As a kid, I used to watch a fair bit of tennis. This “fair bit” must be qualified, though, since it was limited by what Doordarshan, India’s state broadcaster, would show. So this would typically mean the second weeks of the French Open and Wimbledon (US Open and Australian Open were in “wrong” time zones, and DD seldom telecast non-Slams), and the odd Davis Cup tie.
I don’t remember much of the Davis Cup ties (apart from Leander Paes and Ramesh Krishnan’s run to the semifinals of the Davis Cup one year (where they got roundly thrashed by a Wally Masur-led Australia) ), but some of the French Open and Wimbledon memories still stay, the high point being that I still remember the full scorecard of the 1992 Wimbledon finals when Andre Agassi beat Goran Ivanisevic in an epic 5-setter (6-7 6-4 6-4 1-6 6-4; checksum being that both players won 25 games each).
Over the last decade or so, though, I’ve steadily lost interest in tennis. I surely watched the two European slams (which are telecast in prime time in India) most years during the Sampras era, but remember very little of the Federer-Nadal era. The last Grand Slam final I remember watching was in 2009 when Federer beat Roddick at Wimbledon. That final I remember as one I wasn’t particularly interested in, as I polished off Aakash Chopra’s Beyond the Blues as I watched it.
In the last few years, I’ve tried watching tennis (mostly out of Twitter peer pressure; yes such a thing exists), but have found it very hard. Rallies are way too long. It’s too much of a power game nowadays than one of guile. You get bored watching players hitting it across from baseline to baseline endlessly.
And then there is Rohit Brijnath. This is one journalist most people on my Twitter timeline worship, but I think he has ruined tennis for me. His endless articles about Nadal’s “grit” (which get a page all for themselves in Mint Lounge) have resulted in my over-analysing the playing styles of anyone playing, not able to enjoy the game for what it is. And with endless baseline battles (which I didn’t really mind back in the era of Courier and Agassi and Bruguera) there is not that much to enjoy either!
Living alone has meant that I watch more TV nowadays than I used to earlier (but strictly restricted to live sport), and that has meant that Wimbledon has been the “default background process” during the last few evenings. That hasn’t necessarily meant that I’ve watched much – it’s just a “background process”, except for one game.
I started watching Dustin Brown’s game against Rafael Nadal sometime in the second set simply out of sheer curiosity given the way Brown looks. Noticing that Nadal was a set down, it seemed like it might be an interesting game, but I had my laptop out for good measure. Soon, it became evident that this Brown guy is different, and it wasn’t too long before I was heavily rooting for him.
The way he was playing was refreshingly different. A really big first serve. A quick rush to the net immediately after. Great net play. Innovative shots. And he was erratic as hell. Within a game or two of my switching on, it was certain that this was going to be one of those legendary games.
Nadal is one of those guys who is intelligent and accurate. If you are erratic, he will make sure he will take advantage of you. And advantage of Brown’s errors he took as he wrapped up the second set without much ado. But it was from the third set onwards that it seemed that this wasn’t going to be as straightforward after all.
Brown was erratic for sure, and played some absolutely strange shots (like this double handed shot with the racquet in front of his face), but his playing style surely unsettled Nadal. He simply didn’t let Nadal get into a rhythm, and his frequent rushes to the net meant that Nadal simply wasn’t able to play his usual waiting game where he breaks down the opponent (has anyone written a piece yet drawing parallels between Nadal and Magnus Carlsen?) slowly. This was a kind of opponent one doesn’t come across too often nowadays, and Nadal failed to adapt. By now, I was strongly rooting for Brown.
But life wasn’t easy then, given Brown’s propensity for errors. You would think he had all but wrapped up a game, when he would make an outrageous move and lose the point. And then make up for it a minute later with some spectacular brilliance. It was a brilliant roller-coaster ride, but the best part for me was that after a long time I was watching a brand of tennis I had grown up on!
Watching that game, I was reminded of some of the tennis vocabulary that I had grown up with, and never come across later on. “Passing shot”. “Down the line”. “Cross-court”. The dominant style of tennis nowadays make all these terms moot. And it was exhilarating to be reminded, albeit for one match, of what tennis used to be like a couple of decades back!
There was no surprise in Brown’s loss in the next round to Troicki. His style is too erratic to take him too far, and his ranking around 100 is probably deserved. But he has surely left his mark on the world of tennis, and on me for sure! Kudos to him.
I just came across this other piece I’d once written about Wimbledon, and it’s not funny how much these two posts have in common. I seem to be repeating myself way too much. Maybe I should just retire from blogging.