Sunday 4 July 2010

Ten Parting Thoughts on Roland Garros 2010

It's been a strangely fortuitous fortnight, but now that the dust has settled on the red clay of Roland Garros, we're reminded of how strangely fulfilling this years French Open has been. Here's what I'll remember of the past couple of weeks:

1) Rafael Nadal is not just good on clay. He's scary good. No disrespect to Bjorn the legend but there's only one thing that beats this bull from Majorca on clay - his knees. Soderling didn't play particularly badly. He could have made a few more of those huge inside out forehands but those are high-risk shots and not making them regularly enough in no way implies that you're playing badly. As it stands, Nadal is still 24, his knees look good enough and he's only a single French Open away from equalling Borg's six. Plus, he's got the Number One ranking and barely any points to defend over the rest of the season. If you're an ATP pro, Rafael Nadal is the man you want to be right now.

2) What does it say about the WTA when Italian journey-woman Francesca Schiavone, who turns 30 later this month makes her way through the draw and then plays the match of her life against a powerful opponent who had taken down Henin, Serena and Jankovic? It tells you a couple of things. Women's tennis is still more unpredictable than the men and we're not likely to see these kinds of upsets in the next two slams. It also serves as a shining example on how to seize an opportunity. Ms. Schiavone ground her way through the fortnight playing quality opponents and found herself against an unexpected opponent in the final. She knows that at 30, she's never getting a chance like this again so she goes out on Chatrier and plays the match of her life. Now, she'll always be a Grand Slam champion. Heartwarming.

3) Future Champions? Diminutive Argentine Agustin Velotti (all of 1.64m tall) won the Boy's Singles beating American Andrea Collarini 6-4, 7-5 while Elene Svitolina became the first Ukrainian winner ever beating Tunisian Ons Jabeur 6-2, 7-5 in the Girl's Final. That being said, Junior Grand Slam success is anything but a guarantee to equivalent success on the Senior tour.

4) Spare a thought for Novak Djokovic after his latest 'Melzdown'. Ever since beating Roger Federer on his way to the 2008 title in Melbourne, Nole has failed to make it to a Grand Slam final. The poor bloke might have been inadvertently cursed by his mother when she prematurely declared "the king is dead" in reference to Federer. Djokovic is superbly consistent year-round and his game is as compact and solid as anyones, but unless he starts playing for Grand Slam titles, he won't have a legacy.

5) Ah! How can Grand Slam thoughts be complete without Roger Federer? Finally the streak ends but he lost to a better player on the day and one hopes that he'll be more than ready and hungry for another Wimbledon title after losing his Number One ranking. He finished in the top four (or better) in 23 consecutive major tournaments! The most number of times Tiger Woods did this was five times and for Top 10 finishes, he did it eight times! No comparisons but I'm just providing some context.

6) When's the next time an American gets to win the Men's title? Your guess is as good as mine. When the last American standing in the draw is Robby Ginepri you figure there might be something wrong with an American on clay. Roddick doesn't stand a chance and the Isner/Querrey duo both have games better suited to quicker surfaces. With no promising juniors in sight (not that we need another Donald Young), this wait could be a long one.

7) The brilliance of the Williams! Venus goes out tamely to Nadia Petrova and Serena gets upset by Stosur. No problem. They go on to win their fourth consecutive major title! It's a Serenus/Verena slam! Now that's a streak worth building on.

8) For all the talk about seizing opportunity and grabbing chances, here's one for Jelena Jankovic. She's playing good tennis, due to face Serena in the semis. Williams gets upset in a shocker, Jankovic runs through Shvedova and all she has to do is go past Stosur to give herself another shot at that elusive grand Slam title. Then she wins a total of three games! I used to be a fan of her error-free tennis but I'm starting to think the clock may have run out.

9) Raise your hand if you missed Messrs. Nikolay Davydenko and Juan Marteeeeenn at this years French Open. They're established players capable of exploding on any given day. Would have been nice to see them try and stop the runaway Rafa train. Hopefully they'll be back sooner than anticipated.

10) And finally, we can cross the English Channel and get the strawberries out in bunches! Expect inch-perfect grass and inclement weather - it's Wimbledon time! Follow the warm-ups as Rafa heads to Queens and Roger heads to Halle for the Gerry Weber Open. It'll be impossible to match the Men's Singles Finals of the past two years but hey, never say never!

The Legend Of The Khan (Part IV)

Learning from the way his father Nasrullah had coached all-time great Jonah Barrington, Rehmat oversaw a singular and almost manic training regime that didn’t just propel Jahangir to the top of the Squash fraternity.

It propelled him miles and miles above the next best player.

There was nothing extraordinarily unusual about Jahangir’s skill level or shot making ability either. It was his fitness that stood head and shoulders above his competitors.

He didn’t just dominate squash for the next decade. He obliterated all available competition.

As part of the most hallowed streak in sports history, he won the 1982 International Squash Players Association Championship without dropping a point!

Starting with the 1981 World Open, (where he defeated Geoff Hunt at the age of 17 to become the youngest world champion), Jahangir embarked on an unbeaten streak of 555 professional matches spanning over five years!

From 1982 to 1991, he won all ten British Open titles, played only two North American and Canadian Opens each (winning them both) and in 1985, after thrashing Chris Dittmar in the British Open Final, 'concorded' across the Atlantic to win his first round match in the North American Open less than 24 hours from his time of victory!

Although he finally relinquished his hold on the British Open due to the arrival of another unrelated Khan from Nawakille (Jansher), Jahangir made a couple of more World Open finals before a decade’s worth of grueling training regimes caught up with his thirty year old body.

When people asked Jahangir how he was the fittest player in a sport that requires only the fittest to play, he downplayed his response. According to him, he never followed a strict training regime or a particular diet.

