Kat's 'I, Me, Myself'

Egotism ....a lifelong romance

Sunday, July 06, 2008

A little Rafa round the edges

Tennis fans have enjoyed rooting for the underdog -- who goes by the name of Rafael Nadal -- these past few years. They have reveled in the success story of a relentless youngster from a small island-town, who plays with little regard to established norms of the sport (that includes his taking forty seconds between points to dab his sweaty biceps, and bounce the ball for an eternity before finally tossing it up in the air). Also, a lot of them were thirsting to see the toppling of possibly the game’s greatest ever. Today it happened – on the cathedral of tennis itself.

A match that looked like it would be a straight sets demolition of the god of tennis turned into a thrilling 5-setter as Federer showed us what he’s made of – fighting off a 2-0 set deficit, and 2 championship points on his way to leveling the match at 2 sets-a-piece, Roger looked like he was back on the terra firma he so loves, before conceding in a thrilling 9-7 deciding set. Obviously, a less than satisfactory end to the championship for Roger Federer fans, and for me in particular.

I’ve made no secret of the fact that I dislike Nadal, mainly because his game is not unlike the proverbial monkey that would end up with the collected works of William Shakespeare by randomly hitting keys on a typewriter keyboard for an infinite period of time. Similarly, while Rafa might doggedly go after every ball and end up with a chance winner every so often, his game-plan is non-existent, his finesse is wanting and his style is little more than a grinding relentlessness. Such lack of acumen defies appreciation at any time, but seems especially inadequate in the era of Federeresque artisanship.

But since I often call myself an objective Federer fan (which could just as easily mean that I have one objective – seeing Roger lift the trophy at every major), I decided to give Rafael Nadal his due. Let’s face it, I didn’t in my wildest dreams, think that Rafael would ever take Wimbledon away from Federer. And today he did, in a fabulous performance in a match that is being touted as the greatest Wimbledon men’s final in history, and one that has already made it into the record books as the longest final ever. He must be doing something right. (Actually he doesn’t do it right, he just does it, and therein lies my problem).

His movement on court is phenomenal, and there is no questioning Rafa’s fitness of course, so once he gets there, he will hit the ball - hard - and power never hurt anyone on a grass court (except the occasional unfortunate ball-boy). His serve has improved admirably so I can’t pick on him for that anymore. Needless to say, Rafa is in Rog’s head more than on the other side of the net – though it sure didn’t look like it in the third set today when Roger played with nerves of steel, and when he fought off championship points in the fourth, and several breakpoints in the thrilling decider. And what is more - considering Center Court is a nascent green at the net and a solid brown at the baseline, it plays a lot like clay, and that gives Nadal advantages as well.

Well, whether I like it or not, he’s Federer’s big rival – and nemesis. Ideally, we would have a player that’s a little less rough around the edges to fulfill that role, but then who better to show off the Swissman’s flawless artistry than a grinding, grunting, scrambling Nadal? After all, individual sport is all about contrasts. From Rafa’s ostentatious sprints on court (his excuse for a warm-up) to his bicep-flaunting tanks, Nadal couldn’t be more different from the suave Federer, who waits demurely in the sidelines prior to a match, and wears elegantly designed, yet muted Nike ensemble on court.

Besides, the emergence of Nadal along with Federer’s continued domination would leave no questions about the Federer game, which only seems to leave us mortals more bewildered with time. “What was that – a squash shot?” fumbled a commentator a few days ago, “A baseline half-volley?” another chimed in. And I can safely say that it wasn’t so much for their lack of eloquence, as Roger’s innumerable angles of contact with a tennis ball.

Regardless of what the Federer nay-sayers out there are saying, Roger is far from done yet. He’s had a less than spectacular year by his standards – which includes winning the runner's up trophy at two of the majors and making it to the semi-final of the third, during a bout of mononucleosis. He’s won two titles. He is still number one. All without a coach. He still has the US Open and Olympics to bounce back in. Federer has been on the wrong side of a lopsided win-loss record against players many times in his career; he has turned them all around to be the invincible player he is. There is no reason to believe he won’t get the better of Nadal, and get back to his infallible self – very soon.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Is Safin back, and other thoughts on Day 3

I've always believed that among contemporary players, Safin is probably the closest to Roger Federer in playing style, shot-making prowess, aggressive go-getting, and strategy on-court. That is why it's always a treat to watch the two of them play (unfortunately it hasn't happened much). And of course there is nothing better than a contrast in personalities in sport, which Fed and Safin amply provide.

Safin went on his downward spiral just when Federer was reaching stardom. Then Marat came out of hiding to beat Roger at the Australian Open 2005, and then went back into hibernation.

