Rusty Rafa caught in a fog – will the great gladiator find his weapons to win again?

“I get knocked down but I get up again, you’re never gonna keep me down”, this Chubawamba number seemed to be an apt description so far for Rafael Nadal and his fights against injuries.

But  losing to Fabio Fognini at the US Open and exiting early at yet another Slam this year, has forced one question , has the champion entered a downward spiral or is it just that he needs some more time to find  his mojo again after a major injury?

At his peak, he was undoubtedly an unconquerable machine, one who could douse the brilliance of a Federer , subdue the will of Djokovic and decimate all other wannabes without giving them a whiff of a chance.

His strokes aren’t off by much , physically too he seems to be moving well but as he himself admitted at the beginning of the year , he seems to be held behind ,ever so slightly,  by self doubt. And in the competitive universe that is men’s tennis, the difference between 90% and 100% , even just in the mind, can be a gulf to hard to bridge. When the mind doubts, the body reacts with a safety first approach.

What should be a rasping, whirring,  collecting chalk on it’s way, top spin forehand down the line winner,  is instead just a  middle of the court , “keep it in play” , “wait for the next opportunity” kind of harmless stroke. The effect is two fold, not only is Nadal’s game less effective  but players who would earlier just roll over, now start to believe that they can win. The prospect of getting such a big scalp propels them to greater heights, if only for one match.  Most of his recent conquerors are journeymen who have never quite been able to replicate it against others.

Just 2 years back , he had made the most miraculous of recoveries from injury to win the US Open title and it looked like Federer’s record of 17 Slams was there for the taking. Yet that hasn’t happened. Apart from winning a French Open last year on his favourite clay, the Slams have eluded him. This year he managed to lose in Paris too.

The recurring injuries haven’t helped nor has the incredible level of play that Djokovic has reached this year. Yet Nadal, has previously overcome the peskiness of both these factors and re-established himself as the King.  

But it doesn’t feel right this time around.So what has changed.When Nadal bowed out of the US Open, it was for the first time after ten years that he had not won  a Grand Slam title in a calendar year. This is monumental, because over the years despite injuries, he always was able to win at the highest level.

Presumably, Nadal is facing the inevitable loss of momentum a professional athlete goes through when he takes the foot of the pedal or when he is forced to take the foot of the pedal through injury, as in Nadal’s case. Earlier in his career, when he was younger probably it was easier to come back but after a decade at the top maybe it has become more difficult and the effort of recovery has made him more circumspect. Nadal’s physical nature of play – chasing down shots that seemed unrecoverable & hitting muscular winners when out of position – definitely took it’s toll on his knees.  Eleven years of running down balls & bullying the best into submission,in a career regularly punctuated by injuries, is bound to have an impact, a welcome one for his peers but an agonising one for Nadal. One can only surmise that the injury knocked him of his perch and jolted his confidence,  which in turn has impacted his thought process and ultimately affected performance. It is strange to see a player with the power of mind to boss over most opponents , now showing signs of weakness and fumbling in his decisiveness.

But we must remember that Federer, Djokovic,Murray all have been here before. The space where one needs the belief to win. Novak & Andy had it early in careers,when in the shadow of the Fedex and Rafa they were left wondering whether they would win even one Slam. Both got that belief subsequently and went on to win multiple Slams.  Roger , after 2008-9 really was never the player he was before and the word on the circuit was that he had become more “beatable”. But he did win Wimbledon in 2012 and has been consistent over the past year rising to No. 2 in the rankings.

Tiger Woods, Sachin Tendulkar, Messi and numerous other athletes have reached this turn in their careers due to different reasons and tided over them with varying degrees of success.

Its just that we are bemused by seeing the seemingly unshakeable & strong Nadal for the first time in this shaky space and that too for an elongated stretch of time. Nadal’s shotmaking has not deserted him but he needs to find his two greatest weapons again, mental toughness and great athleticism. Whether he can find those only time will tell.

Of course, with his track record it is not at all improbable that Rafa will be back to his winning ways, and many feel that its only a question of when and not if.  One just hopes that he gets back to his roaring best pretty soon and that tennis lovers will be able to enjoy the relentless energy that is Rafa, for many more years to come!

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Forever Sachin – A teary eyed nation bids farewell to the gentle Genius!

And so the time has come upon us. Phew!!.. it was a prolonged and agonizing stretch for us die-hard fans for  past two years (we’ve tasted a lot of humble pie) but the last 3 days at the Wankhede brought out the spirit that is Tendulkar.

