April 30, 2001

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Tour of duty

Rohit Brijnath

He was quiet, so was she.

The World championship had been won, finally, the journey complete, and you'd think they'd dance on air, and swim in champagne, and yell at the stars and bay at the moon, joy completely unfettered.

But they (Vishy and Aruna Anand) were, he said to me last fortnight, "subdued".

Strange? Perhaps not.

Sportswriting is an ambitious business. For beyond, the lyrical reporting and frenzied hunt for facts, the ability to journey beyond the obvious and the hopefully educated opinion, primarily we are concerned with understanding the athlete. It is an impossible business, for after all, there are no guided tours of the frontal lobe, no autopsies to be done on living brains. Only occasionally an athlete will let you peep into his mind, but even that is rare.

What moves the athlete, sometimes who knows?

Sometimes, at the moment, the athlete cannot tell himself, everything is so quick, all rational thought turned blurry by adrenaline. Sometimes it's better to let time go by, for time lends distance, and distance lends perspective. It is why many months later I come back to talk a while with Vishy and understand his altered life.

Defeat and victory brings obvious emotions and they don't. Some athletes weep on victory, and some exult, and others like new heavyweight champion Hashim Rahman scream deliriously "No Lewis-Tyson, no Lewis-Tyson, no Lewis-Tyson", as if to say NOW I'M THE MAN.

Sometimes men simply reflect, and their quietness is initially bewildering. But it is because they are not just seeing that winner's trophy, they are travelling back in time to darker days, when things were not so good. We see only the end result, but we do not feel the athlete's pain, nor live his trauma, and thus cannot really understand his sense of reward. The journey is lived only by the athlete.

It is why Anand and Aruna were quiet when he won. Vishwanathan Anand

As Anand says now, "Actually the moment I won the title I was not exactly drowning in exuberant happiness. Somehow Aruna and me were very subdued in our reactions. When we returned to the hotel room the first thing that we spoke about was the difficult period I went through in 1999 and part of 2000. It was a difficult period. I did everything but somehow the results just didn't come. Slowly I took some time off and tried harder and the results came. Somehow I guess those really difficult days that we went through kept our emotions in check. It was only after two days we realised that I had actually won the title. It was a nice fruit of labour."

Of course, once the title is in the pocket, all measure of things can happen. Promoters bow deeper, courtesy cars arrive, suites are spotted with flowers; also a players ego enlarges and with it his confidence. Anand, despite his fluctuating weight, is man of artful balance. He knows too that other truths come home to roost as well. To be world champion is to play with a bullseye drawn with a red marker on the forehead; it is his scalp on the WANTED posters. Life changes.

As Anand says: "Well there are the perks. You get the best treatment. More exposure. Your fellow players sometimes call you World champion. That means all the more they want to prove something with you. Well it gives you a feeling of achievement but for the rest you have to fight for the points maybe even harder than before."

To be world champion is a strange business. It means you are at the pinnacle and then again you are not. One win is great but is one enough? Would Michael Jordan be as remembered for one championship ring, as opposed to six? When James 'Buster' Douglas knocked out Michael Tyson it seemed he had conquered his Everest, no more mountains to climb, and he disintegrated.

There is an old adage that hangs in weather-beaten sporting clubs as a reminder of mortality: It is hard getting to the top, it is infinitely harder to stay there. Sportspeople are judged by the NOW of life ... you're not as good your last match but your next one.

It is what Paes-Bhupathi, to their chagrin are discovering, the once world No.1 pair now struggling to be seeded at tournaments, facing arduous draws, the flavour of success something their taste buds have forgotten. It is what Gopichand himself is about to learn: the All England Championship was spectacular, the trophy at home, but that memory will diminish in time. If anything now his efforts, his labour, must intensify, and he must win more.

It is a truth not lost on Anand. It meant he savoured his victory, but moved on quickly. As he says, "I carry pleasant memories of the event. But I have tournaments to think about and new goals that come with the territory. I don't wake up each morning saying 'I am world champion, this is a piece of cake'. I have to continue working and winning."

Anand is pacing himself, not assuming that as world champion everything will fall automatically into place. A pragmatic man is dealing with his reality in similar fashion: "Soon after winning the title I played in Wijk Aan Zee (he came second there to Kasparov), I did not have much expectation from myself due to all the strain of the championship. I was happy and this somehow showed in my game. In Monaco I didn't want to go with sky high expectations. I used to finish in the first two spots in this tournament every year till 1998.Somehow after that I have been finding it difficult. So I just went with a modest ambition of finishing in the top three places. And it happened. I try to keep putting short-term goals and try achieving it and then move on."

Best of all, Anand's passion has not diminished, perhaps because chess does not allow itself to be mastered, somehow a player is always student (this is true of all sports, but chess' unending variations and limitless possibilities takes perfection even further out of reach.)

As Anand says: "I guess chess and myself have co-existed for 25 years now. Over time there is a problem and you break your head solving it. It is a special feeling. You spend three days working out something and your opponent will play the most boring move. In a sense that is also chess. There are just so many variables and each one somehow makes you tick."

The champion journeys on. We are thankful he lets us journey with him.

Rohit Brijnath

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