the ground the opposition give themselves a good chance, Australia have a formidable record. Sure, Australia being who they are have done well in all their grounds, but make no mistake, Melbourne has played host to some ‘benign’ innings or two hundred run/ten wicket defeats over the years. TV Channel Star Cricket even has a series ‘Boxing Day Knock Outs’ to satiate the appetites of hungry Aussie fans!!! 😛

So how did Australia come to lose an admittedly tight-fought contest to India yesterday in their grand fortress?? Well, they did what you can call an Adelaide 2003….the pitch was tough but not tough enough to support a defence of a sub-200 total and even Ponting admitted this. A flurry of early wickets did not instill the instinctive caution that it should have in the Australian batsmen. They lost only two of their specialist batsmen – Michael Clarke and Brad Haddin – to pure indiscretion; the rest, barring the unlucky Gilchrist, fell to good bowling efforts. But that was enough to nip in the bud a famous Australian recovery; they could only manage phlegmatic resistance with the tail, or to be precise one of the tailenders Brett Lee. Australia fought lion-heartedly with the ball, but 160 was never going to be enough, especially after a quick start that whittled down half of the target with barely 2/3 of the overs completed.

The Twenty-20 match played at the same ground was a characteristic display of the Melbourne nemesis; the boundaries were farther and harder to scale than Durban or Wanderers, but by the time the Indian batsmen realized this, they had lost more than half their side and were in no position to recover. Perhaps this early nightmare made the Indian batsmen more circumspect in their approach, simultaneously inducing rare complacency in their Australian counterparts.

Finally, I had planned this piece even prior to the ODI fixture of yesterday…..I had a feeling deep down though that against the run of play, India would clinch this one. I waited to know the result, but my opinion is only reinforced, not changed by it. Kudos to India and God bless Ishant Sharma, the first real Indian tearaway!!!

What price patriotism??

February 9, 2008

Well, well, she may not possess the most lethal serve on the circuit (huge euphemism)..but Sania Mirza has really served an ace on the media, the religious zealots and the fervent pseudo-patriots. She has indefinitely quit participating in any tennis event held in India. That’s right, she’s gonna play tennis, she will play FOR India, but not IN India. There are a lot of questions now about her spirit, her character and lot of strident exhortations to take all in her stride and participate. I….I give her a whole-hearted thumbs-up on this one, she has once again shown that her verbal volleys seem to have more sting than the ones played by her on the tennis court! 😛

Cut to 2005. Sania Mirza, fresh from a decent and encouraging showing at the Australian Open, wins the Hyderabad Open, a Tier-IV event (read: easy opponents). An eager, and lamentably uninformed, Headlines Today correspondent announces that she, unlike the Indian cricket team, showed real fighting spirit. Remember our team was in the throes of the “To sack or not to sack Dada” crisis at that time and the amazing victories against the world’s best team in Kolkata (2001), Adelaide (2003) and Mumbai (2004) were already well and truly forgotten. Ironically, today there are calls for Sania to draw from Sachin or Dravid’s example and accept controversy as part and parcel of fame.

To digress, much water has since flown under the bridge. Sania Mirza’s doubles performances have been steadily improving but in the singles, she is unable to go beyond the last 16 of a Grand Slam simply because she neither has the firepower nor the consistency to break into that league. Form is fickle, but class is permanent and the Indian cricket team meanwhile have gone where no subcontinental team, not even Pakistan of the 80s , have ever gone – beating Australia at Perth. India also won the Twenty-20 World Cup in the meantime, putting cricket firmly back in the throne as far as Indian sports is concerned.

Perhaps the effect of that was to somewhat negate the wave of sympathy towards other sports that was gathering strength in the wake of the ODI World Cup debacle. Maybe or maybe not. But the first thing I said when the controversy of Mirza resting her feet “near” the Indian flag arose was “Chak De!!!”. If you have seen Chak De India the film, in the opening scenes, Kabir Khan misses a penalty shot that would have equalised the score in an India-Pakistan hockey match. As he goes down on his knees dejected, a sympathetic Pakistan player commends him for his efforts and offers him a handshake. An opportunistic journalist immediately photographs this gesture and cooks up a match-fixing slur on Kabir Khan. Doesn’t the Sania Mirza incident strike you as uncannily similar (maybe the photographer was – in the great tradition of Bollywood – inspired by Chak De??) ?? Henceforth all photos must come with the warning, “Objects in a photograph may be farther than they appear.” Rohan Bopanna has said that the flag was nowhere near as close to Mirza’s feet as it appears to be in the photo. He may only be expressing his solidarity for her, but there is a lot of truth in that statement. It also appears from the photo that there clearly was no intention to offend the tricolour in anyway by Mirza; for God’s sake, she was just watching the match!!!! It is easy for me to see that the insidiousness of the whole thing must have deeply shaken and hurt her. It is as if a billion pairs of eyes are watching her actions – Truman Show, you bet!!! – to spot anything ‘condemnable’ in them. If indeed it is so important that her conduct must be worthy of a Goddess, surely she might as well not risk playing in our beloved country, right??…it solves the problem for everyone – everyone, except the media. Now there’s one less story to crow about, to sensationalize, to ignite fires with….it also offers a certain tennis player the chance to fire a volley at his one-time doubles partner.

It is ironic that she used to sport a shirt with the caption, “Well-behaved women don’t make history”. Sadly, it seems that’s what the zealots and the swadesis are affirming unwittingly. It is also ironic that I should write a piece in defence of Sania Mirza….I have always been critical of her performance on the tennis court and scoffed at those who said she will get there with time – on the evidence of her records, she hasn’t. On her day, she can topple the top seeds – not necessarily by playing superlative tennis for there are too many weaknesses in her game for that to be a possibility!!! But even the top seeds aren’t always at their best and especially in the early rounds, they take time to get into their rhythm. If Sania plays close to her best tennis on such an occasion, she can and has beaten top seeds. What is required is for something that is merely an aberration at present to become habit. She has to capitalise on opportunities to advance and needs to be a little more disappointed about losing to Venus Williams after serving for the first set, not satisfied that she NEARLY got a set, the nearlys of the world are never even nearly recorded in history. I have been afraid that she’s just a little too satisfied with what she’s got – much like Harbhajan Singh – and doesn’t quite seem to realise that she needs to work harder to get to the next level.

However, all that cannot excuse such rampant, self-righteous scrutiny of what she does off-court and she has driven exactly that home in her original Sania isstyle. Way to go, Sania!!!!

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