Of loss, longing, and grit, what Wimbledon and World Cup finals teach us about life and sport

  • Two teams fought till there was no fight left to be fought. Two men slugged until the result became immaterial.

  • England are 170/4. They need 71 runs in 60 balls with Jos Buttler and Ben Stokes at the crease. Easy. Then, magic begins.

  • Sport, in its barest, truest form, exists in a win-loss binary, but at the heart of it lies the intangibles of grit and spirit.

Breathe. It’s the morning after — the cruelest ever, the meanest ever. In times to come, last night’s tremors will topple the 1999 World Cup semi-final or the 2008 Wimbledon final in the water-cooler debates about the greatest (cricket or tennis) matches ever played, but those discussions can wait. Let words wither and rationale retire. Give in to sport’s allure, succumb to its bubbling brutalities, marvel the mavericks, feel the agony, enjoy the ecstasy, romance the rhetoric, and dance to its delirium — is there a greater drug? Breathe.

Two teams fought till there was no fight left to be fought. Two men slugged until the result became immaterial. It was punishing, for them, and for us. It was a lesson, to humanity and humans that the universe has a weird way of pronouncing verdicts, and it may not always go your way, but you still ought to accept it with Kane Williamson’s grace and Roger Federer’s finesse.

At the home of cricket, nice boys are playing against a bunch of gritty men. This is not to say the nice ones are not gritty or the gritty ones are not nice; this is just how the narrative goes. It’s always been the same with New Zealand. Their niceness intimidates, and it wouldn’t be out of place to assume that it unnerves them too.

England are 170/4. They need 71 runs in 60 balls with Jos Buttler and Ben Stokes at the crease. Easy. Then, magic begins. Nice guys get gritty, gritty men keep hitting out and getting out.

 Of loss, longing, and grit, what Wimbledon and World Cup finals teach us about life and sport

Kane Williamson's otherworldly charm stood out in the explosion of emotions. AP

Around 12 miles away, Novak Djokovic is at work, doing what Novak Djokovic does best — giving grit a good name. Roger Federer is across the net, doing what Roger Federer does — making this world livable. Between them, they are playing some incredible tennis. A five-set Wimbledon final is the sporting equivalent of a Shakespearean tragedy. Five sets, five acts, each with a subplot, each with a restless undercurrent, each shaping the drama. Then, a wicked twist to leave you shocked.

Federer is firing groundstrokes with power and precision, his aggression is astounding, he is finding impossible corners and exploring angles that don’t exist. Djokovic is running, sliding, stretching, retrieving, replying. He knows Federer is riding a tide; he waits for it to ebb. Is there another life lesson there? It’s 8-7 in the tiebreaker, and Federer is on Championship point. He misses. Twice. The tide is ebbing. It’s time for Djokovic’s tide to rise, and it does. What on earth is happening?

Around the same time at Lord’s, Ben Stokes swings James Neesham and Trent Boult, a master of boundary-line catches, steps on the skirting at wide long-on and concedes a six. 21 off 9 becomes 15 off 8 in one misstep. The moment is gone, the momentum has shifted. Next over, Stokes gets four overthrow runs by way of a fortuitous deflection, and the English tide has broken the Kiwi resistance. Surely, some magnetic force is at play. You can feel it; it’s right there, shifting its gaze from one sport to another.

It is midnight in India. A day has started; a day has ended, but the men in Lord’s and Wimbledon are living in a time-space continuum. Fatigue doesn’t fiddle with their excellence. They have dreamt of moments like these, now is the time to live that dream. Then, it happens. Neesham, who had conceded a vital six in the previous over, finds his moment. His flat throw from long-on catches Mark Wood short of his crease, and the match is tied.

Almost on cue, Federer plays his poorest shot after 4 hours and 57 minutes on the Centre Court, and the overhead lob ends a five-set classic. Who’s writing the script? What’s this invisible, sinister pull? Breathe.

Standing on the Lord’s balcony, Williamson is a picture of calm in the middle of a pulsating maelstrom. Either he has seen the future, or he simply looks at the world in some preternatural perspective. He is stoned, not shocked. That’s about all the emotion he would display for the next 30 minutes. At the other end of the city, rather than ruminating on the heartbreak, Federer talks about inspiring fellow 37-year-olds. What? Who are these men who implore you to lose like them, win like them, be like them? On moments like these, when sport becomes the metaphor for life — an unfair life, you are free to say — you don’t have a choice but to smile back at it and be grateful.

Roger Federer played beautiful tennis, but Sunday was Djokovic's day. AP

Roger Federer played beautiful tennis, but Sunday was Djokovic's day. AP

Novak Djokovic has his arms afloat, and he smiles for the first time in five hours. It is his moment. He drops on his haunches, plucks the revered grass, and chews it. The unabashedly partisan crowd slowly rises, realising what they had just witnessed. When you save two Championship points against Federer, you deserve to win, irrespective of who the crowd supports. Djokovic has beaten Federer and the world. He breaks into a wistful smile, and thumps his chest, once, twice, thrice...it goes on. A champion’s roar follows. Many years back, Muhammad Ali had jumped around in the ring and baulked at the front-row critics with three magic words: Eat Your Words. Djokovic, lonely and loveless in his moment of glory, says pretty much the same with his feverish chest thumps. Only in sport will you find such objective fairness, and only in sport will you come so starkly face to face with life’s unfairness. Ask the Kiwis about the latter.

England are the world champions — without beating New Zealand. The nice guys have finished second best, again. Martin Guptill, the shining beacon of 2015 World Cup who couldn’t score a run at this edition, is inconsolable. Guptill lost three toes of his left foot when he was 13; he knows a bit about pain and loss. In the semi-final, his throw from deep had catapulted his team to the final. In final, his throw from the deep had gone for four overthrows for no fault of his. To top it all, he is run-out on the last ball of the Super Over to keep the scores tied. It doesn’t matter though, because a quirk twist of the rule means New Zealand have lost by zero runs. Breathe.

Spectacles like these are a meditative bedlam. They take you on an emotional ride that leaves you numb and seething at once. You have wordless thoughts and thoughtless words. There’s some thoughtful wisdom too. You learn to savour loss and accept defeat, you begin to appreciate life’s devilish ways to bite you, and you learn to live the moment. You know life may be a prickly companion, but it finds a way for redemption. Ask Ben Stokes. Three years after he conceded four consecutive sixes to Carlos Brathwaite to help England lose a World T20 final that was theirs for the taking, here he was, at home in the spiritual home of cricket, setting it alight with his sheer bloody-mindedness, pulling his team through by his sheer tour de force. Remember the name.

Sport, in its barest, truest form, exists in a win-loss binary, but at the heart of it lies the intangibles of grit and spirit. New Zealand, England, Djokovic, and Federer lived the essence of sport, irrespective of the results. No excuses were given, no angry outbursts arrived, no obscene celebrations happened. It was sport — relentless, breathless, and nerveless. In days to come, when the emotional high subsides and worldly matters of existence take over the philosophical sermons of sport, it will be worth poring over certain questions: How do you define success and failures, victors and vanquished, wins and losses? Why is the world the way it is? Why did it have to be Federer and Williamson, two fine men born on the same day nine years apart? And while you are at it, here’s a pro tip: Shut your eyes and shut your ears; shut your mind and shut your fears, and try to remember the first time you entered a playground, the first time you ever ran a race, the first time your PT teacher tried to define sports for you. The details will be obviously fuzzy, but it wouldn't be too out of place if the sketch somehow corroborates to the maniac, incredible, inexhaustible Sunday that just went by. Breathe.

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Updated Date: Jul 15, 2019 16:02:06 IST