Roger Federer’s recent win at the Australian Open reminded me of the almost-certainly apocryphal tale of Robert the Bruce and the spider, that most of us have heard as kids. Don’t remember the story? The legend goes thus – Robert the Bruce, King of Scots, was apparently once holed up in a cave where he observed a spider trying to bridge the gap between one part of the roof and another. In vain the spider tried to weave a connection between the two surfaces. Once and then twice the spider tried…and failed. And then, on the third attempt, it succeeded – and in the process inspired King Robert to pay no heed to his prior defeats and roundly thrash the English in future battles. It isn’t clear if Roger Federer has heard of this story or what his views on arachnid inspiration are. Being Swiss, he seems more William Tell than Robert the Bruce. But with his recent exploits at the Australian Open, he certainly lived up to the adage “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try and try again”.
Yes, I’m a rabid Roger Federer fan and hence it’s no surprise that I’m back writing yet another article extolling his virtues. But in my defense, these observations don’t stem from Roger’s exploits alone – they include learnings from Rafa’s super-human efforts to stay relevant as well. While they may have proven their mettle and uncanny ability to endure, on the tennis court, their methods are worthy of application in any realm of life. After enjoying fabulous careers (and ruining those of several others like Andy Roddick) for the better part of the 2000s, both have been written off many times in the past few years. Several self-proclaimed pundits have tut-tutted sympathetically that the best days of these amazing athletes is surely behind them and hence, they should be on their way to retirement and should patiently await a call from the Tennis Hall of Fame. And yet, in a brazen display of ignorance of the script, both these men ended up in the finals for one more installment of their rivalry. What’s the secret behind their enduring success?
Grit + Gumption = Glory
Yes…they’re insanely hard-working, talented beyond description, intelligent, etc. I don’t want to peddle these fairly obvious facets of their personalities as having contributed to their lasting success. Of course, these qualities have helped. But these are baseline characteristics that ALL top tennis players must possess. These do not distinguish Roger or Rafa from the rest of the madding crowd. They do not explain why these two gents have been around for so long and between them have won so much – while the rest of the field has been left licking their wounds. In my opinion, observing their methods and learning from their journeys holds great promise for all of us in our career and life journeys as well. Like Roger and Rafa, there are others in many realms of life who have enjoyed similarly lasting success. What makes them so tough? What makes them so different? What makes them so lastingly successful?
They feel boundless joy in their calling.
They exude an almost-inexplicable sense of joy in what they do and in life in general. Despite the hard work, the long hours, the defeats and setbacks – both Roger and Rafa (as evinced by their various interactions with fans and the media) display true passion and love for their sport. They seem to find themselves deeply on court and there is nothing else they’d rather be doing. One cannot attempt to gain mastery (an ingredient for repeatable success) at any pursuit without truly loving the pursuit independent of the rewards it may bring. Without this, you cannot and will not be able to justify to yourself (let alone to others whose support you will undoubtedly need) that the effort is worth it. If sportsmen are in it for just the medals or trophies, there will come a time when the effort simply doesn’t justify the short-lived elation of winning tournaments. The same goes for one’s career. Money, promotions, titles and other outward manifestations of success cannot serve as sustainable motivation to consistently put in the hard yards needed to achieve one’s fullest potential. What the French call joie de vivre, is an essential ingredient for lasting success at work and play!
They work hard at retaining control of their life’s narrative.
To quote H. W. Longfellow, “Into each life some rain must fall”. And fall it will. Please nod in acquiescence if there have been times in your life where you’ve felt that the narrative arc of your own story is out of your control. I know I have. In all folks who have managed to achieve enduring greatness, I see that they simply don’t seem to ever feel anything is out of their control. While naysayers may have waxed eloquent about why Roger or Rafa can never win again, these two gents have always behaved as though they have everything under control and they KNOW that they can work things out – no matter how uphill that climb may seem. Achieving lasting and repeatable success is not about never feeling that things are out of your control. It is about being able to wrest mental control back to a state where you truly believe you’re in the driver’s seat and nobody in the world can drive your own life better than you can and that only you have control over all the elements that can make that life meaningful and great. If you don’t achieve this, there will always be the odd incident here or there, the occasional crushing defeat, the unforeseen injury, the disappointment of being passed over for an opportunity or promotion, which causes you to give up and resort to hopelessness, despair and whining.
They seem immune to boredom.
Ever tried doing something that’s really really REALLY hard every single day (even on holidays) come rain or shine for years and years on end? No – I haven’t. But I’m willing to wager that every single player worth his/her salt in the ATP/WTA top-100 has, since early childhood no less! IMHO, where the truly great distinguish themselves from the merely great is how intense their focus is when their body and mind is screaming at them to please stop and take a day off. Sure, it is but human to feel bored occasionally no matter how passionate one is, or how glorious the promised land that one is persevering towards is, in the mind’s eye. I am sure even the best of the best tend to feel bored – the likes of Roger and Rafa included. So, what is the downside of once in a while going through the motions while feeling bored? Quite simply, when one succumbs to boredom and loses focus, learning gets compromised. Excelling at something needs an attitude of learning – constantly observing what works, what doesn’t, etc. even during practice. The baseline hard work needed to even stay competitive will force all top players to continue practicing or focusing on their physical fitness even when their mind is protesting the routine. While merely going through the motions may avoid the guilt of skipping it altogether, the loss of focus in giving into boredom will compromise the quality of these sessions. A certain cultivated immunity to boredom is essential to playing to peak potential. Learning should NEVER stop. Learning is a compound-interest bearing instrument – every single day counts!
They are audaciously optimistic about their future.
