The short, sad life of a champion

The short, sad life of a champion

The tennis legend Martina Navratilova once said: “What matters isn’t how well you play when you’re playing well. What matters is how well you play when you’re losing.” I remembered her words as I watched another outstanding tennis player’s distressing reaction when defeat was looming overhead.

Serena Williams, who held the world spellbound with her unbeatable style on the tennis court, shocked spectators at the recently concluded US Open championships when she broke down seeing her career coming to an end at the hands of a 20-something novice. She vented her frustration by smashing her racquet on the ground and shouting at the umpire “you are a thief for stealing a point and a game.”

In the midst of all this uproar, the new-born champion, Naomi Osaka, made her spectacular debut into this charmed world, alone and all but forgotten.    

Tennis, like any other sport, takes a toll on its players -- both physically and emotionally. It is said that champions are more afraid of defeat than their opponents. Kipling’s words, “If you can meet with triumph and disaster, and treat those two impostors just the same…” acquires greater meaning in this context.

Displayed over the tennis court in Wimbledon, players read them as they enter. But, only a few like Roger Federer have internalised that message to keep calm even while losing. Sadly, Serena could not rise up to that. It was unfortunate for her reputation and more so for her opponent. Naomi Osaka was a mere fledgling who took on a formidable champion with such ease and finesse. It was her day throughout the match. Although her moment of glory was snatched away by her rival’s tantrums.

Losing a match is undoubtedly a disappointment. Losing a tournament, a bigger setback. But, losing one’s composure is a tragedy, no less. It exposes a player’s vulnerability. The greatest champion on earth has to hang up his racquet someday. It could happen ignominiously. But, that is how the greatest of them all have yielded.

Did not Pete Sampras -- described by a journalist as one who could say “trespassers not allowed here” -- stare in disbelief when a young Swiss coolly knocked him out of tennis itself with a flick of his wrist? The same “trespasser” whom the world worships today as the greatest player ever?  

In this respect, Indian players are simply marvellous. They have always revealed themselves as great players and gracious losers. Ramanathan Krishnan, the Amritraj brothers, Sania Mirza and Leander Paes will long be remembered for their sport and sportsmanship. This is true not only of tennis but in all sports.

By the power of their grit

Many of our best players did not arrive with money, contact or clout. The greatest among them did not even have the benefit of training in state-of-the-art academies. Yet, they went on to become world champions by sheer grit and effort.

They could not afford a coach. They were not brand ambassadors for shoes and apparel. They came, they played and vanished — unsung and un-honoured.

In the days before Arjuna awards and other national titles, our sportspersons were treated like third-class citizens. Take the case of table tennis wizard Krishna Nagaraj, who made world headlines for his outstanding game but went unrecognised in his own country and home state of Karnataka.

Sportsmen like him are the real winners. They did not get lush prize money from organisers or lavish gifts from sponsors. They could afford neither coaches nor trainers. They could not even afford proper sports gear. But, they loved the game they played, and played it well. 

Even today, many sportspersons in India are dogged by poverty on the one hand and State indifference on the other. Yet, they have excelled. Old-timers like Kapil Dev, Milka Singh, PT Usha — what were their training facilities and where did they go after retirement? Our best players practised cricket on the streets, kabbadi in the backyard and swimming in public pools.

Even at the peak of their careers, some of them walked barefoot. No changing of racquets and shirts for them, no therapists to massage their tired feet, no astronomical prize at the end of it all. No prizes at all sometimes. Badminton champion Saina Nehwal is yet to receive the prize money she earned!

Even today, our women athletes who won gold and silver medals for the country are forced to sell them for food and medicine. Many still live in utter poverty. A kabbadi player in Delhi sells vegetables on the roadside. An Olympic champion somewhere else languishes on pavements.

When they can no longer run, play or jump as they once did, our sports heroes are forgotten and ignored. That quote about “triumph and disaster” tells their sad story alright.