When longevity catches champions

2011-07-02 00:00

ROGER Federer’s defeat at the hands of Jo-Wilfred Tsonga was as fascinating as it was predictable.

Time does not stand still. Canute could not stop the tide and even the greatest champion cannot still the clock. Inexorably the ticking continues, inexorably the champion falters and the challenger rises.

Of course the champion does not surrender and instead fights and fights again, but ultimately he is downed, never to return.

Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe walked away once the defeats began. Michael Schumacher tried to come back but his time had passed.

Like the cicada, sportsmen spend years underground, enjoy a fleeting few weeks in the sun, and then cash in their chips.

From the moment Federer lost his Wimbledon title it was clear that his best days were behind him and that further grand slam victories were likely to elude him. Greatness is always more fragile than it seems. It is founded on ability, ambition, nerve and determination.

But it is also an ordeal, and hard to sustain. Longevity of the sort displayed by Sachin Tendulkar is rare.

More often a player dominates for five to eight years and then falls back to the field. Sometimes the decline is slow and agonising, sometimes it is sudden. Almost always it is permanent.

Federer lost because his opponent believed he could win, even from two sets down, and because he has lost a tiny part of his game and himself. It is not possible to be as single-minded at 30 as at 20. Nor is it possible to be as fast. Sooner or later equally gritty youngsters come along and the bluff is called.

Once the defeats start there is no stopping them. Lost finals become lost semis and lost quarters. Federer will continue to grace the game, but his time has passed.

Apart from anything else the game has moved past him — technology and television have seen to that. The biggest change in tennis came with the bigger-headed rackets. Until then players either hit flat and hard or safer and slower. Now they can clear the net by a few inches and still strike with immense force. Spin plays a huge part in all ball games except squash. Bigger rackets mean more spin. The new generation can hit with both penetration and precision.

The balls became softer and slower, and as a consequence the tennis played on clay, grass and hard is almost the same.

Not so long ago players reluctant or inept at following their serve to the net had little chance on grass, while those unable to slide, slice and control high bounce did not flourish elsewhere.

That Federer has lasted as long confirms his genius. However, his brilliance is no longer quite enough to contain the power and placement of his rivals. If he falters even slightly he is liable to be blown off court.

Pace and power are becoming paramount in all sports — improved diets, training and equipment have seen to that.

Tsonga’s rise also told a tale.

Not so long ago tennis and golf, and so much else, were white bastions. Now the walls are tumbling.

The son of the soil might find the path strewn with rocks, but at least it exists, and the journey can offer experiences denied by the son of the sophisticate.

Obstacles can stiffen resolve. A wise country seeks to unleash the talent of all its citizens. Nor is it merely a matter of black and white.

Tennis and golf have become world games. A Chinese woman won the French Open while players from the old Yugoslavia are dominating the ladies’ draw at Wimbledon. Koreans are making their mark in golf. Soccer is starting to conquer India — 155 million locals watched soccer in 2011, up from 83 million in 2009.

As the old economies cough and splutter along so the Brics nations seem in the pink of health.

Democracy rises in North Africa and suddenly the old rogues can hear the ticking of the clock and know that, like sporting champions, they too are powerless to stop it. Facebook has finished them.

And yet as the world changes and sport evolves, its essence stays the same. Graeme Swann keeps taking wickets, leg-spinners are flourishing. The human quandary endures.

A six-foot putt is still tantalising, a penalty shoot-out requires nerve, a young champion still knows that his nemesis is at that very moment honing his skills in some dusty backyard or, more likely, in some specialist academy.

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