They are optimistic in the extreme – almost audaciously so! Even in the darkest of times, both Roger and Rafa can be seen dejected, but quietly positive that they can and WILL overcome failure and win again. Maybe it is an optimism born of true self-awareness. Self-awareness of their hard-earned mastery of their craft which gives rise to true belief that their skill and hard-work can overcome all obstacles. But… can this be attributed to mere rational thought? Having been doled defeats ad nauseam in the form of a looping top-spin forehand to a (relatively) weak single-handed backhand, would it really be possible for Federer to feel no self-doubt at all? Having seen his knee and wrist and various other joints give way time and time again, would Rafa have had no flickering of self-doubt about his body’s fragility in the long run? I don’t think so. Self-doubt is an endearingly human quality that none of us should shun or treat as weakness. It keeps the best among us grounded and provides a much-needed antidote to an inflated ego. However, the ability to overcome bouts of self-doubt with reflection that leads to a razor-sharp focus on what needs doing and what needs ignoring, makes these individuals super-human. This simplification of self-doubt into progress-oriented action is a trick that only optimistic people can accomplish. They never rue their circumstances or blame their lot on factors out of their control. While the rest may wallow in dark thoughts, optimistic people choose to NOT live their life as though they are powerless in the face of the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and try to do the best they can, to win again. Audacious optimism born of an abundance of enterprise and initiative, is never a bad thing!
Want to be like Roger or Rafa? Take a generous helping of determination and hard work. Throw in a soupçon of gumption with audacious optimism and common sense. Top off with loads of grit by eschewing boredom and truly believing that you and you alone, are the mistress/master of your destiny.
Grit + Gumption = Glory!
I admit it. I am an unabashed Federer fan-boy and it took a tennis event of volcanic proportions to rid me of writer’s block and finally update this long dormant blog. As eye-rolling Federer skeptics indulge in a paroxysm of clicks and touches of the back button to head back to whence they came, I will ask fellow #FedFans to join me in yet another deliciously addictive reminiscing of the day Federer turned 18!
It is a state of mind familiar to the most ardent devotees of Roger Federer when I say that it has been two weeks of glorious gorging of all news and media related to Federer. I’ve feasted on every article – mostly mundane, some sublime and a few downright asinine – written about Roger’s pinch-me-hard-because-I-must-be-dreaming victory at the Australian Open. I’ve watched YouTube videos of the match (especially the fifth set!) more times than I care to admit. With each viewing, I’ve marvelled and thrilled at every beautiful shot of Roger’s and Rafa’s in that match – and have cringed at Roger’s numerous unforced errors with the smug sense of relief and none of the usual sense of foreboding and doom felt during a live match – a blissful state of mind that can only be born of knowing that the end-result was favorable. For the die-hard Roger fan, it has been five years of painful waiting for that elusive 18th title. Five years of hearing self-proclaimed tennis aficionados clicking their tongues with tender pity at his obstinate refusal to acknowledge his sell-by date and gracefully retire. Five years of moments of rapturous promise – like the butt-kicking he unleashed on Murray at the Wimbledon semi-finals a couple of years ago – turning quickly into oh-so-close-but-so-far defeats at the hands of Djokovic at a few finals or the say-it-ain’t-so losses at the hands of power-hitters like Marin Cilic or Raonic. Five years of wondering if people weren’t right after all – that he may never ever win another grand slam again. And yet, five years of arguing with people that a man who loves tennis as much, should play as long as his heart desires – simply because he is still so bloody good at it, even if he doesn’t win as much as he used to! Five years of wondering when the pain that only the die-hard fan feels at his every loss…would ever begin to dull.
As the saying goes, ‘Good things come to those who wait‘. And boy did that phrase ever make sense on Jan 29th – when the Gods of Tennis rewarded our patience by helping Roger Federer overcome a decade of demotivating losses to win in 5 sets over Rafa Nadal. Evidence of fate colluding to bring Roger and Rafa together for one more (possibly last) satisfying meeting in a grand slam final, is writ large in the events that transpired over the two weeks. The losses suffered by Murray and Djoker in early rounds, the faster court surface favoring aggression over defense, milder than usual temps Down Under helping our ageing warriors conserve energy – all factors designed to create the black swan event of a “FEDAL” final! Be that as it may, the final was one for the ages. Drama, tension, see-sawing of fortunes, breathtaking shot-making as well as astonishingly impregnable defense – this match had it all! And for both players, we also witnessed the fascinating juxtaposition of mind over matter and vice-versa.
Many of the articles I’ve read in the ensuing days has focused on a painstaking analysis of how Roger managed to up-end the now-familiar script of his backhand eventually bowing down to the many RPMs and height generated by Rafa’s topspin forehand. Succumbing to the inexorable march of “Big Data” into the most remote recesses of our lives, tennis is a much measured sport these days. Data is endlessly sliced and diced around first serve percentages, unforced errors, return efficacy, ratio of approaches to net to points won – or various combinations of these measurable aspects. This approach obviously appeals to the geek in me. Being an eternal optimist, I misguidedly hope to glean lessons from this microscopic examination of professional games for profit in my own amateurish attempts at playing tennis. What I – and other lovers of the beautiful game – know intuitively is that no degree of data analysis can explain or demystify the complex ebb and flow of games. To be sure, this obsession with numbers has some utility value – but it feels like today the numbers have assumed a relevance beyond what is truly theirs simply because “Big Data” is the flavor du jour.
The results of poring over metrics cannot (and should not) reduce the experience of magic, like we had in the recent final, to a mundane manifestation in the dry terms of percentages and probabilities. Tennis is an individual sport played all alone. A sport where protagonists have to beat their own inner demons while simultaneously beating the person on the opposite side of the net. The mind matters more than mere matter. Of crucial importance is the fitness regimen that players religiously follow in and off-season, their devotion to spending long hours on the practice court, their single-minded dedication to researching opponents’ strengths and weaknesses and making constant tweaks to their game to stay ahead of the pack (or catch up to it). These aspects are the lowest common denominator for success in today’s game – table stakes to stay relevant. While the effort that goes into preparation undoubtedly accounts for the lion’s share of success on a given day, how does one explain why one player wins and another doesn’t, when this difference in their level of preparation and intensity of effort is so infinitesimally small as to render it a moot point? Can the win and loss be reduced to an analysis of data? I opine not. Body mechanics on the day, mental state in clutch moments, decisions a player takes in split seconds that sometimes may go against established conventions of playing the percentages, how a player reacts to the loss of a hard-fought game with 5 break-points frittered away, how a player resists the urge to alter their commitment to a plan when it is being buffeted by the brutality of Rafa’s topspin (or in some cases how she resists the urge to obstinately stay a doomed course) – these determine outcomes. For instance, at the end of a 26-shot rally of jaw-dropping quality where the flow of control seemed to oscillate between both players, Federer somehow found the gumption to let loose a near half-volley audacious down the line flick for a winner. Or down 30-40 in the final game, he pummeled a deep inside-out forehand that drew him back to deuce. A post-match analysis of the numbers will reduce these two events to a collection of forehands, backhands, winners and errors. Who can quantify how Rafa’s spirit might have been sapped by Roger stealing that point after 26 shots? Or how he dealt with the disappointment of seeing two break points get swallowed up – one by an ace and another by a forehand Roger had no business even attempting, given how much was at stake.
