Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Late thoughts on the Wimbledon and World Cup finals

Ecstasy and agony, hours apart. One man will sleep easy and the other will probably never for the rest of his life.

Wimbledon Final

What is it with Roger Federer when it comes to Rafael Nadal? Why is he so determined not to compete when he faces the Duracell bunny from Spain? Is it just me or is Federer reluctant to acknowledge Nadal as an equal?

One of the commentators got it right on Sunday when he said, "The longer this match goes, the deeper Nadal will penetrate into Federer's psyche." That has got be the single most insightful comment I've ever heard on T.V. It accurately diagnoses Federer's problem with Nadal, and also offers the remedy. Federer has got to admit to himself that he has serious competition, and that too not from someone who is as graceful or as gifted as him, but from someone whose philosophy of tennis is the very antithesis of Federer's.

While Federer swoops and skates across the lawn, Nadal scurries from corner to impossible corner, fetching balls with all the eagerness of a golden retriever. While Federer is calculative and polished, Nadal is direct and desperate. Federer flits demurely between the tramlines, a quality of shyness about his ballet-hall grace as he slices his backhands. Nadal is all adrenaline and testosterone, his hunger naked, his ambition delightful. Federer fences, Nadal punches. Federer is King; Nadal, heir apparent.

Federer's problem, in my opinion, is that he feels he’s too royal to acknowledge the proletarian talent of the resourceful Nadal. He even said he didn’t expect Nadal to make it to the final, which, while being admirably honest, says a lot about what he thinks of Nadal. Did you see the post-match photo session and the interview? All the while when the camera was on the two of them, Nadal and Federer never met eye to eye, and not earlier either, when they shook hands at the end of the match. That, to me, says a lot. So much for Alan Wilkins harping about how the two players are great friends!

Earlier this season, when he was losing to Nadal with such alarming regularity, I got the feeling that he fooled himself into thinking that it was the surface, clay, and not the opponent, Nadal, that got the better of him. Somehow I feel that all this while he's been playing golf on the tennis courts -- focussing inward and refining his game to such a level that it didn't matter who the opponent was; he just had to beat the course. It is only recently that he's woken up to the reality of an adversary facing him across the net. And a capable one at that.

On Sunday, when Nadal had him panting in the second and third sets, Federer was visibly reluctant to shift up that extra gear, which he finally did in the fourth set. And he was so eager to get back to his I-don't-believe-you-exist-I-refuse-to-compete-with-you mode that he ended up losing his serve the first time he served for the match.

An athlete is a competitor first and artist next. Federer would do well to remember this and let Nadal "penetrate his psyche" so that it hurts him the next time he loses to the Spaniard. Only then will he motivate himself to play at top gear always and not just when needed, especially against Nadal.

Nadal for his part showed what a truly wonderful player he's going to be in the years to come. He is a terrific competitor, the best among the current crop. And all he has to do next time is to stand deep on Federer's first serves, step up on the second serves, use that decent return of serve he has (Did you see that blistering forehand cross-court return of serve in the third set tie-break? Left Federer gasping, it did), leave the mid-court moon balls back at the French Open and start hitting his balls deeper towards the baseline so that he has the approach shot all set up. The French is all about patience, whereas on the grass, aggression alone is rewarded. You need to force the issue. Ask Ivanisevic.

I'm really looking forward to the next final between these two. To see if Federer lets himself compete against Nadal, and to see if Nadal learns his lessons well.

World Cup Final

World cup victory as a captain. The perfect last match. Talisman.

Zinedine Zidane.

I've been a great fan of his ever since I saw him play for Juventus and execute that trademark twirl which left me in raptures. I thought you could do that only on EA Sports’ Fifa! Feet that cast a force field around the ball, the balance of a trapeze artist, the midfield vision of a general and the introverted genius of a chess champion … And all that people will remember him in the years to come? Not that knifing brace which plunged deep into Brazilian hearts in the '98 final, not that screamer which left Bayer Leverkusen fans bawling in the 2002 Champions league final, not all those Player of the Year awards, but that one moment of insanity which nobody will ever understand, that one instant when the dream died. I can already see him being reduced to a trivia question:

"Which player holds the dubious distinction of scoring in two World Cup finals and being sent off in one of them?"

Damn. So many emotions went through me when I saw that replay. Disbelief, shame, anger, agony, regret ... watching him walk off the pitch with his head hung in shame was heart-wrenching to say the least. And this in a match which had seen him entice and exhort his team through 120 minutes of the best World Cup final I've seen. Damn. Why oh why oh why?

