Champions know when to raise their game


ASK Sunil Gavaskar, Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, Michael Schumacher, Pete Sampras (the older model Sampras that is), the William sisters and they'll tell you. Sport is not just about playing the game; it's about raising it.

Every time a new fast bowler, with violence in his heart, ran in, you could almost see an extra furrow of concentration on Sunny's forehead, slightly more cement in his stance, almost as if he'd actually grown (though it was hard to tell) another inch. He was lifting himself and his game, rising (literally it seemed) to the challenge presented to him. Thirteen centuries against the West Indies is not a coincidence.

You saw that in Jordan, in one small statistic. His average points per game through his career was 31; but his average points per game during the play-offs was 33.4. Jordan was constantly brilliant; but when it mattered he was even better than that. Same with Tiger. Barely six years or so on the tour, and already players know this: if he's five shots back on the final day, even seven, he'll play his best. It's a given. These men do not retreat from adversity, instead they are defined by it.

It's why Indian cricketers aren't a great team; they can barely find the game they own, let alone raise it. (The West Indies stands as a painful example.) It's why Roger Federer, ousted from Wimbledon by a lanky Croat not called Goran, for all his 'favourite' tag is a player who languishes only on the cusp of greatness.

Some teams and men just don't have extra gears; others struggle to find them (like say the indifferent Safin) when they need it most. Rarely have we seen this clearer than at soccer's World Cup. As an exhibition it has been noteworthy for two things: shirt pulling and conspiracies. Losing gracefully is something that applies only to Swedish tennis players, other parts of Europe have apparently not even heard of the phrase.

Long after the red shirts have stopped selling in Korea, we will remember how they soared and others sulked. Italy and Spain have, if you believe them, discovered more plots than Mel Gibson stumbled upon in The Conspiracy Theory, from tainted umpires to a FIFA design to give the hosts a leg up.

Precious little time and space has been given to their own inepitude. Sure they have history, and reputation, and players who collect Porsches like we do old newspapers. Sure they have the best leagues in the world and think $60 million to buy a player is a bargain. But when it mattered they couldn't score a goal. In the feet of the errant Vieri, not in the whistle of an umpire, lies Italy's failure.

It will be said they were tired after long seasons but South Korean players have not exactly been sunning themselves on some distant beach this season. South Korea's archers have been known to clean sewers to enforce discipline, their star women's golfer, Se Ri-Pak, was forced to spend nights in a cemetery to see if she could hold her nerve.

Their soccer team is equally stoic and resolute, and they proved that determination is an adept substitute for style. They played above themselves: when the moment arrived, they raised their level. That itself should not have been enough had Europe responded. Except they didn't, and the reality that Italy and Spain played beneath themselves is too ugly for them to contemplate. Cheating is easier to swallow than self-destruction, so what if the real incompetence on show was their own.

Great players, and teams, find a way, it is what makes them. In 1996, Sampras vomited during his US Open quarter-final against Alex Corretja and leant ashen-faced on his racket as if he were an unsteady geriatric lost without his walking stick; in 1996, in the Davis Cup final, in Russia, he cramped so badly that he had to be lifted and carried off court. Both times when the big points came, Sampras had an answer. Both times he won. Conversely, the very fact that he cannot raise his game anymore, like at Wimbledon, signals he is no longer a great player.

The same holds for Brazil's soccer team. Despite their bruising, unsatisfying qualifying campaign, their position as 'co-favourite' was not merely a universal wallowing in nostalgia. Their form was disastrous but their knowledge of what it takes to win a game appears almost genetically programmed. It wouldn't matter if they won the Cup or not; merely getting to the final, with a comparatively ordinary team, shows their response to the occasion.

As with soccer, tennis too now looks to players to find themselves. Including Wimbledon 2000, the past eight Grand Slam titles have been won by eight different men (2000: Wimbledon - Pete Sampras, U.S. Open - Marat Safin, 2001: Australian Open - Andre Agassi, French Open - Gustavo Kuerten, Wimbledon - Goran Ivanisevic, U.S. Open - Lleyton Hewitt, 2002: Australian Open - Thomas Johansson, French Open - Alberto Costa.)

In short, there are too many contenders and too few champions. Admittedly, the depth is greater but it is more than that. Like Icarus, tennis' best have been flying on unsteady wings. Perhaps their gifts are inadequate, their resolve uncertain, their concentration attuned more to their entourages of blondes and private jets than matters at hand. Mostly, tennis' best are being beaten not by superior men but by themselves.

Safin could, it seems, give Johansson tutorials in the art of tennis. Juan Carlos Ferrero's game often resembles a masterpiece that should be hanging in clay court tennis' equivalent of the Louvre, while Costa in comparison seems like a water-colour sketch you get at a bargain sale.

Yet, both Safin and Ferrero lost Grand Slam titles this year that logic demanded they couldn't. Their opponents, expectedly, played with the abandon that underdogs carry, elevating their games, but instead of lifting theirs in response, Ferrero crumbled and Safin (as he did against Olivier Rochus at Wimbledon) stalled. Champions are made of better stuff than that.

The World Cup was, and men's tennis is, not colourless, nor tedious, for unpredictability has its own attraction. No one begrudges South Korea their romance, or Costa his miracle, or Rochus. Yet they are not advertisements for the best of their sports. Sure, when decent teams play above themselves it is wonderful. But when champions raise their standards - like when Ronaldo is stirred by the sight of defenders - when they lift themselves higher, they inadvertently take their games with them. When Ronaldo soars, then so does football. Only then do we get sport at its best.