Apart from always ensuring that he drank two glasses of milk a day, his training usually began with a nine mile jog which he would complete in over an hour at a leisurely pace (aerobic).

Then he would do numerous sets of short, timed sprints (anaerobic). Later, he would weight train in the gym and finally cool down in a pool. Following this routine loosely for five days, he would match practice on the sixth day and rest on the seventh.

Sometimes, he would run on custom-built tracks or asphalt roads, grass fields or sea shores and knee deep water. Often enough, he would head up to higher altitudes where the oxygen was lower.

And this was the training regime of one of the world’s fittest athletes!

Former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, in his autobiography, stated that “If Hollywood only knew his (Jahangir’s) story of tragedy, grit and determination; it would make another movie like Chariots of Fire. Many of those who know him consider him the best athlete that ever lived.”

Without the help of the British, the Pashtuns or Pathans would have continued to herd cattle near the breathtaking retreats of the Khyber Pass.

Many of them still do.

Descendants of the defenders of the pass themselves, to be a Pathan is to have an innate sense of pride and fierceness in one’s self.

None exemplified these traits more than the entire dynasty of Khans that ruled the squash world for decades. Each one of them was a special, accomplished squash player in their own right and could claim to be the best of his era.

What of the sickly boy that wasn’t allowed to play as a child? He can gloriously state that he was simply the best of them all.

And that would be more than enough; for if you are the best of the Khans, you must be the best of the best.

The Legend Of The Khan (Part III)

While Mo was related to Hashim by blood, Roshan Khan who married Safirullah’s (Hashim’s brother-in-law) sister was only related by marriage. As a result, he claimed he often experienced a feeling of exclusion from the rest of the Khans. Moreover, unlike his contemporaries, Roshan rarely left Pakistan and therefore had little opportunity to familiarize himself with the hardball version of squash across the Atlantic.

Nevertheless, he broke Hashim’s six year stranglehold on the British Open and added two Canadian Opens as well as a hat-trick of North American Open titles to his stellar resume.

What Roshan lacked in fitness, coupled with a recurrent knee injury, he made up for with his artistry and mercurial talent. Just like Hashim, he would go on to take his place in the Khan dynasty, more renowned for his parenting than his own squash legacy.

His two prodigious sons, Torsam and Jahangir had contrasting careers. The former was tragically a “what-might-have-been” and the latter turned out to be “what-was”.

Before Jahangir crowned himself as the single all-time greatest squash player, Sharif Khan spent over a decade dominating the American hardball circuit. As the eldest of Hashim’s twelve children, Sharif faced the additional pressure of a squash scholarship to Millfield School at the age of 11.

He adapted himself to a glittering junior career, winning every possible championship, including the prestigious Drysdale Cup. After reaching the British Open semifinals, he embarked on an unparalleled dominance of the North American Open, reaching the finals fifteen years in a row and winning all but three of them!

Furthermore, he dominated during a time when three brothers (Gulmast, Liaqat and Salim) were also peaking and winning tournaments by the dozen.

Once Roshan Khan’s squash days as a professional were over, he remained in Pakistan where he set his heart and mind towards turning his sons into world beaters. Jahangir was a sickly child and periodically suffered from bouts of hernia, as well as various other illnesses. As a result, he was not allowed to play as a child for fear that he would collapse.

Torsam, on the other hand, was the pride of the new Khan generation. By the fall of 1979, backed by his father’s devotion and coached by his family, he was ranked 13th in the world and had been elected as President of the International Squash Players Association.

Sadly, in November of that year, 27-year-old Torsam Khan—in the best of health and peak of his career—suffered a fatal heart attack during a tournament game. The loss shattered Jahangir, who had developed into somewhat of a prodigy, competing with the world’s top players and winning the World Amateur Championship as a 15 year old.

His father Roshan then decided to put Jahangir in the hands of his cousin, 29-year-old Rehmat Khan who agreed to sacrifice his career and took Jahangir into his home in London.

To Be Continued...

The Legend Of The Khan (Part II)

It began with the Head Steward of one of the clubs, Abdullah Khan, whose wife gave birth to Hashim, a naturally athletic child that spent the majority of his childhood playing squash with himself on cement courts barefoot in temperatures reaching 100 degrees Fahrenheit!

Although his father met with an untimely fatal accident when Hashim was 11, squash was already in his blood. He worked at the club until he was finally given a coaching position at the Air Force Officer’s Mess when he was 26.

Two years later he won the All-India Championship in Bombay and defended it twice before sports were suspended as a result of the bloody partition that ensued.

Once Pakistan was created, Hashim went on to win six consecutive British Opens and seven overall! He also won the North American and Canadian Open (hardball) thrice, adding five British Pro Championships for good measure.

Hashim Khan however, is remembered less for his own legacy and competitive record than for the forthcoming patriarchal role which he would occupy as the creator that set the Khan dynasty into motion.

It seems unfair that a man with so many professional accomplishments would ultimately take a backseat in the pantheon of players that was to follow, but this is precisely what Hashim did as squash gained slightly more exposure and popularity.

His brother Azam, younger by a decade, was a tennis enthusiast until he started practicing squash with Hashim under the scorching Peshawar sun. His progress was so rapid that he was a losing finalist to Hashim in the 1953 British Open. He then proceeded to repeat this feat twice more!

Nevertheless, by the spring of 1962 he was the proud winner of four consecutive British Open crowns, a pair of Canadian Opens and a North American Open before a ruptured Achilles tendon effectively ended his career as a professional.

One of Hashim’s contemporaries, Safirullah (himself a British Open semifinalist) married Hashim’s sister and produced two sons (Gul and Mohibullah) who by the time Azam’s career was over, were ready to step in and make the jump from "prodigious talent" to "indomitable champion."

