Friday, November 18, 2011

Roger Federer: A Delayed Appreciation

I have often found that I appreciate the genius of a great sportsman best in his declining years. This is partly because I have almost always spent the heydays of the great sportsman rooting for someone, if not inconsequential, certainly incapable of elevating himself to true greatness. When Pete Sampras was in his prime, winning Wimbledon for fun, I was supporting Michael Chang (oh, the grossness of some of my choices) and Goran Ivanisevic, hoping that his rowdiness will be rewarded with a title. During the historic Chicago Bulls era of the 1990s, I backed the Utah Jazz and Jeff Hornacek, whom I loved to bits – why exactly, I haven’t a clue. In the Roger Federer–Rafael Nadal era, which even if it can be argued didn’t strictly overlap, I first hoped, the peerlessly cool Marat Safin would regain his on-court magic, and since his retirement that Richard Gasquet would show an iota of mental strength to go with his truly gorgeous game. During the Shaq-Bryant inspired Lakers victories, I backed the Sacramento Kings because I simply couldn’t get enough of Peja Stojakovic’s three-point shooting (particularly when he faded away and shot from behind the backboard). When Michael Schumacher was zipping away to win all those titles, I was first supporting Mika Hakkinen and then, Kimi Raikkonen – the Finns, you would agree, have this iciness, which is so utterly captivating. This often meant, I would find mostly inexplicable reasons to disregard greatness: “oh he’s just a lucky so and so,” I would think. I couldn’t even get myself to support Sachin Tendulkar in the mid 1990s when he was at his imperious best. I may have given anything for Tendulkar to fail and for Mohammad Azharuddin to score runs.

There have of course been exceptions – Steffi Graf, Curtly Ambrose, Wasim Akram and Justine Henin to name a few off the top of my head – but in general, particularly, during the 1990s and early 2000s when fandom was still the most vital aspect of my appreciation of sport, I usually made bizarre choices. Generally, though, when a great sportsman was in decline – whether it was a temporary blip or terminal – I found myself suddenly gravitating towards him. I wanted to see more. I found myself mysteriously rooting for him. I felt like an idiot when Sampras retired for not having supported him when he was at his zenith. How could I not support Michael Jordan when he was being His Airness? How could I have not seen greatness when it was presenting itself with such crystal clarity? When Tendulkar was going though a terrible phase in late 2003, I suddenly found myself backing him, wanting to see him rediscover his mojo, to see him return to his imperious self. All this idiotic fandom may have skewed much of my sports watching, but I believe it has nonetheless given me the perfect perspective to judge some of these sportsmen, a kind of perspective that only unpleasant ruminations can give you.

This sets me up very nicely then to tell you why I want to see resurgence from Federer, a Federer whom I have often disliked and a Federer that I have never supported, not in a single match that I can remember. Maybe I backed him in his fourth round victory against Sampras at Wimbledon in 2001, which brought to an end Pistol Pete’s superb run, but Sampras had had a pathetic year and it’s probable I wanted to see him win. When Novak Djokovic came back from two sets to love down and saved two match points before ending Federer’s run in this year’s U.S. Open in the most cruel of manners, I couldn’t have been more satisfied. Bottom line: I’ve almost never supported Federer, never seen the elegance, in every aspect of his game, that others purr about, although I may have lied about it in past posts to sound sensible. But watching him win the Paris Masters today, for the first time in his career, gave me a sense of satisfaction, a feeling that there may be gas left in him for a final surge.

The same aesthetics that draws people to Federer has, bizarrely, been at the forefront of my dislike for him. No doubt, he has almost always made things look simple. But simplicity doesn’t transcend elegance, and the two certainly don’t always coincide. Federer’s forehand, everyone will agree, is his chief strength – a stroke of amazing virtuosity. But is it really an elegant stroke? I would argue it’s not. Usually, it’s a whiplash, snappy movement and his bodyweight is transferred awkwardly. There is no technical purity to it. Of course, technique is a funny and often overrated concept; it’s the player’s comfort and the ensuing results that matter. And technique is also probably irrelevant to a discussion on aesthetics.[1] But whether it is because of the lack of absolute technical purity or the whiplash motion, I haven’t ever found Federer’s forehand to be beautiful, certainly not in the manner of Henin’s backhand or Edberg’s volleying. The fluidity that people attribute to Federer’s forehand is a myth. In reality it is a jerky stroke, albeit a brilliant and even astounding stroke, which perhaps accentuates his genius, but my irritation with people describing the shot as beautiful, possibly, invoked the anti-Federer in me; even more so than his arrogance and generally pitiful attitude.

