Brilliance can never be boring

Published : May 08, 2004 00:00 IST

Every now and then it is claimed that six-time world champion Michael Schumacher (below) is killing spectator interest. Unimpressed critics bemoan the absence of competitiveness, they decry the non-existence of rivalries, they proclaim that the soul of sport is its capriciousness. Uneven contests are viewed as insipid, predictable races are unable to hold the attention. It is not all untrue, but its conclusion is flawed. For it suggests that domination is somehow deadly dull, writes ROHIT BRIJNATH.

EARLY at Imola, two Sundays ago, on a track in the shadows of Italian vineyards, genius came galloping round the bend. In Jenson Button's rearview mirror was a prancing horse and it was not going away. Button was leading. Michael Schumacher in his Ferrari was in second place, and it is a position he does not enjoy. This race was his, he knew it, Button knew it, we knew it. There was to it all, almost a certain inevitability.

For some, this is suffocating. As if Schumacher's winning of all four races this season and the past four world championships has turned tedious. For some, these moments of majesty smell of sameness, carbon copy masterpieces. Triumph without thrill.

Unimpressed critics bemoan the absence of competitiveness, they decry the non-existence of rivalries, they proclaim that the soul of sport is its capriciousness. Uneven contests are viewed as insipid, predictable races are unable to hold the attention. It is not all untrue, but its conclusion is flawed. For, it suggests that domination is somehow deadly dull.

Of course, to see a champion challenged, even unseated, is enchanting. But for a champion to withstand every challenge is unique. Yet every now and then it is claimed that six-time world champion Schumacher is killing spectator interest, Tiger Woods' supremacy made golf one-dimensional, Pete Sampras's seven wins at Wimbledon was repetitive, and that Steve Waugh's Australian team was detrimental to cricket. It is absurd.

Domination is in some ways the closest sport arrives at perfection, the marriage of talent with consistency, excellence over time irrespective of obstacle, the exceptional athlete at the peak of his/her powers. It is also, with teams like Waugh's Australia, or Arsene Wenger's unbeaten Arsenal this year, or Manchester United, the creation of a system of selection, training, feedback, tactics, that is in superb working order. It is a vision of excellence.

Despite planning, and preparation, the only promise for athletes is that something will go wrong. Sampras at Wimbledon, for instance, had off days, injured days, days when his timing went awry for no apparent reason. He had days when the wind combed his hair and others when not a strand was parted, when fancied rivals played shots from their dreams and net cords never fell his way, when a new grip seemed to slip in the hand and a girlfriend's whining careened round the brain.

Yet for seven Wimbledons, Sampras conquered every factor, shut the door on every eventuality, quelled every distraction. This is boring? No it is greatness in complete control.

Golf is more whimsical than tennis. It is a continuing battle against 100-odd opponents at a time, an ever-changing course (day to day they vary), and yourself. A still ball is harder to manoeuvre, time to play shots leaves room for anxiety to collect. It is game that defies domination, yet Tiger Woods, with four majors in a row, only the second time achieved in history, suggested there is no such thing as the impossible.

Yet occasionally a weary critic will pass such mental muscularity off as routine, artlessly reducing the masterful to the mundane. One-man tour, they would say of Tiger, not even taking time to appreciate the statement just written. How does a player become a one-man tour, what blending of creativity and character and courage must he summon to win again, and again and again?

Now Woods is off his game but has it is enhanced the appeal of the PGA Tour; can golf be a more attractive game without its finest player in full cry? Is tennis, for that matter, enhanced by the absence of the Williams sisters, whose rule had been shrugged off occasionally as monotonous?

Victory is beyond any guarantee; that winning is inevitable is itself an extraordinary idea. As John Buchanan, coach when Australia won a stupefying 16 Tests in a row, said to The Sportstar: "There's no real appreciation of how difficult it is to win one Test, (let alone so many), to continue to string series after series. It's extremely difficult."

Schumacher's wins are often met with a shrug, as if all he must do is sit in his car, press down on the accelerator and concentrate on what brand of champagne he would prefer to uncork. Of course, this does not explain why Rubens Barrichello, in the same Ferrari, does not win, or even necessarily come second.

