Bite, don't bark

Rafael Nadal... one of the most astute aggressors in sporting history.-AP

Aggression in non-contact sport is theatrical, and when manifesting in lesser players, begs for attention. If not a weak sham, then it is often self-conscious, writes Vijay Parthasarathy.

If Rafael Nadal has a grip on the French Open, it is to no small extent because of his mental edge over Roger Federer. Particularly against the World No. 1, the Spaniard remains extraordinarily motivated. Even if Federer finds himself one set up, he cannot rest, for he knows Nadal is coming at him full tilt, with the enthusiasm of Don Quixote, and will continue to try and find a way to displace him, until the match finishes. Until now, it is Nadal who has shown greater res ilience, particularly on clay.

Nadal is a hyper-aggressive tennis player, and has a taste for war-mongering. The fist pumping is aimed at the opponent; the cut bicep-sleeves are designed to intimidate, the prolonged stares could unfreeze a permafrost-preserved mammoth. Federer’s own body language signs during their matches are in general a reaction to Nadal’s mental state. He remains muted, tense, egging himself on silently, willing himself to stay in the game, or if they’re playing on grass, to discover in himself the resources to end the match.

Against the rest, Federer has rarely needed to display any overt signs of engagement; for over two years, his own dominance was exerted through aesthetic means, the ability to bewilder opponents with the level of his play. Nadal’s ability to get to Federer pushes him into the ranks of the most astute aggressors in sporting history: in the tradition of the finest, he knows how to boost his own confidence while displacing his opponent’s. His tactics provoke muttered complaints but rarely breach the ideal of fairplay.

Nadal has constructed his image over several years, and reinforced it through consistent performance. In contrast, Wayne Rooney, the brilliant Manchester United forward, sometimes struggles to escape from the confinement of first impression. The multi-millionaire Englishman suffers condescension: his actions are viewed as closely linked to his background. Even his penchant for buying expensive cars is seen as working class.

To equate sporting aggression with anger or rebellion is inaccurate; it is to render a one-dimensional representation, although if such anger can be harnessed, it is just as useful. Unfortunately, Rooney cannot seem to manage that. His struggle to control his temper is exploited by other teams (and once by Cristiano Ronaldo, his Manchester United team-mate, while playing for Portugal), who target him specifically with barbs or worse. Rooney has been castigated for sarcastically applauding a referee’s decision, using his elbow and even stamping on a player’s groin — all unacceptable forms of aggression. He makes a fine villain, or anti-hero, depending on perspective.

In football or even chess, at least the head count is one man for another; in baseball or cricket, it is the ganging up that often seems unfair.

Aggression in non-contact sport is theatrical, and when manifesting in lesser players, begs for attention. If not a weak sham, then it is often self-conscious. There is an awareness of audience and the projection of bravado that betrays the tendency to play to the gallery. Sometimes the opponent is able to see it for what it is, sometimes he isn’t.

S. Sreesanth’s antics are well-documented; he is rumouredly the face of Indian aggression — whatever that means. Now, by several accounts, he is mild-mannered in real life, polite to a fault, the sort of kid that helps grannies carry their shopping bags across the street. He might, you suppose, pass off as a mid-sized Clark Kent. But when he puts on his cricket player make-up, he doesn’t always turn into Superman. His manner of aggression — brash, over-the-top and uncalculated, more a knee-jerk reaction than planned — is perhaps most effective when he has managed to slash a four off a fast bowler. Sreesanth revels in the melodrama.

When he bowls, however, his “positive” attitude is undermined by a lack of discipline. Exactly how much his college education in psychology has aided him is debatable. His impressive success against South Africa, a breakthrough in his career, has been frittered away partly through a lack of focus and the overemphasis on image. Which self-respecting sportsman can get away with that for long? (David Beckham, perhaps, but he’s irrelevant to this discussion.)

Sreesanth is a talented player, intelligent too. He will learn quickly that his methods need refinement, and realise from the contrasting experiences of Nadal and Rooney that his aggression must find a purpose; it is an ineffective way of releasing pressure. But forget, for a second, concepts like boundaries of acceptable behaviour, or preachy arguments littered with double standards — “it’s just not cricket, old chap” — and think of the West Indian fast bowlers of the 1970s. Somtimes, in this world, all it takes to instil in you the fear of God, is eye-contact.