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By Sunil Gavaskar
Even as a cricket mad India smiles over the first win on the tour by their team in the second T20 game played at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, Indian sports also had plenty of cheer a few days earlier in the same city when Leander Paes completed a career Grand Slam by winning the Men’s doubles title in partnership with Radek Stepanek. Paes was in line for another title too, but he lost the mixed doubles finals. At 38 years, most tennis players are casting an eye on the seniors circuit but Paes is made of sterner stuff and his fitness is incredible and he won’t contemplate leaving the ATP tour for some time yet.
Just like it seems that the Indian tricolour instead of the bat is with Rahul Dravid when he walks out to bat, so also it appears that the tricolour is in Paes’ hands instead of the tennis racquet. His enthusiasm and energy levels are hard to beat especially when it comes to playing for India. In fact when the Indian team was going through the horrors in Australia, a phone call to Paes to come and give a pep talk could well have worked wonders for the beleaguered Indian team.
The trend is to have someone who has climbed a mountain or run a marathon to give pep talks and while there is nothing wrong with that, it would be more effective to have someone who has represented the country and who has felt the unique pressure of expectations of Indian fans and who has countered that with success. That is why someone like an Abhinav Bindra, who won the Olympic Gold medal when his last shot mattered, Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi are three names that come to mind who would be able to inspire and motivate other sportspersons from India. Apart from their lofty achievements in their field they are also very articulate and able to explain in simple language what it takes to get to the top and stay there and how to deal and handle pressure. They may not use management institution’s jargon like 'being ahead of the curve, thinking out of the box, having processes' and such but can get their message across quite easily.
What the Australian Open tennis showed us is that if a player does not have fitness then he / she is going to struggle to stay on top. The semi-finals and the finals of the men's group as also some earlier rounds were brutally physical and in the Australian sun took a heck of a lot of energy. Fortunately at the majors the matches in the men’s draw and women's are played a day apart and that at least gives some time for the body to recover. It was not just the men's competition but also the women's which showed how much power has come to dominate tennis. The finesse and skill level which was so much a part of the sport is fast vanishing before power and strength. That perhaps explains why the touch artist Roger Federer is now struggling to win the majors. He is good as long as it is a three set or even a four set match, but once it spills into the fifth set the man with greater stamina prevails. That said, Federer even when he has had a 20 shot rally does not look out of breath as some so called fitter players who even in the first set breathe heavily when there is a long rally.
It is the same in cricket too where those who don’t do endless laps of the ground still don’t breathe heavily after taking three runs in an over a couple of times compared to those who do the long distance running.
In the past Djokovic has looked lost in the fifth set seeking injury time as a tactic to get his breath and bearing back, but the new Djokovic is the epitome of fitness and his record final with Rafael Nadal will go down in history as a classic with rallies that were so long that supporters of both men had to hold their breaths even as the ball flew from one side to the other court and with great power. Djokovic won three of the majors last year with his new fitness mantra and has begun this year with the Australian Open title. The French Open is the one that eluded him last year and with Rafael Nadal showing no signs of slowing down that is going to be the real challenge for the Serb champion. In fact before the Australian Open started Rafael Nadal was not even sure if he would be able to play since he had developed a knee injury. But it is his ‘never say die’ attitude that saw him through to the finals though in the end Djokovic survived and won the epic.
India’s first win in Australia in the T20 game showed how important fitness athleticism and agility is. That is the way forward and that is the message that should be drummed into the next generation.