NOBODY in today’s game embodies the mental toughness required to win in such situations, than Rafa Nadal. My unfettered admiration for Rafa stems from the fact that he is the very Epitome of Effort, a Paragon of Perseverance and the living God of Grit – qualities I hold dearer than mere God-given talent. That Roger was able to mount a fightback from a break down in the fifth set, looking down a fully loaded barrel and in such emphatic fashion reel off 5 consecutive games to win the title, makes the victory simultaneously hard to believe and sweeter than sin. His backhand assumed an air of authority and impunity that it rarely ever exudes against Rafa, while his usually-reliable serve and forehand also continued to fire on all cylinders. The result was an almost Wawrinka-like backhand beatdown that we had never seen in a Roger vs Rafa match before. In fact, in that last set it almost seemed as though Roger’s backhand was more reliable, more incisive and far more likely to generate sharply angled winners than his forehand! Throwing caution to the wind, firing audacious winners from both wings and keeping unthinkable levels of pressure on the Rafa serve, Roger pulled off a great escape of Houdini-esque proportions and in victory applied much needed salve on the wounds of the patiently devoted – like me.
It was beautiful, blissful and immensely satisfying – all at once. When that final hawk-eye challenge went in Roger’s favor, I felt like Tim Robbins’ Andy Dufresne in the climactic scene in my favorite movie of all time – The Shawshank Redemption – when he breaks out of prison by crawling through a river of unspeakable filth to emerge free (and figuratively clean) on the other side. We may never again experience all elements of the universe conspiring in such fairytale fashion – but we can continue to hope that it will. And we can keep hoping that Roger can continue to play, like only he can, as long as his spirit wills him to enjoy the game that has given him so much and to which he has given in equal measure.
Onward now to Wimbledon. Let’s hope there’s more magic in them old bones to water the green lawns with his tears one more time. Go Roger!
“Sheesh!”, I hear you exclaim. “What’s with the pathetic pun in the title?”, I hear you ask… (rather droll, don’t you think?). If you’ve managed to overlook that and are getting ready to dive in, I’d like to warn you that this isn’t one of those Deepak Chopra-like articles that dishes out banality in bucketfuls and peddles pious platitudes in plenty. This is really much much worse. I do not have Mr. Chopra’s rhetorical flair, nor his astounding gift for nuanced nonsense. I rely however on the unintentional (I assume) comic genius of Bangalore’s best and brightest, as they attempt to persuade me that I should hire them.
It has been well over a year since I left the comfortable confines of a large German software giant to try my luck at running an organization from a small house that should officially be declared unfit for human habitation – but works just fine for software engineers. Mine was a sheltered life until then. I hadn’t dealt with the multitude of mundane yet maddening struggles that comprise a day in the life of someone trying to setup and operate an offshore development center in Bangalore. Well… 18 months into herding cats for a living, I seem to be holding my own…for the most part. Actually, running an outfit in Bangalore is really pretty much all fun and games… but more fun in some aspects than you can even begin to imagine. Some of the best laughs of my life have come from interviewing the teeming masses of people I need to closely examine, to grow a team 6-fold.
The setup is usually the same…there’s the obligatory “phone screen” courtship, followed by the always entertaining “f2f” engagement, the “offer letter” pre-nup dance and culminating in the employee standing us up at the altar by almost always not showing up on the first day of work after signing the pre-nup. Phone interviews unerringly start with me speaking in an unnecessarily grave and ponderously deep voice to lend gravitas to the solemn occasion and sound appropriately middle-aged and sufficiently weighed down with responsibility. Following this, with very little provocation from me, the candidate speaks exceedingly highly of himself or herself, with glowing accounts of entirely fictitious (or borrowed) achievements at their current workplace and me oohing and aaahing at the opportune moments to express affected admiration. Life is good in these initial few minutes. I’m limbering up for the sucker-punch… the candidate is on a roll extolling many of his or her imaginary virtues. The sun is shining gloriously… and then I unfortunately feel compelled to strike the jarring note by asking them to do some thinking. At which point, what seemed to be the beginning of a beautiful friendship, sputters to a halt entirely.
My first taste of the magnitude of the task that lay ahead of me in growing our little brood from six to thirty-six came when I was putting the finishing touches on what looked like the successful hiring of someone I’ll call “Bachelor #1”. Beaming benevolently at B1, I told him I looked forward to him joining. He beamed back competitively and said he looked forward to it as well. And then, suddenly, with the melancholic air of a man who has realized that unto each life some rain must often fall, B1 told me he can’t join me. I continued to beam (I like to have the last beam) and asked him why he was inserting the negative note in this happy scene. “I want to get married”, he replied, blushing like an excited beetroot and quickly averted his gaze to conduct a close examination of the (somewhat dusty) floor. This seemed like a puzzling non sequitur to me… neither here nor there. Jumping onto the nearest conclusion that happened to be passing by, my beaming took on an avuncular and sympathetic air as I graciously conceded that even the best of us makes colossal mistakes in life and that as a married man myself, I would be out of a job if I imposed an “only-singles-can-work-here” policy at work. While cautioning him against unnecessary rashness, I reassured him that I would still like to have him as an employee even if he did get married. I had apparently missed the point by a mile and B1 set me right quickly. Given the down-market chic, non-shiny digs we were in… and given that our company was not called “Infosys”, B1 did not fancy his chances of finding a prospective father-in-law rash enough to give him his daughter’s hand in marriage. I prefer to not go into the difficulties I’ve had in convincing my management to invest in a new office (or court acquisition by Infosys – whichever is simpler, I’m flexible like that) for the simple reason that our employees need to get married. We’ll save that sitcom for another day.
