It takes two to tango

My take on ‘Fedal’ and other great rivalries in the world of sports

2017 has been a watershed year for men’s tennis. At the beginning of the year, if someone suggested that Federer or Nadal would win a Grand Slam, he would have surely been laughed at.  But fast forward to the end of the year, and ‘Fedal’ has swept the Slams- it is Federer 2 Nadal 2. So who is the greater of the two? And hence, the greatest of all time?

The Federer vs Nadal match-up has been the one of the most glorious sporting rivalries of all times, certainly the biggest of the last decade. It’s Federer’s effortless natural ability vs Nadal’s grit and never-say-die attitude; Federer’s grass court ballet vs Nadal’s clay court monopoly; Federer’s poetic backhand vs Nadal’s gladiator like forehand. Who can forget that epic Wimbledon ‘08 final? Surely, one of the best matches of all times. Federer has had the rub of the green in 2017 but Nadal leads the overall head to head 23-14. Federer leads the Slam count 19-16 as of now but Nadal has age on his side to do the catching up maybe. 2017 indicates that we haven’t seen the last of them surely. So let the debates continue as these greats continue to enthrall us.

Tennis has a history of great rivalries and awesome match-ups. I grew up idolizing Becker and one of the earliest memories was a troika of Becker vs Edberg Wimbledon finals from ‘88 to ‘90. Both Becker and Edberg were grass court studs. Becker’s diving volleys, and Edberg sliced back hands- quite a treat to watch. Edberg took ‘88 and ‘90 while Becker won in ‘89. The rivalry would actually spill-over to the coaching box when Edberg would manage Federer while Boris sided with Djokovic.

Borg vs McEnroe was one from the previous era- Borg with the ‘good boy’ looks and ‘ice-cool’ attitude vs the proverbial ‘bad boy’ mercurial McEnroe. They had many a memorable match but the ‘80 Wimbledon final was one for the ages. Borg won in five sets but the fourth set tiebreak probably deserves a separate blog post in itself. McEnroe would get his revenge in the ‘81 final but Borg’s surprisingly early retirement would rob us of many more classics.

Sampras vs Agassi was a similar clash of styles- Sampras the boringly efficient cool and calm champion vs Agassi the charismatic colourful joker with a bandana. The best serve vs the best return. The two from Uncle Sam’s land would have many a memorable fight, including that magical point from the ‘95 US Open final.

On the women’s side, Navratilova vs Evert would be an enduring rivalry in the early 1980’s. Again a clash of styles, the two would dominate the world of tennis with 18 out of 19 grand slams between them from ‘82 to ‘86. Great friends off court, Martina would have the overall edge in this match up.

Graf vs Seles was the headline clash in the 1990’s- Seles would have the upper hand on clay court while Graf would mostly dominate on the other surfaces. The rivalry promised much more till an eccentric Graf fan stabbed Seles in ’93. While Monica made a comeback after two years and even won a slam, things would never be the same again.

Great sporting rivalries go beyond the game of tennis. In cricket, the Ashes is a milestone for every fan. It’s when the Aussies and the English hope they will have the bragging rights as the teams fight for the smallest cup you can imagine. It is win at all costs here- even if you have to go the ‘Bodyline’ route!

The Ashes Urn- MCC Museum, Lord’s

Closer home, the India vs Pakistan clash is one of the most sought after events which brings both the countries to a virtual standstill. The stakes are high- so a Sohail vs Prasad type situation is always around the corner. Too bad, that we don’t play more often nowadays.

From the world of football, there is the eternal question. Who’s the greatest? Pele or Maradona. The rivalry here transcends generations. Pele- the all-rounder, equally adept with both feet and the head, Maradona with just his left foot, but what a left foot!  Pele recently joked that he has challenged his good friend Diego to continue the debate only once he crosses 1000 goals. Till then, the discussions can wait!

When it comes to club football, there is the El Classico between Barcelona and Real Madrid- also a battleground for the Messi vs Ronaldo duels of late. In EPL, there’s the Manchester Derby and the North London Derby between the Gunners and Spurs. And closer home, the Calcutta derby between East Bengal and Mohun Bagan which routinely house a hundred thousand crowd even now at the Salt Lake Stadium on derby days.

Moving on, the athletics track saw Ben Johnson vs Carl Lewis fighting for the sprint crown in the 80’s. Ben with his lightning starts, Lewis with the deadly sprint, to make up at the finish-line. Ben would win the all-important 100 metre dash in the Seoul Olympics in ‘88, only to be beaten by the doping ban.

The game of chess saw a clash of styles in the 80’s and 90’s- the safe and defensive Karpov vs the aggressive and charismatic Kasparov– the later had mostly the upper hand. Sebastian Coe would make Steve Ovett produce the run of his life, every time they competed. Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna drove each other wild whenever paths crossed on a Formula One track. Muhammad Ali and George Foreman and their mercurial rivalry gave us ‘The Rumble in the Jungle’ in Kinshasa. NBA in the late 80’s was always about the Jordan vs Johnson debate.