While Gul was consistently in the Top-10, Mo captured the British Open in 1962 after losing to his Uncle Hashim thrice previously. By winning a North American Open, he would ultimately end up as one of only five men to have achieved this double.

After meeting JFK at the White House, Mo secured his assistance to become the squash pro at the Harvard Club in Boston and served there till 1995 when he suddenly collapsed fatally on court.

By then, he had put his shot making skills and volatility to good use in the North American version of squash—hardball. He won the North American Open four more times as well as five consecutive North American pro events!



To Be Continued...

Friday 4 June 2010

The Legend Of The Khan (Part I)

The North-West Frontier Province in Pakistan is infamous today for being a forlorn battlefield littered with the remains of missiles, bombs and fallen soldiers.

It represents the senselessness of man-made violence and a people trapped on the wrong side of a self-authored history.

Down the valley of the glorious Khyber Pass, representing the last path to the mountainous regions of the Afghan border, there lies a village called Nawakille which for decades sequentially produced and sent forth Pakistan’s greatest gifts to the athletic world.

Sporting dynasties are best characterized by two crucial tenets – longevity and dominance . They possess an aura of invincibility that is anything but sporadic.

The longer the dominance, the greater the lure and this is exactly why the legend of the Khans remains the greatest untold story of a dynasty in the history of sport.

Most sports require a precarious blend of various athletic attributes. Conventional sports such as football value the conventional characteristics such as speed, stamina and endurance.

Marathon runners prize endurance and stamina; sprinters need power and speed. Rugby players need speed as well as strength – a combination which defines an athlete’s “ability to explode.”

A Formula One driver requires lightning fast reflexes while golfers rely on immense mental strength as well as muscle endurance.

Squash, much like tennis, requires all of the above.

It requires aerobic fitness to survive two hours of scampering around a closed court at a frenetic pace.

It requires an unparalleled anaerobic ability to sprint forward, backward and sideways for minutes and then do it all over again.

It requires specific muscle endurance to hit the same shot repeatedly at a three second interval up to 20 times. And it requires a quality reflex mechanism to play a small ball travelling at speeds close to 200 kilometers an hour.

The British Empire gave the sporting world enough that we hold dear. They gave us Golf in 1502; Cricket in 1787, Tennis in 1859, Hockey in 1860, Football in 1863 and Rugby in 1871 just to name a few.

And though the French theoretically "invented" the game of squash, it was the British who developed it, popularized it and spread it to the world. Brazil would do well to gift them a Jules Rimet trophy, Australia could give up a Cricket World Cup with a few Ashes trophies thrown in as bonus and perhaps Sampras or Federer could donate a few Wimbledons.

No nation could ever be more deserving.

The story of the Khans however, does not begin with its most well known - Jahangir. It ends with him.

To delve deeper into the past and trace his lineage we must go back a century when India and Pakistan were one and the British had built squash courts to entertain their officers while they served the empire.

To Be Continued.....

Thursday 3 June 2010

Why Rockin' Robin beat Roger

There are many reasons why Roger Federer finally failed to make it to the semifinals of a Grand Slam. Foremost among these is the fact that all streaks which involve winning have to end.

And this wasn’t a “participating-in-a-major kind of streak”. It was more of a “beating-five-of-the-world’s-top-players-at-every-major-for-six-years” kind of streak!

Notice the difference in context .

This was a streak and it has accordingly been celebrated in the tennis world.

Leave talks of Federer’s demise aside, for he has been written off too often and made far too many people eat their words. I’m not falling for it.

If forced, I will only gratefully concede that Federer’s demise is relative. And that is to be expected.

But for people who think Robin Soderling is anywhere close to the sporting definition of a “cuckoo”, please think again.

He boasts the kind of game that is typical of what sport calls a “giant killer"— fearlessness, power and the most important factor of them all—the belief that he actually could win.

If you follow American sport, think Appalachian State, the Golden State Warriors and the New York Giants because they defined both fearlessness as well as the belief that they could win. And none defined it better.

Don’t get this wrong. Roger Federer did not lose because his semifinal streak had to end. It could have ended next month at SW19, the same way Sampras was stunned by Krajicek in 1996.

He didn’t lose because he had beaten Soderling 12 times in a row and therefore Soderling had to beat him once. Rockin’ Robin could have done that at a lesser tournament in the near future.

And strangely enough, Roger Federer did not lose because he played unusually badly. One couldn’t say the same about his final against Del Potro at Flushing Meadows or his French Open losses to Nadal.

He lost because he was outplayed.

Because Soderling played better than him.

He served better, returned better and flattened his forehand unleashing enough power to cause Federer more than just discomfort.

With his backhand he was consistent if not devastating and when he had opportunities, he grabbed them unlike in the past. I would never bet against Nadal on clay but if someone can beat him, I’d like to think it would be the Swede.

A monumental effort is required to beat Roger Federer in the latter stages of a Grand Slam. The opponent has to play out of his skin and Federer simply cannot be at his best. Del Potro did it at the US Open. Nadal did it at Wimbledon while Safin did it at the Australian Open five years ago.

But this time?

Federer played well. Not at his very best which is what we may have grown accustomed to, but he played good tennis.

Soderling played better.

Period.

Thursday 27 May 2010

Barack Obama Courts LeBron James: The Impact of a Superstar

The most common barometer of sporting success lies in the ability to win.

It’s quite simple really - the ones who win are more remembered than the ones who do not.

Sometimes that might seem unfair but it’s the inherent nature of sport. The ultimate goal tends to narrow down to a solitary result – to get that elusive ‘W’.

