August 4, 2000


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Just do it!

Rohit Brijnath

What's fresh? Clean sheets, early morning sunshine, the smell of afternoon rainfall, the first fresh croissant from a bakery at dawn….you get the point.

Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi And so they were too, fresh, alive, bouncing, keen. Glistening boys in a dull world of Indian sport. Sportswriters had years ago, opened their dictionaries, looked under 'C' for courage, then through 'R' to find romance, then in a fury torn out those pages because they knew, why do I want to look at words I'll never use to describe an Indian team. Then the boys came and it was a new world.

Let us begin with this truth. That at the core of the great athlete lies a self-centred bastard. Some of it is necessary, practical; for to chase perfection is to be single-minded; to allow for no distraction. Sunil Gavaskar was polishing his batting skills abroad when his son was born. So be it.

The engine that drives the great athlete is his ego. He can be, he must be, he is, the greatest. Like Ali he may voice it; like Donald Bradman, who retreated to his room after the day's play, he may carry it with him silently. To win, the champion must believe in his own pre-eminence.

Individual sport allows for its complete expression. But team sports require a balance, a partial subjugation of that self-centredness, an understanding that one man's skill cannot be contrary to the others, it must be complimentary. There is room for the solitary piper, the gifted individual, within a team, like Pele or Bradman, but it is the orchestra in its entirety that is most compelling. In 1970, Pele was at his zenith, but like a jigsaw piece he fitted perfectly with Tostao and Rivelino and Carlos Alberto and Gerson. Only together were they a threatening picture.

In India it is hard to find similar tales. Years ago on a plane from Bangalore to Delhi, an Indian hockey player told me a story I wish I hadn't heard. He claimed that at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, India's two forwards didn't want to pass to each other, fearful that if the other man scored the goal then only he got the headlines. The story's authenticity is irrelevant, for it carries with it a familiar smell. Not always, and more now than before, Indians spell the word TEAM with an I. It is perhaps our most shining flaw.

It is also why Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi held us in their thrall. They were different. And not just because they won.

Leander Paes Leander we knew, long before, the small fellow ( 5'9" in a tennis world where you must be 6ft to count, a story in itself) with a heart disproportionate to his size, whose rage and passion seemed to ignite at the sight of an Indian flag (Davis Cup, Olympics).

Mahesh Bhupathi Mahesh, with his monk's serenity that hid a deep desire, we would learn, was not much different, a weighty, solid broadsword to Leander's rapier.

To see them together was to believe in karma, that a benevolent God had designed it this way. Off court they were like enthusiastic kids; on court they carried with them the intensity of a prizefighter, the nerve of an assassin, and the arrogance that champions wear like a musk. But always, in every way, they seemed to be tied together by an invisible umbilical cord.

Of all the hours I watched them, and spoke to them, of all the stories I knew of, like Leander ignoring advice not to play with Mahesh, and Mahesh staying on at the Atlanta Olympics only because Leander needed him, three things I never forget.

The way that after every point, anywhere, they touched hands (though other pairs do it too), like some constant re-affirmation of their friendship.

The way they explained that they just knew, through some sixth sense, where the other man was on court, giving the idea they were involved in some telepathic, athletic ballet.

And the way they looked at each when I asked, do you ever feel this sensation, this understanding, with anyone else, and them turning and saying, flatly, "No".

You think of Rodgers and Hammerstein, Rice and Webber, Gilbert and Sullivan, and then you think of Paes and Bhupathi: together, they made sweet music.

Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi When the music died and they split it seemed unthinkable. A betrayal no less, as if it were all some terrible hoax. They promised us they were different, that unlike the others there was No. 1 in their TEAM, that unlike the others they could win, that unlike the others they were driven. They lied. When the sledging began, he did this and he did that, they were suddenly like everyone else.

Sure they had reasons. And perhaps, yes, grudgingly one may concede that nothing is forever, that grown men must have the right to choose their own destinies, irrespective of our approval.

But to ignore the call of history is a sin unforgivable.

Why do men play sport? Because they love it, because it's the only thing they do well, because winning is the most powerful aphrodisiac, because they desire fame, and beautiful women swooning over them, because they dream of owning a Ferrari, maybe three, and possessing a bank balance that might rival the GDP of a small nation.

But do you think Pete Sampras plays for that anymore? No, he recognised early on that all this---fame and fortune---would arrive and so he set his sights elsewhere. On making history. When people talk tennis he wants them to say the word Pete; when people visit Wimbledon he wants them to see his picture on every wall; when people open tennis books he wants them to see his name on the first page. He wants to travel where no man with a tennis racket ever has.

Very few athletes get there, and possibly neither would Paes and Bhupathi, but the glory of it all is in the chase. Don't they want to know, how good they could have been? All those weeks when they awoke before dawn, wet their shirts through with sweat, heard their lungs aflame with exhaustion; all those months of learning each others rhythms and cursing till they got it just right; all those years of sitting dead, bloody tired in the dressing room, but grinning at each other because they'd come through when it mattered, and knowing they came through because of each other, was that all for nothing?

Gentlemen, listen up. The Woodies are not what they were, Jacco Eltingh has left Paul Haarhuis, and if you listen closely you will hear history calling. It's not the time to go deaf.

They should remember they have so much to achieve. Two Grand Slam titles is impressive. Except that since 1980, 14 other teams have won at least two Grand Slam titles. The Woodies stand at 11, the signpost of their journey's ultimate destination.

They should remember that while their parents stood by them, and their girlfriends soothed them, and their coaches guided them, no-one really, truly understood what they went through, what it took to get to world No.1. Only they did.

And they should remember that sport allows for few second chances. Journalists write till they're 70; artists paint forever; industrialists run empires when old and bedridden. But for the athlete time does not wait and his youth is precious. At 27, their bodies are already hurting, the clock is running out. And of all the possible tragedies this one is the cruellest: to be grey and 50, and look back, and think 'Oh God I wish I had done it differently."

Do they want that?

They say now they will play the Olympics together and the season-ending World doubles championship. But they must not stop. They are bright, charming, gifted men who share a mutual respect, surely aware that the umbilical cord that binds them has been stretched but not broken yet. They may play well with other men, and win too, but this partnership was special, almost divinely ordained. And what God has put together let no man tear asunder.

Not even them.

Maybe when they meet in Tashkent in September to play their first tournament together this year prior to the Olympics, they should go and rent a copy of Peter Weir's wonderful film, 'Dead Poet's Society'. And listen and learn and repeat to themselves the message that the inspirational schoolteacher, played by Robin Williams, whispers to his students.

Carpe diem. Seize the day.

Rohit Brijnath

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