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Sabine Lisicki makes it to the semi-finals. Photo: Glyn Kirk/AFP
Sabine Lisicki makes it to the semi-finals. Photo: Glyn Kirk/AFP

Wimbledon’s year of the upstarts

Is this Wimbledon witnessing one of the biggest sporting upsets ever at a single tournament?

In the past few days I surfed the Internet relentlessly for entries under biggest sports upsets to find if this year’s Wimbledon Championships finds any mention. There is no entry just yet, but surely it must feature soon enough.

Heck, it’s been a crazily topsy-turvy year: Rafael Nadal knocked out in the first round, Roger Federer and Maria Sharapova bumped off in the second, Serena Williams tripped in the fourth. Has there ever been a Grand Slam tournament with more surprises or uncertainty?

Some will argue—and with some justification—that Nadal’s defeat was not as bewildering as might seem. He’s more a clay-court specialist and had lost in the second round last year. Even so, the Spaniard has been a distinguished performer at Wimbledon and only a fortnight earlier had won the French Open title for an unprecedented eighth time.

And what of Federer, seven-time winner and defending champion—someone who had never failed to make it to the semi-finals at Wimbledon in a decade? Sure, he is 31, but that has hardly dimmed his brilliance or his ambition, so what caused his downfall?

However, top-seeded Serena Williams, another 31-year-old and five-time champion, was for me the biggest upset this year only because she has looked so far ahead of everybody else in the women’s section. She has not just been dominant, but intimidating.

Where the men’s section is concerned, currently there are several (four certainly) vying for top honours. Sharapova, ranked No.3, has been inconsistent and all things considered, not quite in the same league as Williams. For the 23rd seed, Sabine Lisicki, to beat her so convincingly left the tennis world gasping.

It is being speculated that the newly-laid courts have caused the upheavals this year. Perhaps. But it’s a dodgy premise that needs greater validation from players and experts. Federer was not one to make excuses. Why, for instance, has this not affected the performances (till the time of writing this piece) of Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray?

Perhaps deeper research will throw up some more hard-boiled and credible theory on why odds-on favourites lose, but it would be fair to say that this certainly makes watching sports more compelling.

Upsets and shock results add a fascinating dimension to sport. In the triumph of the underdog lies not just an unusual result, but also a heartening signal that everything in life does not conform to simple or linear logic.

David getting the better of bully Goliath—in the face of massive adversity—is a biblical parable that fills us with warmth and hope as much as it shocks and stuns us into disbelief. Seen through the prism of sport, the story tells us what ability, ingenuity and willpower can achieve against the heaviest of odds.

Often enough an upset can change the course of a sport, a player, a team or country. When Cassius Clay beat Sonny Liston in the first round of their World Heavyweight title bout in early 1964, it caused tumult. Clay was the upstart, Liston the champion.

Within a minute of the bout, the destinies of these two as well as the sport had been changed forever. Liston faded into oblivion, Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali, and boxing got the kiss of life.

As another example, India’s totally unexpected victory over hot favourites West Indies in the 1983 World Cup had a cathartic effect on cricket as well as the people of the country yearning for sporting achievement.

This was the trigger for a shift in the balance of power in cricket from England to the subcontinent, more particularly India. With the economy opening up from 1991, cricket got a further boost and India now enjoys a near monopoly of eyeballs and money in the sport.

The history of sport has a goodly number of such examples, but not all upset or unexpected results have such a deep influence on the player, sport or country. There are perhaps more instances of players/teams that have fizzled out after a stunning upset, leaving people wondering whether their original surmise about them was flawed.

The crux, of course, is that a flash-in-the-pan, an odd victory here or there, does not make a champion, nor can it really influence the path of a sport’s history. Sustained excellence is what really makes the difference between a truly great player—like, say, Boris Becker and Steffi Graf, who changed the status quo decisively—and oddballs like Pat Cash and Richard Krajicek who remain one-tournament wonders.

We’ll have to wait and see whether the upstarts at Wimbledon this year have it in them to become true-blue champions. For the moment though, it’s fair to say they have the tennis world in a tizzy.

Ayaz Memon is a senior columnist who writes on sports and other matters.

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