Ever since the advent of TV during my early undergrad days and the first grainy b&w pictures which made their way into our living room and our lives, watching a good game of tennis on the telly has always interested me.
I haven't been even a regular amateur player of the game ever and this possibly makes my long-term fascination for the game even more intriguing. However when the choice came down to a widely watched game of cricket and an interesting game of tennis I would quietly switch to the channel showing tennis whenever I could.
Could is the operative word here. In any little gathering very few, if any, shared my preference for tennis and I would be invariably outvoted in the matter of the deciding on the channel the majority in the group were keen on watching.
There was hardly any live coverage of the Grand Slams during the early years of Indian television and so one had to whet one's appetite for watching the game by seeing snippets of the major matches whenever they happened to be shown. It was still exhilarating to watch players like Jimmy Connors, Bjorn Borg, Ivan Lendl, John McEnroe & Boris Becker in action. The women's game held less attraction though one admired the talent of players like Chris Evert, Evonne Goolagong & Martina Navratilova.
The era of live telecasts had me glued to the box for the major events, watching the players I fancied as often as I could. This wasn't always too easy given the fact that owing to time differences, the French Open & Wimbledon came to you during the evening hours, the Australian open came to you during the morning hours and the U.S. Open was bang into the red eye time zone. Work schedules, social events, travels all conspired often to keep one away from that pivotal Becker McEnroe clash or the sight of a fascinating Martina Navratilova Steffi Graf duel.
Of all the slams, Wimbledon always was and is the most watchable for me. This Mecca of slams could be viewed at a relatively more convenient hour, made for far more fascinating duels than clay and the green grass courts together with the compact, intimate stands imbued it with a class and an atmosphere the other Grand Slams could never quite aspire to.
And my favourite players of all times? In the men's game it was Pete Sampras and then for the last several years it has been Roger Federer. Sampras made the game extremely watchable all over again. His fluid service action, his trademark running forehand, his chip-and-charge and his volleying made for a highly watchable spectacle. His mental toughness in rising to the occasion (literally, on many occasions on the tennis court when he appeared to be sailing through the air before hitting one of his trademark overhead volleys) together with his big match temperament made him undoubtedly one of the greatest players ever to play the game. What further endeared him to me was his gentlemanly behaviour on & off court and his rather taciturn low-key personality.
Roger Federer is a most worthy successor to Pete's throne and the man best suited to eclipse his record of 14 Grand Slam titles. Arguably the most talented player ever to have graced a tennis court, Federer in full flight is sheer poetry in motion. Beginning with his serve, his variations and his incredible array of shots including several near magical ones when he is in full flight truly makes it a fascinating spectacle watching him when he is at his best. It is only when his forehand deserts him or the volleys start hitting the net or sailing out or he is unable to close out a crucial point that you realize that he is after all unfailingly human and has his bad days like all of us. At the time of writing this, I do sincerely hope that he goes on to surpass Sampras' record of 14 Grand Slam titles for there can be no one more worthy of beating Pete's record. And, like Sampras, he is a thorough gentleman on & off court though, unlike Sampras, he is generally more voluble and media savvy.
Tennis today is increasingly becoming a robotic game. Supremely fit and muscled atheletes of both sexes, hit the ball incredibly hard, have immense footspeed to run down what in earlier times used to be sure winners, possess immense forearm and wrist strength to be able to hit the angles while at full stretch and on the run and have the stamina and the strength to perform at a consistently high level for hours on end. A classic example of this new breed is Rafa Nadal, the new alpha-male of tennis whose rippling biceps and bulging calves together with his panther-like fleetness and vicious topspins resulting from immense upper-arm strength are sure to intimidate and bludgeon most opponents into eventual submission. Serena Williams & lately Ana Ivanovic are similar examples in the women's game.
For me, this new breed of super-athletes makes the game less enjoyable & watchable. Give me the fludity and the grace of the Steffi Graf forehand and the artistry of the Pat Rafter volley any day. The unerring accuracy of Agassi taking the ball early and clipping it right at your feet, the variations of the potent Justine Henin backhand, the second serve aces of Sampras, and the one-handed slices with infinite variations of Federer are some of the major elements that have made the game so enjoyable and watchable for me over the years. Prizefighters, slugging away relentlessly for hours on end has never quite been my thing.