This is precisely the reason why numerous NFL experts and fans would choose Tom Brady over Peyton Manning to build a team around.

Because Brady has won more than Manning has.

Now Lebron James is a winner.

A Winner.

Over the past seven seasons he has done more than just run up a few ‘W’s’ for the Cleveland Cavaliers. He turned the franchise around and gave it the respectability that it never had. The Cavaliers were always remembered for being Jordan’s buzzer-beating bunnies. Now they’re remembered for having Lebron James.

They still might have him.

The moment June ends, (crazy enough as it sounds), Lebron will garner twice the obscene amount of attention that he’s already receiving in the middle of the NBA conference finals!

The spotlight seems undeserved to a lot of basketball fans and a good bit of it has to do with the fact that James still hasn’t won an NBA Championship. But a lot of the attention is also due to the build-up.

Lebron James was built up.

The NBA has always needed a face. In Jordan, it got more than a decade’s worth of faces. Ever since then, there have been conscious attempts to find another star to elevate and there is little doubt that this is a seemingly dangerous and often futile exercise.

It leads to immense pressure on players who might not have had the calibre in the first place. More importantly, it ensures that players who would have been remembered as very good or great will instead be remembered for never living up to their ‘potential’.

For never getting that final elusive ‘W’.

I’m thinking Grant Hill (injuries), T-Mac, Vince Carter and a couple more.

The negativity behind James’ inability to win a championship for Cleveland is offset by his positive intangibles. NBA franchises don’t account for the fact that he failed to win in Cleveland. What they account for is the fact that he’s 25 years old.

That he’s hungry for championships.

That he’s a 6’8” 280 pound physical freak of a basketball specimen coupled with tremendous agility, speed and a basketball IQ the likes of which the league has never seen all in one person before.

Thus, James has the attention of most NBA fans.

Cleveland's because he’s theirs and they want him to stay, followed by the fans whose teams have the most likely chance of landing him – the Bulls, Knicks, Nets and Heat.

There’s another fan that seems to want a say in the matter - Barack Obama.

Obama, in an interview with Marv Albert, seemingly tried hard to insist that he wasn’t trying to meddle in the Lebron James free agency circus.

So hard that he managed to restrict himself to one line. And what a line it was!

“You know, you could see Lebron fitting in pretty well there (with Bulls Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah)”.

Obama’s trying to swing this and he knows a thing or two about swinging things. He’s interfering in the sweepstakes and he’s doing it while stating explicitly that he doesn’t want to “meddle in this”.

And he has every right to. It makes it that much more exciting while hyping James up even more.

Sure, Lebron has put up gaudy statistics; the likes of which we haven’t seen since the Big-O triple doubled the league a few decades ago. He’s an unselfish basketball player who seems to be a natural leader on court.

But he hasn’t won anything.

And it doesn’t matter whether he had an insufficient supporting cast or he didn’t.

He hasn’t won a championship.

So when the President of the United States of America says that he thinks Lebron James would look good in a Bulls uniform, that’s when you know how big Lebron James truly is.

All the televised high school games.

Shaq watching them, Kobe watching them.

The $95 million dollar Nike contract before he joined the league.

They were all parts and pieces of a singular intentional effort to make Lebron James the face of the NBA. He may validate it when he wins a championship. Or he may be remembered as an overhyped superstar if he doesn’t.

But he’s big. Presidentially big.

Tuesday 25 May 2010

Oh Africa!: Thoughts On The FIFA World Cup

It is often accepted that absence makes the heart grow fonder.

Therefore, when a particular event is absent for four long years, the comeback is inevitably built up and rightfully hyped to an almost deafening crescendo.

If you listen carefully, you can hear it and if you shut your eyes you can feel it.

Make no mistake about it; the greatest singular sporting event in the world is not the one that occurs annually on a gloomy wintry day in February. Neither is it the one that happens mid-year on meticulously prepared inch-perfect grass.

For a refreshing change, the 11th of June will turn the world’s focus positively towards Africa and in doing so might succeed in shifting the global football paradigm away from Europe in an insignificant way. As the 2002 edition proved, South Korea and Japan set new standards for hosting just as Beijing did with the Summer Games in 2008.

Put simply, when the spotlight turns towards you, it’s best to be prepared because you will be shining whether you like it or not.

The changes will be pervasive.

In less than three weeks our lexicon will expand.

We’ll talk Zakumi and Jabulani – the former being the green-haired anthropomorphized leopard mascot with the clich├ęd motto that “Zakumi’s game is fair play”, and the latter being Adidas’s eleventh World Cup match ball with (no surprise here!) new revolutionary technology.

Jabulani,(which means “bringing joy to everyone” in Zulu), will live up to its name just like Teamgeist, Fevernova and the Tricolore while Zakumi’s motto will hopefully hold true if one particularly talented bald Frenchman learns to keep his hands in his pockets.

The fans will arrive slowly and steadily, not for one moment letting it seem as if there is actually any sense of calm about the event.

Tournament organizers will breathe faster, voices will be raised and panic will set in.

And all the controversies that South Africa has had to endure ever since it won the bid over six years ago will come to the fore under the intense and often unbearable spotlight of the global media.

Once again, its crime rate, transportation problems and attitude towards evicting people will be questioned. Its stadiums may or may not look ready enough and perhaps the construction workers will make new demands.

And yet the country will continue to endure.

Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban and six other cities will light up magically, their streets littered with the contagious passion of the average football fan and their airports abuzz with the imminent arrival of the most talented footballers in the world, each playing not for some fancy club or a gazillion dollars but for free – for their country!

There will be no Ronaldinho or Pato.

No Benzema or Del Piero either.

There are many others who should have made it but did not. Fortunately enough, for every missing star, there are five other bigger and brighter ones ready to stake their claim and cement their legacy at the pinnacle of the world’s only truly global game.

