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