26 July 2015

Wimbledon 2015

Did you honestly think I would not write about Wimbledon? If you thought I had forgotten Federer, or was ignoring Wimbledon's white pristine snobbishness, you are wrong.

Before the tournament began, we had a very distinct narrative for each of the four male tennis stars. Federer is really old. He is not athletic enough, not powerful enough, not agile enough. Murray is alright now, maybe he'll actually win. Maybe Britain will be happy again. Nadal is a lost cause. He's injured. Not to be confused with Federer's old age. And Djokovic is playing really well, but we don't really like him. He's too brash for Wimbledon. Also, he wears Uniqlo. More on all of this later.

So, Wimbledon 2015. What did you take away? There were large strawberries with fresh cream. There was a dress code controversy. Fun fact: the official Wimbledon headband was too bright to be allowed on court this year. There was that day where the temperatures crossed 36ÂșC and everyone panicked. John Isner played a long match though it did not (thankfully) come close to the 2010 one. Lleyton Hewitt retired, with his first round loss. Martina Hingis showed the world what a true champion she is, winning the Women's Doubles, as well as the Mixed Doubles. Fun fact: her partners in both cases were Indians. This, along with Sumit Nagal's Junior Doubles win, made 2015 a very good year for Indian tennis.

Unsurprisingly however, the biggest talking points were from the Men's and Women's Singles events. Serena Williams won spectacularly, defeating her sister, Azarenka, and Sharapova among others. Her "Serena Slam" broke quite a few records. It is sad that we underestimate her skill and prowess and find reasons such as her "man's body" to dismiss her achievements. I have never heard anyone attribute Djokovic's wins to his well-shaped ankles, have you? This discrepancy between Men's and Women's tennis annoys me greatly. Williams deserves a lot more credit and praise for her achievements, and I really do hope she manages to get a complete Grand Slam this year. She will then join a very elite club which includes Graff and Laver along with three others.

Should we get to Federer now? We've talked about everything else, haven't we? Well, Nadal did lose early on, struggling post-injury. That narrative was right. So now, Federer? It's sad. Federer played beautiful tennis this Wimbledon. As everyone has pointed out, he served magnificently throughout the two weeks. He only lost one set until the finals. His match against Murray was very interesting. Wimbledon dotes on Federer, but gets enmeshed in a deep moral conflict when he plays Murray. Crowd support was weirdly scattered and noisy. However, Federer served remarkably well and won relatively comfortably.

Last year, everyone sort of forgot Federer until he reached the finals. You just expected him to do well on grass, but you did not think too much about him - he was old. The media was determined to not repeat that mistake this year, and that became very apparent with the media coverage this year. Federer was playing beautifully, despite his age. He hadn't lost his serve, despite being almost 34. Oh look, he is so graceful but looks tired. Of course, he's so old after all. The media did not want to forget Federer, but did not want us to forget his age either. And so, as Federer reached the finals, we were all told about how absolutely beautiful his game was, but also that age affected stamina and confidence and ability.

I did not have access to a good stream for the finals, neither did I have access to a TV. So I decided to go the old fashioned way - I listened to the official Wimbledon radio stream! I had the score tracker open and tried to sync the score update to the radio. It didn't work very well; the radio lagged by two seconds throughout. Have I proved my loyalty though? So there I was, listening to a pompous British voice (who seemed to support Djokovic ever so slightly), while visualizing what was happening. "A sharp backhand from Federer straight down the court and Novak responds with a crosscourt forehand. We have Federer running down the court..." you get the point. My favourite line of the day was "He looks like a man possessed. It only remains to be seen whether he will possess the trophy tonight." I was hoping that the match would go differently than what happened last year. The first set should have been Federer's. That was truly cruel. But, he did well by winning the second set. However, the rain break messed things up.

I have to admit, I don't like Djokovic. While his beating Federer is part of the reason, it's not the only contributing factor. Djokovic is simply too loud, too brash, almost too crude. His game, one has to admit, is practically flawless. But, there is just something jarring and unpleasant about him. I swear, it's not just me: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/09/02/the-third-man-8. This is from 2013. While Djokovic has won a lot more since then, the basic tenet of the piece holds - his manner marks him as a permanent outsider in this world. And he's not the kind of outsider you feel bad for- or even support because he's different. He is the kinds you wished you could like, but simply cannot. I'm rambling now, but hopefully you get why I don't like him(and agree).