Like many, I felt the retirement was long overdue but now when the time has come, there is an eerie feeling, a void, an emptiness. If most of India feels this way, one can just imagine the dilemma that Sachin faced in giving up his raison d’être.  Without doubt, we would have liked Sachin – the super hero- bow out in style, flaying Steyn and Co.  and securing a first ever series win in South Africa rather than have his final fling against a below par West Indian attack. But “Sach” are the ways of the BCCI and the great man can only play the hands he is dealt with.

Sachin rolled back the years for a sublime 74 runs in his last innings, which had shades of his best strokeplay but it is his chemistry with Indian crowds that will be unmatched.  “Sachin…Sachin” .. for the last time  seems unreal..

Anyway now is the time to celebrate the Legend of Sachin Tendulkar. Because unlike other greats of the game , what stands out with Sachin is that it’s not just his cricketing skills but the unique impact he has had on and off the field.  His achievements are immense, his talents unmatched but it is his humility & handling of superstardom that has immortalized him.  Sure, he loved fast cars and Dire Straits , fine clothes and “Butter Chicken” like any Mumbaikar from the Western suburbs would but the essence of his middle class values never left him – honest hard work, respect for others, good manners , humility  and devotion – to God and his profession. This endeared him more towards the common Indian man – he had achieved so much and yet it was so much like them. Of course Sachin was no common mortal, he was a colossus  on the field  and the biggest brand ever in Indian History. It was ironic that a 5 ft 5″ , squeaky voiced , shy  and  not so articulate individual was the poster boy for all the big brands brands from soft drinks to high end electronics.  No other Indian was even close to connecting with the Indian audience as he did. The power of the willow over all other!

But for all the paraphernalia that he will be remembered for, for me personally, the Sachin experience has been  purely about his cricket. He has been the Gold Standard for batsmanship. In the period between 1991 to 2000, he was peerless, Brian Lara included.  And unlike others, I feel the amount of runs and the statistics actually do him injustice.  Future generations shouldn’t be blinded by just the statistics but must be aware of the beauty of his batting.   Because statistics can be made go both ways, for the amount of  runs scored, the counter could be that so many of those  were scored in the flat sub-continental tracks or statistics could be whipped up about the 4th innings or  match winning innings – all of which I feel are irrelevant.

What is important is when at the crease to recognize the wonder of – the judgement of length, the ability to rock back or go forward, the delight of his backfoot punch, the surety of his exquisite flick, the power of his slog sweeps, the twinkling feet against Warne, the  stupendous hook off Walsh, the gorgeous straight drives of Lee, the advancing lofted shot of Mcgrath, the cover driving off Akram , the swaying leave with eyes on the ball, the gorgeous sight of the ball speeding to the fence when others weren’t able to get it off he square and the still , oh so still, head.

I just so wish that Sunny Gavaskar hadn’t time and again reiterated, about the importance of his scoring centuries for India to win.  This brought about the laborious crawl from 90 to 100 in ODIs, the quest for the 100th 100 , the retirement after the 200th test match, all for making the numbers but really those milestones were not necessary.

Records will be broken and forgotten sooner than we imagine, but the era of Sachin will not be forgotten because of the emotions that brought together people across cricket playing countries. All over the world , people paid and came to see Sachin bat. And the impact he brought to Indian and indeed World cricket happened long before he became the accumulator of records

His beauty was in his batting, brave and uncomplicated. At a time when India was losing every series abroad, here was a batsman with pristine purity dominating hostile attacks. Like his idol , Sir Vivian Richards, he sought to counter attack and like his other idol Sunny Gavaskar had a technique that wouldn’t let him down.  India had an undisputed world’s best and that meant a lot.

To see the dimunitive figure wage a lone battle was awe inspiring to a young India trying to find a Global identity.  A Billion hearts fell in love like never before with the way he played and after that whether he got 50 hundreds or a hundred hundreds, he already was immortal.  Debates will rage on about Sachin v/s Lara, Sachin v/s the Don  – the way I see it you cannot classify , compare players. At different points in time Sachin, Viv Richards, Gavaskar, Lara, VVS, Ponting, Kallis, Aravinda D’Silva , Martin Crowe, Inzy and many more have been the best players in the World and the beauty is to appreciate and enjoy the variety.  You can have so many favourites , mine are Crowe, Azhar, Sachin, Viv , Hooper,  VVS, Virat Kohli, Hashim Amla , Mahela and I am sure I have left off a few. I guess Sachin playing at the top level for so long has inevitable drawn comparisons, first it was Sachin v/s Inzy, then Sachin V/s Lara, then Sachin v/s Ponting. Pointless.

