Thursday, May 15, 2008

Beautiful People

On Wednesday, Justine Henin, aged only 25 and ranked number one in the world, announced her retirement from competitive tennis at a press conference in her native Belgium. Her decision came as a shock to the tennis world, and left me wondering why it is that the sportspersons I love most have to leave the stage in such heartbreaking ways. This post is a tribute to my three favourite sportspersons.

Henin, at her best, would play her tennis in a different world from that of her opponents – a world without sweat or haste, where all is elegance and grace. Old-school tennis fans who swear by Borg and Chris Evert are often heard to lament the passing of the ‘golden age’ of tennis. Carbon-fibre rackets and advanced training techniques, we are told, have robbed the game of much of its beauty. Sometimes, you see a slugfest of a tennis match, and you feel inclined to believe them. And then, you watch Justine, and you know that all is well with tennis.

Jonty Rhodes, unlike my other two favourite sportspersons, has never been regarded as one of the real greats of his game. He did not amass centuries with the bat, or demolish batting orders with the ball. But often in a match, he would take a catch, stop a boundary or effect a run-out in such a manner that, in my eyes, all else that can be done on a cricket field would pale in comparison.

For me, Rhodes flying through the air to take a catch at backward point has always been one of the greatest sights in the world of sport. With an eleven-year-old’s enthusiasm, I strove to emulate him in gully cricket. As a surface, asphalt is much more unforgiving than grass, but with every bruised elbow and every torn trouser knee, I imagined that I was somehow closer to my idol.

In the 2003 World Cup against Kenya, Maurice Odumbe hit the ball in the air toward Rhodes. Rhodes dropped the catch and in the process broke his hand. The injury effectively ruled him out of the rest of the tournament. Rhodes never played for South Africa again. The greatest fielder in the world had left the game on a dropped catch.

Jonty Rhodes took 139 catches in Tests and ODIs combined. Many of them were outrageous, unforgettable. But the Rhodes legacy is at the same time simpler and much greater than anything that mere statistics can convey. Jonty Rhodes, quite simply, made fielding cool.

Zinedine Zidane is the third great artist to whom this post pays humble tribute. Simon Barnes described his style most appositely: “Always severe and serious, but with that strange sense of detachment. It was as if he were well aware of the absurdity of football and, for that matter, of life. All the same, he could still see no point in giving these absurdities anything less than his best.”

Zidane was the closest thing to a complete footballer that I have seen. He left us many great memories to savour. He orchestrated beautiful moves, and his double drag-back had the dreamy beauty of ballet. Against Brazil in the 2006 World Cup semi-final, he stamped his class on the game in a manner I have never seen before or since from any footballer at any level. In the final, he chipped Buffon from the penalty spot, and I remember gasping and whooping at the audacity of the man.

Considering all that, it is tragic that he will, above all, be remembered for a head butt. Zidane’s career as a player ended on a red card, when it could so easily have ended with the greatest prize of all. They did not even let him attend the awards ceremony.

Henin’s farewell left me sad and surprised, Jonty’s made me miserable for days, but Zidane’s brought tears to my eyes. L’Equipe asked: “It was your last image as a soccer player. What do we tell our children and all those for whom you were a living example?”

Tell them, I say, that Zidane made mistakes. But tell them also that he played the game with such grace that it took your breath away. Tell them that Zidane was human. The children will understand.

I will always remember Zidane for all the good things: his wonderfully Gallic sense of style, that volley in Glasgow, those headers in Madrid, as well as the modesty and humility that he brought to the game. Because Zidane was a hero to me, and a hero deserves no less.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A Couch-side View said...
Just the other day I was looking forward to watching Henin play at Roland Garros. The retirement comes as a terrible shock. But at least she called it quits when she was at the peak of her powers. She is undoubtedly the greatest champion of her generation. Along with Stefan Edberg she is my favourite tennis player of all time.

Zidane for some reason or the other isn't one of my favourites. Maybe its because of my allegiance to Man United. But even then I rate the moments that a certain King Eric generated at Old Trafford as far superior.

And as for Rhodes, I always preferred watching a well taken catch at slip to a diving effort at backward point. I rate Mark Waugh as a better overall fielder. The ease with which he took catches at slip was quite remarkable.

A Couch-side View said...
I do agree with you that its heartbreaking to see one of your favourite players bow out in an unexpected manner. Cantona's retirement at the age of 30 was very similar to that of Justine's.

Rahul Saha said...
Agassi retiring at the US Open broke me heart. I had been supporting him since 92. Its sad but inevitable I guess.

Doubletake, Doublethink. said...
justine. WHY.

*looks heartbroken*

Sroyon said...
@suhrith: It's a matter of personal preferences I guess. We do not always choose the sportsmen whom we love most on the basis of how good they are.

@saha: I liked Agassi a lot too. In all his different avatars. But not as much as Henin, Rhodes or Zidane.

@doubletake: *echoes her thoughts*