Until now. Unless this is another of his transient surfacings.

But let's give him the benefit of doubt. Maybe all his injuries have finally subsided enough for him to focus on the fuzzy green ball. Or maybe baby sister Dinara inspired him with her French Open showing.

Whatever the reason, Safin took out the number three seed (and second in line to beat Federer according to the oddsmakers) in convincing fashion - 6-4, 7-6 (7/3), 6-2, leaving the the All England Club in some shock. After all, the 21-year old Serbian who beat the world number one at the start of the season and hence prompted the Federer naysayers to write his premature departure, had just egged them on with the following comment just a few days ago:

"Some things are changing. I think he's a little bit shaken with that loss and mentally he has been struggling in the last couple of months. It's normal to have ups and downs after four years of absolute dominance on the men's tour."

Safin was gracious in his most talked about victory since toppling Federer in Melbourne in 2005, "I haven't had a win like this for a long time. I had to play really well and concentrate and be with him game by game and just go for it. But he was under pressure. He's fighting for the number one spot by the end of the year while nothing was expected of me.”

In other news (or non-news), Roger Federer continues on in his quest for a 6th straight Wimbledon crown. I like the way he just gets that one break needed in each set (though Soderling did take him to a tiebreak in the 3rd) during the early stages in most championships (and that includes Rolland Garros) like it’s nobody’s business.

The Ivanovic-Dechy match was probably one of the finest, and merely adds to the grit and determination that Ivanovic is able to display time after time. This is not the first time she has come back from almost losing – she had to save two match points in the 2nd set (one was actually saved by the net cord) and went 10-8 in the 3rd.

Ana, gracious sportswoman that she is, had no trouble admitting that luck played a role:

"I think I used up a lot of luck today," she grinned. "If in my next match my opponent has a net cord against me, I don't think I'll complain. What goes around comes around."

This simply goes to show that the game probably has very little to do in high-pressure situations in individual sport, while mental toughness is paramount, and Ivanovic has displayed it in a way few of her early 20-something peers have, including her compatriot Jelena Jankovic and 8th ranked Vaidisova. Vaidisova for her part, displayed some determination in seeing off Samantha Stosur.

Gonzalez and Ferrero’s losses were the lesser-known surprises of the day. It was good to see Baghdatis and Hewitt cruising along in straight sets – maybe a few of my look-forward-to match-ups will come true!

Monday, June 23, 2008

Thoughts on Day One, Wimbledon

Two years ago, when Federer ruthlessly demolished Jonas Bjorkman in a semi-final match on Center court, by conceding just 4 games in the entire match, the veteran Swede said cheerfully, "In a way, I had the best seat in the house."

Today, another long-time friend of Federer’s (and one-time doubles partner) decided to literally take the seat next to Roger at a changeover. Alix Ramsay dissects the intricacies and nuances of that simple act. It’s good to see someone extolling the prowess of the champion after weeks of media bashing.

Watching Federer in action on his best surface, I do think it must take a lot of self-control to not just stand and watch in awe. Players have often stopped to applaud a Federer classic mid-match – those are the times when there’s no apt way to respond with a racket. Roddick went a little further during one of those Federer classics a couple years ago – by actually smashed his racket into the ground, jumping over the net to the other side and congratulating his long time rival and nemesis.

In other day one news, I didn’t expect Nalbandian to go out without a fight – grinding, grueling five-set matches are the hallmark of his career! Djokovic would have been expected to breeze through easily in his first round match at the big W but he had a relatively tough opponent in Berrer. whom he did manage to surmount in four sets, even dispensing a bagel in the final one.

Good to see the big-hitters, Ancic and Safin move on easily. Ancic still bears the prestigious label of being the last man to beat Federer on grass, though that doesn’t mean as much anymore. And since the memories of 2005 are still fresh in my mind, I still maintain that Safin is probably the closest to Roger in shot-making prowess. And the clash in personalities – hot-headed, racket-smashing vs. cool and unflappable are always a treat to watch.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

What to look for at the Big W

There’s always the smooth green grass, that gradually gets rough around the edges as the final weekend looms.....
John McEnroe’s gentle chastising of his man-crush (also known as Roger Federer)....
Strawberries and cream...
All-white ensemble....
Roger Federer at his immaculate best

Despite what the Federer-bashers out there are saying, the biggest favorite to win the big W of course, is the world number one. Going by Roger’s tough draw he sure has his task cut out for him. But let’s also remember that he has won 59 straight matches on his favorite green turf, and has lifted the trophy at the cathedral of tennis for five years in a row. So, the odds are stacked highly in the Swissman’s favor.