Even before he made his debut, reading some articles from the newspapers , I was rooting for him to be part of the West Indies tour of 1989.  True, even Vinod Kambli was in the news but it was Sachin that for some reason got the attention of the press. The selectors decided he was too young to be fed to the likes of Ambrose, Bishop, Walsh and co. But later I felt that was one of the first mistakes that BCCI made with Sachin. If anyone was born ready , it was Sachin.

So what did they do, a few months later they put him in front of the best pace attack in the world, in the greatest cross border rivalry series. Talk about delaying the inevitable.  Of course he came through with flying colours, made a half century, battle hardened , cut on the nose et al- mauled Qadir along the way and was an automatic selection for the New Zealand tour. I think what made Sachin was that his first 4-5 major tours were abroad. His technique had to be fine tuned quickly to adapt to the different conditions of Pakistan, New Zealand, England , Australia and South Africa.  His success in each of these countries -not the volume of runs scored but the manner in which he got them – defined and shaped his career.

BCCI’s second mistake was that in the 1990s , India  played way too many ODIs and very few Tests. At his peak , strange that may sound after 200 tests, he wasn’t given the complete stage to exhibit the range of his talents as a test cricketer.  Commercially  BCCI gained a lot and Sachin’s brand also got built due to the proliferation of ODIs on the  idiot box, but that cost Sachin some of his precious  peak time in the Test arena. The purist in me feels a little hard done by.

Then there is his bowling.  He should have taken it more seriously. As Anil Kumble says in jest, sometimes he threatened his place in the side as a spinner.  He has had several critical match turning spells, like Calcutta 2001 and Adelaide 2004 . The final over against South Africa  in the Hero Cup is of course unforgettable.  A lot of times , with the Indian attach seemingly lacking bite , he was needed and Captain’s did not use him. With his genuine wrist spin and variety , he should have been much more than a part time option.  Maybe he was reluctant to bowl due to injuries but I feel it was another opportunity missed to display his natural talent

Anyway his life and times are well documented and many You Tube videos to relive the magic and hence won’t belabor the point of his greatness or achievements.  Below are my favourite Sachin moments

  1. World Series Cup 1991-92 : India were playing West Indies in the triangular on a treacherous Perth wicket . After having been bowled out for 126, India fight back to reduce the Windies to 126 for 9 in the 40th over.  The last wicket remaining, Azza tosses the ball to 18 year old Sachin , when there are other seniors in the side Sachin bowls an outswinger , takes the edge of Cummin’s bat, Azza plucks a beauty and Match Tied Talk about living up to expectations!
  2. Haryana V/s Mumbai 2001, Ranji trophy final : One of the best innings I have seen Sachin play.  On a second innings wicket offering a lot to the bowlers and with Kapil Dev , Chetan Sharma and an enthusiastic Haryana unit pressing for a win, Sachin made a brutal assault on Kapil and Co and completely swung the match in Mumbai’s favour. He scored 96 but as usual after his dismissal the innings folded and Vengsarkar who was holding the fort was left high and dry on an equally brilliant 139.
  3. 1989 Qadir’s mauling: Sachin had hit Mushtaq Ahmed for 2 sixes in this benefit match curtailed to 20 overs. It was a lost cause  and Qadir bowled a maiden to Kris Shrikant and looked like telling Sachin, hit me if you dare. Sachin promptly dispatched him for 4 sixes and hit a quickfire 50 and nearly got the target within reach
  4. 203* – Mumbai V/s Aus tour match 1998- Billed up as the Warne v/s Sachin series, there was tremendous expectation from this match at the Brabourne stadium. This was the first match I saw Sachin live on the field batting.  A few friends and I arrived when the master was batting around 114 and were witness to a great display of clinical hitting which took him past the double century and set up a Mumbai win. That form continued into the series , which denied the otherwise all conquering Australian’s a victory on Indian soil.
  5. 169 against South Africa on New Years Test 1997 – Azhar and Sachin ushered in the new year with the best ever partnership at Newfoundlands. India as usual were way behind in the match, but first Azhar and then Sachin counterattacked Alan Donald and co for the most memorable 3 hour batting spectacle.