Messi, Ronaldo, Rooney et al will shoulder the burden of a nation and its crazed football fans. Yet, there is every possibility that none of them will succeed.

Reaching the semi-finals or finals is never enough. The infrequency and unpredictability of the FIFA World Cup ensures that for all the perennial contenders as well as pretenders, the only ‘W’ that matters is the one that will take place on the 11th of July.

That will be the day at the FNB Stadium (Soccer City) in Johannesburg when Jabulani changes to Jo’bulani and 95,000 people will become live witnesses to the polarizing climax of a month’s long saga of sleepless nights and heart-in-mouth moments.

And due to the inevitable nature of sport, there will be a winner and a loser.

The former will raise Silvio Gazzaniga’s golden FIFA World Cup trophy as high as possible with confetti raining down and fireworks exploding as far as the eye can see. The loser will keep his head low and perhaps accept the consolation medal with as much graciousness as the occasion allows.

And when the euphoria dies down and the excitement abates, the clock will start ticking in Brazil. If football ever had a home, it would be in the favelas of Rio where the greatest of the greats continue to find and retain their unfathomable love, passion and skill for the game.

There will be issues, controversies and numerous inconceivable reasons why Brazil will not be ready in time, but after four more years everything will return to normal.

The greatest sporting show in the world will present itself to the world and continue to endure.

Just like it always has.

Wednesday 19 May 2010

The Evolution Of Tennis: Of Roger, Rafa and Rackets

The precipitous rise in the level of professional tennis can be attributed most conveniently, to the influx of 'technology'. The utility of such a loose and ubiquitous descriptive term is that it encompasses everything that we want it to - new coaching machines, training methods, healthier nutrition and above all, better equipment.

Better equipment is a debate with almost no chance at neutrality. Over the past 20 years, the average athlete's physicality has changed significantly. I simply cannot bring myself to believe that Borg was as fit as Nadal. And even if one argues that he was and I accept your argument, I can still further support myself by claiming that the Monfils, Ferrers and Verdascos of the Seventies merit no comparison to their counterparts today.

This is where equipment plays its role.

A racket is crucial enough to warrant consideration because it is the biggest overall variable factor that determines the balance of the game. If tennis comes down to a game where the player who hits the ball hardest wins, it will inevitably die.

Power tennis is undoubtedly exciting but there is a Catch-22 situation that accompanies it. If the points become too long over an extended period of time, the sport becomes boring. And if they remain short (think Sampras at Wimbledon), then tennis loses its fine balance of sweat, elegance and attrition.

No modern ATP player exemplifies the impact of technology as much as Rafael Nadal. In fact, it is far easier to believe that Nadal is a product of his own generation rather than the other way round. This doesn't appear to be the case with Federer.

Imagine Federer with a wooden racket or the T2000 metal stick that Connors popularized—He would, in all likeliness, still be as fluid, artful and graceful to watch. Less effective? Certainly. But only because of the expected decrease in spin and power that would accompany the switch.

Somehow, Nadal does not fit into this vintage picture of Federer in white pants and a wooden racket.

Making him play with a wooden shaft would be disrespecting the game that we have come to identify him with. For one, his open shouldered stance would generate little power and end up falling well short of the base line. The bounce that he generates with that motion-defying topspin uppercut forehand of his would be relatively minimal.

Even his two handed backhand (which appears to be as risk-free a shot as there is), would be affected. This is because when Nadal swings on the backhand, he doesn't appear to hit through the line in one fluid linear motion as the textbook advises. Rather, he tends to improvise on the spot, muscling the ball through wherever he wants it to go.

His open shouldered stance is as technically flawed as one can get. The only successful players that avail of it are ones who have been coached personally, i.e. by a family member. Apart from Nadal, the Williams sisters have employed this technique to the most devastating affect.

Conventional wisdom assumes that at the split second moment when racket strikes ball, your upper and lower body have to be in a state of momentary balance with the torso imparting momentum to the shot by leaning slightly forward. The reason why Nadal and the Williams sisters have been so successful is more easily explained not by the rightness of their technique but rather by the self (and externally instilled) mental belief that they can execute the stroke coupled with countless of practice hours of actually doing so.

The unorthodoxy of this style of play is one that requires forgiveness. Your racket has to be forgiving of the nuances that can accompany the imbalance of the shot and the irregularity in the motion of the swing. This is not to take away anything from Nadal or his like but simply to claim that modern racket technology coupled with the improved physique and fitness of the average tennis pro have successfully maximized its effectiveness to a large effect.

Today's top of the line rackets are best sold by rocket science-like explanations. While titanium is still popular, it is no longer the selling point as it was when it first breached the market at the turn of the century. A modern racket may have an eclectic and complicated combination of carbon fibers, glass fibers and thermoplastic filaments such as nylon, epoxy resins, as well as other exotic metallic alloys.

The Head Liquidmetal model range, developed at the California Institute of Technology supposedly imparts more power and momentum to the ball due to the amorphous state of its atomic structure. Gimmicky? Sure, but what player wants to take the chance of seeing his competitor with an external advantage?

Wilson modeled its latest line along the existence of the "K-Factor," which combined various fibers in specific directions so as to maximize the hitting spot and provide extra control. Prince chose the "larger-holes-in-the-frame" tactic as its USP and changed its stringing patterns to seemingly make its rackets more forgiving.

Micromanaging the legality of materials is an exercise that is futile at best and horribly inconvenient. It is akin to performance-enhancing drugs in the sense that the moment it is discovered (which would be difficult to do), another one would perhaps already be in the pipeline.