After this bracing episode, things have only gotten better. I’ve dealt with situations that seem to get funnier by the day. Next up on deck to have me in splits was Mr. Respectful – a very obsequious and somewhat timid young man. Having done himself credit in the written test I had administered to test his mettle, he waxed eloquent about how it would be a privilege for him to work in our organization. Considering that he had never heard about my company till he walked in for his interview that afternoon, I was impressed at this instant admiration for us. We bantered amiably for a few minutes and he took my leave promising to send me the signed offer letter after he took his grand-dad’s blessings. Touching… this expression of Gen-Y affection for the aged relative. Given that it was a Friday evening, I expected to hear back from him only on Monday or later. He called me from his native village outside Bangalore on Saturday. After the customary pleasantries (in the west this usually takes the form of small talk about the weather… in India it is always the all important question “have you had lunch?”), Mr. Respectful breathlessly asked in a hopeful voice… “Guru, do you speak Telugu?”. I’m usually unflappable in the face of bizarre questions… but this was a bit much. I reeled. “Cough… gulp… what?”, I managed to splutter. He repeated his question and I answered that I could manage a few sentences in the language (like – “have you had lunch?”), but that I didn’t see where this was going. He abruptly said “Great! I’ll hand the phone to my grand-dad. He isn’t OK with me working for anybody other than Infosys and I think you can convince him!”. Whoa! I really wanted to hire the guy, but not that desperately! Bye-Bye…
In the course of my adventures, I’ve met potential employees of all hues. Some are laconic to a fault. Like one gentleman who when confronted with the statement from me over email that he had not shown up for a previously scheduled f2f interview, merely responded with a short and sweet “Ya” (yeah). I guess the fault was mine… I didn’t frame it as a question, but as a statement. I got my just desserts. And another was when I (in my usual ponderously deep voice) had this back and forth with one guy
Me: “From your resume, I can see you work at XYZ Software Solutions”
Me: “Great! What do you do for XYZ Software Solutions?” (as you can see I’m slowly learning to ask, not just state)
He (with the patient air of someone dealing with a retard): “I *work* at XYZ Software Solutions”
And then there are those who are extremely inventive in the way they try to explain technical concepts. The following back and forth, with a gentleman from a neighboring state, maybe a bit technical for those fortunate enough to have not dealt with software for a living, but I’m wagering you’ll understand the fundamental underpinnings of Object Oriented Programming Systems (fondly known as OOPS to the Indian cognoscenti – or “woops” to some as I found out) after you read this.
Me: “Under the assumption that I don’t know a damn thing about OO Programming, convince me about the need for polymorphism.”
He: “Do you at least know superclass-subclass?”
Me: “No” (and I quickly add , lest he starts to think he’s interviewing for a job with someone who is utterly ignorant) “Just assume I don’t… ”.
He: “Tchah…” (with disappointment writ large in the tone)
He: “If you don’t even know that, I must explain things from the beginning…”
Me: “Yes, that’s always a good place to start”
He: “We have *woops* concepts in Java. Super class is like the father. Subclass is like the child”
He: “You will inherit property and money from your father.”
Me (thinking sadly to myself): “Sighhh… that’s not really true for everybody, y’know…”
He: “The same way in *woops*, subclass also inherits property from the superclass”
He: “In real life inheritance is good. In programming also it is the same way. That’s why we need polymorphism”
Since most of my interviews are technical, I have loads of other anecdotes that are sure to regale those of you who understand enough about Java programming to appreciate the unintentional humor behind some of the answers I’ve got. I’ll not bore the general populace with this.
I’m beginning to realize that the super-hot job market in Bangalore engenders a sense of invincibility in the people most in demand – the worker bees in the 3-7 yr experience bracket. How else would you explain the brash honesty and devil-may-care nonchalance displayed by a Mr. Sleepy in the episode below? I called Sleepy at a previously scheduled slot at 10 AM that my recruiter had setup. After letting the phone ring for an eternity, Sleepy deigned to answer the phone
S (sounding groggy): “Hullohhh?”
Me (in a non-deep, chirpy, top-O-the-mornin-to-ya voice): “Blah blah blah… calling for our phone interview”
S: “I slept really late last night and am sleepy… can you call back at 2 PM?”
However, with these episodes getting increasingly humorous. a sneaky suspicion is beginning to dawn on me…I think these guys are having some fun at my expense rather than the other way round. Here’s one for the ages from a week ago that really makes me think the joke is firmly and entirely on me… I called a chap we will refer to as Mr. Outdoors who worked at XYZ Consulting.. He asked me to call him back in 5 minutes because he was not in “a comfortable position to talk”… I caught him in flagrante delicto, I guess…
I called him back and asked him about his work at XYZ Consulting… he gave me the usual BS…
And then came the sucker punch – from him to me….
Me: “Looks like you have worked for XYZ for just 9 months, what’s making you look outside XYZ?”
Mr. O: “Are you are asking me why I am looking outside XYZ?”
Me: “Absolutely wonderful how you like to get instant feedback on your understanding of the question. Yes… that’s exactly what I want to know.”
Mr. O (in a conspiratorial stage whisper): “Actually, I am on the rooftop cafeteria of the XYZ building for this phone interview and it is an open cafeteria and I am near the edge… that’s why I am looking outside XYZ.”
Me: (after two minutes of silent struggle trying to not guffaw…tears rolling down my cheek) “That explains everything… thanks!”
Over the course of these months of mirth and merriment, I have unfortunately managed to hire many excellent folks (albeit lacking the comic talents of the above mentioned beauties). Unfortunate because, with each new hire who actually comes on board, the future for the reliable comic relief afforded by the hiring process looks bleak. I guess I will now have to look elsewhere for my daily dose of helpless laughter. Wish me luck!!
