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Grit + Gumption = Glory. What Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal can teach us about lasting success.

March 19, 2017 Leave a comment

Fedal-2

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.

joy-9They 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.

Grit.jpgTo 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.

boredEver 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.

optimismThey 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!

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Wait…Do good things really come to those who wait?!

February 15, 2017 Leave a comment

rogerfederer

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!

The Out-Nadaling of Rafael Nadal

July 4, 2011 Leave a comment

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.

Categories: Tennis Tags:

Into each life tons of rain must fall

September 13, 2010 Leave a comment

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.

Categories: Musings, Tennis

Mum’s the word and a new crown-prince is born

September 15, 2009 2 comments

As the old truism goes – all good things come to an end. An important bit is left unsaid, IMO. All good things come to an end because the old must give way to the new. A year that began with a flood of embarrassing tears for Roger Federer and hit the highs of a first French title and sixth Wimbledon victory, ended with a 5-set loss to a younger, hungrier and on the day, better player. No shame in that. Ask Roddick – he’d give an arm and a leg to have just one bad year of Federer’s. A year ago, a Fed loss would have me acting like a petulant school-kid for the better part of a week. Thanks to #14 and #15 in the bag, not so any more. He can’t win ‘em all and heck, for any potential crown-prince to become a powerful king, he shouldn’t win ‘em all.

The stats are staggering. 17 of the last 18 Grand Slam finals, 21 overall. 22 straight Grand Slam semi finals. The list goes on. Has he had bad days during his tenure at the top? – of course, in plenty. However, as it turns out, he has them very rarely in a Grand Slam and they usually do not coincide with the guy on the other side playing out of his skin. With the laws of physics and averages looming large, he had to go down sometime – and he did last night. Del Potro has been playing incredible hard-court tennis all season. His height, serves and booming returns off both wings are a force for anybody to reckon with even if he’s having a bad day. This fortnight, his has been an inspired, free-wheeling brand of tennis and he was too hot for Roger to handle. That – and Roger’s serve letting him down when he needed it the most. I don’t recall when I last saw Rog serve so poorly – just 50% on his first serve for the entire match and 11 double faults?? When was the last time we saw Roger do that? How about… never!  Rog was also uncharacteristically woeful on break points – only 5 of 22 converted. He played abysmally against a guy who was not afraid to knock the stuffing out of the ball on each shot and quite deservedly paid the price. Testament to the quality of his game that he still made it a 5-setter in spite of playing badly by his standards. No sweat. Roger will be back to win more slams. He will still win more matches against Del Potro than vice versa. Roger on a good day is too smart and has too many weapons. The win is good for DP – he’ll now start believing more in himself, having tasted blood and I predict will be a future #1. I hope he blends a little more variety into his game and will find a way to not lose to the likes of Andy Murray, the other crown-prince designate (though most of the noise is from sorry-ass Brits wailing for their first champ since Fred Perry).

An annoying side-effect of this win by Del Potro has been the resurgence of the Federer naysayers in public and private life. Hate the man, by all means. I personally can’t understand it. Maybe it’s his hair, his tears of joy and pain (I find that quite annoying too, to be honest), his preternatural calm (most of the time. Not yesterday though.), his uncanny knack of figuring most opponents out. The list probably goes on. I have no idea, but whatever it is – I find all of these reasons good enough to not be a fan and to revel in his losses. However, it has been my misfortune to meet some who disagree about his tennis being of a sublime quality. They attribute his success largely to luck – and seem to have missed a crucial part of their education where probability theory was taught. Such people don’t really understand the game beautiful and the exquisite shot-making that has pushed all the others into playing better. Boil your heads. Nuff said.

For me, the real feel-good story of this open was Kim Clijsters. What’s not to like about a former champ with a golden locked toddler coming back out of retirement to beat a bunch of women with over-sized egos (and one with an over-sized foul mouth and over-sized everything).  As Bud Collins might have said – (if he were as big a sucker for alliteration as I am) – this mighty mamma made many misty-eyed. I don’t follow the women’s game much – other than a perfunctory peek at a particularly pretty Russian or Czech once in a while. Whatever one’s opinion might be on the quality of the current women’s game, it takes quite a lot to come out of retirement, baby in tow and win a Grand Slam. Way to go Kim!  My money is on Justine Henin putting her tennis shoes back on. I’d surely pay to watch that backhand again.

Categories: Tennis

Bring on the waterworks, there’s a new GOAT in town

June 12, 2009 Leave a comment

If you are among those who heaved premature sighs of relief (and thanked that dastardly flu bug for laying me low) at the fact that Roger’s monumental victory at Roland Garros didn’t result in more than a whimper of appreciation from me, your joy was short-lived. I’m sorry folks, it isn’t in my nature to shed a silent tear of joy at my idol’s stupendous accomplishment. Especially not after being harshly subjected to that old adage that “a fool and his money are soon parted” when I was public about gambling on Rog’s chances!

