Beauty, in Slow-Mo

September 21, 2006

by Amit Goyal

It seems to be a season of retirement for my favourite players. First Agassi, then Schumacher, and now Riquelme. Anyways, here is a small tribute to the greatest midfielder of our times.

I must confess right at the start that I have an extremely soft spot for Argentine players. Right from Maradona and Batistuta to Messi and Crespo, I have been a huge Argentinean fan and I was heartbroken after their exit from the ’06 FIFA World Cup.

Some people play the game like they have just 45 minutes rather than 90. Riquelme, however, plays as if there are 180 instead. As Arsène Wenger said, “He’s always able to slow the game down, and wait for a weak moment to kill you“. He is so different from his contemporaries that football once again seems like the beautiful game when he plays.

His speed of thought, ball possession and his creative vision is what sets him apart from the pack. A master at juggling the ball, he outfoxes the defense with such ease that it induces a sense of serenity in his game. When the Argentine is at work, a certain degree of romanticism fills the game, and you are transported back to an era when the game was played for pleasure than winning alone. I always hear people say that Sachin is a great player since he makes the game look so easy. I now believe that the same is true for all sports. Riquelme, with his supreme control of the ball and a vision that sees all, does exactly that.

Born in a poor family of 10, he was spotted early by Boca Juniors (same as that of legendary Maradona and Batistuta) in 1995 and stayed there till 2001. In 2002 he shifted to Barcelona and could not adapt himself to the European style of play. His performance and confidence took and nosedive. In 2003 he was loaned to Villareal. Back in midst of Latin American players (like captain Sorin) he blossomed again. The playmaker was back and helped improve Villareal’s fortune in both the La Liga and the UEFA Champions League through the 2004-05 and 2005-06 seasons.

He announced his retirement on September 13, 2006, at a young age of 28, a decision that shocked many who expected him to take over from Sorin. I hope he reconsiders his decision. I hope he does not retire. I hope that the game is not robbed of the beauty. I hope to see Riquelme play again.

As Argentina legend Jorge Valdano describes Riquelme: “If we have to travel from point A to point B most of us would take the six-lane highway and get there as quickly as possible. Riquelme would choose the winding mountain road, the beautiful scenic route which takes him six hours instead of two.

Gayle, Match-Winner

September 16, 2006

by Aparajith Ramnath

When India’s first match of the DLF Cup tri-series in Kuala Lumpur was called off after a downpour, resulting in a West Indian win on the Duckworth-Lewis system, a lot of people would have been muttering under their breath about the rain. But perhaps a few would have stopped to take note of the contribution of a gangly opener named Chris Gayle, who had struck 45 off just 35 balls, spanking nine fours along the way. His innings got the Windies “off to a flier” and had the Indian fielders scurrying all over the place.

Gayle has long been the headline-writer’s delight (how many times have reports been titled along the lines of “Gayle blows away Indian bowling”?), but he is certainly not a purist’s delight. His stance can be described as ungainly, standing as he does with his front foot facing mid on and his back foot the bowler; and when he stands up and thwacks it around, one is put in mind of a table tennis stroke.

What Gayle does have is cartloads of talent and an exceptional eye. Not for this man the getting-on-the-front-foot, transferring-weight, bending-to-get-the-head-over-the-ball formula; not for him either the well-timed fluid drive past the bowler. His bat finds ever-newer arcs to swing along – but it always swings. The aforementioned exceptional eye means that the position of his feet matters little – indeed, he can hardly be said to be a leading exponent of the art of moving one’s feet – and his height means that he can get under balls that would be an awkward length for another batsman, and simply swat them over the boundary.

His play is not aesthetic, but it is spectacular. What is more, it is effective. He is not alone in this: today’s game has more and more batsmen who have evolved their own techniques to suit the requirements of a cricketing horizon crowded with one-day internationals, and, increasingly, Twenty-Twenty games. It has long been felt that modern-day cricket is a batsman’s game. Batsmen like Gayle make the challenge for bowlers even greater.

Michael’s Magic at Monza

September 11, 2006

by Amit Goyal

The F1 race at Monza today was of special interest today for more reasons that one. It is Ferrari’s home turf. Amid speculations that Schumacher would announce his retirement here, it was also of further interest because Schumacher had qualified much ahead of Alonso, with Massa in between the both, and Raikkonen at the pole it would be interesting to see how much of the 12 point lead would Schumacher be able to slice off. The stands were filled with the tifosi and you could sense that they were anticipating a fairy tale run for Ferrari here. Guess what? Today was their lucky day.

The race started with a surprise that Alonso would be staring from the 10th position on the grid instead of 5th, a penalty of 5 positions for obstructing Massa’s qualifying session. Naturally, Renault team boss Flavio Briatore was very pretty pissed at this and felt that the race had been fixed and that the FIA wants Michael to win. Now, while I agree that F1 Marshall’s may not be very fair, I don’t remember Mr. Briatore making any such statement when Michael was penalised for a similar offense at Monte Carlo. That proves just one thing to me, that the Renault team is a bunch of sore losers. Alonso has received a lot of flak for not being sporting enough. I hope that he can improve his performance on this front, for humility is the hallmark of a true champion.