I was not crushed with Federer's defeat. I would have loved for him to win, but the loss did not hurt as much it did in 2008 or even last year. That seemed to be true for Federer himself, and a large portion of Federer fans, by the looks of it. Maybe, we are all learning to treat triumph and disaster just the same, as the gates to the Centre Court ask us to. Kipling would be proud. It is very clear that Federer is still very motivated to play, really likes to play, and still plays exceedingly well. We might want him to retire on a winning note, but he has been remarkably open and explicit about this - he wants to play while he enjoys it. He says he will come back to Wimbledon next year. Maybe, he'll win next year. Maybe, he won't. But we seem to be fine either way. And if that's how things roll now, then why not? You get to see elegant tennis. You get to see Federer mostly win. 

One sports columnist wrote, "Four years ago, I wrote that there was “an aura of weird sadness” around Federer’s arrested decline. Federer seemed invincible for so long — not just better than everyone else, invincible— that it was unnerving at first when he didn’t. ....These days, though? Federer’s career doesn’t seem so sad. ....it’s because Federer seems to be enjoying himself so much....What you take from watching him now is not so much a sense of tennis, but the sense of a life. .... when he’s beaten and leaving the stadium with tears in his eyes and one hand raised to the crowd, you understand why the moment doesn’t exactly feel bad, even though it hurts." (I would strongly recommend the article. http://grantland.com/the-triangle/the-sun-never-sets-on-roger-federer-endings-and-wimbledon/)

And that's how it is now. Federer seems to be happy, and that's enough for me to keep my faith in peRFection. 

30 August 2014

On India, Independence, and Indian Independence

EDIT (November 2, 2014): This is worth a read: http://www.firstpost.com/india/sniggering-at-modi-deriding-ganesha-remark-misses-the-elephant-in-the-room-1778305.html

<not my age to be preachy, and definitely not my place to be cynical>

This month, we completed our 67th year as an independent nation, celebrating 67 years of a tryst with destiny that we substantially set to fulfill. On Independence Day, our collective skepticism and moral disdain reaches amazing levels, each layered within the other. It’s deeply meta. We sing praises of an era long gone by. We claim an Indian origin in everything that the world is grateful for. We talk about how we’re not truly free. We talk about how cliched it is to talk about how we’re not truly free. We talk about how we never walk the talk, and then talk about how we are not talking about the right things. We mourn how we are occasionally patriotic, and then pity how we are patriotic on occasion.

I’m sorry, but I’m going to express opinions about collective opinions. One more layer won’t hurt now, will it?

For starters, we need to stop staking Indian origin on everything good. You know, it is okay for something nice to not have an Indian hand, or for something revolutionary to not first be done by us. I’m not saying it is wrong to claim credit where it is deserved; we just need to know when to stop being ridiculous. So when you are talking about Gandhi, the movie, celebrating the fact that Ben Kingsley has Indian roots misses the point. It’s just worse when we dig through centuries of misplaced pride. Let’s set the record straight: Indians weren’t the first to discover the cube root. Are we really that insecure as a nation that our patriotism is solely dependent on our achievements? Are you any less Indian if Ben Kingsley’s grandfather wasn’t born in India? I’m not, thank you very much.

Next, all the talking about the talking, and all the talking about walking the talk. Maybe, it’s not so bad that we do that. We need to introspect, at least annually, don’t we? A state of the union reflection, undertaken collectively. But, we keep asking the same questions over and over. Does that get us anywhere? If we don’t want to question whether we are truly free, what do we want to question?

This year, I asked people the following question: which decade was the best for independent India? I would appreciate knowing why you choose the answer you give, and how you define best. The reason why I began asking this question is a long unrelated story, but I thought this was a good beginning point this Independence Day.

We all have our opinions about where we’ve gone wrong, and we are definitely entitled to these. However, do we have an opinion about where we’ve done things correctly? Maybe if we identify what’s right, we’ll be able to correct what’s wrong. Maybe we need our history for us to be better or worse, for in isolation, we’ll always just be good or bad.

No decade was a clear winner. In fact, at least someone deemed every decade to be India’s finest. Clearly, our definitions of a happy nation differ widely. Not surprising. More importantly though, this means that every point in our history has something we could emulate today. I was rather pessimistic to begin with. The 50s saw widespread communal violence, in the aftermath of the Partition. We lost a major war in ‘62. The 70s saw another war, along with the Emergency. A Prime Minister was assassinated in both the 80s, and the 90s. The first decade of the new millenium was remembered for political scandal and terrorist activity. And the current decade has already seen more than its fair share of ugliness. No decade has been pure and untainted. Even nostalgia can’t induce a pristine flawless perspective. But, on the other hand, the 50s led to consolidated nationalism, the 60s saw remarkable national progress, and we won a war in the 70s. 80s introduced the concept of information technology, while the 90s saw the markets opening to the world. Important legislative steps were taken in the last decade. Each decade has seen something we hold dear, even today.