We idolize champions, but what makes sports truly memorable, is great rivalries. After all, it takes two to tango!






A Mid-Summer Night’s Dream

A dream about a fictitious tennis GOAT (Greatest of All Times)

This tennis season has been a stuff of dreams. The new guard has made way. The old favourites are back- ‘Fedal’ is ruling the roost. As the big two (French Open and Wimbeldon) are around the corner, there is a world of expectations- will ‘Fedal’ continue to defy age and make it a season for the ‘Oldies‘? Or, will the current lot (Murray and the Djoker) get back their Mojo? Or, maybe the time for the next generation (Thiem and Zverev) to stand up and signal a change of guards?

I saw a strange dream the other night. There was a debate between us friends recently on who is the greatest male tennis player ever. Well, I saw in my dream that God was giving me a boon- of choosing talents between players across generations– and hence putting together a fictitious player who surely is the greatest ever. Interesting, isn’t it? We all have our favourites and soft corners, but how will we go about creating this ‘fictitious GOAT’? So here is my attempt…

To start with, I will choose Federer’s natural ability. Well, someone may argue that Federer just as he is, may be good enough to be the ‘GOAT’. His silk smooth game, carefree shots- such a joy to watch. 18 grand slams and counting. There are a lot of things that training and practice will give you, but Fedex’s natural ability makes him better than anyone else.

I will next pick Del Potro’s fore-hand. Here is a guy who could have reached far greater heights but for his many injuries. A game with one shot, but what a shot that is. So that booming fore-hand from ‘The Tower of Tandil’ will be a great ammunition.

When it comes to back-hands, it is mostly a second shot for most players. Not for ‘Stan the Man’. The Wawrinka back-hand is a weapon that all peers fear. Ask Djoker about his French Open 2015 experience and he will vouch for it. Waw can rip it down the line or cross court. A serious weapon, if any. And I am a purist who loves a single handed back-hand to a double handed one- any day. So Wawrinka and his back-hand is my pick.

Goran’s service is the next pick for me. In a game of rallies, he was in a way the first one who made the service a serious weapon. It was quite boring to watch Goran at times because all sets would progress to tie-breakers. In fact, when he lost to Agassi in the ‘92 Wimbledon final, he still had 37 aces in that match- just imagine! So Goran and the insurance of his terrific service would be a great weapon in the armoury.

If you serve well, the return has to match it. Who better than Agassi for his service return? Deuce court or advantage court- forehand or backhand, Agassi was the man. He even joked recently on how he used to read Becker’s tongue to know which way the serve was coming! That or otherwise, Agassi terrorized big servers during his time and made them look ordinary.

Volley is an oft ignored part of the game now. People slug it out from the base-line. They hardly ever approach the net. But if you have to rule from the net, I would choose none other than Leander Paes- yes, he is a doubles specialist. But such quicksilver touch, deft hands, and what anticipation. No wonder, Paes and his net play is ‘Umarless’.

That takes me to my favourite player of all times, Boom Boom Becker. Boris had the charisma, and the ‘rebel’ feel. He made memorable comebacks from two sets down to win multiple times in grand slams. But what made him absolutely stand out was his stupendous athleticism and dives. Who can forget that incredible dive to win that point in ‘86 vs Lendl on his way to a second Wimbledon title? Those dives and fist pumps defined Becker.

My next pick will be Nadal’s defense. In today’s break neck game of attacking tennis, Nadal wears opponents down through his magical defense. You have to hit three winners to actually win a point against Rafa. That for a man whose career was over in his first professional year due to a life threatening injury! No wonder Rafa has won nine times at Roland Garros and is a favourite for ‘La Decima’ this time around. If I have to bet my life on a tennis game, I would bet on Rafa and his defense to see my through.

Tennis these days is more than just about the strokes. So I would now have to pick Djokovic and his out-of-the-world stamina and energy. Djoker is easily the fittest of all players I have seen. He manages to look fresh even after six hour slug festslike the one vs Rafa in the 2012 Aussie Open Final. He just wears down the opponents with his energy and then jokes about them the way only he can during press conferences!

My next bet will be Sampras and his monotonous consistency. Sampras ruled the roost in the 90’s- he had such a perfect game. He would be downright boring at times but you know, in the end, he would always win. What a trait to have in my ‘GOAT’.

All players have their favourite surfaces, Nadal has nine French Open wins and Fedex has seven Big W triumphs. But if you are looking for the best adaptability– look no further than Bjorn Borg. The ice cold Swede won 6 French and 5 Wimbledon titles- in surfaces diametrically opposite to each other. I would like my player to be versatile and Borg was the epitome of adaptability.

Some players who narrowly missed out from this list were Edberg and his volleys, Courier and his fore-hand, Chang and his resilience, McEnroe and his drama, Connors and his longevity, and Lendl and his monotonous consistency.

What fun it will be if we seriously have such a player who is a ‘Jack of all Trades’? Surely he will sweep a grand slam of slams, or maybe two? ‘The GOAT’…. Care to challenge him?