It’s easy to slam Zidane for being irresponsible and postulate how he ruined everything, but how many of us understand what he did? Not for a moment am I excusing what he did, just that maybe we need to redefine our understanding of genius (can you really believe how people say that it’s because of him that France lost the penalty shootout? That’s rich, oh yes!). Was it just a simple rush of blood? Or is it the evil of genius finding a perverse delight in defiling that which others hold sacred? This perversion is essential to genius, I believe.

Roger Federer and Zinedine Zidane. As different as geniuses come -- one plays a sport in which the only contact allowed between players is a shake of the hand after the match, while the other plays a game which considers Gary Linekar special (Linekar was never cautioned in his career; he never got as much as a yellow card in his playing life). But then are they that different? Is there any common ground?

Unlike other forms of human endeavour where genius is encouraged to blossom, sport is twisted in that we ruthlessly challenge our geniuses day in and day out, ungratefully asking them to prove themselves against mediocrity, often in conditions unfavourable to them (it is the rare sport where genius is left alone to enthrall us). And it is in how they treat their opponents that Zidane and Federer share the cruel fate that extraordinary talent is confronted with in sport. Both of them refuse to believe their opponents exist when they need to. Zidane, in the way he pulled (past tense already) off those outrageous dribbles, only to find a gawky defender charge in with a clumsy challenge; Federer, in the way he refuses to acknowledge that Nadal could retrieve his razor sharp volleys. And this refusal is essential to their psyche, for if at all genius thrives on anything, it is the denial of the obvious.

I had a wonderful time that night, really. And in the end, as I switched off my T.V. set and went to bed, Sunday threw an insight into the nature of sport. Sport is poetry, drama, theater … all that is fine. But above all it is ugly. Ugly in the primitive way it forces its finest exponents to compete, ugly in the way it taunts and reduces a subliminal genius to a subhuman primate. And the funny thing is, it is this ugliness that we find attractive!


consumerdemon said...

damn. you write so well..

and yeah; people will remember zidane for his head butting; they'll call him the great guy who was stupid when they needed him the most or something like that.

Anonymous said...

All I can say is you just raised the bar higher in another field. And yes, I am happy Italy won.

catch 22 said...

Woah what a post buddy.

I did see both the finals and I did raise an eyebrow when the commentator made that comment. Some of the shots from Nadal were breath taking and some from federer were just godly. Nadal simply refused to die, this guy has a great future.

Well coming to Zidane, it was sad seeing him leave the field. I just wanted him to hold that trophy again and that would have been a fairy tale ending. What he did was in excusable but my heart went out for him. The sad part is he will be rememebered only for this the same way Baggio is remembered for missing the penalty.Its amazing how one can become a zero from a hero just in a moment. I guess thats sport for ya.

The Man Who Wasnt There said...

I dont know..I was never this guy for 'hero' worhsipping and all that stuff...I really think who is today's hero is someone e;se's god sometime in the future...

Anyway Federer's play is sheer poetry in motion.(Though for a 'poetically' challenged me I wonder what it means...) Nadal is 'agressive' and 'raw' yes.

Excellent contrast which only few can do justice..one being you.

Anyway is it just me or I basically dont really care who won in the end as long as the journey was well competed? (Oh well I am not exactly a proponent of ends justify the means. Horses for courses you know..)

Duracell bunny?Nadal?Really??
you mean you..

Karthik said...

Hmm .. A nice post - need i say the obvious again and again .. Ok here;s what i feel about the topic - it depends on what each person stands for da .. Say - some people like Sachin(the naturally talented guy) while i root for Anil Kumble(the hardworker).. Same way my favorite in the Italian team is Gennaro Gattusso .. Look at his tenacity, his grit, his determination .. He aint no zidane and he's the first person who realises it .. So he has that extra steal to his game - though it's a 'dirty' game, sometimes in life u need and will encounter players like that .. More examples - There's a guy who can code amazingly, but there's one who is perapred to stay all nite to learn how to do it - he may not produce as good a code as the former, but what the heck - it still works !!! And some times in life, u shud be prepared to step into the bull pit and fight it out .. One of the reasons "Chelsea" are successful in the EPL and Arsenal are failures at times ..

And yes - i dont like Roger federer or Michael schumacher .. Zidane is an exception though .. I felt bad when he was sent off .. Well that's life !!! Am rambling too much today - Viral fever taking it's toll !!!

Anonymous said...

you know wat..blogger said mine was a spam blog because i posted all those links ... :( X(

Anonymous said...

that sport commentry could be poetry ...
got ur blog site from Karthik

musafir said...


Yes, this piece came out well, didn't it? I'm a little proud of it as well :)

Karthik, you say? Then do I know you? Are you from SRM as well?