Chafing. That is what I came away with after the doubles rubber of the Davis Cup tie between India and Spain. Severe emotional chafing. For the longest time after the match, I sat there in the media enclosure, wondering how everyone else could go about their business so calmly. For the longest time, I wondered why I felt that way.
Then it hit me.
This was the first time I had watched from the sidelines (as opposed to on TV) as my country lost.
Friday’s singles encounters didn’t count. India really had no chance against the matadors that Spain had fielded in this tie, despite Ramkumar Ramanathan’s defiance. In the doubles however, not-so-young Saketh Myneni and the old pro Leander Paes were an unknown quantity. And once they took the first set, they made it known that they had what it takes to push the Olympic gold medallists, Rafael Nadal and Marc Lopez. And that raised the stakes.
The second factor was that it was doubles. With four players on court, what is essentially an individual sport us transcended – and in my opinion, elevated – into a team sport. I have written before on how team sports, in which cooperation and competition coexist, are more enjoyable for the athletes than purely individual sports. It is even more so for spectators. The more the characters, the more the storylines, the more scope for us to create stars and villains in our heads, colouring individuals made of grey in black and white. Also, just like ODI and T20 cricket can be counted different sports, singles and doubles tennis are similarly divided by the large gap in the dynamics. And in this sport, India clearly had a chance.
Now multiply the above variables with the fact that this is a Davis Cup tie. Indian fans are fanatically, even maniacally, patriotic. Even those who couldn’t care less about pro tennis will be glued to the TV when India is playing Davis Cup. Add to the equation the home crowd, almost a full house, some on their feet, some dancing in their seats. Bracket what you have and square it, because this was Leander Paes showing off every trick he has in his big fat book. And then cube your answer, since the man on the other side of the net was one who Paes said “had no weaknesses,” Rafael Nadal.
Now I get a better sense of why I felt the way I did after the rubber.
I came to this tie determined to be as professional as possible, only to find that naked emotion escape me more often than not, as it did most of my other colleagues. At the time, I felt no shame in it. Now, as I nurse the wounds of my heart, I realise that may not have been such a good idea. Ah well.
Few athletes can bypass patriotic loyalties like Rafael Nadal. As much as this was a home tie for India, cries of ‘Vamos Rafa’ swam upstream like salmon and spawned a number of times in the night. And they were not coming from the Spanish block. Here were die hard fans, male and female alike, Indian citizens, who were merrily courting nasty glances and the occasional death threat, just to egg their hero on. Even the ballkids grinned with delight every time he passed a ball in their direction.
Paes put it best, “We’ve had world No ones like Marcelo Rios play Davis Cup in India before. Grand Slam champions like Jim Courier and Goran Ivanisevic have been here. But Rafa is the biggest global star we’ve had in Davis cup. For the first time in India for a Davis Cup tie, the stadium was too small.”
And on the court, Nadal showed us why. He was broken in the first set. He made some uncharacteristic unforced errors early in the game, and was clearly tense. Yet he and Lopez saved a set point in the second set, and went on to dominate the tie-breaker. As the match wore on, he hammered a number of returns down the unprotected lines, with accuracy that would make DC’s Deadshot proud. “As a doubles player you have to give up certain options”, said Myneni, of Nadal’s repeated attacks down the line. “It wasn’t easy when he was hitting balls two inches from the sidelines.”
“That’s why he is such a great champion”, Paes added. “As a singles player playing doubles, we tried to make his life uncomfortable. We pushed him, to the verge of taking the second set. And he and Marc came back from there. That’s why they are Olympic Champions.”
Away from the game, it was enlightening to see a third team at work on court – the chair umpire worked closely with the linesmen and ballkids. At every changeover, he gestured to each linesman and encouraged them, with a discreet “good job” or “well done”. It was something that we never see on TV. It is so easy to take them for granted; like wicketkeepers, invisible until they make a mistake. Like the players, they too are professionals who are under great pressure, but get none of the spotlight for doing their jobs well.
After the rubber, all talk was of Rafael Nadal and his time in India. “It’s always special playing in countries and in front of fans that you don’t get to play very often”, he said. “I played in Chennai a few years, and last year the IPTL. To come back here for the Davis Cup is a happy feeling. The passion of the fans is great for our sport.”
At the end of it all, the chafing had healed, as it always does in sport. For as much as we posture and pretend that it is life and death, it is just a game. Though with champions like Nadal and Paes playing, the healing happens faster than usual.