This has to count as a first! Me writing about tennis when Federer isn’t in the mix! Had to happen one day… my love for tennis isn’t going to suffer the demise that any one man’s dominance on top of this beautiful sport was bound to eventually experience. Folks – this post is going to be bereft of the tears and the drama that is inevitable when writing about a Federer victory (or loss) these days. I’m going to pontificate on yesterday’s match and its technicalities in a tediously verbose manner, sounding like I know what I’m talking about – dispensing analysis while still seated snugly in my armchair of amateur tennis mediocrity.
Still reading? I’ll take that as evidence that you love me unconditionally *and* have tons of time to spare.
Many things in life provide a pleasure vastly disproportionate to their discernible importance (or lack thereof, as the case is). The preening sense of triumph with which one gives in to the temptation of saying “I told you so” must rank very high amongst these pleasures. In my last post in September last year, I heralded (rightly, I have to point out) the arrival of a new force in men’s tennis and events this year have proven me right :). This new force has emphatically underlined his presence by grabbing both the #1 spot, and the Wimbledon crown from Rafa in three days. But how? How in the world did Djoker manage this gargantuan feat? I think I know. He just out-Nadaled Nadal! We saw Djokovic take Nadal’s playbook and execute it much better than the man himself.
Let’s deconstruct the dismantling of that which was hither-to resistant to dismantling. Djoker seemed so goddamn self-assured on the court. Sports an aura of invincibility these days, if you will. He no longer seems intimidated by or in awe of Nadal – which was a marked difference in his demeanor from last year’s US Open finals. Djokovic betrays absolutely no weakness off either wings. His ability to rip winners seems to emanate from both the forehand and backhand side – which is something Federer cannot consistently do from the backhand side. With Roger, Rafa found his kryptonite and attacked his backhand relentlessly till it broke down. With Djoker, he is up against someone who has no apparent weakness – other than having the odd “off day”. While Rog does play some incredible single-handed backhands, one always gets the feeling that the next dump-into-the-net or shoot-off-the-frame-into-the-tramlines backhand, is around the corner when he plays Nadal. He simply cannot deal with the high ball to his comparatively weak backhand. In sharp contrast Djoker can actually hit clean winners off this otherwise potent weapon of Rafa’s. He takes the ball early and his perfect double-handed technique neutralizes Rafa’s top-spin and renders any threat from the looping backhand pretty mild if not entirely non-existent. And thanks to being absolutely on top of his game on both wings, Djokovic has the ability and confidence to disguise his shots until the very last minute – denying a defensive genius like Rafa that all-important read on where the next ball is going – which can make the difference between looking like you can get to every ball – and looking like you’re a milli-second slower than usual. All tennis players are taught the all-important “split-step” before they make their journey towards the ball. Against most players whose moves he can easily read, Rafa combines the split-step and the start of the journey towards the ball into one physically impossible twisting-turning-moving motion. With Djokovic, his split-step was just that and no more – robbing him of that extra millisecond of movement in the right direction.
The Djokovic of old had a decent serve, but one that was readable and not remarkable in any way. After a tumultuous period of change where he brought in Todd Martin to fix his game, ended up worse for the coaching and barely clung onto his #3 ranking for most of 2010, he seems to have found all the answers rapidly in the second half of 2010. His serve has more bite now – and he can place it anywhere in the box seemingly at will without giving the positioning away in his toss. Nadal, who thrives on reading what people are going to do with the ball, was left flatfooted on Djoker’s serve and many other shots. On the deuce court, Djoker’s serve was pretty much always placed wide to Nadal’s backhand. And since Rafa doesn’t usually dictate play with his backhand, Djok was able to dictate terms the minute the return came floating in. In sharp contrast, Djok was able to oftentimes jump all over Rafa’s wide-slice serve and denied him the setup Rafa so often relies on to pretty much never lose his service games.
Djoker’s speed, never shabby to begin with, is astounding now – as is his ability to hit while on the run. He tracked down pretty much every ball that Nadal hit yesterday, seemed to be everywhere all at once and messed with Rafa’s gameplan in much the same way that Rafa messes with all other hapless opponents. For me, the play that broke the camel’s back was at the end of the first set, when Djokovic ran down a phenomenal Rafa drop shot – and put it out of reach of the man who gets to every ball.
We now move on to the hard-court season, to what is Djokovic’s supposed strongest surface. After what I saw yesterday at Wimbledon, if I were Rafa or Roger, I’d be afraid. Very very afraid.
I know, I know… I know what you’re thinking. The dude stopped writing about tennis the minute Roger stopped winning. Fair enough. I accept the accusation. How about I make amends for this by writing about tennis after what I consider to be Roger’s worst loss? For the record, I didn’t watch the match. I am glad I didn’t. Watching Roger these days is a combination of marveling at his virtuosity and cursing his idiocy, within seconds of each other. Did my heart a world of good to not watch the match. From all accounts of it on the numerous tennis websites I peruse, I might not have lived to pen this tale, had I been rash enough to watch.
What motivates me to write is not Roger’s loss. Far from it. It is no secret that I am miserably unhappy when he loses to anybody but Rafa. If there is one person on the planet who deserves to beat Roger, it is Rafa – not because he is a more skilled proponent of the game – no, he isn’t – and I say this on the authority of wielding a not-half-bad racquet myself. He deserves to beat Roger because a more tenacious, bulldog-like, well-muscled, hardworking, constant-wedgie-inducing-shorts-wearing warrior of a SOB I am yet to see. I admire this more than I’ll admire God-given-practice-honed talent any day (not the ill-fitting-shorts – I’ll give that a miss). I am motivated to write about tennis today because of a text message I was woken up by at 4:24 AM on Sunday morning. From a friend who said “Was worth losing sleep today – to see FED losing!”. Got me thinking, it did. Also got me riled to the point of partaking from the same well of insomnia that my friend seemed to have sipped from – albeit with markedly less enthusiasm about the sleep-deprivation being worth it. Got me thinking about why a talent like Federer’s inspires dumbstruck love in the masses – and *virulent* hatred in a few others. Why is it that the spectacle of someone who plays tennis with such beauty, precision and effortlessness (I say this on authority of being someone who labors mightily for every point I’ve ever played) can induce such disgust in some? Is it the same in other sports? Did the Khans of squash contend with similar animosity while they spent the better part of a decade kicking everybody’s butt on the parquet? Does Sachin Tendulkar, God that he undoubtedly is, contend with mere mortals spitting in contempt at his achievements? Maybe such is the case and the reason I don’t know is because I don’t follow any other sport with a hundredth of the passion I follow tennis with.
