The imitation game

Sport is fantasy and imitation is just another way of transporting ourselves to other worlds


Roger Federer plays a backhand during a match in Dubai in February. Photo: Dulat/Getty Images
Roger Federer plays a backhand during a match in Dubai in February. Photo: Dulat/Getty Images

Herman Melville was a heck of a writer but he didn’t know nothing about backhands. The author of Moby-Dick once wrote that “it is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation”, but to heck with that. When the once tentative Roger Federer started stepping into his backhands this year and ripping them, it was like an invitation to every weekend wannabe.

So three Saturdays ago I tried it.

Step in, on the rise, full follow through, smack.

My theory was excellent, my technique slightly upsetting, my result best not discussed.

Imitating the way Federer plays is like trying to copy Pablo Picasso’s brushwork. A seemingly bad idea. But sometimes it’s the only way people who love sport know how to honour athletes. For a brief while I even thought about being Pete Sampras, who never carried a ball in his pocket as if it might upset the great balance of his game. If his first serve missed, he asked for a second ball.

Then I realized I don’t have a ballboy.

I am an admirer of couch potatoes and a patron of kachori crunchers, but if you don’t play sport, however badly, you’re missing one of its great pleasures. I am not talking about weight loss and offering pious health lectures. This is about role playing and making a fabulous fool of yourself. I mean, if you haven’t ever tried Alberto Berasategui’s extreme grip, which let him smack backhands and forehands with the same side of the racket, then why are you playing tennis?

But it’s also about learning and appreciating the difficulty of what professionals do. You can’t appreciate the timing of a scoop shot in cricket till you hit yourself in the face during Sunday cricket. You can’t comprehend the freakishness of a Phil Mickelson-style flop shot, which is supposed to go straight up like an elevator and land like a tired moth, until you almost decapitate your boss while attempting it. As a friend told me recently, in the 1980s he tried to mimic Boris Becker’s serve but lacked the explosiveness to drive both his feet off the ground.

People tell amateurs, don’t tinker with your style, do what works for you. Good advice. Deathly boring, too. Fact is most amateurs don’t like who we are as athletes, which is precisely why we buy Tiger Woods’ How I Play Golf. Only to discover it is a hoax. No one can play golf like Tiger Woods.

Part of the pleasure of playing sport is to be someone else, to get lost, to wear your favourite champion’s headband (a friend’s son used to wear Sachin Tendulkar underwear) or adopt his batting stance. You might want to be careful of going too far, like the wife of a football fan who discovered after two years that her daughter’s lovely name, Lanesra, was actually Arsenal spelt backwards.

Sport is fantasy and imitation is just another way of transporting ourselves to other worlds. So come now, own up: You have never ambled up to a crease like Warney; channelled your inner Rafael Nadal when you’re failing; chewed gum at the crease like a underweight, under-muscled Viv Richards; tried to curl a ball around a wall like Lionel Messi; or, like my friend, taken your bike out at night in the hope of doing a safe imitation of Valentino Rossi?

No?

Ok, sigh, jelled your hair like Cristiano Ronaldo at least?

Recently a friend gave me a Brazil team shirt. Yellow. Splendid. Till I turned it around and there was no No.10 behind it. I should have returned it. How could he not know: In my generation you were either Pelé or nothing. Then it became Diego Maradona. A worship to the point where even Tendulkar wanted No.10 on his back. Even he was playing the imitation game.

Athletes imitate each other, too, from Muhammad Ali’s shuffle to mixed martial arts fighter Conor McGregor’s flouncing walk. Gymnasts pay homage to each other by mastering each other’s moves—the Tsukahara, the Yurchenko—and footballers, for all their inventiveness, are superb mimics. Take, for instance, the small matter of a penalty.

On 23 March, in a romantic tale, Syria’s football team played Uzbekistan in a world cup qualifier in Malaysia. A people with almost no home have no advantage. In injury time Syria get a penalty and Omar Khribin produces an act of sublime imitation.

He does the “Panenka”.

In an old story worth repeating, the 1976 European Championship final ended with Czechoslovakia and Germany entwined in a penalty shoot-out. Then came Antonín Panenka’s turn. He was a midfielder with Bohemians Prague and often had penalty competitions with the club goalkeeper for a beer or a bar of chocolate.

Panenka lost more than he won till he figured that his goalkeeper, like most, picked a side and dived. And so if he, in an act of impudence, gently chipped his penalty down the middle, high enough not to be stopped by the trailing legs of the diving keeper, then it couldn’t be stopped. Goalkeepers resemble Superman but cannot reverse the direction of their flight while in mid-air.

Panenka mastered that art, got fat on chocolates, won his country the European Championship with a coolly chipped penalty and now, 41 years later, a Syrian did exactly the same.

There is, of course, one level in sport higher than imitation. Which is to not mirror the athlete but to actually play him. To not clone Federer’s backhand but in fact face it. The master of this participatory journalism was George Plimpton, once editor of The Paris Review, who among other things got into the ring for three rounds with Archie Moore, the world light heavyweight champion, in 1959.

Before the “fight”, Plimpton received notes in the mail, one of which is simply unforgettable. It read as follows: “Your name is George Plimpton. You have had an appointment with Archie Moore. Your head is now a concert hall where Chinese music will never stop playing.”

For the record, Plimpton emerged only with a nose bleed.

Rohit Brijnath is an assistant sports editor at The Straits Times, Singapore, and a co-author of Abhinav Bindra’s book, A Shot At History: My Obsessive Journey To Olympic Gold.

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