Saturday, May 7, 2011

Remembrance of Time Past - Tennis Reminiscences

My first memories on viewing Tennis is in the late eighties when I stepped into high school. That was the time Doordarshan had probably started relaying the semi-finals and finals of grand slam tournaments. The  McEnroe, Borg era was over. Borg had retired, McEnroe was still playing but was not a major player particularly in singles. I remember seeing him in only 1 semi-final, and it was surprising to see him being dominated by the opponent. This was because the McEnroe, Borg clashes were something of a legendary thing to me, the details being what my father told me and what I read in Sportstar articles and saw in some old clips of tennis matches. McEnroe along with Viv Richards were 2 players who took an almost mythical quality from what my father told me and what I read about them. Sadly, I never saw the best of Richards too live. Along with these two, Connors was also still around, again he was something of a relic of a bygone era. The next era had well and truly settled down when I started watching tennis. There were a lot of good players around, but  the 3 people (as per my memory) who dominated that period till the early to mid nineties were Becker, Edberg and Ivan Lendl. 

Edberg seemed too good to be true. Silken and graceful strokes and a superb net play and a classic backhand. You almost wanted him to win for his calm demeanor alone. Becker was almost the antithesis of Edberg. He appealed to the bad side of you. If Edberg was all grace, Becker was all power and was also a great player at the net. He also had an uncanny knack for drama. I don't remember any other player playing more 5 set matches during that time than Becker. He had the crazy thing of losing the first 2 sets or being 1-2 down and then winning the match. I loved the way he prowled the net and flung himself there, crashing to the ground and going at it again. These two were my favorites from that period. That's probably because I have personally liked the server and volleying type of game and players more than the baseline game. I love when a player server and rushes to the net to intercept the return. That gives me a great high. (For this reason the French Open is something I watched with probably less interest than the others). The two played 3 consecutive Wimbledon finals which were the high point of my tennis watching. Two pure serve and volley players trading volleys at net. It may not have been as good as the McEnroe/Borg clashes, but I sure enjoyed them a great deal. The third of the troika, Lendl was probably the person who had the least fans. He reminded me of a robotic assassin. The man seemed to be made of steel and seemed to have no nerves. But curiously enough a man of his temperament could not win the Wimbledon. I actually remember feeling sorry for this failure of this at a later stage. There were other players too who made an impact, but I don't remember them being very consistent. There was mats wilander who won 3 grand slams one year, but sort of petered out after that. Pat cash who upset Lendl in a Wimbledon final, Micheal stich who promised a lot in the early nineties but again fizzled out. Chang created a buzz by winning the French open. He never another grand slam again. Courier dominated for a couple of years but seemed to lose interest in the game soon after.

In the women's side, in the same period Steffi graf was coming up or rather she had broken through. Christ evert was still playing but was the fag end of her career. I remember seeing her playing for a couple of years only. Navratilova was still playing at a high level, but it was Graf's era all the way from the late eighties. Forget about winning against her, winning a set itself was considered to be a great thing. I remember 1988 where she won all 4 grand slams and the Olympic medal to boot. I saw that years French open which she won 6-0,6-0. The whole thing took just about half an hour. It was incredible.  The very next year saw her most difficult challenger Monica seles making her breakthrough. She lost in 1989 to Aranxta Sanchez which was a great surprise at the time. Sanchez for sometime seemed to the one who could beat Graf. But Seles soon became more dominant and it was an incredible rivalry between her and Graff over the next few years and Seles seemed to have the upper hand till she was stabbed by a crazy fan. Amidst all these players was the one person, who if rankings were given based on things other than winning, would have been the permanent number 1, Gabriela Sabatini. She must have had the biggest fan following of them all. Sadly though, she never seemed to break through beyond the semi-finals. I so much wanted her to win a Grand slam,. She actually one 1 title, but she was mostly an fringe player in the Navratilova-Graf and the latter Graf-Seles rivalries. It goes without saying that she was probably my favorite player, though I wanted Graf to win, maybe even Seles. Anyway it is not wrong to be polygamous with your preferences in sports.

By the mid 90's things changed. In the men's side the Sampras show had started. I somehow could not get into the rivalries as before. The only one who could have challenged Sampras, Agassi was too inconsistent to get a great rivalry going. Agassi being Agassi, he could be ranked in the top 5 one year and be playing in some remote tournament the next year ranked in the 100's. There were patrick rafter and a few other players, but there seemed to be no consistent rivalry to Sampras. Similarly in the women's section, after Seles's stabbing incident she was never the same player again. She could probably have won more than Steffi if that incident had not occurred. Graf herself tailed off in the mid to late 90's. Capriati came and went, but it was period of flux with not much of consistency. There were two sides to this. Since there was not many players to root for personally, I could watch matches without much tension. On the flip side, my interest level started waning. Sports needs rivalries, spectators need to have favorites to continue watching the game. The fear and agony of your favorite player failing and the joy of the same player succeeding is probably what drives most fans. It was ironic considering the fact that during that period, ESPN/Star Sports came into India and started beaming grand slams from the first round itself. They even started telecasting other ATP tournaments, but I was losing interest. I remember the early 90's where I used to read the Hindu to see if my favorite players had safely progressed through the early rounds. (Hindu and Sportstar had the best coverage during those days). By the time the Federer era kicked off around 2002-2003 my interest in who won had become even less. At the start of his dominance he was much pure serve and volleyer than he is now, but he too has changed his game the last few years. It was sad to see him win Wimbledon from the baseline. I think the time of pure serve and volley players has well and truly passed and probably Federer is the last in that line. The Nadal-Federer rivalry too did not excite me as it would have if it had happened 5-6 years earlier. I just wanted one person to win one time and the other the next  time. Yes, I enjoyed the clashes, but was seeing them at an impersonal level. Things seem to have turned a circle now with 4-5 players now jostling at the top consistently for the past 2 years. Dojovic, Murray seem to be forming a fine quartet with Nadal and Federer.

All said and done, when I think back on all these, to borrow from Byran Adams, the late 80's and early 90's were the best days of my tennis watching life.

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