On Gods and Humans

Friday, November 15, 2013 /by
Wikimedia Commons (Tendulkar), AP Photo (Federer)
Wikimedia Commons (Tendulkar), AP Photo (Federer)

This morning I woke up a little early and went straight to my favorite stream-gathering website. This isn't unusual during a big tournament, but today I bypassed the tennis listings and headed to that hodgepodge of mostly un-American activities called the “Other Sports” page. Snooker, darts, figure skating, squash: Anything thought to be on the fringes of the mainstream gets tossed in here. Somehow, despite its hundreds of millions of rabid fans, that also includes cricket. 

I had woken up early because, from what I had read over the last few days, this would be my last chance to see the greatest cricketer of his generation, India’s Sachin Tendulkar. He had announced that after 24 years, the test match between India and the West Indies, which began Thursday in Mumbai, would be his last. I had never seen Tendulkar bat. I had never even heard his name until two years ago, when, at age 38, he helped his country to its first World Cup title in a generation. Even then, “Tendulkar” was a mythic figure rather than a real person to me. His name would pop up on Twitter, or be passed around in conversations among Aussie and British journalists at tennis tournaments. What did he look like? Was he retired or still playing? I didn’t know. 

I wasn’t the only one. As a character in Joseph O’Neill’s novel, Netherland, says, “There is a limit to what Americans can see or understand, and the limit is cricket.” As O’Neill himself said in an interview, cricket is a “classic symbol of the un-American.” Like most of us in the States, I’ve never understood the rules, and there are enough foreign terms involved to make it feel like the sport's commentators are speaking another language—just typing “test match” and “bat” above felt a little risky, as if I were writing in French. I’d like to understand cricket: C.L.R. James and Simon Barnes have both assured me that the sport is a “complex metaphor for all of life,” and I trust them. But it's a daunting task when you don’t even know what an “over” is.

It’s also tough when you never see the sport played. This morning, I woke up too late to see Tendulkar; a Google search revealed that he had been “dismissed for 74.” As one journalist put it, “Just as expectations were rising for his 101st international century, Tendulkar knicked a delivery to the West Indies skipper to leave Mumbai’s Wankhede Stadium crowd in stunned silence. Tendulkar walked off with his bat raised to a standing ovation.”

That sounds like a fitting exit, but for some, it seems, it comes a couple of years too late. In yesterday’s New York Times, Tunku Varadarajan wrote an article entitled “Where the Gods Live On...and On,” in which he said that Tendulkar should have hung up his bat after the 2011 World Cup triumph, or maybe even before. Varadarajan tries to explain what Tendulkar means to India. “Think of him as a cross between Babe Ruth and Martin Luther King,” he writes, describing Tendulkar as a symbol of the country’s growth over the last two decades, a prodigy who made good on all of his talent yet remained humble and self-effacing, a team player at heart. Varadarajan also explains why he believes Tendulkar stayed too long, to the point where his skills have seriously eroded: He meant too much to his country.

“There is no Indian tradition of graceful retirement,” Varadarajan writes. “The inherent vanity of an authority reluctant to cede the public stage is reinforced by a culture of adulation...by an uncritical elevation of heroes to godlike status by devotees who will not let go. In politics, in cinema, even in corporate business houses, old Indian men do not fade into the sunset. They hobble on and on.”

I don’t know whether that's a valid criticism or not, though from this outsider's perspective, it seems harsh. I hope the writer at least doesn’t begrudge Tendulkar playing long enough to win a World Cup. As a tennis journalist, of course, the story reminds me of Roger Federer’s. If Indian athletes are encouraged to hang on too long, the opposite is often true in our sport. At the first sign of vulnerability, we in the press swoop in with some version of the R question: “When are you going to retire?” “Have you thought about hanging it up?” “Will you keep playing after this year?” "What's left for you to do now?" At a certain point, star players know that every time they lose, they’re going to hear words to this effect afterward.

Federer’s fans can be even more blunt on the subject: Many I’ve talked to wish he had retired in 2012, after he had achieved his version of Tendulkar’s World Cup win, a seventh Wimbledon title and a record-breaking return to the No. 1 ranking. Going out on top has its appeal. We get to remember the player as a champion; perhaps even better, we get to remember him or her as that rare person who managed to avoid old age. Pete Sampras went out like that; he won the 2002 U.S. Open and never played again. The reason Bjorn Borg remains the most mythic tennis player of all time is that, because he retired at 25, we never saw him as anything less than a figure of cold-blooded perfection. We never had to watch the Angelic Assassin get his brains beat in by Ivan Lendl when he was 32.

If Federer had retired after last season, we never would have had to watch him lose to Federico Delbonis. Yet Sampras has hinted that if he had to do it over, he would have kept playing—32 may be old in tennis terms, but it’s a dangerously young age to voluntarily stop doing what you know and love. And I would say that, even if we want to remember our heroes when they were at their best, the most memorable men’s retirements were the ones that didn’t come early. Jimmy Connors and Andre Agassi hung around until they were 39 and 36, respectively, and the sport will always be better for it. We saw them make it look easy in their primes, but it was even more rewarding to see them ignore their bodies and their limits and summon their best when they were over the hill. 

Federer’s body, in the form of a bad back, has begun to limit him. He just had his worst season, record-wise, in a decade. Watching him in London last week, I felt like I wasn’t sure where his next shot was going to land—would it be inside the lines, or 15 feet out? I had never felt that way watching him before, never felt nervous for him. Yet like Agassi and Connors, Federer could still summon his best, and he did in his most important set of the tournament. Faced with elimination against the 25-year-old Juan Martin del Potro, Federer hit and moved like the champion we’ve known for 10 years. Even someone who wished he had stopped last year couldn’t begrudge him, or us, that moment. 

I liked what Federer said after the tournament when he was asked a version of the R question. He said that tennis is “in the DNA,” it’s something he has always done, and given a choice between playing and not playing, he chooses to play. Like Varadarajan writing about Tendulkar, we may want to protect Federer’s legacy, but he just wants to do what he loves to do. We’ll see more human moments from him in the future, and we’ll take the superhuman when we get it. 

As for Tendulkar, I finally saw him bat, in a set of YouTube highlights, this morning. There’s a chance he’ll get up again in this test match; if he does, I’ll try to be up early enough to watch. But for me, he’ll always be a name and a myth first, like the magnificent statues of past bowlers and batsmen that surround the Melbourne Cricket Ground.  From a tennis perspective, to me he'll be like Rod Laver, a player I never saw live, and who I now think of as the tennis version of perfection. It’s difficult for me to imagine the Rocket ever double-faulting or shanking a backhand, though he must have done each a thousand times.

Perfect: That’s not a bad way to think of an athlete. But I still wish I had had a chance to watch Tendulkar bat live. And I'm glad I'm old enough to have seen Borg, to know that beneath the ice there was a person. That's why next year I'll be happy to see Federer play on—the magical moments, whenever they happen, will be a reward in themselves. Every God should be allowed to be human, too.

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