High Strung

That’s the funny thing about tennis points, and games: They may be awe-inspiring at the moment, but then – except for the videotape, which really tells only a bit of the story – the moment is gone. They’re like poetry on water.

John McEnroe
Borg Vs McEnroe

I’ve always had a great fascination for tennis though I’ve held a racquet in my hands only a few times. My love affair with this beautiful game started in the early eighties. Those were the days of Borg, McEnroe, Connors and Lendl.

I remember reading about these legends of the game from sports magazines as TV wasn’t a household commodity in India of the early eighties. The first few games I saw on TV were the Wimbledon of 1985-86 which were won consecutively by a freckled teenaged Boris Becker. In the later years Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg would play several epic matches on center court.

I was always rooting for the quite and reserved Edberg whose personality was a contrast to the more volatile Becker. I’ve always been a big fan of John McEnroe specially enjoying all his verbal volleys at the linesmen and chair umpires. Who can forget his “You just cannot be serious” outburst!!

You cannot be Serious!

Recently I chanced upon a book “High Strung” written by Stephen Tignor a sports journalist. It’s about the epic rivalry between McEnroe and Borg. Borg first burst upon the scene in the mid seventies and ruled tennis specially wimbledon wining five consecutive tournaments between 76-80.

McEnroe came of age in the early eighties and his rise coincided with the shockingly premature exit of Borg from the game at 26. Both were complete opposites in demeanor and personality. Borg was the silent assasin who rarely showed any emotion on the court. He was famous for winning games by putting just one more ball across the net than his opponent.

John McEnroe was an artist with the racquet but given to wild bouts of anger on the court. Infact the media of the day went to town about his bad boy image wherever he played. However watching the wonderful videos of those iconic games on youtube, I can say that mostly his anger was justified as more often than not he was at the receiving end of some absolutely lame calls.

The 1980 Winbledon final between the two is often quoted as the greatest game of tennis ever played. What adds even more depth to the rivalry is that McEnroe while lampooning just about everyone else had the greatest respect for Borg. Infact when Borg shockingly quit at 26, his game was also effected.

Borg often called “Iceborg” for his unflinching temprament ironically got burnt out playing under the pressures of being the top dog and when he lost at the US open finals to McEnroe in 1981, he just could’nt take the defeat. He stormed out of the court skipping the prize ceremony and never returned to professional tennis again.

Tennis like cricket and football was ruled by the British aristocrats and clubs in the earlier years. Infact for a long time it was even considered a sin to get paid for playing. Borg was the first superstar of the new professional age of tennis along with other greats like Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe.

It’s amazing to think how brilliant these legends were with the wooden racquets of the age. Infact their serve and volley game was more artisry and a treat for the spectators. Things changed drastically with the introduction of lighter, bigger and far superior racquets in the later years and coincided with better coaching, fitness and mega money coming into the sport.

2020 has been a disaster for all sporting events including tennis. June was synonymous with Wimbledon and hopefully next year we will see the mdern day gladiators back in action. But this lull made me revisit my earliest memories and watching old youtube videos made me nostalgic for the eighties. Maybe I’m just getting old!

Cricket – The National Obsession

Cricket is a most precarious profession; it is called a team game but, in fact, no one is so lonely as a batsman facing a bowler supported by ten fieldsmen and observed by two umpires to ensure that his error does not go unpunished”     

India is cricket crazy and justifiably so. Nothing unites us like this sport – from youngsters to middle aged professionals to senior citizens, everyone seems to have a strong opinion on the national team’s performance.

My earliest memories of watching the game go way back to 1984 to the test match against England when a young lanky Azhar made his test debut. He scored a century and followed it up with two more successive hundreds in the next two tests, a record that still stands.

I do not remember the India’s improbable triumph at the 83 Prudential World Cup as I started following cricket a year or so after that. The early eighties were a different world with TV still a few years away. Radio commentary would be how most fans followed the game in those years.

