In Summer Moonshine, PG Wodehouse had suggested that the best way of getting over heartbreak was “homeopathic treatment”, i.e. applying (metaphorically) another paramour. That’s all well and good, but what if your heartbreak is in the sporting arena?
You can’t just hope for a bit of rewind and a change-up, one where your team or athlete is victorious this time. I wanted to, on January 31, 1999. But India had still lost by 12 runs, Sachin Tendulkar was still out for 136, a match that was there for the taking had still slipped away, and Pakistan were still taking the lap of honour around Chepauk.
It was the first proper sporting heartbreak. And I couldn’t say, “Right Sachin, I just need you to engineer things so that India have a 250-plus chase against Wasim Akram bowling left-arm sorcery, Waqar Younis for company, Saqlain Mushtaq at the height of his mastery and Shahid Afridi ripping fresh, young leg-breaks. But this time, don’t play that shot off Saqlain when India need 17 runs and have four wickets in hand, will you? Tap it around, farm the strike and take us home.”
The anguish of that defeat had to be carried. It was not just defeat of my team, but of my hero. It felt so raw because victory had been so near. The balm could only be when the exact opposite occurred. Another hero would have to snatch a win where none seemed possible.
It took its time coming, but there was finally a sporting moment whose high rivalled the low of India’s loss that day in Chennai. It came in a different sport. It was several time-zones away. It didn’t involve a team. But when Roger Federer whipped that forehand across the Rod Laver Arena on Sunday to win an 18th Grand Slam – it felt like deliverance.
In 1999, Tendulkar was master of all he surveyed. In 2017, Federer making the quarterfinals of the Australian Open after a six-month layoff would have been a minor miracle.
In 1999, Tendulkar being in the middle meant hope, even if India were behind the game.
Have India done enough? 271 is a steep target but still a lot less than Pakistan looked like setting when they were 260 ahead with six wickets in hand. And then Venkatesh Prasad struck – what a turnaround that was. He got five wickets in next to no time, including Afridi for 141. But still, 271 in the fourth innings. Tough. Never fear, he was there. The openers had fallen inside six overs, but He. Was. There. Still batting. That meant India were alive.
In 2017, Roger Federer being behind – in the fifth set against Rafael Nadal, the toughest and mentally strongest competitor he has faced – meant despair.
Here we go again. This is not just déjà vu all over again, it’s déjà vu on loop. How often have we seen him try to play aggressively against Nadal but eventually disintegrate because the Spaniard was skilled enough to not just absorb the punches but take advantage of the risks an aggressive style naturally brought? We’ve seen how fifth sets go between these two. Wimbledon 2008 was the most painful. Australian Open 2009 was… let’s not go there. But who are we kidding? We are going there. He’s down a break. He’s not just down a break, he’s down a break against Nadal. He’s not just down a break against Nadal, he’s down a break against Nadal in a fifth set. He’s down a break against history.
In 1999, even given India’s frailty with chases, you could hope for victory because of the way Tendulkar was going.
What in heaven’s name is happening? Rahul Dravid, Mohammad Azharuddin, Sourav Ganguly – they were supposed to build 50-run partnerships each, at the very least, with him. The target wasn’t even scaled a third and the entire top order had gone. 82 for 5, is there any point watching? Of course there is. He’s still batting. All he needs is someone to stick around, see how well Nayan Mongia’s doing it? This is going to happen. He cannot be denied.
In 2017, despite the remarkable run to the final and the faster courts, you didn’t dare allow yourself to imagine a win because if defeat came instead, it would be so much more crushing.
He’s fighting back, he’s not going quietly into the night. There’s a break point! But you don’t really think he’ll convert it, do you? It’s Rafa Nadal at the other end. He’s going to nail every first serve on every pressure point. He’s going to find energy in legs that should have none. He’s going to reach balls that should have been winners. And yes, our guy – he would have played well. But he’s always played well. He’s still playing well. Playing well is just not good enough.
In 1999, Tendulkar lost – against all calculation, to plunge us into incalculable gloom.
For the moment when the ball hung in the air because he had miscued Saqlain, God would have been deluged by an avalanche of prayers. One set screaming, “Let him catch it.” The other, more voluminous because of the population involved, pleading, “Let him drop it.” God went by justice rather than volume. Shattering. The dream was within reach and it had been snuffed out.
What is this strange and terrible cruelty? Here was a man with the world at his feet. He’s got riches beyond compare, achievements that could be untouchable. I have nothing approaching a personal equation with him. How can this man’s one failure have so profound an effect on a teenager watching it? These tears, they won’t stop.
In 2017, Federer won – against all possibility, to lift us into impossible delight.
He’s doing it, do not tell me he’s actually doing it. He’s broken him back! He’s broken him back? I can’t believe it either. He needs to hold serve now more than ever, this is when people are at their most vulnerable, having mentally relaxed because they’ve drawn level from an impossible situation. He holds. He holds! He’s attacking Rafa, and the Spaniard is looking a little lost. This is a role reversal we had not prepped for. He’s broken him again. HE’S BROKEN HIM AGAIN!! Be still my beating heart, be still. Otherwise you will explode and you won’t be able to see him serve for the championship. Oh he’s down break points. Shake off the dream, it was good while it lasted. Rafa will be Rafa, he’ll break back, and then… And then there was an ace. And another. And then there was a forehand winner. And then, just a winner. Thank you, you magnificent man. Thank you for showing us that sport can, indeed, be fairytale.
What is this strange and delectable beauty? Here is a man who has achieved everything there is to in his sport, who has riches beyond compare, who could have hung his racket anytime in the past seven years and still been hailed as the Greatest Of All Time. I have nothing approaching a personal equation with him. How can this man’s one success have so moving an effect on an adult who should know better? These tears, they won’t stop.
That Chennai heartbreak is 18 years old today. Finally at the age to get a drink by itself, like it should. Two days back, I’d have said high time, and much-needed too.
Until Roger Federer delivered the treatment, as prescribed.