Roger Federer and I play the same sport but he seems rather more obsessed with the pursuit of precision than I am. My solitary racket is strung at an indeterminate tension and plays perfectly till the strings break. Federer’s half-dozen rackets—in a possibly apocryphal story I heard from a tour regular this week—aren’t just strung every match day at a particular tension but in a room where the air conditioning is set at a precise temperature. This is taking his coolness too far.

I am a reverse snob in matters of equipment. I like the old heroes who picked up anybody’s bat—or the wrong bat—and scored a century while hungover. Once, after the strings broke on a few of Goran Ivanišević’s rackets, he had to borrow one from the crowd during a seniors match against John McEnroe. Of course, he won.

I play with golf balls retrieved from a pond, though I probably hit them there. I mock my friend who has one trail-running shoe and two road-running pairs because I use the same pair for the treadmill, road, tennis courts and annual rock climbing. At my standard, does it matter?

Gadgets intimidate me, apparel unhinges me. Fabrics that breathe? To rephrase John Oliver, one might say of toe socks, How Was That Ever A Thing? Two years ago I took two metrosexual Delhi friends shopping for sneakers in Singapore and first they were filmed on a treadmill. Then the dilemmas—are you a jogger or runner (there’s a difference?), a normal pronator, have you checked the flex? I watched, I aged.

It made me ache for my youth and the Castlewood shop in Kolkata, where no one used words like forefoot and there were no colours. White, size 9, and piss off. When you had problems, you solved them. My friend Unmish, who has geometric dreams of square drives, told me a terrific tale recently. As a young bowler, his spikes—wrought-iron nails really—would keep coming off and this was the 1980s and new nails were expensive. So he was told by old-timers to carefully put drops of water into the groove and then fix in the nail. The nails would rust and stay sealed in place.

But who am I kidding? The old days sucked. Those unpressurized tennis balls in a box. Like trying to topspin stone. Those football boots with protruding nails. Those keds with no soul. Those racket handles with no overgrip that smelt and slipped. Those bamboos my brave friend Vivek Wig used to pole-vault with.

But maybe I’m nostalgic because we never had anything else. Just to have a football boot was a thrill. Now we’re sulking if the model with the microfibre mid-foot cage and sock-like collar with a laser-cut frame and redesigned sole plate isn’t available in the colour we want. There’s choice here but also a little helping of hogwash.

Nothing has changed in sport, not attitudes, rules, prize money, drugs, more than equipment. Sports stores are now places of the most grateful time travel: Grown-ups become children. Equipment makes people want to play. It’s seductive, especially that golf aid called The Can’t Miss. It allows us to look good, even if those Federer shirts look less appealing when stretched across a paunch. It promises to improve us and very often it does.

We’re not playing with the same equipment as the pros, but only similar. In Rio, one night at the mixed zone, a volunteer teasingly walked around with Usain Bolt’s gold spikes in her hand. They were beautiful but maybe he’ll never use them again. In their search for exactness, athletes are uniquely fastidious. If sport is decided by centimetres, it’s best the flaws are left to human error, not equipment.

So golfers change gloves during a round and replace a ball every few holes. Sania Mirza will subtly alter her string tension depending on whether the balls are lighter at a tournament and is very specific about the weight of her racket: Since her power—says her dad—arrives from racket-head speed, a heavier racket would slow her down.

“It’s all in the feel," says former hockey captain Viren Rasquinha, and from feel comes comfort and then confidence. Rasquinha used to carry six sticks on tour, each made to his specifications of weight, height, grip, curvature. “If it was half an inch longer and an ounce heavier, I’d know," he says.

Many athletes will not lend their equipment, which seems rather precious. Amateurs can play atrociously with anyone’s bat. But perhaps the most discriminating person I have met is Abhinav Bindra. He can talk for 30 minutes just about the imperfections in his shooting jacket. It is a tutorial on detail, fastidiousness, passion, obsession. Of course, when he carries on, sometimes you just want to shoot him.

Rohit Brijnath is a columnist with The Straits Times, Singapore.

Close