6 August 2012

IN TWO of the most lopsided final competitions in Olympic tennis history Britain’s Andy Murray and US’ Serena Williams have prevailed. For Murray it was the most glorious moment of his career. In one way it was a fitting tribute by the Scot for his fatherland by capturing its sixteenth gold, perhaps more importantly its first singles gold medal after one hundred and four years. It was also a matter of personal vendetta for the twenty six year old because four weeks ago in the same center court he was reduced to tears before his home crowd and television viewers across the world by his adversary whose game he had virtually taken apart this Sunday. Standing in the medal podium with silver hung around his neck it must have been bittersweet for Roger Federer for this was the last shot he could take at the Olympic gold, the only missing accolade in his illustrious resume. Yet he was gracious in defeat saying he was ‘happy’ for Murray because ‘he has had a tough few years’.

Federer in the match was barely a shadow of his true self or at least he was not what the British media had attributed him to be after the Wimbledon final – the greatest man ever to have swung a racket. The back injury he had believed to have overcome had again showed its ugly head in his quarter final match against John Isner. The subsequent semifinal he played against Juan Martin del Potro aggravated the trauma. During the exchange he could only let del Potro’s tenacious ground strokes cruise past him and wryly grin at Mirka in the stand. He had appeared to have lost the wind out of his sail and not the imperial champion he actually was. On the other hand Murray had obviously exalted his opening set winning ways in last month’s Wimbledon tournament. Yet from the point when he was down 2-4 in set three belatedly though Federer showcased the measure of his game which turned out to be a futile coup d’oeil of his ingenuity. With a stoic demeanor surely acquired from his influential coach Lendl, Murray served aces in succession at 4-3. At 5-4 the crowd roaring behind him he finished match point with an ace – set, match and gold! Out of their previous sixteen meetings both players had divided their wins equally. But this was the first time Murray was able to vanquish Federer in a five set competition.

A day before the US flag had been blown off its pole by the fitful wind as Serena Williams stood on the podium wearing the Olympic gold pendant with her right hand crossing her heart during the customary anthem play. Finally when the Old Glory landed before the Royal box in center court Serena felt it had actually come to hug her.

The US Olympic hopeful thus had summated the only missing glory in her remarkable career, a Golden Slam by steamrolling over the grandiose Maria Sharapova (6-0, 6-1) and becoming the second woman in the history of the game after the legendary Steffi Graf. However, the shy, German leggy blonde had accomplished the historic feat in a single season and not during a whole career stretch as was the case with Serena. Nevertheless enroute to gold in the whole tournament Serena had only given away a total of 17 games whereas world No. 1 Roger Federer had lost more games in one set against del Potro in the semifinal. When Serena was serving for match point a frustrated Sharapova admirer called out from the gallery, “Maria, I still want to marry you”! Much like Novak Djokovic in 2011 Serena had an amazing run in the lofty grass courts at the All England Club: seven straight wins in Wimbledon and now seven more in the Olympics.

The All England Club in Wimbledon is remembered for running its business its own way firmly rooted in traditions as well as protocol. Yet during the last few days it was far removed from its usual self. The atmosphere was transformed more like that of the night matches at the US Open and its ‘banana’ ways rather than stark British. Many players have been complaining about the quality of grass in courts, baselines were murky and surface dicey.

Over the years tennis dynamics have undergone a transmutation. Now players like Roger Federer and Andy Murray have remained in the tour for extensive stretches of time without a coach, but not without a fitness trainer. Some players it is said that train as much as nearly three times more than the amount of time they actually spend in practice. The question that looms large even before the top players once they are drawn into the cobweb of a rally is, ‘how can I close out the point?’ This scenario is further compounded with the technological advancement in the equipment to the extent that power has almost run over touch and craft.

Which was why after Andy Murray’s Olympic semi-final rout of Novak Jokovic on Friday (August 3) many tennis pundits placed their bets on the Scot following the logic, ‘Roger is thirty’ and drained from his four hour twenty six minute semi-final match against Juan Martin del Potro. No matter of what the New Age Rule Book apparently wrote off a player at thirty years of age.

As Nadal in his illustrious biography (RAFA by Rafael Nadal and John Carlin) points out a true player is the one destined to play his game without being in fear of what awaits him in the end. Nevertheless coming to terms with that ecumenical actuality is the fine line that differentiates a player from a champion. It’s the ordinary mortals who show up with ebullience and after a few years on the tour are left with no option except to walk away into the sunset laden with emotional baggage, but the game remains monolithic like the blindfolded Themis with the tilted pair of scales in one hand and the cornucopia in the other. The Olympic summers from Athens to London have certainly been far stretched, yet time has failed to wither the smoldering embers of contentment of the human spirit.

Part of this article appeared in the daily newspaper ‘Khaleej Times’ published from Dubai on 7 August 2012.

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