The game itself was nothing like the modern version it has evolved into. It was played in all whites including the one dayers which had already become hugely popular. The pace was lethargic compared to today and there used to be a ‘rest day’ in test matches.

The cricketers were revered even in those days and in the absence of a 24×7 media and internet the appeal was probably even more. There was no big money involved though I guess test cricketers in India were well paid and were often sponsored by the big public sector firms where they also held honorary positions.

The first few matches I saw on TV were from the 1985 Benson& Hedges world championship of cricket in Australia. It was also the first time when the teams played in colored clothing and with a white ball. The channel 9 coverage was outstanding and backed by a legendary commentary team of Richie Benaud, Bill Lawry and others it made the viewing riveting.

From then on I would wait eagerly for the games which were played in Australia though the time zone difference meant that you had to get up very early in the morning to catch the games but it was well worth it. I have nostalgic memories of watching cricket early in winter mornings wrapped in a warm blanket!

The big names of that era – Gavaskar, Kapil, Amarnath, Botham, Hadlee, Imran, Viv Richards were all house hold names and larger than life figures. I remember watching the test match where Gavaskar completed 10,000 test runs. It was the cricket equivalent of being the first man on the Everest.

By the time the 1987 Reliance World Cup came around, TV coverage had picked up in India and the expectations were huge as the tournament was being held in the subcontinent. India advanced expectedly in the opening games and there were a few stand out moments – Chetan Sharma took the first hat trick in a World Cup and Gavaskar scored his only ODI century – a totally uncharacteristic  fast paced innings against the Kiwis at Nagpur. The build up to the semi final was charged but then it was a heart breaking moment for all of us when Mike Gatting caught Kapil in the deep dashing India’s hopes.

Sharjah with its high voltage India Pakistan games created a fervor of its own. Two matches stand out during that era – the infamous last ball six which remained in the national psyche for years and the other more pleasant memory of bundling Pak out for 82 when they were chasing a paltry 125 to win!

Of course later the games were one sided and ultimately abandoned as suspicions of match fixing grew. The 90s were a miserable time to be a cricket fan in India. It was mostly Sachin Vs the opposition and it continued on till the Ganguly,Dravid,Laxman and later Sehwag came on to the scene.

The early 2000s were a time of transition and the 2001 historic win at the Eden Gardens against the all conquering Aussies finally reversed the tide in India’s favor. Though World Cup still proved elusive, India almost made it in 2003 before it all unravelled in the finals against Australia.

The advent of IPL in 2008 has completely turned around the way the game is watched today, its become a money spinning American sport like NBA or NFL. Though personally I find IPL too repetitive. There are just too many matches and its difficult to keep track of which players are on which team as they keep moving around each year.

I still enjoy the India games more, the emotions invested with the national team are a lot more. It was finally in 2011 that we won the World Cup again after a long wait of 28 years. The final was nerve wracking specially after both Sachin and Sehwag fell cheaply. However Gautam Gambhir followed by MS Dhoni carried the day leading the team to a memorable win.

The first time I watched a match live at the ground was a test match against Australia in Bangalore in 2004-05. I was giddy with excitement as I entered the ground and took my seat. It was nothing like you watch on TV, the entire experience felt surreal. Mcgrath came charging in and bowled and the ball went like a bullet. And I thought he was only medium pace, I remember that Gilchrist was standing way back!

I watched another test match in Bangalore this time against the visiting Pakistan team and it was an amazing experience too. Unfortunately we ended up losing both the games I watched from the ground.

I prefer to watch from the comforts of home listening to what the experts have to opine.The generation I grew up watching in the eighties have all long retired from the game and the stars from my own generation – Sachin, Dravid,Ganguly,Kumble,Sehwag have also retired in the last couple of years.

But that’s the circle of life, the game is bigger than the players and it stays still keeping the fans engrossed. Cricket has given me lots of memories and often certain games remind me of the time and place I was in my own life. In that sense the personal connect still endures.