Now that I’ve made my all-important Federer point, here are some interesting match-ups to look forward to:

Djokovic vs. Baghdatis, Quarter finals

Two promising young stars, both with great talent, one with a great deal more thirst. One befuddled an in-form Federer during a tough four-setter at the Ozzie Open final in 2006, the other took the same title from a virus-stricken Federer two years later (yes, no better tennis-o-meter out there than Federer himself). This match, if it happens will be 10-1 in Djoko’s favor – that Serbian grit is pretty hard to surmount, unless your last name’s Nadal or Federer.

Roddick vs. Blake, Fourth round

Ahh, an all-American clash between two of the most endearing and gracious men on the tour. Roddick’s big-serving has often got the better of the relentless returner, but James has never looked better. Fortunately for tennis fans, neither has Andy. He took out Federer for the first time in 12 meetings (uhhhmmm, who hasn’t, recently?) and won back-to-back matches against Djoko and Nadal en route to his title in Dubai, so he has got to be feeling good despite his Queens loss. Personally I’m rooting for another Roger-Roddick final (refer end of post).

Bagdhatis vs. Nalbandian, Fourth round

The beautiful shot-maker vs. the relentless counterpuncher – that will have to be special. On a good day the delightful Marcos could thump Nalbandian with his exquisite shot-making but if this one is good enough to go to a fifth set I’m giving the edge to the unrelenting Argentine.

Berdych vs. Ancic, Fourth round

What better than to watch two big-hitters pound the ball so hard, blades of grass come flying off the smooth lawns of the All England club? Lightening-fast trajectories traced by fuzzy green balls against the green and white backdrop of Wimbledon will be quite a sight.

Gasquet vs. Murray, Fourth round

These two young guns are among that breed of promising stars who have yet to prove themselves by going deep in a major – maybe this will be the year! One thing’s for certain – there’ll be some beautiful shot-making, something the Brits are crazy about, especially when it involves one of their own (albeit one that extricates himself from his colonial cousins). The Scottsman’s likely French opponent is not to be taken lightly however – after all he has oft been prematurely crowned the next Roger Federer.

Federer vs. Djokovic, Semi-final

Djokovic is the second favorite man to beat Federer on his favorite turf, so while this match-up will certainly be an amazing one for tennis fans, I don’t see Novak come close to stalling the world number on his path to his sixth straight title. Djokovic’s all-court game to complement Federer’s versatility will be a treat to watch on grass.

Roger vs. Roddick, Final

This is the final I’m hoping for, and not just because it will be less straining on my nerves than the alternative! Despite Andy’s recent racket thumping tantrums, I think he’s had a great year so far, and if that ace-unfurling shoulder holds up, there is a good chance he’ll make it to championship Sunday. Since the two contemporaries have always displayed a sight to behold for tennis fans on Center Court, there is a lot to look forward to, not the least of which would be Andy’s gracious and witty concession speech, when Federer’s wins his sixth straight Wimbledon crown!

Roger vs. Rafa, Final

Much as this likely final will see me sitting on the edge of the coffee table, my nails digging into my elbows, teeth chattering and eyes often tightly shut, so as to miss the most important points of the match, no other turnout for championship Sunday could be quite as exciting as this one. Especially because Federer has a score to settle, and settle it he will. Personal feelings aside, with Nadal beginning to net-rush as much as he is, and with Federer serving and volleying like before, wouldn’t this be an old-school tennis fan’s dream?! Step aside, McEnroe and Connors! Here come Rog and Rafa.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

The aesthetics of sport

My infatuation with Federer is not all about the numbers. Sure, he's won 12 grand slam titles in 4 years, has been the unchallenged world number one for about the same amount of time, is the only player to have won Wimbledon and the US Open back-to-back 3 years running, and here's a new stat: the only one to have reached the semis of 15 straight majors. Now that last one is harder than it sounds: it not only means that Roger made it to 15 straight majors, which most players don't do - actually no player has done in the open era - because invariably the tennis takes its toll and players suffer some kind of injury or fatigue. However, Federer's uniquely effortless playing style contributes to his presence at every major, his consistency of play and flawlessness while he's at it.

Anyway, I realize I rattled off a series of numbers after telling you it's not really about them - but that's unavoidable. The point I am trying to make here is that Roger is an artisan on the tennis court. The backhand passing shots that consistently increase by single degrees, the powerful, ruthless forehand that is quickly followed up by a feather light touch of the ball, the elegant footwork that allows an apparent ground stroke to turn into a volley mid-shot, and the only apt end to that sentence would be to trail off and let you watch this video yourself:

And while Federer is unparalleled on a tennis court, both in stats and artistry, in the last few years, the tennis world has been blessed with a sportsman who can finally alleviate the ridiculous asymmetry, if only by a little bit. Richard "baby Fed" Gasquet, as he is rightly called, comes closest to matching Federer shot for shot, point for point, in a sometimes eerily similar style and equally placid demeanor. At 21, the talented Frenchman has light years to go before he can even dream of getting close to the Federer numbers, but until then the visuals will have to do:

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

A truly out of the world experience...