The detractors that raise the point of both players having the same advantage are overlooking this simple fact: While rackets may not have a ceiling, the human body does. A Roddick serve at 150 miles per hour requires a reaction time of approximately 0.3 of a second. A good 10-15 miles faster and it would be physically impossible to bring the racket down in time.

Watching a flurry of aces is entertaining but not when it extends beyond a game and supersedes the beauty of a modern tennis rally.

And just as Federer is a unique and prodigious talent, so is Nadal. But they are different kinds of talents, each one as effective in their own way—one maybe a bit more than the other. Furthermore, they are in no way representative of this generation of tennis.

That responsibility is shouldered by the average tennis professional ranked in the top 100 or 200 that never grabs the limelight and yet still has the ability to amaze the knowledgeable spectator watching him play. You couldn't say this a couple of decades ago.

Tennis has come a long way and its rise in quality has been near meteoric but there maybe a threshold somewhere down the line which should never be crossed for fear of redundancy.

The problem is that we don't quite know how far we are from it.

Thursday 13 May 2010

Cleveland Bruising, Boston Cruising: Where Is Number 23?

When you are a High School junior that has his face plastered on the cover of Sports Illustrated with "The Chosen One" next to it, you could be forgiven for realizing that people would immediately begin to expect too much of you.

If you don’t buy into this media hype about yourself and instead set about improving your game quietly with a low profile then you could almost be forgiven for every singular achievement that you fail to accomplish. And if you actually buy into all this hype surrounding yourself and make every attempt to build it up even more (while also improving your game)?

Well, then you’re Lebron James – The King Of Cleveland and the one we are all supposed to be a witness to.

A witness?

A WITNESS??

With my eyes barely open in the morning, I was witness to King James not making a single field goal till the third quarter!

I was witness to some insipid defense and a total lack of energy and desire.

And I was witness to the worst playoff loss at home in franchise history.

Yes, I was witness to 120-88 at the Q.

And now, I’ll be witness to a Game 6 in Boston with the season on the line and James’ legacy at stake.

Make no mistake about it. This IS the first call for Lebron James.

Game 6 is his "Game of Reckoning". You can’t join a lottery team and immediately start reeling off championships (Ask Chicago’s Number 23). It’s like a jigsaw puzzle—except you already have the biggest piece and the clearest picture. All you have to do is complete it with the perfect smaller pieces.

Last year, James was forgiven for running into a Magic team whose center and sharpshooting they had no answer too. Nevertheless, he still stuffed the stat box and iced it with a phenomenal buzzer beater at home.

This year? The Cavaliers have made significant acquisitions designed more to improve the quantity of their weaponry rather than the quality. They are supposed to have an answer to anything and everything and if (and when) they don’t, they have the superstar of all superstars to step up and carry them like he’s always done.

Keep the elbow out of this. Jordan played with the flu and willed his team to win. For crying out loud, Nash closed out the Spurs in San Antonio with one eye and Stoudemire! And yes, Kobe has his team in the Conference Finals with a banged up everything. It’s one of those lessons that you keep hearing in life and it applies to sport as well. If you really want something badly, the whole universe will seem to conspire in your favor.

That’s what has to happen in Boston at the Garden. Lebron has to picture himself in the most hostile of atmospheres.

He has to picture Mo Williams and Anthony Parker missing three pointers from both flanks.

He has to picture Shaq missing easy baskets in the paint and imagine Rajon Rondo creating open looks for Allen and Pierce.

He has to picture Kevin Garnett anchoring the defense and blocking the paint and then, most importantly, he has to picture himself making enough layups and jumpers, dishing enough dimes, grabbing enough rebounds and blocking enough shots so that when the game is over, they will leave Boston with a "W" and a chance to close it out at the Q again.

July’s exalted free agency will have a bitter taste in the mouth if Lebron’s season ends in Boston. If he wants to be known as the best basketball player on the planet, he needs to realize that a 60 win season does not matter if he falls short in the postseason.

He has brought this upon himself.

The Chosen One needs to arrive and he needs to arrive NOW.

Shelve the past and blur the future, because at the moment, the present is all that will matter. Nothing less will suffice.

I believe in Lebron and you may too but this is about Lebron believing in himself.

Cleveland doesn’t need another Ehlo.

Friday 23 April 2010

Tested Positive: The Fall Of Olympic Gold Medalist LaShawn Merritt

In the five minutes that it takes me to write this, I should presumptuously be able to get my point across.

For all the joys of athletic wonder that we have witnessed, for all the staggering sporting feats that we never imagined would be attained; there are equally devastating ditches that lie in wait - for the wrong athlete, at the wrong time.

To all those who follow the world of Athletics with a passion, (quite simply because it remains the most divine and purest form of sport), rewind your memory a couple of years back when Jeremy Wariner seemed destined to clinch his second consecutive Gold medal in the 400 metres Men's event in Beijing.

There is a reason why the 400 meters event is arguably considered the most difficult to run and this is primarily because it qualifies as a 'sprint distance'. Therefore, while it doesn't take 10-20 seconds like the 100m or 200m, it also isn't long enough to maintain a constant and quick pace. The 400 brings out the truest of athletes and this is precisely why some of the most famous 400 meter runners in history are widely respected as some of the greatest runners ever. Otis Davis, Butch Reynolds and of course Michael Johnson.

Wariner, by all means was a prodigy and in many circles was talked about as being able to challenge Johnson's magical 43.18 mark set at Seville in 1999. At the Athens Olympics as a 20 year old, he won Gold in the 400m and in Osaka 2007 at the World Championships, he clinched Gold with a dazzling personal best of 43.45 seconds!