In pursuance of my ill-advised research into the complex workings of the human mind that make it possible to hate a phenomenon like Rog, I asked the gent who sent the insomnia-inducing sms why he hated Roger thus. He responded to say, “As talented as Fed is – I always thought he got a free run – surrounded by players who had the skill but not the balls to think he is beatable – until Nadal came along and now there are more who think they can beat Fed. In my books someone like Sampras is way ahead of Fed.”. I will discount this as wing-nut-speak right away. The stats belie this fatuous argument. *Nobody* can possibly get to 23 consecutive grand-slam semi finals and 22 grand slam finals and win 16 of them purely because the skilled “men” on the other side of the net were riddled with testicular deficiencies. That Fed continued to win everywhere else in spite of getting his rear kicked by Nadal at the French, weakens the argument further. To say that these fine athletes, who practice day in and day out to be the very best at their chosen trade, lost simply because they were scared that they couldn’t win against the scary monster of a Federer on the other side of the net, is grotesquely nonsensical at best. As for Sampras – before Roger came on the scene, I was a die-hard devotee of Pete. Far be it from me to say anything against him. To me, he will always be the best grass court player ever. Roger on his best day would have had to be seriously inspired to beat Pete at Wimbledon. But that being said, Pete just couldn’t cut the mustard on clay while Roger, to his credit has been second best to only the best clay-courter of all time.
I guess the truth is that greatness invokes a visceral response – adoring or otherwise. The reasons are immaterial and in some cases may be laughably bereft of logic, as most emotional reactions are. To the person on the opposite side of the fence, me waxing eloquent and singing hosannas about Roger’s virtuosity might come across as the illogical rambling of a deranged fan. The fact that a Roger or a Tendulkar or a certain philandering golfer has sometimes-rabid detractors is circumstantial evidence of their individual greatness. Before the Rafa die-hards protest at his exclusion from the list – fear not, I count myself a fan too. I have seen Rafa detractors who insist that Del Potro is the true blue champ. And I know Del Potro haters who can’t fathom why everybody doesn’t love Andy Roddick or David Nalbandian as the Chosen One. But… I digress. I really shouldn’t be bringing up the names of these supposedly anatomically unblessed scaredy-cats.
Back to the beautiful game. In missing Djoker vs Federer, I guess I missed an inflection point in the world of tennis. We are most certainly witnessing the beginning of sunset in a champion’s life. The old must give way to the new and into each life tons of rain must fall. I truly believe that Roger will win a grandslam or two – he definitely has enough skill for that. Anybody who watched him play at this year’s open can’t believe that he is over the hill for good. But he is not the Roger of old. I don’t see him ever challenging for the #1 spot, if Nadal’s knees remain healthy. His timing is a tad off, the spirit isn’t as willing and the flesh is definitely weak (compared to the nipping younger 20-somethings who now take bite sized chunks off his heels). He still finds himself in the right spot effortlessly most of the time. But when he gets there, it isn’t the slam-dunk ripping winner along the sidelines any more. More often than I’d like, it’s a ball ricocheting off the frame into the tramlines or beyond. 66 unforced errors in a match is so un-Roger-like that it is scarcely believable. All credit to Djokovic though – saving two matchpoints with magical shots, suggests that he is finally coming of age. It is the manner in which Fed seems to have lost, that suggests a turning point. A point where those of us who are no longer in our early twenties like Djoker or Rafa, empathize with the trauma and the travails of an older genius succumbing and coming to terms with life’s inevitabilities. All I hope is that following the time-tested formula of old, he doesn’t retire into the sunset way before his time when he wins his next grandslam. He surely has a few more years of beautiful tennis left in him. I want to watch him play – even if it is a wondrous experience mixed with the emotions of a cat navigating a hot tin roof. Tennis is greater than the man and this is not the time to whine about the fading of a champ. New and better ones will emerge. Djokovic seems to have transformed into a force this year and maybe Murray will give some hope to the perennially whining Brits next year. Rafa will continue to amaze and the others will only get better and better, in large part because of the high bar that Roger has set.
Sure… tennis is just a game and we should all watch/play it for a couple of hours and put it out of our heads. But then, how is it possible for the experience to not linger when you witness something done to perfection? Wouldn’t the strains of a musical concert where musicians outdo themselves just as likely to continue to chime in the inner recesses of your mind or between pursed lips? The wing-nuts may disagree, but I as a player will aver that Roger’s game at its peak was painfully beautiful. Beautiful because of the perfection of form, mechanics, timing and tactics that made him invincible to all but one left-hander armed with the perfect kryptonite of shots. Painful because all perfection is fragile and ephemeral and we all knew there had to come a time when the rain fell during the sunset, to mix metaphors liberally. Some of us looked forward to it rubbing our hands in glee. And others like me biting their nails while praying for postponement of the inevitable. Unless Djoker produces some sublime, yet pugnacious tennis on Monday, it is the day when Rafa begins his true reign as an all-slam winner. I wager that his reign isn’t likely to be as long or as painfully elegant as Roger’s was. But if ever there was a guy capable of intimidating skilled men across the net into emasculation, Rafa is the one. Long live the King.
Rafa… one request…please buy some better fitting shorts that don’t constantly ride up your butt. And yes, please eat Djoker for lunch on Monday.
Caesar and the rest of the conquering types must be so glad they didn’t have someone like me gumming up the works with long articles to read just as they’re getting ready to go out and do their bit to reduce the human population by massacring a few thousand soldiers. I haven’t written anything in ages, so quit complaining and read along, will ya?!