It was July 2001. I sat glued to the end of the coffee table in clench-fisted, white-knuckled panic. The indomitable god of tennis was about to be toppled by this cocky, pony-tailed teenager who had no business in the sanctum sanctorum of the sport. Two years later that very teenager had grown to be an adult, one that could swing his racket with some flourish of his own. It was then that Roger Federer reached that point in his career where tennis fans began to wonder if he would indeed take away the mantle of greatest ever from Pete Sampras. By then we had let go of our Pete nostalgia, just enough to contemplate the two greatest players, in their prime, at their best on the very same tennis court.

If Roger Federer’s amazingly shot-enriched and smoothly artistic brand of tennis is pleasing to the eye, the one thing that would make it better would be an equally beautiful artist on the other side of the court, countering the Swissman's flair with the one thing Federer doesn’t do enough on a tennis court – serve and volley. And who better to take that spot on the other side of the net – a little too close to it, perhaps – than the sportsman who ruled tennis’ biggest stage, when Federer was only dreaming of it?

While time wouldn't allow such a meeting, Pete's resilience certainly would. Six years after a glorious retirement from pro-level tennis, he can still jump up and smash an overhead, he can still befuddle the sportsman who has so distanced himself from the rest of the field, he can still fire an ace to save himself from the jaws of defeat. And last week, I got to witness it. Amid a sold out crowd of crazy tennis fans in the grandest stage set under the thriving hub of the most exciting city on earth, we watched the two greatest players battle it out. Screams of “Let’s go Pete” and “Go Roger” rang out across the arena, because the mere thought of contributing decibels makes us lesser mortals feel a part of invincibility in some inexplicable way.

We often look to sport to celebrate the victories we cannot ourselves achieve, to be one with the kind of infallibility we could not otherwise experience and to savor the taste of the unstoppable adrenalin rush that amateur battles rarely provide. And thank god there are these paranormal beings that fill those lofty shoes and furnish us with that kind of magic time after time, year after year, undaunted, relentless and almost always victorious in their pursuits.

If Sampras and Federer had indeed met in the same era, it could quite possibly have been the most amazing saga in tennis history.

But maybe destiny punctuates each period with such finality so we could write the stories ourselves. So we could decide if Sampras’ mental toughness would overcome Federer’s exotic shot making. So we could wonder if Roger’s excellent returns would surmount the indomitable Pete forearm. Maybe she stopped short after rendering us these sublime personalities, so lesser mortals could feud over their heroes and partake in true tennis divinity.

But at times like this, when the aftertaste of a Federer classic still lingers in my mouth and the many Sampras memories come flooding back between my ears, I can’t help(lessly) but wonder why time would taunt us so....

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Fitting in -- the paradox

On my way back from work today I stopped at a Starbucks for much-needed coffee and chanced upon a quartet of Indians at a table – and when I say Indians, I mean true blue Indians, complete with the strong desi accent, men with mustaches, women with tight braids et al.

On another day I would have just shaken my head at the inability of Indians to “assimilate” after taking the trouble to travel half way round the globe. Not today however; today I had doubts about my own so-called “fitting in"….

So instead, I felt a pang of envy: they seemed so comfortable in their own skin, without the need to fit in or the urge to be similar to the people around them. I almost wished I could sit down with them and break down my barriers, speak my native language and be understood, and feel comfortable in the recognition that the four faces around me looked like me.

I am a global citizen for the most part, believing more in the consonance of personalities than cultures, have as many international friends as Indian, and often identify better with the more open-minded cultures than my own idol-worshipping one.

I've made no secret of the fact that I love this country and its people, the wonderful, welcoming, melting pot that it is. But no matter how well you assimilate, how much you can relate to or have in common with the denizens of this country, how much you know about their history and culture, there are those days when you realize you’re different because you're of a different race and color, you speak differently, and well, you’re not the same.

Those are the days when you second-guess every nuance in behavior from the people around you, every light-veined repartee, every lack of a proper response.

I thought I left those days behind me after my first year in this country, when I had learned to roll my r’s and soften my t’s, removed the last vestiges of a pronounced Indian accent, perfected the superficial hello and naturalized the native choice of words -- supposedly “adopted the American way.”

But when you look different and talk different you don’t ever leave those days behind – they come back every once in a while, if only to remind you that there is a land two oceans away where you will always fit in, no matter what….