Viswanathan Anand tops my list as this decade’s Indian sportsperson despite finishing 2009 at No. 3 in the FIDE (World Chess Federation) rankings. He has had a modest year by his high standards but this cannot undermine his stupendous achievements since 2000, in which time he has established himself as the emperor of the 64-square board where minds and wills lock in grim battle.
For the record, Anand has been World Champion between 2000 and 2002, and then became the undisputed champion in 2007 (when rival chess federations united), a status he still enjoys. In between, he has also been the FIDE Rapid Chess world champion (2003), apart from winning other titles and awards, too many to enumerate here. In any case, Anand’s virtuosity and suzerainty in his sport does not need a laundry list.
Check, mate: Anand (left) and Hungarian Peter Leko at the final round of the World Chess Championship Mexico at Mexico City in 2007. Ronaldo Schemidt / AFP
I mulled over the merits of several Indian top-notchers in this decade, notable among them Sachin Tendulkar and Leander Paes, in reaching this conclusion and must admit to having spent some sleepless nights. It is never easy comparing sportspersons from different disciplines and when the subjects are such outstanding performers as a record-breaking batsman, a multiple Grand Slam winning tennis player and a chess world champion, making a choice becomes even more vexing.
Though they come from vastly different sports, there is a thread that binds Anand, Tendulkar and Paes. They belong to the same age group (at 40, Anand is a few years older), all three were precocious youngsters, and all three have gone on to win great laurels for themselves and the country. The more defining attribute of all three has been their ability to perform better under pressure, always the hallmark of a great sportsperson.
For champions, all three are also remarkably humble. They wear their fame and achievements lightly, without fuss or tantrum, and are untainted by scandal or controversy. This is all the more admirable since each one has been around for 20 years or more. Statistically of course, but in the more esoteric sense too, Anand, Tendulkar and Paes have been in a class by themselves and terrific ambassadors for their respective sport.
Why and how, then, do I opt for Anand over the other two worthies? In a country starved of international champions, he makes the cut several times over—and that too in a sport where the competition is cut-throat. Equally pertinent is the impact Anand has had on the sport and on the country. Including this aspect, the competition narrows down to between him and Tendulkar. Tennis, unfortunately, still largely remains an elitist sport in India, with access to courts and equipment difficult and expensive, so Paes’ contribution gets diluted.
Tendulkar has captured most of the batting records, is arguably the best player of his generation and has inspired two or three generations of youngsters to emulate his feats. But cricket was already the most followed sport in the country, so in that sense, he was on a more secure footing. There have been several outstanding Indian cricketers, and Tendulkar has become the prized jewel in the crown, as it were.
Anand’s impact, not so easily manifested, has been not just to win titles but also to make chess come alive in the country. Before him, there were several high-quality chess players in India; after him, there are several champions in the making, and cutting across gender. The hegemony of the Russians and players from other erstwhile Soviet states has been shaken.
With his style of play and his personality, Anand has brought about a chess revolution in the country, which should make India a dominant chess playing nation for a long time to come. In this respect, his feat is singular. There is obviously no statistical measure of the relative merits of Tendulkar and Anand, but the sheer fact of having been world champion in an individual event for as long as he has is the most compelling factor in Anand’s favour. He pips Tendulkar in a photo finish.
There might be some still arguing that chess is not a sport, merely a pastime, but I think that argument has become archaic. There are now several genres in sports, and mere physical effort is not necessarily their main attribute. By that token, motor racing, where the car and not the driver does the running, should not be a sport either.
The stereotype of a chess player as an intellectually driven, introverted, often neurotic individual who spends all the time on the board with no spend of physical energy is seriously flawed. The Bobby Fischer syndrome, which is where this stereotype found greatest currency, is a thing of the past. In any case, Fischer was one of his kind and not be confused with the millions across the world who play chess.
To be competitive at the international level, chess players have to be physically fit and mentally alert. Like any other sport, chess too demands enormous rigour in training and technique to reach a level of excellence. It requires imagination and strong nerves in match-play. And to be a champion, it needs a raging desire to win.
Anand exemplifies these attributes better than anyone else who plays his sport. And in the last decade, no sportsman from India has played better.