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.

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.