Now to his backhand, an often flaky and floundering weapon that even the most ardent Federer fans will agree is his weakness. In his prime, Federer’s foot speed allowed him to step outside the ball and convert his backhands into forehands (the beauty here, it must be noted, was in his movement and not in his forehand). Over the years, his backhand, though, did improve immensely, so much so that it is perhaps at its acme today, even as his game is otherwise waning. And it is his approach to the backhand, again curiously, that I have found most endearing. Repeatedly you would see him shank his backhand, yet he would persist with it, not slicing it as he would have in his early years, and eventually he would produce a remarkable angle, a remarkable winner, entirely out of the blue. The beauty again, though, wasn’t so much in the stroke as it was in the result and in his sheer bloody-mindedness.

Federer’s serve has always been excellent and a hugely underrated aspect of his game. The motion is neat and crisp, and minimalistic, but elegant? On the volley particularly on the drive forehand volley, Federer it must be said, looks supremely splendid – there is a nonpareil regality to it. But endeavoring to deconstruct every aspect of his game to examine the aesthetic appeal of the respective parts, as I have done briefly here, is an ultimately tedious and futile experience that has somewhat soiled my tennis watching experience. Yes, the simplicity of Federer’s strokes, to me as the beholder, hasn’t translated to beauty, but in watching him play in Paris, I realized that I have been a stuck-up asshole.

For in my general irritation with every aspect of his game being described as beautiful, I allowed myself to look beyond what I have always found extraordinarily beautiful, a kind of beauty that I should have been delighting in – his on court movement. I have played tennis, mostly recreationally since I was six, giving it up intermittently every now and then since I was, maybe, fifteen. Each time I try to get back and play, the aspect I find hardest to recover is my movement – it is unquestionably the hardest trait to master. Shot making is essentially an extension of court coverage and therein lies Federer’s genius. If his greatness were to be deconstructed to a single element, it would have to be his movement on the court, which as it happens is also a thing of inimitable beauty.

Now that Federer’s aura has dissipated, I want to see him regain it. I want to watch his game only for his movement, not for the whippy forehand or the erratic backhand, as loveable as it may be, but just to see him cover the court like a prince. For, there never has been a greater representation of transcendence.

[First posted here:]

[1] Laxman’s leg glance, for instance, may not be technically pure, but it’s certainly beautiful.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Haig Schneiderman – Columbia’s tennis captain

Even at college level, tennis is an ethereally beautiful sport. The levels of strategy employed within the small rectangle are almost infinite. The game is played as much in the players’ heads as it is on the court. Watching Haig Schneiderman, 21, and captain of Columbia University’s tennis team, play is as fascinating as it is watching one of the top players in the world. For each shot that Schneiderman makes, whether it is in practice or in game play, there is a meaning to it.

Schneiderman is hitting with teammate Nathaniel Gery on the first of the six indoor, hard courts at the Dick Savitt Tennis Center – Columbia’s home courts located on the ridiculously picturesque upper western tip of Manhattan by Inwood Hill Park. They begin with a few light hits, standing at the edge of their service lines. And then slowly they up the ante, smacking groundstrokes from the baseline with astonishing power – the kind that you wouldn’t expect to see in college tennis. The margins that distinguish the best from the rest are very thin – it can go unnoticed by a casual observer. Schneiderman wants to compete with the best; he wants to shatter those margins that separate him from the professionals. When he graduates as an economics major next May, he harbors hopes of turning pro. The challenge, however, is not merely mighty, but at many levels unnerving too.

