A professional scorecard can mean different things and often, different timelines. A fund manager is measured every day, in fractions—the number of basis points his fund is up or down when the market closes. For the CEO, it is in quarterly earnings reports and annual revenues. For the politician, timelines are even longer—the stealth reforms that Manmohan Singh made when he was finance minister, along with the nuclear deal he orchestrated, might well be his most lasting legacies. For the scientist or inventor, timelines don’t matter. They can work for years to discover something as elegantly simple as a DNA double helix or the Heisenberg uncertainty principle and change the world in an instant. The same applies to social entrepreneurs such as Mohammed Yunus, whose Grameen Bank helped the poor in Bangladesh for decades till recognition came by way of the Nobel Prize.
Ice Borg: This man kept his emotions under wraps. AFP
Professional scorecards in the humanities and arts are less tangible. How do you measure the worth of a poet or a novelist? Editors measure themselves from edition to edition and also by the ideas they grow; the influence they have, both tangible and intangible; and the conversations their newspaper or magazine foster. Artists or musicians are even harder to measure, given that they traverse the realms of the ephemeral and deal with the soul rather than the body.
Considered this way, the sports are easy in terms of a professional scorecard. The winner and the loser are decided at the end of the game—without doubt or debate. Even among sports, I would argue that individual sports such as chess, golf and tennis are easier to measure than team sports such as cricket or basketball. Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir may have hit memorable sixes or had a record partnership, but are they solely responsible for winning a match? No. It is the team that wins. In contrast, when Sania Mirza wins a match, all the credit goes to her. When Tiger Woods or Viswanathan Anand win, the victory is theirs alone. Which leads us to an even more interesting question: Among individual sports, which one delivers the most bang for the buck? In other words, which individual sportsperson can rightfully claim maximum credit for his game and win? I would say tennis only because it is more fast-paced than golf, and commands more money (and therefore more pressure) than chess or squash.
So if you are a person who thrives on professional scorecards, being a tennis player will give you immediate and unequivocal feedback—in real time and elongated timelines that track grass versus clay court wins and career trajectories. If you’re a tennis player, and miss a shot, you’ll know right then. If your serve swerves, you’ll know right away. If you lose a match, it is entirely your fault. With this as preamble, I have a simple, non-controversial question: Who is the greatest tennis player of all time? Or as Roger Federer presumptuously asked after he won the French Open, “Now the question is: Am I the greatest player of all time?”
Let me just say it: I don’t like Federer. He has enviable technique for sure. He is an elegant player whose light touch belies a ferocious ambition. He cries at all the right times—when he lost to Nadal at the Australian Open and when he won on clay for the first time. Federer is a great player, but he lacks soul, something which becomes apparent when you stack him up with other greats such as Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, and the “god-like” Rod Laver. Agassi in particular, along with Jimmy Connors, was a volatile, dramatic player who enlivened the court. There are game-changers such as Arthur Ashe and Michael Chang, who made headlines not just for their game but also because they were firsts. There are people like Ivan Lendl, a middling player who made much money after quitting tennis and is raising athletic daughters in Connecticut. There are the pretty ones and the ugly ones—you know who they are. And then there is Rafa—the current darling of the tennis world.
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I realize that choosing the “best” tennis player of all time involves qualifying what best means. Superb athletes, whether they are Martina Navratilova or Sampras, are great because they expand our horizon of what is possible for a human body to achieve. Through their reflexes, their techniques, their strokes of brilliance and simply the way they get their arms and legs to reach and react, they leave us in awe with their rendition of what is possible.
Being a psychology major, I am going to focus here on the mind. Great athletes are also masters of their mind. When Federer goofs, he doesn’t react. He simply plays harder and better to negate the effects of his mistake. The reason Sampras is great is because he has risen from the ashes on numerous occasions when a game is given up for lost and ended up beating his opponent. When the odds are stacked against you in plain numbers (0-6, 3-6 and 1-4), it takes a special sort of persistence and self-belief to change the course of the game and win it. You have to psyche yourself to climb out of an abyss and catapult to the top.
We all do this in our professions; we all fight losing streaks in our lives; we all overcome hurdles. But never in real time; never with millions of people watching and millions of dollars riding upon one winning stroke; never with real-time numbers that don’t lie. Losing a set 6-3 is not a matter of your boss’ perception of your capabilities. It is a simple, unescapable truth. Even massive scientific experiments with expensive grant money riding on them can fail—in private. And most professions give you a second chance. Not sports. Not during that particular game anyway.
For all these reasons, I think Bjorn Borg is the greatest player of all time. Of all the players I have mentioned above, including Federer, “Ice Borg” was able to control his emotions—and control the match. His classic gesture of kneeling on the court and looking towards the heavens was the only luxury he permitted himself.
Plus he was cute. And he didn’t cry.
Shoba Narayan is rooting for Rafa among the current crop of players.
Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org