Federer, Tendulkar and Father Time

It's been a bit of an odd sort of week in cricket. For a start, there was the Indian cricket equivalent of Halley's comet in the form of an injury to MS Dhoni - an event sighted only once in 76 international matches, give or take a few.

Updated: July 09, 2013 17:33 IST
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It's been a bit of an odd sort of week in cricket. For a start, there was the Indian cricket equivalent of Halley's comet in the form of an injury to MS Dhoni - an event sighted only once in 76 international matches, give or take a few.

And then there was the interesting fan reaction (using social media as the highly unscientific barometer of emotions) to India's opening losses in the tri-series in West Indies, a week after they looked by far the best team on the planet. It essentially involved rapid recalibration of expectations that had already been rapidly recalibrated before and after the Champions Trophy. And it was topped off by the new rankings announcement that put India at No. 2 in Test cricket, ahead of England, a side India lost to both home and away.

But by far the most poignant ranking news from a personal point of view came from another sport. On Monday (July 8), Roger Federer slipped to No. 5 in the men's tennis rankings after more than a decade in the top four.

In 1996, David Foster Wallace had invited readers to "imagine what it would be like to be among the hundred best in the world at something. At anything. I have tried to imagine; it's hard." Wallace was writing of Michael Joyce, a player ranked in the 70s, and speaking of the wonder that being so good was still not good enough in tennis. What of the man ranked No. 5 then? It's quite incredibly amazing that being fifth best in the world in an individual sport played by hundreds at the top level can be considered a fall, but that's what it was. What I had found even more staggering was the event that led to the fall - the breaking of the streak.

For nine years and 36 consecutive Grand Slam tournaments, Federer had stayed on till the second week, reaching the quarter-finals every time and often going beyond. A run that began with Wimbledon 2004 ended in Wimbledon 2013 and was so outlandish that it made people believe in the impossible: that it would never end.

So when it did end, it led to discussions on whether Federer was done, a spent force who should start contemplating life after tennis. He was a champion earlier, but not anymore. The Djokovics and Murrays were younger, fitter and stronger. Rafael Nadal always had his number. If you're not going to be a serious threat at the Slams, why compete anymore?

Does that sound familiar? Replace Federer with any number of cricketing greats and Grand Slams with centuries and five-wicket hauls, and it's an argument that's done the rounds forever in cricket.

Notwithstanding the initial losses in West Indies last week, Indian cricket seems to be on an upswing, with the 0-8 away series nightmare receding a little and a new, confident and talented set of younger players giving hope to the faithful. Of the initial old guard - Sachin Tendulkar, Anil Kumble, Sourav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman - only one remains. And, having given up One-Day Internationals and the IPL, your guess is as good as mine as to how long Tendulkar will continue to remain an active player.

And given his recent struggle for form, it's only expected that every time he does take the field, the 'R' word does the rounds. For me, the question of Tendulkar retiring is straightforward. Does he deserve to choose when he wants to retire? Absolutely. Does he deserve to keep a place in the national team - or even the Mumbai team - regardless of form? Absolutely not. The two can be mutually exclusive.

The opinions on a great player's retirement timing cover every inch of the spectrum, from the extreme faithful, who want their hero to play forever, to the radical, who think he's just a waste of space. Then there are those who want great players to retire not because they wish they'd stop playing, but because they recognise the inevitability of it and want a player they've invested emotionally in, to go out on a high. The traditional 'go when people are asking why rather than why not' school of thought.

Bowing out while on top is a romantic and heart-warming notion but, if you think about it, it's amongst the last things an athlete would want to do. After all, these are men and women who have trained from an early age to be the best in the world, who have made numerous sacrifices to reach the pinnacle of their sport and for the majority of whom, their entire lives until then have been about being the best they can be in front of adoring multitudes. When you're at the top, achieving precisely what you've set out to after sacrificing countless hours, why would you step away?

And, because great champions are by definition people who have done the extraordinary, the slide - when it inevitably happens - may not be instantly recognisable as one, especially by themselves. They have turned it around so many times in the past, why not once again?

Federer spent more than two years after the 2010 Australian Open without winning a Grand Slam, and even his most ardent fans lived more in hope than belief that he had at least one more title in him. Then Wimbledon 2012 happened, and brought a 17th major. It was the return of the prodigal son. Everything after that could be accepted more easily because he had delivered triumph against the odds of age and time, and rewarded fans' faith with a moment made more glorious because it was so unexpected. Even if he doesn't ever recapture previous highs, the fact that he did it then will be enough.

India's golden generation of cricketers did not quite secure a similar farewell from international cricket, though each of them richly deserved it. Dravid had a summer for the ages in England, but it was an individual batting triumph amidst carnage for the team. Every fluent Laxman innings was pure joy to watch, but his last masterpiece before retirement came in Durban in the last week of 2010. Perhaps Ganguly and Kumble came closest, with India's 2-0 victory against Australia their swan song but, even there, Kumble wasn't part of the XIs in both wins and Ganguly was anti-climactically dismissed for a duck in his final innings.

That Federer-at-Wimbledon-2012 moment would, in a team sport like cricket, translate into great individual performances in a winning side in the twilight of a career. A rare feat, made more special because it at once warms the cockles of fans' hearts and leaves memories of your best days that are still incandescent.

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