“The realities of the men’s professional-tennis tour bear about as much resemblance to the lush finals you see on TV as a slaughterhouse does to a well-presented cut of restaurant sirloin,” wrote David Foster Wallace in a seminal essay in Esquire. The realities of college tennis are bleaker still. Even in the effort to make the grade, though, is ingrained an element of heroism, an element of perseverance.

Wearing a white t-shirt and white shorts, Schneiderman, who is right-handed, looks a tennis player. He is six feet two inches tall and one hundred and seventy pounds heavy. He has sharp features and a sinewy body. He sports a scruffy stubble; his jaw is sharp and his eyebrows meet gently above his long, pointed nose. His calf muscles are well defined – a product of hours and hours of tennis – and his forearms are muscular, if not immense. His game itself has a simple elegance to it. His light brown eyes are always focused intently on the ball – there is a detached concentration to his play – the kind that one usually sees from chess players. The ball toss on the serve is not the highest, but the motion is neat. He can hit his serve both down the line and slice it away from his opponent with equal ease and great disguise. His forehand is possibly his strong suit – he seems to think so, at any rate – but his double-handed backhand has a beauty to it – he hits through it crisply and regally with both pace and topspin.

“My backhand used to be a weakness,” Schneiderman says, while sitting on a bench in the grassy, sloped verandah outside the center that overlooks the Harlem River, after practice. “I’ve had to work very hard at it. Now I can use it offensively.” Schneiderman can be remarkably lucid when talking about his game. He says he has to think constantly about the dynamics of power and accuracy: “With some opponents, I can sense that they aren’t reading my serve. Then, I can afford to take some pace off and concentrate on placement.”

“Having a big serve helps at this level. If I want to go pro, I need to win easy points – need to win in three or four shots.” He practices long and hard on his first serves and his “first forehand,” as he puts it. “My first forehand is my most important shot. I try to dictate play with it.” Every day, Schneiderman spends about three hours on the courts with Columbia’s coaches, Bid Goswami and Howard Endelman. Endelman, who was appointed the Associate Head Coach in 2010, once competed in the ATP Tour. He said, of Schneiderman, “He’s certainly got a game that is suited for pro tennis and I think he can make it. He has a great serve and a terrific forehand and these are assets that will serve him very well. But the start that he makes is crucial.”

Schneiderman’s focus, for now, at least, in on the Ivy League championships in the spring. In his first two years at Columbia, Schneiderman played a pivotal role in leading Columbia to victory. In 2009, he was named the Ivy League Men’s Tennis Rookie of the Year, while in his sophomore year he enjoyed a 17-3 record, including a win in the crucial decider against Princeton, which clinched the championship. “It was my greatest moment,” Schneiderman, suddenly bursting with enthusiasm, says, “it was one set each and the entire thing was on the line. I was able to control the decider.” A troublesome back, however, laid him low for large parts of last year. “I wasn’t able to even get up or take my socks out after that match against Princeton. It plagued practice for many months. I saw numerous doctors and they suggested surgery, but Tommy Sheehan, the Director of Strength and Conditioning at Columbia, introduced me to some specialists who were able to solve the problem. They were able to understand the biomechanics of it better. It was killing me.”

The body feels good again now, Schneiderman says, and he is raring to help Columbia regain the Ivy League Championships. “Obviously I want to go pro after this, but for now I am just concentrating on the team. As long as I keep working on my game, it takes care of what I need to do afterwards.” He is, however, aware of the difficulties in pursuing tennis as a career. “It’s expensive. And it can leave you a bit empty. I had offers from big tennis schools, but I chose Columbia because it gives me a more rounded education.”

Schneiderman interned in the mergers and acquisitions wing of Ernst and Young in the summer. He found it enjoyable [“it didn’t have the pressure of an investment banking job,”] but it’s not something that he sees himself doing for a career. He plans to use the money he saved from the internship and whatever he can get from his parents to fund his initial foray into professional tennis. “I’ll have to start by playing the qualifiers of the ITF’s [International Tennis Federation] Futures Events. I want to play in Latin America or Europe where the level of competition will be right and where I can get to experience a new culture.”

