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SUMMER OF CONTENTMENT

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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THE SCOT’S LAST LAUGH

28 July 2012

MANY SUPPORTERS of the twenty-five year old six-foot-three, one-eighty-five pound Scot Andy Murray believe that the greatest impediment in his professional career was the time of his birth that has positioned him in the very same chronological sequence as the ‘Big Three’ in tennis. 

For five years in a row he has been ranked number four behind Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal. He has also appeared in four grand slam finals and lost all of them. Is it by coincidence that historically his current record is at par with that of his coach Ivan Lendl?

Like Murray, Lendl had also lost four consecutive grand slam finals until he broke through in Roland Garros casting aside John McEnroe who squandered a two set lead. The comparisons, however, doesn’t end there. Both were raised in environments close to industrial towns, Murray in Dunblane near Glasgow and Lendl in Ostrava not far from the Polish border. Both picked up their early tennis lessons from their mothers who were both good at what they were doing. Judy Murray was ranked number one in Scotland and Olga Lendlova was number two in Czechoslovakia. Murray had maneuvered the change of coach tactic quite a few times in his seven year professional career, yet Judy had been there for him living up to the demands of her son’s predicaments during such interims.

Unlike Tim Gullikson’s relationship with Pete Sampras (When the news arrived during his quarter final match against Jim Courier in Australia that Tim had been diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer he broke down in court and could not continue to play and Courier graciously agreed to resume the match the next day; it was also reported that a lone voice from the audience called out to dedicate the match to Tim.) the association between Lendl and Murray is measured in numbers rather than emotions. Tennis is no more a game where you wait for the opponent to make an error for you to take advantage of and finish the point. Instead you have to learn to create opportunities on your own. Lendl also says though it certainly hurts when you lose, if you had put up a good fight it makes you feel better like never before only to fix the next day in practice what you could not deal with the previous day. Murray also appears positive about his new found liaison with Lendl, “Ivan has made a big difference in the way I prepare for the majors, which is something I felt I needed or was may be missing.” 

As in 2009, tendinitis in the knees has caught up with Nadal again as a consequence of which he has withdrawn from Olympic competitions in London. Djokovic is also not playing the kind of tennis as he was in 2011 that could be seen at Roland Garros and more recently in Wimbledon. The imperial Roger Federer can match any one at any given day, but then he can also throw a scare in Mirka and the twin girls by giving away the match after winning the first two sets as in the Quarter Finals in Wimbledon last year. 

The British, perhaps best of anyone else in the world, are better prepared to present special events like a Royal Wedding, the Royal Ascot, the Wimbledon, and now the Olympics. Tennis competitions will kick start at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club’s center court on July 28 with Serbia’s Djokovic the top seed playing the first match. Hardly three weeks ago at the very same lawns after letting his volley sail past the net and land in the tramline offering his adversary championship point, the Scot choked before the audience and with a quivering lower lip heaved a sigh. Regaining composure as if he didn’t care he then attempted to laugh.. Will it be his last as the underdog? Will his role not be reversed to the champion that he deservedly is? Only time will tell.

This article appeared in the daily newspaper ‘Khaleej Times’ published from Dubai on 28 July 2012.

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POETIC JUSTICE

ON THURSDAY, June 28, 2012, when the twilight faded over Wimbledon’s center court Rafael  Nadal’s dreams were shattered by an obscure twenty six year old six-foot-five Czech with receding unruly brown hair. Upon precluding the match with a 129 mph ace, his 22nd in the five-setter, Lukas Rasol dropped to his knees and his head graced the very same velvety grass over which Nadal too had kneeled as the champion two years ago.

Lukas Rasol

All through the three hours eighteen minutes duration of play Rasol moved like a practiced  salsa dancer over the baseline. While he waited for his antagonist to strike the ball at the other end his eyes held within them a deceptive hunger. His relentless and ruthless ground strokes were reminiscent of those of the big hitting Robin Soderling in the 2009 French Open where Nadal had lost in the fourth round, his only loss till date at Roland Garros.

Slava Dosedel a former touring Czech pro and now Rasol’s coach appeared to have done his homework watching videos of Nadal’s most recent triumphs. Over the years the behavior pattern of the grass at Wimbledon has undergone a metamorphosis. The conditions have tend to become slower with a higher bounce in favour of the baseliner which was not the case a couple of decades ago when players like John McEnroe, Stefan Edberg and Boris Becker ruled the roost. Dosedel advised Rasol to strike the ball hard and flat generating a higher velocity that would deprive Nadal a split second or two during the execution of his lethal topspin forehand, the single most feared weapon on the tour and not to be lured into the cobweb of baseline rallies that would allow Nadal the leverage over his opponents. (May be Marián Vajda and Paul Annacone would consider the underlying arithmetic logic behind the facile dynamics in the days ahead.)

The upstart Rasol stuck to Dosedel’s game plan and this time it appeared that Nadal had met his match. The eleven time grand slam title holder was made to look like one of his numerous foes during his 583-121 career record at the other end of the net, on the back foot and agitated to the extent that he bumped into his adversary on a change over during the third set. Rasol later said that it was a tactic intended to unsettle his ongoing momentum. The high drama of the match had only one parallel in the modern history of the game when a 19 year old Mary Pierce, the stylish blonde with a peacock strut in her strides from within the ‘T’ to the baseline thrashed Golden Girl (all four Grand Slams plus Olympic Gold) Steffi Graaf 6-2, 6-2 at Roland Garros in 1994. Graaf after the match had conceded, “it is healthy for the game and exciting for the spectators.” Nadal, however, was less gracious in defeat: “It is not a tragedy. It is only a tennis match”, an unbecoming affirmation from a player whose life at this point doesn’t mean much without tennis.

Hardly three weeks ago in the final at Roland Garros when Djokovic had grabbed eight games out of nine in a row that included a breathtaking 44-stroke rally, a rain break had dropped out of heavens for Nadal’s rescue. It took much less than an hour for him the next day to close out the match and hold the trophy high over his head for a seventh time, surpassing Bjon Borg’s record. Thursday evening at the end of the fourth set that Nadal had won, bad light disrupted play. When the match resumed after forty minutes Rasol played “unbelievable” and sent Nadal packing early to Mallorca.

Poetic justice, perhaps.