Last fortnight, the once single-minded, no-smile-wearing, clinical-kill-advocating champion disintegrated emotionally. He was reading his hall of fame acceptance speech, but had to keep stopping, as if emotion had clogged his larynx, reaching to his eyes as if to push back the tears. The assassin was falling apart, and it was revealing. Sometimes, a champion’s immaculate control is best understood when he loses it.
In his pomp, Pete Sampras didn’t cry (apart from one famous instance when his coach was dying), he made men weep. Not for him Roger Federer’s fussiness, he brought his racket to court in a briefcase. Precision has its allure, but for many he was tediously methodical. They derided him as unemotionally ugly; I admired him because he was a man just like us, as his tears reveal, but one who managed his emotions beautifully.
On court, Sampras, a predatory priest in white, cared not for sulks, abuse, tantrums. When the year began, he thought, what do I need to do to end it No.1? Being in perfect control was part of it.
Federer’s game is more eloquent, but in temperament he is Pete’s cousin, another wearer of a mask. A recent ad shows footage of a much younger Federer kicking a racket, and who would believe it now? Anxiety, anger, doubt churn within him, but only with victory does he unveil himself, his Wimbledon tears an indication of what he locks inside.
Federer and Sampras fit sports psychologist Sandy Gordon’s description of the “task-aware” athlete, “focused completely on what they are doing, what they have to do”. One might say the great athlete owns the concentration of a serial killer.
Less impressive is the “self-aware” athlete, prone to outbursts, who thinks “I am sad, I am pissed off”, and allows emotions to distract both him and opponent. Finally arrives the fickle athlete, easily diverted by what his opponent may be thinking, or if the weather may change.
The tennis champions are elegant men, but the sternly self-disciplined athlete is not necessarily some puritan. Warne took some vow of the asinine, but on the field maintained a fearsome focus on his tasks. Agassi owned an early degree in idiocy, but once he applied his mind, perhaps a lesson from the monkish Steffi, he was transformed.
Control, of mind, emotion, technique, line, is possibly the secret of sport. So pure is Rafael Nadal’s focus on his mission that for a while in the French Open final, he was putting the ball into a 20-centimetre zone against Federer. Part of the current disappointment over Harbhajan Singh is his loss of control, which once allowed him to cast aside everything else in 2001, against Australia, and float deliveries into an invisible box outside off stump.
It was not easy. Repeatedly, captains will instruct bowlers to maintain a particular line, but every four or five balls, an immature practitioner will slip in a bouncer, a yorker, surrendering to instinct. Staying true to a cause requires a mastery of mind, a refusal to succumb to temptation. Like Sachin Tendulkar, in Sydney, 2004.
His form errant, his off-side play streaky, Tendulkar compiled an innings of 241 without a cover drive. How difficult this was to eradicate a stroke from his repertoire, what obedience to a tactic it showed to neglect the off-side, was explained to me last week by Aakash Chopra, who opened in that series.
Chopra is almost disbelieving of the “supreme control” Tendulkar displayed. As he says, when a half-volley appears on the off-side, “your limbs just go for it even if you don’t want to”, and this restraining of instinct was freakish. “I can understand,” adds Chopra, “if you curbed yourself for the first 30, 40 runs, but Tendulkar did it for hours on end, and this control, it’s unusual, it’s not human.”
Added Chopra: “Tendulkar had faced so much criticism (on that tour) that this was his chance to show ‘I’m the boss’; normally, you’re tempted to play every shot in the book”, to prove a point. But Tendulkar was unshakeable, committed to his plan, a batsman in perfect control of his destiny.
We don’t know if the usually undemonstrative Tendulkar cried, but it’s a neat coincidence that a month before that innings, asked by me which athletes he admired, he picked one name first.
Because of his “concentration”, he said, because “he’s not bothered about what people are thinking about him”, because he’s only “bothered about playing good tennis and being competitive”.
It sounded a bit like Tendulkar in Sydney.
Write to Rohit at firstname.lastname@example.org