And at the 2008 Beijing Games? Wariner set another record. He came second to LaShawn Merritt by the largest margin (0.99 seconds) in Olympic history between any Gold and Silver medalist! Merritt simply seemed too strong down the stretch and at one point of time, it appeared as if he was running twice as fast as a badly fading Wariner. Merritt went on to win the 2009 World Championships in Berlin as well. Wariner came a comfortable second yet again.

Newsflash! - The 400 metres Olympic and World Champion LaShawn Merritt has failed a doping test and accepted provisional suspension. His statement said that he had used an over-the-counter product containing DHEA and pregnenolone (endogenous hormones) following the 2009 season. Till the case is decided, he remains in line for a standard two year ban.

Furthermore, he hopes his "sponsors, family, friends and sport will forgive him for making such a foolish, immature and egotistical mistake".

Now Merritt doesn't grab the limelight quite simply because (a) he isn't Michael Johnson (b) he isn't Usain Bolt either. However, this doesn't stop the announcement from leaving a bloody bitter taste in one's mouth. We've seen 'mistakes' like this by the dozen, proceeded to criticize them with a disapproving shake of our heads and apparently we move on, leaving the door open without perhaps sending the message strongly enough.

The message that there is NO place for a drug inside a sportsman's body. And more importantly, there is NO place for such a sportsman inside our hearts.

Thursday 22 April 2010

GET IN THE HOLE!: Are You Cheering for Tiger this Weekend?

Tiger Woods tees off in less than 20 minutes. By the time this gets published, he'd have probably whacked that first ball off the tee with millions of eyes watching.

Billy Payne's eyes too. Billy who?

It was wrong of Payne to voice his opinion on Tiger in that manner. Sure, in his defense, Woods' actions have warranted universal scrutiny and more importantly, universal judgment. But come on Billy, take the high road. All you had to do was say that it was good to see Tiger back at the Masters, because let's face it—It IS good to see Tiger back on a golf course!

We're all human right? We make mistakes. We do the crime, we do the time. We live a life based on faith and when our faith fails us, we tend to react abnormally. Clearly, Woods' transgressions, while being perfect tabloid fodder, are horrendous. They reflect on a man who failed in his duty as a father and a husband. THEY DO NOT, however, reflect on a man who failed as a golfer!

The price of stardom ensures that privacy no longer remains a word with meaning. It ensures that once the cat gets let out of the bag or one skeleton out of the closet, more are likely to follow. And it ensures that for the rest of his life, Tiger Woods will never be allowed to forget the past year even on the golf course.

Well. Too bad! Suck it up!

If you want to be one of those hypocritical moms in Sunday hats or those distinguished looking fine gentlemen who claim that they'll never cheer for Tiger again because he let them down and their kids can no longer look up to him then that's alright. You cheer for whoever you want to. Pick that Phil guy or whoever he is.

Me? In about three minutes, I know what I'LL be shouting.



GET IN THE HOLE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Of Barcelona and Messimania

Take this from a Manchester United supporter.

Football has never seen a team like Barcelona PERIOD.

We’ve seen attacking football; the kind that looks good and the kind that’s played to win by simply scoring more goals than the other team. We remember Eusebio’s Portugal, Cryuff’s Holland and the Brazilian National Team at nearly each and every World Cup. At the club level, we remember (statistically at least), Di Stefano’s Madrid, Arsenal’s ‘Henry’-Era and the advent of the Galacticos. Ironically, we also remember a Barcelona team of not too long ago – Ronaldinho’s Barcelona.

It’s entirely unfair of me to comment on teams that I haven’t visually witnessed play so I won’t dwell on them. Football however, is an eleven man game. Over the past couple of decades, the team that has the reigning Player of the Year has never been guaranteed club success, especially when it has been awarded for International brilliance and consistency. And this is precisely what makes the Barcelona story so alluring.

While praises continue to be sung about Messi and Messi alone, we must ask ourselves when the last time was that a Football club, at almost each position, had one of the Top 5 players in the world at that position. Or ask yourselves this: Pick the Top 10 players (irrespective o f position) in football today. I did, and without thinking (in no particular order), I came up with Messi, Ronaldo, Rooney, Kaka, Torres, Ribery, Iniesta, Xavi, Aguero and Villa/Drogba/Gerrard/Lampard etc. Three of those players play for Barcelona and they’re heavily involved in controlling the game and setting up (as well as scoring) goals! Anyone who watched both the Barcelona-Arsenal Champions League legs probably found themselves asking when the last time was that the gulf between two premier clubs was ever so wide.

For some, Bendtner’s goal might have sent shockwaves through Camp Nou and may have had even the most devout of Blaugrana fans wondering whether this was one of those dreaded nights when frustration would overcome brilliance. Ah! Therein lies the difference between the Barcelona of today and all the great club teams of the past. The latter had ‘off-days’, days when they just couldn’t seem to find the back of the net or days when the defense would erroneously concede goals that they would never dream of conceding. This team doesn’t really go through ‘off-days’, and when they do, it’s not entirely that ‘off’ after all.

And just like they did in last year’s final, Barcelona succeeded again in playing the beautiful game the way it’s meant to be played. Those short, crisp one-touch passes at a dizzying pace, the careful and patient build up towards a run down the flank or penetration through the middle and above all, clinical and comprehensive finishing evidenced by one man alone.

The only stage where they can be upset (and since it’s in the Bernabeu it’s highly unlikely), is in the Final where everyone would like to believe that anything can happen. Over two legs? Sorry. Even with a four goal deficit I would never bet against them.



FC Barcelona is here to stay.

LBJ, Darko, Melo, CB4, D-Wade: Revisiting the 2003 NBA Draft

It's hard to believe that barely seven years have passed and already the 2003 NBA draft class looks like one of the best of all time. While this is largely due to the depth of the top five, we must not forget others such as David West, Mo Williams, Chris Kaman, Leandro Barbosa and Josh Howard.