Thought I’d ramble on inconsequentially about the thoroughly enjoyable birthday weekend trip the girls and I took to the Orange County Resort on the Kabini river near Mysore. The trip worked out perfectly. The place was *AMAZING*. The cottage we stayed in had a courtyard pool was simply awesome and as expected, the kids and adults had a BLAST.
We had an elephant interaction event on the second day. The elephant was a ponderous looking 47 year old female who is counted as part of the resort staff :). And befitting her status as member of the staff, she gets a big barn alongside the staff quarters, in the same compound :). We first had a ride on the elephant, which was a fun experience. Since we were four on the elephant, with me sitting on the tail end of the beast, I had very little space on the cushion on top of the elephant. I was forced to sit half on the cushion and half on the backbone/tail-end of the elephant. I was shocked at how very unlike a limo-ride it was. First – the hair is poky and not fun when wearing shorts. Second, the elephantine backbone has a mind of its own and moves in mysterious ways its wonders to perform. Sitting on it was ticklish in the extreme. I tried taking Jesus’ excellent advice and turned the other cheek – and then the other. It was of no use. Obviously not in tune with Jesus’ teachings, these elephants. I was laughing uncontrollably all the while – and the elephant, sensing something on its rear-end, and unable to appreciate my mirth, kept swatting me with its tail. Quite a sting it packed, I can tell you from experience!!. After the ride, the elephant, monosyllabic mahout and us, all trudged to the river, where the elephant just plonked itself into the water and proceeded to wallow in the shallows and cool off, glad no doubt to be rid of my annoying presence on its back. After a few minutes of this, the mahout suggested I take Akshara and sit on its back. Seeing that he was armed with a sharp looking instrument, I did as instructed – and the damn pachyderm, without giving me as much as a gentle warning, got sweet revenge by filling its trunk with water and soaking me to the BONE with the filthy muck in which it had just frolicked!! . And having relished the experience, proceeded to do this three more times. By the time we were done, I admitted defeat – and Akshara bawled her lungs out in fright. Alekhya, the daredevil in the family, went next and thoroughly enjoyed getting soaked with water and slush. Definitely the highlight of her trip!
We took the boat safari in the evening – lot of fun, but all we saw were bored looking elephants (probably envying their captive sister who managed to soak humans for fun) and a few grazing deer. The resort guys have a good scam going. First they build the suspense up when you reach by having their walkie-talkies crackle incomprehensibly. They look up at you with a grave expression and say things like – “ooh, excuse me sir. I’m getting alerts about a Tiger/crocodile/leopard sighting.” (What he forgot to mention was that this was a Tigger doll that some kid had taken along on the safari). This gets one all excited and the next thing you know, you’re signing up for the safari, convinced that you’re going to spot a tiger or leopard, secretly hoping that you can watch it feasting on one of the plump and overfed tourists from one of the other resorts in the vicinity. With this happy thought in mind, we boarded the boat and off we went. We saw some “spotted deer” on the way – i.e. deer that have been spotted many times, love being spotted and will continue being spotted and are hence called spotted deer. Explains why there is no such thing as a “spotted tiger” – nobody has spotted one! We saw a herd of elephants grazing absent-mindedly. The best part was a teeny tiny tot that was part of the herd. Barely a few months old, the little critter kept hiding between his/her parents’ legs and for their part, they were fiercely protective of his/her super-natural cuteness and didn’t let us take too long a look at him/her. It was a wonderful scene to see them enjoying their food in the wild. Sort of made us feel very happy to see animals in the wild. All’s well with the world and all that, if you know what I mean. But we did not see any tigers. There was this one time when the (spotted) guide on our boat sat upright in his seat and said in a hoarse whisper – “Did you hear that?!!!”. “What?”, I asked, rather cluelessly. “That was the roar of a (unspotted) tiger”, he said, resorting to that dramatic stage whisper again. The rest of the tourist herd looked suitably impressed. I didn’t dare tell them that it was actually my stomach rumbling in anticipation of the evening meal – much like the tiger’s stomach upon sighting that oft-spotted-deer.
After we got back, there was the evening festivities to look forward to. At 7:30 every alternate day, the resort has a “tribal dance”. An event aimed squarely at those either white in the skin or those a little soft in the head. A bunch of morose looking blokes gathered around a fire, squatting and muttering amongst themselves. We were all seated around tables in the open, being plied liberally with beer and fried stuff of indeterminate, but tasty origin. The lake/river shimmered nicely in the full moon. All in all, a pleasant scene. Suddenly one of the blokes called for our attention. Introduced himself as a tribal – a “Kaadu Kuruba” he said. Said his brethren were going to entertain us with a few tribal dances. Rambled on in broken English for a few minutes, liberally using the phrase “very spiritual dance” many times during his monologue. He had a knack for the dog and pony show. Really knew how to use the term “spiritual dance” whenever the audience’s enthusiasm was flagging. The dudes gathered around the fire. One of them started beating the drum and the other played a musical instrument that seemed to have passed its use-by date several decades ago, putting out a particularly mournful tune that had me wishing I was in the jaws of a crocodile. The blokes linked hands and started shaking their legs, moving around the fire in circles as they hooted, made guttural sounds and seemed to shout what unmistakably sounded like “Aaaaiii-Yaaaayyiiii-YYYooooo” said in a mocking tone. This being done and photographs clicked by some of the more gullible tourists, the talking tribal elder came up and again said a lot about spiritual dancing. Full of spirit he was, I could tell (and smell). The second dance began – and what do you know… I couldn’t tell one spiritual dance from the others. Same sound, same moves, same whistling and shouting. These spiritual dances are subtle in their differences. I couldn’t tell what these differences were. I guess the spirit wasn’t with me. The talking man did some more talking and the message was the same – spiritual dance, blah blah, spiritual dance, yakety-yak, spiritual-dance, hey-nonynony, thank the Gods for future years. And… you guessed it. Same dance, same song, same spirituality. Mysterious. Baffling. I looked at the note on my table. It read “Please refrain from giving money to the tribals because it may offend their sentiments, If you wish to help them, please hand over the notes (preferably in crisp $100 bills) to the manager of the resort”. Nice eh? OK – I jest about the $100 bills, but the rest is true.