Anyways, the race began with Raikkonen (possibly the next Ferrari driver) holding off Schumacher till the first round of pit stops, after which Schumacher returned to head the pack. Everything was smooth after this except a minor blip during the 33rd lap in which Michael made an unusual error, braking too late at the first turn, and almost banged into Scott Speed. After that Schumacher shifted into the glide mode in which he just paces himself to the chequered flag without pushing the car too much. I have always believed tha the greatest strengths of Schumacher are not brilliant overtaking maneuvers but driving a very precisely planned race, those drives in and out of the pits, and those fast laps when needed.

The real twist in the entire story came in the 43rd lap when Alonso (now up to 3rd position) retired from the race with a blown engine. This was probably a mixed event for Ferrari as this would mean no points for Alonso and with Schumacher now heading towards a clear and comfortable victory it meant that the championship was wide open. However, Massa, blinded from the smoke emanating from Alonso’s Renault drove on to the dirt and damaged his right front tyre and had to stop to get it changed and joined the race in 9th position out of points.

In the end Schumacher won quite comfortably followed by Raikkonen and Robert Kubica (it was only his third race). The face of Jean Todt when Schumacher crossed the chequered flag (the 90th of his illustrious career) confirmed the fact that Schumacher would indeed announce his retirement. It was time for official announcement of the news that had been anticipated through out the week now. During the post race conference a visibly emotional Schumacher announced that the next three races would be the last of his career and thanked his family, his team and his fans for their support.

While Schumacher may not get the title of the greatest ever (that being reserved for the late Senna) he surely has been the most prolific. He probably has every possible F1 record to his name. From the most podiums to the most poles. From the most titles to the most victories at a single venue. He has been there and done that. The sport will be that much less exciting without him. But these words can, for the moment, be saved for 3 more races.

The F1 championship is now poised for a lip smacking last three races as Ferrari leads the constructors championship by 2 points and Schumacher trails the title also by 2. Will Schumacher be able to mark the end of his career with another title? Will Ferrai win the constructors title? Well, I do not want to hazard a guess. So fasten your seat belts and gear up for some action.

PS: Did you know that the Lancias, Ferraris and Maseratis of the 1950s also sported a V8 engine?

PS: Amit is now the part of Desicritics.org and the post is also posted here.

Break Point Agassi

September 8, 2006

by Amit Goyal  

The man who was the only player to be ranked amongst the top 10 players in three different decades. The man who ranked amongst the top 10 players for 16 years. The man who is the only one amongst peers to win a career Grand Slam. The only man to win a career Slam on four different surfaces. The man who lost focus midway through his career. The man who was determined to fight back. The man who refused to take wild cards. The man who resurrected what many thought was a truncated career of a bored genius. The man who won 5 of his 8 grand slams after the age of 30. The man who loved 5 setters. The man who did not learn to quit. That man played his last competitive match on Sunday.

Agassi began the tournament with a superb display against Pavel. The match left him with a back so sore that he required cortisone injection to carry on. The next against Baghdatis was even more demanding and Agassi collapsed on his way out of the stadium and had to be take another shot of anti inflammatory compounds. Against the advice of his father (“I did not come here to quit“, he said), Agassi walked on to the Arthur Ashe court on Sunday morning with pain writ large all over his face. His movement on the court was a far cry from his usual self. He was standing way behind the baseline to have more time to return serves without moving much. Every time he had to stretch himself he let out a cry of pain so sharp that Becker admitted to having goosebumps. But he did not quit, and proceeded to stretch the match as much as he could, eventually losing out 5-7, 7-6, 4-6, 5-7. The moment of truth had arrived. Agassi had played the final match of his illustrious career. The silence in the stadium after the final serve was just the calm before the storm of applause started. No, not for the victor Becker, but for the man the crowd so dearly loved.

From the rebel to the royal, the transformation of Agassi was so drastic that it seems like a fairy tale. The man who started his career with long hair, orange lycra shorts and weird denim pants ended it with a bald head, whites and elegance. The showman had become the ambassador. He was not the most talented to grace the sport, not the best of his generation either (that would be Sampras). But he was loved more than any of his peers.

His first title was the Wimbledon (which he did not play for 3 years) against Ivanisevic and the last one was the Australian Open, which he won 4 times (which he did not play the tournament for the first 8 years of his career). He won 8 Grand Slam singles, 1 Olympic gold, 60 ATP Tour titles and millions of hearts. He along with Sampras captured people’s imagination when Connors and Borg left the game.

