My tryst with the game of tennis began way back in the late eighties, when the solitary source of information and entertainment, the Doordarshan, telecast the two of the four Grand Slams, Wimbledon and the French. It was not feasible for the US and Australian open to be shown due to the daunting time difference, and it was a fascination to know that there were other games apart from cricket. Boris Becker had become an household name, what with his unbelievable dives and ripping tennis, that evoked those lovely oohs and aahs from the audience, leaving everyone speechless and spellbound. There was always a mini battle at home, with my mother siding up with Lendl and Edberg, while my dad let his loyalty rip towards Becker. They had their fair share of happiness, as Becker beat Edberg in the '89 Wimbledon finals, while Edberg gave it back in the subsequent year in an incredible five setter.
Pic: Steffi Graf, with one of her numerous trophies
It was a start of the open era (at least for me), with Steffi Graf, the beautiful lady bird, with an amazing talent, and the best woman player I have ever seen, getting the worldwide audience hooked to her brilliance and style. Her ability to win on all surfaces, and the fact that she never displayed out of control emotions, was a clear winner with the fans. Her subsequent duels with Monica Seles were absolutely fascinating. I remember the streets being deserted during the finals, when almost the whole city sat in front of the television to witness the battle of the tennis; undoubtedly the golden era of women's tennis. To me, growing up idolizing the prodigy of tennis, Pete Sampras was a fascinating experience. It was a treat to watch him play, with a sense of perfection and ease, that you almost ended up supporting him subconsciously. He was not there to play for the crowd, and his sense of serve and volley, dished out a cool seven Wimbledon titles. His passion and focus on the game taught many a lot that dedication and sincerity can take us a long way in realizing our dreams. His subsequent handling of events after the death of his coach Tim Gullikson is nothing but pure inspiration.
Pic: Pete Sampras & Andre Agassi
As I continued to watch the game, appreciating several players in the process - Becker, Edberg, McEnroe, Lendl, Ivanisevic, Rafter and many other brilliant talents, I knew very clearly where my loyalties lay ahead. It had to be the pair, Sampras and Graf, who instilled that drive in me to understand what the game is all about, and brought to the forefront, amazing qualities of skill and passion, bringing in a sense of feel good factor to the game. After winning several Grand Slam titles, when these two retired, it was as if a void had entered the game, and I failed to immerse deep into the game, just getting the scoreline to know what is happening in the tennis world. The game also suffered due to the fact that every Grand Slam had a new, unheralded champion, and there was no sense of rivalry that was so visible during the late eighties and the nineties. I, like many of my friends, had lost the interest to follow the game.
So, post 2000, we had the opportunity to witness the modern great in action, Roger Federer, who swept past anyone and everyone on the way. His ruthless elegance was not helped by the fact that none of his contemporaries had the ability to dish out anything competitive to this prodigious talent. It was monotonous and painstaking, as he displayed style and class every single time to erase any form of fight, and there was a sense of pity attached to his opponents, and an aura of greatness was developing around the great man. It was magical, and it threatened to split the tennis world into two categories, Roger Federer and the rest! As he won three out of four grand slams every single year, it was great to see some sort of competition come along his way in the form of the phenomenal muscular Rafael Nadal every time in the French Open. He, as a teen, displayed absolute aggression and brute power to suppress any fight from Federer on clay. Even though Nadal challenged him only on one surface, it was a welcome break, as he exposed the vulnerability of Federer on clay, and made sure that there was not an inch of breathing space, demolishing him in three French Open Finals and a semi final. It was breathtaking tennis of the highest quality.
Pic: Federer & Nadal - Today's talent
As the pre-final hype of the French Open 2008 reached over the top proportions, Federer was looking to complete the Grand Slam collection, while Nadal was well on his way to equal the legendary Bjorn Borg as the only player to secure four French Open titles. But, at the end of the day, Nadal overpowered Federer in a game of ruthless domination, as he tore open the tough exterior of Federer leaving him with unerasable post match scars. People may go on to say that Federer was not playing his best tennis, but the truth is, Nadal was at his brutal best. It will certainly be a mouth watering contest as both of them head to Wimbledon, the heart of tennis, and we can just hope that there is another final between the two titans. It is a different matter altogether that winning on grass is a household chore for Federer.
At the end of the day, as men's tennis has just got absolutely fascinating, and as the Serbs and the Russians have taken the women's tennis to a different level, the matter of realization has just dawned that absolutely nobody is bigger than the game. The next few years are going to be fascinating for tennis, and as Nadal and Federer lock horns in many finals in the future, the classic line for the purists will always be whether Nadal can hold it this time and whether Federer can break the jinx of Roland Garros to emerge as the greatest player of the era.
(All Images have been taken for information purpose only, courtesy Googe Image search)