Schneiderman is half Armenian. His father, also named Haig, was born to Armenian parents in New York. Sargis Sargsian, an Armenian who was once ranked in the top forty of the world, is a huge inspiration to Schneiderman. “I definitely feel that connection. I practiced with Sargsian twice in Vegas and he is a big influence,” Schneiderman says in his genially sincere tone.

Born in the ‘lower west side’ of New York, Schneiderman still lives there with his parents. He began playing tennis at Forest Hills in Queens where the U.S. Open once used to be played. His coach there, Chris Pucci remains a big influence. “He’s my mentor. I still practice under him in the summer in New Jersey where he now coaches.” He is also quick to credit his parents for their support. “My father introduced me to the sport and my mom has had to make so many sacrifices. She drove me around to all the tournaments, from my high school, Horace Mann, to New Jersey for practice and so on. I wouldn’t have been able to do this without her.”

Schneiderman is levelheaded enough to realize that tennis may not work out for him professionally. “It can get to a point where it’s just not worth it. I’m not looking for sponsors right now. It will depend on how well I do in my first few tournaments. It’s not a fun lifestyle. It can be quite a grind.”

Regardless of how he does in the professional circuit, though, Schneiderman wants to be involved with tennis. “Deep down, I want to do something with tennis. Maybe I’ll start a program for kids who don’t have access to the sport. I am not sure exactly what I’ll do, but I want to spread the sport and give kids who can’t afford the sport a chance to play it.”

Schneiderman sees tennis as a metaphor for life. “One of the great things about tennis is the number of people I’ve met. I’ve learnt so many life lessons from it. If nothing else, my experience will help me through the rest of my life.”

[Note: This profile is partly inspired by the late David Foster Wallace’s magnificent essay in Esquire titled “The String Theory.” There, Wallace focuses on Michael T. Joyce’s forays in the qualifying rounds of the Canadian Open. And in Wallace style, I chose to put this into a footnote:]

Learning Baseball

I am a baseball novice. In India, the game is almost looked down upon, as though it is an unintelligent modification of cricket. In truth, the aversion is essentially a product of a lack of knowledge of the rules and history of baseball, as opposed to anything more nuanced. Even a basic understanding of baseball’s rules, though, is sufficient to appreciate that, although it’s a simple sport, it’s capable of producing not only riveting entertainment, but also debate at various theoretical and tactical levels.

I must admit that I have not served as any exception, until recently, to this general Indian aversion to baseball. The only times I saw the game were on highlights reels on ESPN’s Sportscenter. The home runs made for good viewing, but I wondered what the big deal was. Now I know or at least I think I do.

I moved to New York City, late July, to study journalism. One of my first tasks was to choose a neighborhood to cover for my class website from a plethora of uptown areas. In spite of my nonchalance – and at some levels, maybe even a dislike – towards baseball, I veered towards Highbridge, a small portion in The Bronx – the poorest of the city’s five boroughs – located on a sloping bend around Yankee Stadium, the historic home of the New York Yankees. Highbridge is, apparently, the most deprived congressional district in the whole of the United States and yet it is home to the world’s most valuable sports franchise. There is an anomaly to this that is disturbing at so many levels, making it a very good neighborhood for a journalist to cover. I would be lying, however, if I said that this incongruity was the reasoning behind my choice, for it was a decision, almost solely, based on the location of Yankee Stadium – if nothing else, I thought, I’d get to hang around one of the world’s most iconic stadia for a few months.

But why? I am no baseball fan. The Yankees don’t mean anything to me. Until very recently, I couldn’t give a diddlysquat about them. Yet, there is this unparalleled vibe that you get as a sports fan, from just being around a great arena – this feeling is by no means to be underestimated. It makes you feel part of a community, a community where sport is the one unifying factor. I’d taken only a glimpse of Yankee Stadium from a tinted window of a bus and that was enough to make my decision.