Similarly, Waugh's Australia was not quite handed victory every time they turned up at the ground. Buchanan, for instance, points to just one factor, the constant turnover of personnel whether because of injury or erratic form, saying that "we had our very best team available only for 2-3 games in a row." Dominant teams do not arrive from some fluke of circumstance, the collection of skilled individuals at a specific time. Soldering different men, with differing motivations, together into one unit, to infuse them with a united ambition, to keep them focused, requires dedication, invention, discipline. To win eight Premier League titles in 11 years required, among other things, for Alex Ferguson to keep buying the right players and fitting these new pieces into his jigsaw.

If such teams are constantly refining themselves, they are also relentlessly juggling their motivations. Midway through their 16-Test run the Australians no doubt had to strike a fine balance, mindful of the history of that was within their reach yet aware that concentrating on the finishing line not the process could be fatal.

Australia, like Arsenal or Tiger or Michael Jordan, would find a cost to their success: the more they won the greater the demand to repeat. Expectation rose in proportion to performance. The closer they came to embracing history the more sharper the scrutiny. The more they won the more they became the team/player to knock off, the scalp to take.

Rivals would be pushed to raise their own games, to achieve new standards. Tiger's strength sent his peers scuttling to the gym; Australia's cricketing professionalism has influenced India and England; Justine Henin-Hardenne spent her off-seasons vomiting while being trained by Pat Etcheberry, aware that Serena's power would take some matching. Michael Schumacher had to contend with an alteration of rules designed to limit him.

It means to stay dominant, teams/players had to get even better.

Often such teams, and individuals, especially in the case of Tiger for a while, create a flawed presumption in the public eye that they can't be beaten. It is an illusion created by their ability to negotiate any impediment, whether conditions, or opposition, or surface, playing at home or away.

But while winning can be occasionally made to look easy, it never is. Success cannot ever be assured, brilliance is not at anyone's beck and call. The 400-metre Athens gold medal, as Ian Thorpe reminded us, does not already have his name engraved on it just because he has not lost in this event since 1997. As he said: "You don't get up at 4.17 every morning (he does) just to be given the gold medal, you have to work hard".

And perhaps after a while, with dominant athletes, we tend to get E9, fail too appreciate the dynamics of their consistent excellence. We see victory but not what it takes to arrive there. Sachin Tendulkar's exceptional streak of run-scoring is not merely the product of genetics, but sweat. For him to perform, year after year, is not some natural gift, but a process, part of which involves the net being his temple. So, too, with others.

In 1999, in the Wimbledon final, Sampras was down three break-points early in the first set to Andre Agassi. His answer was a succession of dazzling serves to win the game. To watch Sampras in trouble was to know that a response was due; but to be able to produce that due response was not a function of the moment, but discovered through a lifetime of sacrifice and devotion.

We saw the serves, but we did not see Sampras at home, mastering every nuance of the serve, shoulder aching, lunch waiting, but practising to the point where he believed that one day, when down 0-40 at Wimbledon, he could summon the requisite serves. "I have no fear", Sampras said once at the All England Club, and perhaps it was because he knew he was ready.

Similarly, we see Thorpe dominate the 400-metre freestyle, but we don't see the study of stroke mechanics, the monotonous laps of the pool, the 0.01 second he might pick up by sharpening a turn. We see Alexander Karelin go without defeat in Greco-Roman wrestling for 13 years, but we don't see him getting stronger by walking through deep Russian snow with a tree trunk on his back, or his winning of a world championship with a broken rib.

We see Michael Jordan, six times the MVP in NBA finals, swish in winning shots at the buzzer, but we don't see him still there at practise, an hour after his teammates have gone home, assiduously honing his craft.

We don't see hesitation, or nervousness, or personal problems, or pain, but it is all there, and we don't see how these athletes close their minds to it, shut away doubt and embrace confidence. We don't see the journey but only the result, but to appreciate these men and these teams fully demands an understanding of the systems they have put in place, their unwavering commitment, their ability to constantly fulfil their gifts, which allows them to achieve that result. To call them mundane is to diminish a lifetime of struggle.

These men and women are not just challenging are challenging themselves, and their peers, but our notions of what is possible in sport. No one in the recent past has dared conceive of a driver winning every Formula One race in a season. Schumacher may not do it but he is forcing us to confront that possibility. Winning the Grand Slam in golf in modern times was incomprehensible, yet every time Tiger wins the Masters it is seriously considered.

Change will come, unpredictability will never die, new champions will emerge. But till then, we should feel privileged to live in a time of such extraordinary athletes and teams. We've seen things our grandfathers haven't and our grandchildren may never. And it's everything but routine.

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