Tennis used to be quite a passion once upon a time, especially gaining strength after the 1985 Wimbledon men's final - Becker vs Curren. It was riveting stuff. The 'other' tennis, the one they played in Paris, was sometimes exciting, but only just. Really, why would a ten year old be more interested in endless baseline rallies when the alternative, on green, green grass, was so much more entertaining?
Here was a tall, skinny German boy with hair so blond you couldn't tell he had eyebrows. He served harder than anyone I'd ever seen, played this flowing backhand drive, rushed to the net to cut off all angles and, when he wasn't in position, he dived to make sure he got to the ball. This was fun. Sure, McEnroe and Amritraj were fun too, but there was something about Becker's testosterone-charged game that made the touch artists of the past look almost wimpy. And when we played tennis after that, on the grasscourts that Calcutta was full of, we did the same: serve, rush to the net, volley and, if there were a few girls watching, throw in a dive.
Then, once the Becker-Edberg phase got over and baseliners started winning Wimbledon (poor Ivan Lendl, ahead of his time, wasn't he?), tennis stopped being that important. Months would go by before I remembered to check what was happening. A friend who understands the sport better than I do told me it's because the grass at Wimbledon had slowed down - the opponents had more time to play the passing shot and that didn't help serve and volley players. Also, I suppose, more and more players were targeting all-court games. And with the decline of the serve-and-volleyers, even passing shots became passé shots.
Anyway, the other evening, I got a call from an old tennis buddy - we hadn't spoken in years - asking me, "You watching the Federer game?"
"Uhh, no...how're you doing, G?"
"We can chat later, boss, go switch on TV."
"Federer - umm, no. I'd rather watch Cook and Trott through a sunny English summer day actually."
"Not Federer, the guy playing him. Watch him. Call me later."
And there he was. Sergiy Stakhovsky. Looked a bit like Michael Stich; a total journeyman, I imagined. But, what, he was playing serve and volley! Not just serve and volley, but the whole routine: chipped returns, the sliced approach shots, forehands down the line, and, wow, single-handed backhands! It was, as the cliché goes, a throwback to the good old days, the way things were.
The Ukrainian fellow won that night, but it wouldn't have mattered if he hadn't. He had brought something back to tennis. I read on the BBC website that when Stakhovsky won, McEnroe said on air, "I got goosebumps. I know Boris [who was commentating with McEnroe] did too, because that was so old school." Isn't that what sport is all about - when you get a faraway look in your eye and the hair on your arms stand up? When results don't matter ...
Like watching Hashim Amla bat or Dale Steyn bowl in a One-Day International. With the proliferation of limited-overs cricket, innovation is the name of the game now. Like racquets have evolved, so have bats, and though the ball is pretty much the same, there's no success - the common consensus seems - unless one keeps adding new shots, new deliveries to their repertoire. A batsman isn't a batsman if he can't, at the very least, play the reverse sweep. A fast bowler has to bowl a slower delivery every over to be counted as a paceman. There's no offspinner - give or take a Graeme Swann - who can't bowl the opposite of an offspin. Maybe, one could say, the art of left-arm spin bowling is more or less how it once was, though the trajectories have become flatter and flatter and the basic tenet of spin bowling, that the flight should take the ball above the batsman's eyeline, has been thrown in the trash can. Legspinners - where are the good ones, unless you count the offies who bowl the doosra?
Indeed, with switch hits and scoops and uppercuts and three variations of the paddle for batsmen and as many possibilities for the bowlers, the only bit of old world left in cricket - even in Test cricket - is actually a partnership between Cook and Trott and, yes, an Amla innings or a Steyn spell. The cover drive is still the prettiest shot in cricket, isn't it? And no delivery looks nicer than one that curves away after pitching on a length on off stump. Ideally at 145 kph. Amla and Steyn can still pull it off, even in a Twenty20 game. Part of it is obduracy. Part inability to evolve. Part, I like to think, a desire to turn on the charm, the charm of the old world. When Rahul Dravid quit, Derek Pringle wrote: "For those who love cricket the game, as opposed to cricket the enterprise, he will be missed, for his kind of cricketer, on and off the field, is becoming rarer." Oh what I wouldn't give for a Dravid forward defensive off a delivery that shapes in!
Everyone must move with the times. If cricketers, who must play many formats on an almost daily basis, have to survive, they have to be innovative, inventive. If a cover drive must be swapped for a slash over point, so be it. Romantics don't bring in the money.
But in Dravid, Amla, Steyn, Swann and even Cheteshwar Pujara, a sports romantic will always find something that lasts longer than the last 90-mile maximum or flawless baseline rally at SW 19. What is that something? Emotion? Federer can win 17 Grand Slams, but nothing he does will give John McEnroe goosebumps, he might induce awe, sure, but not emotion. For that, one has to turn elsewhere, away from the helicopter shot, with the eyes trained on the grass.