His decline was remarkable and his marriage with Brooke Shields a disaster. But after reaching a career low of 141 in 1997 , and divorcing Shields he decided he had had enough. He started to rebuild his career. He refused to take wild cards and started playing more Challenger series tournaments. He jumped from 141 to 6 in the rankings and the star was reborn. In 1999 he won the French Open (in a five set match, after being down two sets), reached Wimbledon finals (to lose to the king of grass, Sampras) and won the US Open. He ended the year at the top of the ATP rankings. He also won the 2000 Australian Open to be the first male since Laver to reach four consecutive Grand Slam finals. It was then that he started dating Steffi Graf and married her in 2001.

One can always remember the US Open quarter finals against Sampras which still remains to me perhaps the best tennis match ever. Sampras won 6-7, 7-6, 7-6, 7-6 with no breaks of serve during the entire match. Also comes to mind his semi final match against James Blake which he won 3-6, 3-6, 6-3, 6-3, 7-6 (8-6). After his  victory at 1:15 a.m. Agassi said: “For 20,000 people to still be here, I wasn’t the winner. Tennis was.” And how can I forget the emotional match against Baghdatis.

After losing to Benjamin Becker in the third round of the US Open this is what he said.

The scoreboard said I lost today, but what the scoreboard doesn’t say is what it is I have found. And over the last 21 years, I have found loyalty. You have pulled for me on the court and also in life. I’ve found inspiration. You have willed me to succeed sometimes even in my lowest moments.

And I’ve found generosity. You have given me your shoulders to stand on to reach for my dreams, dreams I could never have reached without you. Over the last 21 years, I have found you and I will take you and the memory of you with me for the rest of my life. Thank you.

Thanks to you Agassi for providing us with so many wonderful moments. You will be missed.

One For The Ages

September 4, 2006

by Amit Goyal  

Its not often that I get up early to watch tennis matches (or anything else for that matter). It has been different this US Open. It is Agassi’ last tournament and you never know which match maybe his last one, the last one against Pavel was pretty close to that. So when Agassi was pitted against Baghdatis in the second round, with Agassi being in the form he is (8/7 record this year before the tournament) and Marcus being in his (Australian Open finals and Wimbledon semis), I knew it might be his last and had to watch it.

So here I was awake at 7 in the morning, with one eye closed, trying to follow the match. Agassi had already won the first set 6-4 and was leading in the second. He then went on to win the second set pretty easily (6-4) with Baghdatis looking out of sorts and troubled by his racquet (which his coach did nothing to change) and his wrist (hurt in a fall during the match).

Then came the third set, Baghdatis found his rythm and the slice shot, and found nothing was wrong with his racquet or him and proceeded to win the set 6-3. I must say that the match was now interestingly poised.

Fourth set is when the drama began. Agassi began in awesome stlye to break Baghdatis twice and was very quickly up 4-0 in the set. Mind you Agassi has never lost a US Open match after being up 2 sets. The crowd started packing and thinking of the match between Agassi and B Becker (not Boris but Benjamin). But Baghdatis had given up, at least not yet. He went on to Break Agassi thrice and won 7 of the next 8 games and won the set 7-5. The 23 thousand strong boisterous crowd at the Arthur Ashe court was muted. The 3 round game which seemed so near, now seemed unsure. Meanwhile, Baghdatis was booed a couple of times by the crowd, all of whom (other than Bagdatis’ coach) were rooting for their favourite. Though not in good taste it is quite understandable. They do not want Agassi to lose (neither do I). Everyone was now watching the final set (oh, how they love a 5 setter). Every Agassi point was cheered and every Baghdatis point greeted with silence. Baghdatis broke Agassi in the very first game and Agassi returned the favour in the second. Then they won their respective games and the score was now tied at 4-4. In the 9th game Baghdatis cramped big time and fell down. According to the rules he could not recieve treatment during the game and had to wait for the end of the game. Baghdatis then got up and proceeded to play some great shots and tied the game 4 or 5 times before it became too much for him and Agassi won it.

Baghdatis must have nerves of steel to get up and play again. After every serve he tried to limp to the other half of the court. You could see his muscles flexing on the camera. Hats off to him. Meanwhile, we must reserve some thought for Agassi too. Seeing your opponent in pain is not something easy to handle and it fills your mind with a lot of doubt. Also when you know it is your last tournament and any match maybe your last, your entore career flashes in fron of your eyes when you are down. The way Agassi handled the situation was the hallmark of a true champion. Agassi then went on to win the set (7-5) and the match but not before he had survived some very anxious moments. The audience must have heaved a huge collective sigh of relief when Agassi broke Baghdatis on the 12th game.

One observation here. While Federer has taken over from Pete Sampras, I think Marcus Baghdatis is the heir apparent to the mantle of Agassi. The guy is a great fighter and a brilliant player. Coming back from 4-0 down against a champion player and 23000 people is not an easy job. Also the way he played his shots even with the cramps is not easy to put in words. Brilliant job man.

Meanwhile, Agassi is not done. At least not just yet.

PS: Ojas had also written a post for the match which can be read here. 

PS: The post was written before the exit of Agassi from the US Open on Sunday.