Where are the Top Five now? How many points, assists and rebounds have they totaled? More importantly, with four out of the top five being quintessential "franchise players", what would have happened to Darko Milicic had the Pistons not had the Vancouver trade and some other lottery team had picked him?

In six and a half seasons, this is what the Top Five have statistically accomplished in the regular season:

Games Played (Minutes Played)

Lebron James: 539 (21,763)

Carmelo Anthony: 500 (18,202)

Chris Bosh: 498 (18,426)

Dwayne Wade: 458 (17,228)

Darko Milicic: 357 (6,127)

===============================================

For the Points, Rebounds, Assists I standardized everyone to 539 games (Lebron's Tally) and simply extrapolated the numbers based on the player's career average.

Points Rebounds Assists P+R+A

Lebron James: 14,997 3,794 3,734 22,525

Dwayne Wade: 13,678 2,618 3,577 19,873

Carmelo Anthony: 13,317 3,329 1,676 18,322

Chris Bosh: 10,835 5,060 1,182 16,627

Darko Milicic: 2,921 2,171 386 5,478

===============================================

The other two famous draft classes (1984 and 1996) had a Top Five of (Olajuwon, Bowie, Jordan, Perkins, Barkley) and (Iverson, Camby, Abdur-Rahim, Marbury, Allen). In terms of the first seven seasons, the only comparison is between '84 and '03. Bowie = Darko = Bust and Barkley = Bosh. The difference? Jordan had Six rings, Olajuwon had Two. Whereas only Dwayne has tasted championship success.

Still, it's scary to think where the four might end up statistically if each gets to play a full career (another 8-10 seasons). Sure shot Hall of Famers undoubtedly.

Tuesday 1 December 2009

The #15 Pick

If you don't follow the NBA or sport, you might as well stop reading now.

To be fair, I've never been a basketball player simply because i'm just too bad.I think it's the only sport where I don't think I can play to even save my life. But I love playing it and watching it and there's a reason for that.

The most cliched reason. A role model.

When Steve Nash was selected as the 15th pick in a star-studded draft that included AI, Kobe and Ray Allen among others, he was booed by Suns fans simply because he was from an unknown college team. Today, I don't think there's a single Suns fan out there that isn't thankful that:

(a)they drafted him, but more importantly
(b)they signed him from the Mavs years later and
(c)they resigned him to another 2 years

It's difficult to appreciate the genius of Nash especially if you're not a Suns fan. His career stats are far from jaw-dropping and at the end of the day, there are no monster dunks or blocks and his defense has often been termed as non-existent.
The problem is that Nash made fans out of basketball followers in general as well as the cynics who deemed the NBA too boring and preferred college hoops instead.

In truth, the Phoenix run-and-gun/7-seconds-or-less system under D'Antoni worked because of Nash and not the other way round. It was basketball played like never before and it was basketball played with winning in mind.

And it reminded us that every once in a while, professional sport goes through a phase that revolutionizes the sport itself and essentially ends up proving that there is an exciting/entertaining way to play the game and still end up winning. Gilchrist did it as a keeper, first the Rams did it in '99 then the Patriots in '07 in the NFL. The Dutch did it in the 70's on the football field and the Brazilians have been doing it forever. Federer and Woods have been doing it for years.

Put simply, it's when you make winning look good.

Nash isn't even the best player in the league. In fact, there's no doubt that the best overall player in the NBA today is Lebron James.He's both the present and the future. Ray Allen might have the best shot and Kobe might be the most talented offensive player ever but Lebron can do anything and everything which includes winning. Chris Paul is probably a more preferred point-guard than Nash.

However, if the NBA were to have an artist, the one who could paint and bring things to life and make it seem as if the simplest could be the most beautiful, it has to be Steve Nash. He made Nowitzki and Juwan Howard look good (which wasn't that hard). But he also turned Marion into an All-Star and made Stoudemire temporarily look like an unstoppable offensive force. Barbosa, Bell and Diaw all looked better with Nash spreading the offense and distributing the ball.

And then, everything seemed to have been broken, the dream snuffed away and the prospect of a ring further away than it had ever been.

In hindsight, the acquisition of Shaq was the biggest mistake that a high octane team like the Suns could ever have made. Frustrated by not being able to reach the finals, the move stank of desperation and the introduction of Terry Porter turned an exciting team that won far more than they lost, into an ordinary team that won just a bit more than they lost. And it seemed that there was no hope.

That Stoudemire would never be the same.
That the explosiveness and energy of Marion couldn't be substituted.
That most importantly, Nash was 35 and certainly over the hill, the back-to-back MVP's long since forgotten and critically even unfairly referred to as anomalies.

Think again.

(1) Stoudemire back. Certainly not to his S-T-A-T best but BACK.
(2) The talented and injury prone-turned-injury free Grant Hill playing like a true veteran.
(3) J-Rich posting career bests in shooting accuracy.
(4) CHANNING FRYE!! nailing threes like it's nobody's business when last year he was rotting away in Portland or somewhere.
(5) Steve Nash averaging 12 assists a game and shooting above 50-40-90 yet again for the umpteenth time in his career.
(6) The Phoenix Suns currently having the best record in the league.

This isn't to say that the Suns are the best team in the league. They're far from it. But they'll make the playoffs and they'll make the playoffs in style.

And yes, once again, they're far and away the most exciting team in the league.
And it's the same man running the show.

The same guy who was never given a chance in the NBA.
The same guy who publicly spoke out against the Iraq war inviting the wrath of other misguided and 'patriotic' American professionals.
The same guy who suffers from spondylolisthesis which causes muscle tightness and acute back pain.
And yeah, the same guy who was once called "The Poor Man's Stockton".