I must confess, like a majority of Federer fans, I suffered from extreme hand-wring-itis. Hand-wringing about his apparent loss of confidence, his inability to out-think the new kids on the block, inability to come up with new tactics, his cockiness in not hiring a coach, his propensity to weep buckets and whatever else. In fact, I had all but thrown in the towel on ever witnessing title #14 as evinced by a rather pessimistic previous post: (https://gurubhat.wordpress.com/2009/02/09/feet-of-clay/). I think this latest victory has cured me of my ailment. I shall be a fickle and doubting fan no more. Sure, he is still going to lose to Rafa more than he is going to win, but heck, it doesn’t matter anymore. #14 is in the bag, the French isn’t a holdout any longer and he has surely earned the right to share the GOAT (Greatest Of All Time) tag with the other candidates – if not own the tag outright. Frankly, it won’t bother me much if he loses a whole lot in the future. Frighteningly for his opponents, if Roger adopts this attitude and plays freely, he’s going to be a lot more dangerous.

Was his victory a result of divine intervention – maybe. I would certainly have found a hard-fought victory against Rafa a far more satisfying culmination of the quest for #14, than this rout of Soderling. But still, I wouldn’t asterisk this victory in any way. The man had to fight very hard to get it – and showed amazing courage and character to come through stern tests from Haas and Del Potro. His tennis was not of the oh-so-sublime quality we have come to view as our birthright as fans, but he got the job done.
In the recent past, Roger has seemingly suffered from a form of denial. Instead of adapting his game to the fact that folks like Rafa and Murray had his number, he kept returning to the same old forehand formula. He continued to play his usual game because – heck, he seemed to think, it isn’t possible that his perfect game could be taken apart! Not so anymore. Against Del Potro and Soderling, he displayed a refreshing new quality of being willing to try some dreamy drop shots. I suspect the drop shot was tailored specifically to take on Nadal – not that a drop shot would ever be a surefire winner against Rafa – nothing is. However, a drop shot that dies upon landing sure beats feeding Rafa mid-court forehand gimmes. In fact, a bunch of the patterns he seemed to have worked out for Rafa ended up nearly bringing him down against the likes of Haas and Del Potro. In moving away from working his favorite forehand pattern, Fed-Ex did so because Nadal had the right kryptonite in his two-handed backhand. Being naturally right-handed, Nadal’s backhand can rip the fur off the ball. And when Nadal hits a backhand full of juice, Federer can only play a defensive mid-court ball that Nadal, with his excellent footwork, can run around and punish with more topspin than humanly possible. Federer, over the years has suffered mightily with this pattern and has worked hard to come up with a tactical reply and keep the ball as low as possible. When Soderling did him a huge favor by bouncing Rafa from the draw, Roger had to regroup and reacquaint himself with his old point constructions. And on Sunday, he blended the old with the new to perfection.

Onward to Wimbledon now and I’m still putting my money on Roger. Say what you will about the guy – someone who has the chops to get to the semifinals in 19 of the last 20 slams (or the finals at 15 of the last 16 slams) isn’t someone I’m betting against!

Feet of clay

February 9, 2009 4 comments

If you aren’t into tennis 24×7 like I am, then this post can safely be ignored.

During the past month or so, a large portion of my consciousness has been consumed by the recently concluded Australian Open. The results are out, the man’s once inexorable march towards assuming the mantle of permanent greatness has been stopped yet again and his tears have been the subject of much derision and have been seen as the final nail in the somewhat self-made coffin of emasculation.

A friend of mine, after seeing my public statements of mourning on Facebook, pointed me to an old article in the New York Times on the unstoppable march of Federer. The article can be found here: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/08/20/sports/playmagazine/20federer.html?pagewanted=1&_r=5&ref=playmagazine

Truth be told, I wish I had read this in 2006 – not today. With whatever remained of Federer’s aura of invincibility firmly and undeniably dissolved in that bucket of tears he wept on Sunday, the article’s idolatry of Federer’s prowess comes across as a bit dated and hollow. I have had several “Federer Moments” during the past years. As an avid tennis player and an even more avid fan, there are few matches of Federer’s that I haven’t watched. His game still leaves me breathless and amazed. For sheer shot-making genius, his ability is unparalleled. That his game is poetry cannot be denied. However, during the recent years, I have had “Nadal moments” in equal measure. The man astounds me with his ability and athleticism, to seemingly convert a surefire winner from the opponent into a winner of his own, to put one extra ball back, to break the will of the hardiest of opponents. Strange as it may seem, I am a big fan of both players. I have to profess greater admiration for Nadal’s work ethic, the strength of his psyche and his sheer will to win. As far as mental strength goes, I don’t think I’ve seen anyone stronger – period. The stats show this facet – the man, it seems, simply cannot be broken. The GOAT (Greatest Of All Time) debates will rage endlessly (and pointlessly) on. For now, I am willing to shed a quiet tear or two (while Roger weeps) that my idol has feet of – *irony alert* – CLAY against one and only one player and enjoy the unbelievable quality to which the two have elevated the game. I cannot grudge Nadal his victories, the way he has adapted his game to all surfaces and how hard he works and how gracious and humble he is as a champion leads me to conclude that he is also definitely one of the greats of all time.

That said, poetry his game is not. I hope poetry trumps practical a few more times. I’m rooting for Roger “Tears” Federer all the way at Wimbledon – that grass needs watering, win or lose.