At the Pune Club the other night (where I had gone to give a talk on the Indian Premier League controversy and its aftermath), former cricketer Chandu Borde disrupted his spellbinding story on the late leg-spinner Subhash Gupte to watch Rafael Nadal play the final point in his three-set victory over Brazilian Thomaz Bellucci.
“There’s something about this boy which excites me,” said the 75-year-old Borde as Nadal won that point to fell Bellucci in straight sets, “He’s hugely talented, but for some reason I like Roger Federer a little more.”
Passing the baton: Federer and Nadal (extreme left) took over where Sampras and Agassi (in black) left off. AFP
I could think of hundreds of others, my daughter included, who would not have restrained themselves from biffing even an old man on the head for such sacrilege. I once heard her explaining to her friends Nadal’s several virtues on court, his “speed and guts”, not to mention the bandana which apparently makes millions of girls swoon. The Federer-Nadal rivalry has not just engaged people across the globe but also divides the world down the middle: If you prefer Fedex, beware of the Rafa fan and vice versa!
Meeting their nemeses
I can sense tennis aficionados referring urgently to their notes and record books. Would I place this rivalry ahead of Laver vs Emerson, Margaret Court vs Billie Jean King, McEnroe vs Borg, Agassi vs Sampras, Graf vs Monica Seles, to name a few legendary contests? To each his own, but I would. In my reckoning—for its sheer excellence and intensity—Federer vs Nadal has swept aside every other.
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A rivalry is, of course, distinct from a comparison, though many people tend to mix the two up. Whether Maradona was a better footballer than Pele has been the subject of debate for almost three decades, whether Sachin Tendulkar has reached Don Bradman’s greatness has been the subject over the past year. Both these are impossible to assess because there was no direct rivalry, hence no sustainable measure (opponents, conditions, etc.) as there was, for instance, when Kapil Dev, Imran Khan, Ian Botham and Richard Hadlee were playing international cricket.
All four were outstanding all-rounders and by a remarkable quirk of fate happened to be contemporaries too. This provided fodder for endless qualitative and statistical scrutiny of who among them was the best. It was an exercise that had more legitimacy than a mere comparison and it would be fair to say that at different stages of their careers, each was No. 1. Collectively, this four-way rivalry was perhaps the most engaging facet of cricket in that era.
Rivalries may not be as sanguine as the one between Federer and Nadal, where both players behave impeccably and show great mutual respect. Boxer Muhammad Ali, who fought three blockbuster heavyweight bouts with Joe Frazier in the 1970s, gave his opponent so much “lip” in the three months leading up their “Thrilla in Manila” in 1975 that Frazier is thought to bear the scars of that psychological humiliation till date.
Sprinter Ben Johnson, who vied for almost a decade with Carl Lewis to be recognized as the world’s fastest man, was driven to take drugs to beat his arch-rival for an Olympic gold in 1988. He won the most valued medal at Seoul, but tested positive and became an outcast in international athletics. He lives in relative obscurity today.
There is always an emotional pitch to such a conflict which spills over to the fans, sucking them into the rivalry. The more the number of such encounters, the more heated the rivalry, the greater is its appeal. While generally this adds to the excitement of the contest, the consequences can sometimes be grave.
Individual, club and country loyalty can sometimes lead to fans or players taking extreme positions. Monica Seles, it might be recalled, was stabbed in the back during a match by a diehard Steffi Graf fan because she threatened to dislodge the German from the No. 1 position. Seles’ career was snuffed out prematurely.
In 1961 when Pakistan toured India, a fan slashed opener Hanif Mohammed’s hand in Mumbai because he was seen as the biggest impediment to India’s fortunes in the Test series. Indo-Pak cricket has always been followed with extreme passion by followers on either side of the border and has been one of the more engaging—and financially lucrative—rivalries in cricket.
Bodyline, of course, remains cricket’s most famous controversy, and it came about because of Douglas Jardine’s bitter pursuit of the Ashes. To win the coveted urn—the symbol of cricketing supremacy against arch-rivals Australia—the England captain knew he had to quell Don Bradman’s prolific run-getting. Jardine used Harold Larwood’s extreme pace and devised a line of attack which aimed at the batsman’s rib cage.
Larwood won the battle against Bradman, and Jardine the series, but not before igniting a diplomatic row. “He may win us the Ashes but cost us the empire,” was the trenchant observation by one of Jardine’s critics while the series was being played, and it took a Herculean effort from the government in England to prevent this grim prognostication from becoming reality.
The Ashes today, of course, reflect cricket’s best legacy. Indeed, some sports rivalries acquire such massive historical or cultural value that they can shape community, society and country. Individuals fade away, but these rivalries can grow, engulfing in their wake successive generations: Manchester United vs Chelsea, Barcelona FC vs Real Madrid, England vs Argentina, to name a few in football, Boston Celtics vs LA Lakers (who vie again for the US NBA title this year) in basketball, etc.
Competitive sport thrives on great rivalries—between individuals or teams, representing themselves, clubs or countries. A solo performer in the sporting sphere, like, say, a mountaineer, is unlikely to evoke the same excitement/anguish in followers. There might be large-scale admiration or disappointment at the success or failure of a soloist, but it can never have the same flavour as a contest between two individuals (or teams) because of the absence of “open” conflict and the opportunity to take sides.
By the way, if you still haven’t taken a position on whether you support Federer or Nadal, you might still not be miscast as a sports lover. As I write this, Robin Soderling has caused the year’s biggest upset in tennis by beating Federer in the quarter-final of the French Open. Last year, it might be recalled, he had ousted Nadal in the fourth round of the same tournament.
Is an old tennis rivalry giving way to a new one, I wonder.
Ayaz Memon is a senior columnist who writes on sports and other matters.
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