Of course there are many more, the Sharjah Hundreds, the hundred at Perth, the 54 on a turning Mumbai pitch v/s Australia, way too many to list.

I salute to the “Master” as he moves on, the wishes of a nation and indeed the world are with him. Thank you for all the sacrifices, braving the injuries, enduring the pain and above all else dedicating yourself to the game . You are the game’s greatest master and it’s greatest student at the same time.

For the first time in 24 years the burden of expectations has been lifted from your broad shoulders  and its time to enjoy the memories, spend time with the family and experience normalcy.  Now “God” will have more time, having being freed from the irresistible lure of watching you bat!

For us mere mortals , gouging on the vicarious pleasure of  “Sachin Tendulkar  – The best ever 24 year reality show”  has come to an end.

Sachin..Sachin….Encore please!!

We shall keep hoping. But our lives have already been touched indelibly by your brilliance and cricket for my generation will always be “Forever Sachin”

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There’s Nadal and then there are the rest!

‘Hard court is his weakest surface’, people said. ‘With  a dodgy knee how much more can he play?’ – others wondered. After the first round exit at Wimbledon, people even said that he remains a force only on clay. These doubting Thomases did a big dis-service to Djokovic and co – a fired up Nadal slammed performance after performance on their faces and won the US Open on a canter. He didn’t even need the Knee straps!

It seemed that the others were present,  just to make up the numbers and applaud his greatness.

Rafa was in the zone for an entire Hard Court season, unbeaten and picking up all major titles along the way. Weakness? Really? Rafa is laughing all the way not only to the bank but to the doorsteps of sporting immortality. Of course he was already one of the greatest ever that played the game, but this performance puts him at least as the first among equals if not the undisputed king.

Legends like John McEnroe have come out and said that he could be the greatest tennis player ever. He finds Rafa’s desire to win , right from an early age freakish. Boris Becker too has said that the Spaniard will catch up with Federer on the Grand Slam count sooner than later.

So what has changed with this one Grand Slam win? At 12 Grand Slams, Federer’s 17 was looking distant, at 13 it looks a certainty. The rebound by Nadal this year after a major knee injury , has added superhero dimensions to his character and rightly so. In the only match he was stretched a bit, the US Open finals – where for a set and half Djokovic seemed in control- he found a way back through unbelievable defensive play, forcing Djokovic to go for more and commit unforced errors. This tenaciousness and ability to keep coming at you every point of the match sets him apart. It doesn’t matter if you are 40-0 up on your serve, Rafa will still want to win the next point.

No one can hit winners from defensive  positions as Rafa can. And once on the ascendancy, no one can dent your pride worse than Nadal can. In such situations, he is like a hurricane, destruction is inevitable only the extent of damage varies. He has moved the likes of Roger Federer to tears, Novak to despair, Ferrer to submission and wannabes like Gasquet to resignation. He has winning records against all of the Top Ten players , 22-16 against the Djoker and 21-10 against Federer. Is this really  competition? 

I wonder with these sorts of  records, if he is a bit tongue in cheek, when he says that he considers Roger to be the one player that is better than him or when he says that Novak is surely one of the best players ever.  In one of his early French Open wins when Djokovic was starting to rise and the media had hyped him up before a clash with Nadal to be the future No1 ( Nadal had not yet become number 1 then), Nadal commented something along the lines – “It’s a tough match,  after all  Novak is a future world No 1.” And Rafa just crushed him in the match.

I interpreted the comment as ” How dare you project him a future No 1 when I haven’t got there yet”  Jokes apart, he has always been humble and the good guy on and off the court, showing exemplary sportsmanship – the perfect role model.  

I must confess I am a Federer fan and will always be. But Nadal with this performance has put doubts into my head , as he unfailingly does with his opponents, about who the better player is. I have started to enjoy Nadal’s frenetic retrieving, his monstorous forehand, the unbelievable top spin and now he has a big serve and is volleying like McEnroe! (well not quite but you get my drift). So is there anything he cannot do? He is the most dominant player of his generation. He will definitely complete a second career slam at some time, which no one else is even close to doing. If injuries and Djokovic had not held him up for a couple of years, he would already be past Federer in number of Grand Slams by now.

So while I still enjoy watching the silken touch and grace of Federer more, I have to admit Nadal has better credentials for being the best ever among players since the 80s. Rod “the Rocket” Laver with his two proper Grand Slams, at this point,still has a slight edge to be the GOAT (Greatest Of All Time) but might not be so by the time Nadal finshes up!

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