In the weeks that have followed, I’ve made many visits to the area, several times on game-days when hordes of supporters wearing Jeter and Sabathia jerseys congregate on the 161st street subway stop. It is an occasion to behold – just sitting outside the station, watching fans fervently march toward the stadium gates. Each, expectant, excited and hopeful. There is a buzz to the place. The street vendors come alive, the local bars surrounding the stadium steam with people – it is almost like a ritual carnival experience.

When you see the sheer number of fanatics, it makes you think: “there has to surely be something about this sport?” And indeed, I can proclaim with an equal dose of embarrassment and revelation, there is. At many levels, this process – a continuing one – of watching and understanding a new sport has been weird. Over the years, I’ve grown to enjoy a variety of sports, but I can’t remember the last time I sought to pick up a new game, virtually from scratch. It is usually a process that has no clear, decisive beginning. At any rate, it has been many years since I endeavored to watch and understand an altogether new sport. As a child or as a teenager, it is easier to see a sport for what it is – in other words subtle nuances don’t often come into the process. Implicitly, maybe, an understanding of other sports impacts the process of learning a new one. But at 25, the experience is vastly different. Almost 20 years of watching a number of sports contributes directly to the process of learning about a new one.

I am not suggesting that I’ve compared each play in baseball that I’ve seen to other sports, but in grasping the several gradations of the game, my understanding of other sports has played a critical role. To better explain myself, in game 3 of the ongoing New York Yankees versus Detroit Tigers post-season American League Division Series, CC Sabathia, the lead Yankees pitcher, intentionally walked Miguel Cabrera in the bottom fifth inning. In other words, he allowed Cabrera to walk to first base by pitching the ball several feet away from home plate giving the Tigers a man on the first two bases with two out. This was a tactical ploy that I might not have immediately grasped had it not been for my general understanding of sport. Sabathia was tiring and the last thing he wanted was Cabrera swinging with a man on first base, especially considering that the Yankees were trailing by a run. It is, no doubt, a common strategy, but one that would have been harder, I presume, to understand for a sports novice, as opposed to a baseball novice. The play in itself may not be directly comparable to other sports, but it involves a thought process that is common across the sports world. It is these little characteristics that I’ve started to enjoy about baseball. On the face of it, it looks a prosaic, slow sport, but it has not merely a physical facet, but also a highly nuanced tactical one.

Numbers, play a more important role in the baseball than in perhaps any other sport. I am still not in a position to comment on the efficacy of the models deployed, but I am presently reading Alan Schwarz’s “The Numbers Game” to understand “baseball’s lifelong fascination with statistics.” I also watched Moneyball, the movie starring Brad Pitt and based on Michael Lewis’s 2003 book on the Oakland Athletics, its general manager, Billy Beane and the sabermetricapproach to assembling a baseball team. The movie, by itself, was scarcely enjoyable and has done little in adding to my appreciation of the sport.

Over and above the fascination offered by the strategic and numerical aspects of the game, though, is its pure beauty. David Schoenfield, writing for on Justin Verlander, the Tigers’ lead pitcher, reminisces about Roger Angell’s description of a Nolan Ryan fastball as a “liquid streak of white.” He said, “That has to be how opposing hitters have felt about Justin Verlander this season. Even if they do go to bed early the night before facing him, they must be thinking about liquid streaks of white or curveballs dropping from heaven or unhittable changeups or sliders that make you flail like a snowflake in a windstorm.” In game 3 on Monday, Verlander was nearly irrepressible. He pitched with variety and precision; his fastball, in particular, was a thing of beauty. He ramped it up at 100 mph even well into the game. His action and his release had a raw, grace to it that makes you want to keep watching him pitch. This was the Eureka moment for me – it isn’t as easy to be a batter, as it can sometimes seem to be.

I am learning more and more about the sport with each passing game, but what I’ve already come to recognize is its pure beauty. It has a subliminal elegance to it that can go unnoticed in the eyes of its most ardent followers and can be unfathomable for the nonbelievers. Thankfully, for me, I’m still somewhere in the limbo.

(First posted in