Fly on the wall

2014-01-24 00:00

While it’s easy to criticise from the comfort of home, tennis players are athletes of highest calibre

WHAT a way it’s been to start the day over the past few weeks with the year’s first tennis Grand Slam, the Australian Open on the telly (if you have the decent DStv package of course.

Flicking on the TV and catching up with what’s been happening through the night makes getting up for work, making the bed and dropping the children at school that much more pleasurable, even adding a spring to your step.

It’s great to see the world’s top men and women players in action so early in the year and watching them gives a clear indication of what incredible athletes they are.

It’s been hot in Melbourne this year, which has resulted in players withdrawing from the tournament, players vomiting on court and questions being raised as to the tournament’s heat policy — when is it hot enough to call a halt to play?

That aside, it’s tiring watching the players, especially as the tournament nears the business end, when the draw allows the top seeds to cross paths in what usually transpires into a battle of attrition on court. It may look easy just hitting a ball across a net from one side of the court to the other, but it’s more than fair to say these players are athletes of the highest calibre, calling on every muscle and sinew to wear down the opposition.

Some of these titanic struggles push to well beyond the three-hour mark, a long time to be chasing and hitting a green ball on court. They do earn pots of cash for doing that and are expected to be prepared for whatever scenario comes their way, but it still calls on every ounce of mental and physical strength.

Take a Comrades runner. He can put in months and weeks of training and still go through a bad patch or be forced to walk somewhere along the long road.

The same with these tennis aces. As a casual spectator in the comfort of your own home, it’s easy to criticise and have your own thoughts, but even a casual knock on a tennis court gets a bit much after half-an-hour under blue skies.

These guys somehow still have the energy to run, stretch and produce winning shots, after a marathon tussle on court.

And it’s great entertainment too. When the time allows, it doesn’t take long to get caught up in the action and the best approach is to be neutral. Appreciate the players, their skill, their determination and their refusal to give an inch. Applaud good tennis from both sides.

The men’s final in 2012 was a case in point. It was the dream match, Rafael Nadal against Novak Djokovic. Anyone who had a ticket was privileged to see men’s tennis at its best as the two warriors went hammer and tongs for nearly six hours — the winner of the Comrades breasts the tape in less time — as the clock stopped at five hours and 53 minutes after five epic and murderous sets.

Both men were stumbling around the court, yet they dug deep, refusing to let the other detect any sign of weakness. It gripped a sporting audience and although there had to be a loser — Nadal in this instance — both men were worthy winners.

At the trophy handover after the match, both players asked for chairs, their legs having done more than enough work for the day.

The match went into the early hours of the morning in Australia but there were thousands of people who never minded a lack of sleep or getting to work bleary-eyed. They had witnessed two gladiators, both of whom had drawn blood, both of whom had put the other on the ground and both of whom had continued to rise up and continue to throw punches.

Both players summed up the intensity of the match and the sacrifice that’s part and parcel of being at the top of their chosen game and profession. Nadal said it was “nice to be there fighting, trying to bring your body to the limit, something I really enjoy”.

Djokovic agreed, saying, “you are in pain, you suffer, you’re trying to push yourself for one more point, one more game. You go through so much suffering — your toes are bleeding — it’s outrageous. But, you are still enjoying that pain. There is, after all, so much joy in suffering.”

What more can be said. There’s a cynical belief among many sports followers that golfers don’t quite fit the mould as great athletes after seeing what tennis players and other sportspeople go through. Is walking around the course considered strenuous and energy-sapping? It’s a question only a brave man would answer as there is no right or wrong attached to it. It’s better to leave that as braai banter or a discussion at the 19th hole. Die-hard golfers will swear they are the fittest on the block, others will laugh and order another beer.

What does remain though is the sheer brilliance and doggedness shown by those sportspeople who rule at the top of their game. They are perhaps a little more superhuman than the majority of us mere mortals and yes, paying money at the turnstiles to see them should be considered a privilege, rather than a dent in the pocket.

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