It is interesting to observe what trade-offs we are willing to make. The 60s were wonderful, despite the war, says someone. The 70s saw great economic progress, despite the temporary loss in our democratic standing. People’s answers reflected what they thought was an acceptable compromise. It depended on their age, political affiliations, as well as religious beliefs.

However, the one thing every answer showed was that we appreciate moral clarity the most. As a nation, there are various values that we hold dear, values that our Constitution directs us to imbibe and follow. Our favourite times in our own history are when these values have been upheld, not forcibly, but with the respect that our founding principles demand. Winning the ‘71 war, or the Kargil War is important, not only because we won, but because of what we fought for. Economic progress and scientific development are valued because they create channels that allow these values to be upheld: better lifestyles, equal opportunities, and transparent governance for instance.

It does not really matter whether you believe that 1960s were our best generations or the 1990s. You value the first few Five-Year Plans more, as compared to the 1991 economic reforms. Fundamentally though, you value positive policy change. Maybe then, that answers the cliched question we ask. When will be truly free? We’ll be truly free when we are fuelled by values our Constitution prescribes. We’ll be truly free when we uphold these values willingly. We’ll be truly free when these values are practised in thought and action both. We must persevere to live with these very values.

I believe that every time (and that means Independence Day and Republic Day) we go through a nationwide existential crisis, we should look to our Constitution, that we should recollect the best of our past, and try to emulate the ethical balance we achieved. Hopefully, that'll guide us through political pungency, internal indignation, and other present-day problems.

To quote an answer I received, "let's be optimistic, and believe that the best decade will always be in the future." Let every decade surpass the last. That's a rather nice way of looking at it, don't you think?

So if your actions, in whatever form, contribute in ensuring that India stays a sovereign, secular democratic republic, thank you.

PS: I'd love to hear what decade you think is the best for Independent India. If I haven't already asked you, I'd really appreciate it if you tell me what you think.

5 August 2014

Wimbledon 2014

Disclaimer: Unabashed Roger Federer gushing follows.

I have been writing on the Wimbledon every year, since the last few years. It's become a habit. But this year, I was terribly disappointed on Finals night. Roger Federer's loss to Djokovic might not have been as 'epic' as his loss to Nadal in 2008, but it hurt just as much. However, I thought I'd try treating triumph and disaster, the wily impostors, just the same. Roger Federer's loss doesn't take anything away from Wimbledon's grandeur, although it does manage to diminish its charm.

Wimbledon 2014 was full of upsets. A 19 year old wild card showed Nadal the door. Crowd favourite Murray did not move beyond the quarterfinals. Ferrer didn't see the second Monday. Gasquet, Monfils, and Berdych didn't do as well as they probably hoped to do. The semifinals did not pitch the Big Four against each other, as fans traditionally hoped.

Despite the haphazard tumbling of the top seeds, Wimbledon remained what it has always been: pristine in its white purity, polite in its fandom, and perfect in its ageless appeal. Impeccably British. What never ceases to amaze me is how wonderfully old-fashioned Wimbledon can be. It upholds tradition not with the upturned nose of a snob, but with a unmoving air of assertion. We're sorry, no swearing please. We're sorry, but no orange shoes and soles are a part of shoes please. We're sorry but you were cheering too loudly there. The Holy Grail of tennis is undoubtedly Wimbledon, and traditions are a large part of ensuring that. You've to admit there is something wonderfully elegant about not having fluorescent green headbands and shocking pink wristbands.

Roger Federer's journey through the two weeks went relatively unnoticed. His presence was a given because it's Wimbledon and he is Federer, but it was just as surprising because he is 33. Britain's sole (and sore) tennis star was the object of greater scrutiny. People took notice only when he beat his compatriot Wawrinka to enter the semifinals. Suddenly, it was Federer all over again. He was the man with countless records; he was the man with a blistering backhand and a magical forehand; he was never someone written off by critics.

The final was breathtaking, albeit extremely painful. I hate to admit it, but Djokovic was at his finest. Federer was his old self again. He was no longer 33: untroubled, elegant, and a class apart. His game is beauty personified. His defining characteristic is not his strength, a specific shot, or even his stamina. It is his ability to play with effortless elegance and unperturbed ease. The way he won the fourth set to steal the first Championship point from Djokovic is perfect evidence of that.

Wimbledon is not used to seeing him lose. His loss was greeted with a second of shocked silence. As much as I dislike Djokovic, his sportsmanship was touching. To thank your opponent for allowing you to win, at the pinnacle of the sport, without a trace of malice or snideness is remarkable humility. You could see that Federer was close to tears, and I'm glad he did not cry while on court. I would have started howling myself.

But, he's promised he'll be back next year. That is the only thing that makes his finals defeat bearable. He'll be there again, with his calm smile, his beautiful brand of tennis, and Wimbledon will be Wimbledon again.

Here's to peRFection.