The last, full week of January (can you believe that the first month of the New Year is almost over? Which means the “New Year” is no longer new and we can stop wishing people?) was an eventful one. A lot happened—which did not change the world or my life significantly—but was enough to mull about. Here below are my week’s observations and experiences, in a nutshell.
Not so young
It is with some irony that Marta Kostyuk became the youngest player since Martina Hingis to enter the third round of the Australian Open last week. She is also the youngest to reach that stage of a Slam since Mirjana Lucic-Baroni in the 1997 US Open.
Hingis, who made it to the quarterfinals in 1996 at the age of 15, retired from all forms of tennis last year after spending over two decades in and out of the sport. Kostyuk, also aged 15 and ranked 521 in the world till then, lost in the third round but not before sending tennis writers into a tizzy.
The teenage Ukrainian became a rarity because you don’t any more come across teenage sensations in this sport, of the likes of Hingis, Jennifer Capriati, Monica Seles, Michael Chang and Boris Becker, among several others who were such regulars in the 1980s and ’90s. Part of the reason is the changes in the rules and administration of the sport of tennis.
The Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), for one, put age restrictions on players, largely due to Capriati’s drug-related and burnout issues. Hingis herself retired for the first time in 2003 at the age of 22 due to injuries, before making two comebacks.
Over the years, the tennis ball has been made heavier and slower in order to encourage more rallies (and diminish the power of the serve) and therefore get more entertaining matches.
The result of these changes is that players need to be stronger and in better physical shape, which is possible only after some years of playing professionally. A 22-year-old body is better able to handle the rigours of modern-day tennis than a 14-year-old body would.
The last teenagers to win Grand Slam singles titles were Svetlana Kuznetsova (19) and Maria Sharapova (17) in 2004 at the US Open and Wimbledon respectively. Rafael Nadal was the last male teenage champion, winning the 2005 French Open as a 19-year-old. He had then become the first teen champ since Pete Sampras (1990 US Open).
On Friday, this year’s other sensation, South Korea’s 21-year-old Hyeon Chung lost in the men’s semifinal to Roger Federer (Chung retired injured). The 36-year-old Federer has returned to the very top of the game with two major titles last year and following the disintegration of the Big Four—through injuries, lack of motivation and other factors.
Federer’s continued excellence (a tribute to him more than a generalization) and the lack of teenage winners show how tennis has changed over the last couple of decades. While the modern game is more physically intensive, sportspeople these days are able to recover faster from injuries, wear and tear because of advancement in medicine and technology.
Their careers can therefore be longer as well, which can be seen in the example of Federer and of the Williams sisters. It’s quite possible, therefore, that teenage records—of youngest winners, semifinalists, quarterfinalists, etc.—may never get broken as players break through to the top league in their twenties rather than in their teens.
Kostyuk, over the next few years, has a chance to break that trend.
Talking about breakthroughs, when was the last time an Indian fast bowler bounced a ball into the helmet of the batsman?
The worrying incident happened in Johannesburg on Friday when Jasprit Bumrah got some uneven bounce and South African opener Dean Elgar could not get his head out of the way in time. After the ball slammed against Elgar’s helmet, play was called off due to the dangerous nature of the pitch. Post Phil Hughes, an incident like this causes serious concern.
But for an observer of Indian cricket, this episode just topped off what’s been a revelation of a series. Indian fast bowlers, four to five of them in three Tests, have bowled South Africa out for 286, 130, 335, 258, and 194 (I write this before the fourth day’s play on Saturday) in five innings. They have troubled the local batsmen with swing, pace and bounce and looked no less than their South African counterparts, though Vernon Philander, Kagiso Rabada and Morne Morkel together have more wickets than Bumrah, Mohammed Shami and Bhuvneshwar Kumar.
“9-7-4-2. That’s not an OTP, that’s Bhuvneshwar Kumar’s bowling figures after his extended morning spell on Day 2,” said a Tweet after the first innings at the Wanderers.
Though Indian pacers have been taking more wickets abroad than their spinners for some time, such domination in seam-friendly pitches is fairly rare for us.
While India lost this series largely due to their batting, the dream of a generation of fans is coming true with this fast bowling attack. Since the time of the 1980s, when our team was given a serious inferiority complex by the fast bowling machinery of the West Indies and Pakistan, have fans dreamed of a scenario when India would have a similar setup of pacers.
Decent fast bowlers did come in stages for India—from Kapil Dev to Javagal Srinath and Zaheer Khan—but not together. Probably for the first time, the team has such riches that they could afford to sit their fastest bowler, Umesh Yadav, and still bowl the opposition out consistently with four-and-a-half pacers (Hardik Pandya included).
If Kumar’s dismissal of AB de Villiers in the first innings of the third Test is being termed by some as the ball of the series, then Bumrah’s dismissal of Faf du Plessis, caught behind for 0 in the second innings of the first Test, “truly sent a shiver down the South African spine”.
“It’s freezing,” she said, mock-shivering a bit perhaps to emphasize the sentiment.
The temperature dropped suddenly last night and I had to close the window, switch off the fan, add an extra layer of cover and was considering putting on socks, she added.
She gave me a cold stare when I said I hadn’t noticed such a dramatic change in temperature, though the weather is indeed nicer.
“Freezing” is a commonly—though inaccurately exaggerated—used term in Mumbai. The other day at a restaurant, a guest at another table said she was late joining her friends because it was “freezing” when she stepped down from her apartment and had to go back up to get some warm clothes (I overheard the conversation not because I was prying but because she was loud).
After a spell of warmer weather in the beginning of January, the temperature did drop in Mumbai. “Chill likely to continue on Republic Day weekend,” said a newspaper headline. The weather bureau recorded a worrying 15.1 degrees Celsius on Thursday as compared to a 15.4 on Wednesday, prompting a friend to put on a sweater when we met on Thursday.
Considering we are just used to being bathed in sweat through the year in this city, the moment we stop sweating, it feels cold. This is in contrast to what “cold”—a relative term and feeling—might mean in other parts of the world. But this city’s tolerance for winter can be quite funny depending on how much cold you have experienced.
“I can’t wait for summer,” said the same friend.
“Would that be different from what the weather’s like now?” I joked.
She gave me another cold stare.
“It’s freezing here,” she said.
The cinema was indeed cold, which is the de facto response of many indoor spaces in the city that compensate for the weather outside by tanking up the air-conditioning inside.
But part of her “chilly” feeling came from Ranveer Singh’s steely gaze. The actor was overdoing his evil act in Padmaavat(i), a film that has got far more attention than it deserves.
I am not a fan of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s films, though he is one of the few filmmakers still persisting with the old-fashioned large scale, over-the-top melodrama that’s become unique to him. I showed up for a screening, however, in support—no filmmaker should be made to go through so much trouble for making a movie. I wanted to support an artist’s right to express himself/herself, even if the end product is not so great.
At one point, I considered buying a ticket and not showing up for the film. That way, I would have supported the filmmaker, but saved myself the torture of sitting through his elaborate and long costume drama. Then, it seemed like a waste of money to not show up for the film and also, miss out on a hot topic of conversation in the city.
Was it worth it? My other option would have been to watch Cheteshwar Pujara take 54 deliveries to score a run on the first day of the Johannesburg Test.
Just thinking about it sends a shiver down my spine.
Letter From... is Mint on Sunday’s antidote to boring editor’s columns. Each week, one of our editors—Sidin Vadukut in London and Arun Janardhan in Mumbai—will send dispatches on places, people and institutions that are worth ruminating about on the weekend.
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