Sheesh – I pick nits a little too liberally. The whole experience was fantastic. The boat ride, sans tiger sightings, was awesome. The elephant encounter was worth the price of admission. The pool in the room was PHEW! AWESOME. The whole resort is beautifully landscaped and perfect to the last detail. There was a reading room next to the water that was serene. Water all around, birds chirping, the distant sound of resident naturalists bull-shitting about tribal living to foreign tourists. Perfect. The only jarring note as we sat there was this guy yaking away on his cell phone about God-knows-what. Felt like clobbering him on the head and feeding him to the nearest (un-spotted) tiger or leopard.
The food!!!! It was simply amazing. Every meal was a humongous spread of cuisine from every part of India and outside. The local cuisine was particularly amazing. Meat, vegetables and dessert cooked in the local style, an array of dishes from various parts of India, Pasta made to order, fresh fish, the list goes on. This was the best part of the whole experience. I must have undoubtedly gained a few pounds on this trip. I saw the resident elephant eyeing my round shape with undisguised envy on the last day as she sulked ashamedly about not tucking into enough of the fatty foods on offer. Taking notes, she was…I could tell.
There is an emerging class of resorts in India that can compare with any around the world. This was one of them. The service was impeccable. Cleanliness and attention to detail on par with any other place I’ve seen. Absolutely fantastic. Definitely two thumbs up.
Time to fess up. Yes, I’ve been promiscuous. I’ve been seduced by a few beauties, developed an intimacy with them with a just vague understanding of what they’re all about and then discarded them in an egregious embrace of the use-and-throw culture we all know and universally seem to love. Not a single attempt to understand, to discover the inner meaning, to build a lasting relationship. Sigh… there’ll be hell to pay (and enter, endure?) at the pearly gates, I’m sure.
OK – I’ve titillated your imagination enough – I’m talking about *words* you filthy-minded louts!! I’ve used words without really understanding them, is what I’m saying :-). But… strike one word from this list of one night stands! For I now finally know what the word “surreal” means. I’ve used surreal without ever realizing what surreal means – rather surreal that a self-confessed word-nerd can confess to such a terrible crime, right?
It’s the experience of witnessing Halloween in India that finally cleared a few of the cobwebs from the largely empty upper chamber. Whodathunkit!! Halloween in India?! Yes sir – as the brothers Merriam or even Noah Webster might have said, the event was certainly “marked by the intense irrational reality of a dream”. Surreal, you might say, if you’re fond of condensing a sentence into one word. I certainly did say that. But more on that a little later.
For those unfamiliar with Bangalore – a quick 360 degree view: There’s a south (that I identify myself with) populated with dosa devotees, a nerdy north (mistakenly) laying claim to a truer-bluer-than-thou Bangalore-ness over the south, a west I have very little idea about and an east increasingly populated with those reversing the go-west-young-man mantra on its axis. Hardened dosa-lover though I am, I’ve headed east and now live among these erstwhile denizens of San Jose, Sunnyvale and other surrounding towns and a select few like myself from places like Boston on the other coast, who didn’t go far enough west when we were young men and women.
Having spent a large portion of the two years I’ve been back in south Bangalore, I wasn’t quite anticipating that Halloween would be quite the do it turned out to be. In south Bangalore, the few that have heard of Halloween look on it as another evidence of western craziness that should be sniggered at and tolerated. Halloween? Nyet. Not a sign of it anywhere in south Bangalore. I was hence pretty unprepared for the frenzy that Oct. 31st turned out to be, in East Bangalore. The powers-that-be in the apartment complex where I live were obviously better men and women than I. They had anticipated the numbers involved and had organized the event to perfection. The little and not-so-little goons ( and pirates, fairies, princesses, etc.) were segregated by age group and had an age-specific, pre-assigned order in which they would traverse the five apartment towers. The less sporting of residents who wanted out of the madness were given a shot at not being disturbed, by requiring that those residents wanting to hand out candy would advertize their choice by putting up a sign on their doors welcoming trick-o-treaters. There was even a pumpkin-carving contest. Not really sure how that turned out – the local pumpkins are rather small and undernourished compared to the gargantuan specimens that North America seems to produce.
Just how many kids came a-calling? I lost count at about 200 (I’m serious!). They came in droves and droves. I quickly realized that closing the door after each group of kids would be a surefire way to kill my calling-bell. I decided to simply stand outside the door and distribute candy, while eating most of it in a tearing hurry. It was a fantastic social event. The kids had a rollicking time tearing across five towers of apartments with ten floors each. Adults bore it with an admirable, smiling fortitude. And some of us ate more candy than we distributed. In short, a grand old time was had by all. I’m *very* surprised that chocolate makers like Cadbury aren’t pushing to make this an urban-India-wide phenom.
But wait, here comes the gory end. Among the last set of kids to come my way was a LARGE group of teenage girls. All of them funnily enough, dressed in exactly the same way. I foolishly left my foot precariously hanging near my mouth by asking one of them what the costume was all about. “We’re all Bella!”, she said. I should have nodded wisely at this point, handed over the candy and waved goodbye. Instead, the sucker for punishment that I am, I persisted in pushing the size 10 boot firmly down my throat. “Bella??”, I asked, displaying what I thought was an endearing and refreshing inquisitiveness. “From Twilight!!”, she responded, her tone indicating that this should be clear to even the meanest intelligence (i.e. mine). And with more than a touch of insolent impatience, I might add. I was obviously eating up precious candy-collecting minutes with this display of abject ignorance. The poor girl was struggling – she obviously wanted to kick me in the shin (or maybe higher, you never know) and hotfoot it. One of the other Bellas in the group came to the rescue. With a upward roll of the eyes that only teenage girls seem well-equipped to perform with panache, she swept the crowd onward, saying “Forget it! *He* won’t know”. Surreal? Nope – very painfully real.