Mystery and magic

The best part of 2003 was that it reminded us that while we are privileged to watch greatness on the field, and view masterpieces unfold on television, the heart of sport is mostly foreign to us, writes ROHIT BRIJNATH.

EVERY year brings change, it brings promise, it brings fresh-faced heroes intent on writing their own history, some with grace, some with muscularity. New names are stored in the memory and become familiar friends, great feats enliven the senses, and always we are left moved as athletes set the bar of performance higher, pushing the frontiers of possibility further than we can conceive.

Pete Sampras' retirement brought tears to quite a few eyes.-

But it was also not just a year of newness, for not everyone was ready to be pushed out, old-timers flexing their muscles at the sight of young tyros, eager to demonstrate they were not quite ready for their pension cheques. This battling for supremacy, this testing of old by the young, this contest between fresh legs and experience was breathtaking to behold.

Pete Sampras would go, but Michael Schumacher would not; Tiger Woods slipped but Lance Armstrong would not budge.

Courage and character was not in short supply. Countries, too, began to find a firmer sporting footing, in a sense none more than India. Always there has been talk of potential, but too rarely has it been translated into success. We have been better at words than deeds. But in 2003, small steps, tentative steps, at least were made.

Matthew Hayden. The huge Aussie ran up a huge 380, a Test world record. -- Pic. V. V. KRISHNAN-

Indian hockey produced some impressive flourish, suggesting at least a beginning was being made. Young volleyballers grabbed our attention, chess continued to be a source of fascination, East Bengal made soccer history of sorts, and Mahesh Bhupathi and Leander Paes continued to lead by example.

Even the Commonwealth Games was won, a waste said a few, but nonetheless a recognition of India as a global sporting player. But of steps, perhaps ironically, the biggest one was taken by the cricket team, of whom too much has been asked in the past but too little achieved.

For some time Sourav Ganguly has been quietly asking us to become believers, but history had made us reluctant to be completely convinced by his mission. Now there is little alternative. A World Cup final placing was too heavily rewarded yet it was not a performance without significance, for it was evidence of not just a unifying of a dressing room but a growing strength of purpose.

V. V. S. Laxman and Rahul Dravid have become quite adept at Aussie-bashing. -- Pic. AFP-

Eventually, only Australia was unbeatable in March, but months later in Adelaide even that miracle was achieved. The best in the world is no longer just a myth, but has entered the realm of possibility. Still as calendar years go, Australia, who won the World Cup, and the tri-series at home in January and in India in November, were still cricket's best.

Steve Waugh would announce he was going, though it was claimed he was pushed, but in the door-sized bat of Matthew Hayden lay the reminder that as a force they were not quite diminished yet.

Sourav Ganguly's India surprised, but Rahul Dravid did not. He has been India's best batsman for two years, on form, and in Adelaide he produced the most compelling advertisement of this truth. Here is a batsman whose mind is as powerful as his technique, unafraid of discipline and not intimidated by winning. India may have taken long to appreciate him but now there can be no turning back. As heroes go, he was India 's finest this year.

David Beckham the footballer has long been overtaken by David Beckham the celebrity. His pop star wife, Victoria, adds to the effect. -- Pic. AP-

That he, and Laxman, should produce a beautiful echo of their Calcutta innings in Adelaide was fitting, for in that city of churches they batted as if they had taken some holy pledge. They are batsmen of contrasts, but of similarity, too: always they are learning, and it is a virtue not to be dismissed easily.

Dravid was a reminder, too, that staying power and concentration and desire are beautiful things too, that in purpose itself we can find pleasure. He said that there are different ways for batsmen to score runs, and indeed there are different ways to win.

England, for instance, played a rugby that would earn them scant applause for aesthetic value, yet they understood that in sport there are no prizes for prettiness. Often, we forget that.

Justine Henin-Hardenne made an elegant statement with her artistic tennis. -- Pic. AP-

If some champions finally found recognition, another temporarily lost his halo. Nothing in sport is forever, every dominant run comes to an end. Tiger Woods did not win a major in 2003, and golf was energised, for the first time since 1969 all four grand slams were won by different men.

But even more unique was the reality that possibly in a historical first, it was a woman golfer who outdid every peer, of either sex. Not merely did Annika Sorenstam rule her tour, but her debut on the men's tour, a study in nerve and poise, was a moment for all time.

In tennis, a game with a wider appeal, at least geographically, the transformation was even more comprehensive. Old stagers fell by the wayside as young guns claimed their territory. Too long spectators have asked for change, and finally it arrived.

Andy Roddick played like a cowboy, firing bullets and full of bravado, and it was hard not to like him. Roger Federer did not seem to be playing tennis as much as composing haiku, while Juan Carlos Ferrero ran his opponents into the dust. Lleyton Hewitt took a year off almost to recover from his rise to greatness, but as his Davis Cup determination suggested, he is worthy to stand alongside the men above.

In the women's game, an even greater revolution of sorts was sprung. Serena Williams has not been pushed aside, who dare say that, but a whippy young Belgian with a big fire in a small belly, Justine Henin-Hardenne, has made her own elegant statement. Winning aside, she and Federer suggested that sport as art is not a totally lost cause.

There is little time for tears in sport, for often farewells are lost in the constant action, but Pete Sampras' leaving was not without some sadness. Few men have ruled their sport with such keen skill and fine dignity, setting standards not just in winning but conduct. That serve, that tongue out, that Wimbledon trophy in his hand, that undemonstrative brilliance, we will miss.

But most of all the reminder that such a driver as Schumacher may take some finding, too. In many ways, the driver and Armstrong the cyclist had similar years, the former's season full of trials, the latter's Tour de France beset with tribulations, but as studies of courage under fire go, better examples in 2003 are not to be found. One man won his sixth world title, the other his fifth Tour De France, and neither is in any mood to let go. How much desire can a champion have is something we are still understanding.

Zinedine Zidane would have approved, for he too, over 30, was picked for the FIFA award as soccer's best player, a player whose legs remain in perfect harmony with his brain.

Still, even he attracted less attention than David Beckham, who reminded us that despite the haircuts and the headlines in tabloids, it is his soccer that has made him famous. In Real Madrid, among a team of stars, he asserted quickly he would not be easily overshadowed. There is more grit to Beckham than we would like to admit.

But sport is as much beauty as it is ugliness. Competition brings out the best of men and their worst, and this year had its unseemly moments as well. So much of athletics has lost its lustre because of drug use, and the discovery of a synthetic steroid after the world athletics championship was done confirmed there are no lengths athletes will not go to triumph. Perhaps it was a reminder to us all that victory in sport had become too important.

Intolerance still exists, in all manner of forms. Vijay Singh's pointed remarks about Sorenstam were sexist and surprising, for of all men this Fijian knows better the nature of prejudice than most. In soccer, racist abuse from the terraces still came hurling down, while in Adelaide at the cricket an Indian journalist was offered a bone by a spectator and called a "coolie". To call them isolated examples is to ignore a problem that demands serious attention. Sport is not as colour-blind as it should be.

But perhaps the best part of 2003 was that it reminded us that while we are privileged to watch greatness on the field, and view masterpieces unfold on television, the heart of sport is mostly foreign to us. Mostly we don't see the athlete sculpting himself, the long hours of sweat, the vomit of exhaustion, the endless scrutiny of tactics, the sight of Rahul Dravid alone in his hotel room, taking his stance and swinging his bat at an imaginary bowler on the day his 233 began. Perhaps that is good, perhaps that is fitting, perhaps in sport there must still be some mystery to how all this magic occurs.