Tennis's adhesive nature

AP

It's all about those four titles that, year after year, separate the good from the great, and provide a bitter dose of reality to the past greats, on their WINNING potency, writes NANDITA SRIDHAR.

Tennis is an addiction that once it has truly hooked a man, will not let him go — Russell Lynes

There is something about tennis that postpones retirements. There is something about this most genteel of all individual sports that leaves its exponents in a state of inertia when it comes to timing their swansong. It's true that every sport throws up its share of geniuses past their prime, groping in the present for a piece of the past. But it is the man/woman who grips a piece of graphite to power tennis balls that finds it hardest to let go.

To understand that, one has to do a little touring inside the minds of tennis players. An area marked by solitude and the overwhelming dominance of `I'. Their climb up the ladder is dictated solely by themselves. They are their own selectors, their own critics and their own masters. The only problem they would face is in handling the press-conference after a loss, that will begin with, "Do you think it's time?", rather than, "What happened this time?" A few smirks after a fall, and subtle and lucid hints might drop by, but nothing much can stop them from continuing, except if their rankings succumb to the force of ageing.

Andre Agassi and Lindsay Davenport are two players currently belonging to the aforementioned species, residing on the other side of the hill, clinging on, hoping to scale Mount Grand Slam. Their rankings are a healthy nine and four respectively, but what they actually yearn for, and what actually keeps the fingers and palms around their erstwhile weapon of destruction, is that unparalleled feeling that only winning a Grand Slam can give.

It's all about those four titles that, year after year, separate the good from the great, and provide a bitter dose of reality to the past greats, on their winning potency. "All of us would love to be able to go out on a high note," said Michael Chang, while trying to explain his prolonged presence on the courts despite watching his rankings turn from single digit to triple digits. "I think that's any professional athlete's dream. We're definitely toward the twilight of our careers, but we want to give it one last good run," he added four years back.

It was that very season that witnessed the most bitter end to one of the most beautifully scripted and executed fairytales in modern sport. The sight of Pete Sampras losing to George Bastl (who clearly was George who? before that fateful day) in the second round of, hold your breath, Wimbledon was a nightmare that tennis fans couldn't come to terms with.

The shrine of tennis, which for seven years rolled out the red carpet for him, cruelly pulled it from under his feet.

As much as one hoped that this was not the final act of one of the most delightful operas in tennis, we just couldn't take it anymore. The champion losing to a nobody was just too much. Enough was enough, we thought. But deservedly, he ended it like we all hoped he would. At home, and against his greatest rival.

Perhaps, Agassi, with memories of that final in 2002, is waiting for something similar. For a fitting finale, after which he could wave his goodbye kisses, clutching the trophy of his retirement, and walk away to a deafening applause. You can't blame him for wanting that, despite his trademark abridged back-swing returns having acquired a tinge of politeness, his movement on court screaming out his age and ankle (freak racquetball injury) and back worries hampering his chances. But even the man himself has realised things are changing, and that it might be simpler shaping up Jaden Gil Agassi for the Christian Sampras clash, than keep up with the likes of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.

But his admittance of the same was quicker than expected. Just a month back, after pulling out of the SAP Open because of a back problem, his response to the usual query was, "I guess the biggest question I have to answer at this stage of my career is do I still believe I have the game to compete with the world on a consistent basis? I feel like I can still answer that, `Yes.'"

Now, after going down to Tommy Haas in Indian Wells, it was a slightly different Agassi that spoke. "I'm pretty patchy right now," Agassi said. "It's harder than it looks to put together a good match. But never underestimate my ability to drop in standard. I've gotten pretty good at it lately.

I've been through it before but each time it gets tougher. It's frustrating. It's been a long time since I've felt good on the court. It's just getting tiring," added the Las Vegan.

Maybe Lindsay Davenport, too, is waiting for the body to send feelers to the mind, that it is time to throw in the towel. Her situation, though, is slightly different. It's been six years since a Grand Slam's second Saturday saw a triumphant Davenport smile, even though she was No. 1, before Kim Clijsters took over.

Unfortunately for her, she belongs to an era where tennis players arrive before their pimples do. If she wasn't on the other side of 30, three Grand Slams, besides having been No. 1 at the end of 2004 and 2005, are good enough to pull down the shutters on retirement queries. But at this age, she will have to sneak in a Slam, somehow. "I'm going with the flow. I feel when the time is right to stop, it will be flashing in neon lights for me, like this is it.

It could be this year, it could be next year, I have no idea. Anyone in their profession seems to think it's fairly clear when it's the right time. I haven't had that moment of clarity," said Davenport after her Indian Wells loss to Martina Hingis.

Both these players are obviously delaying the inevitable. A few people might claim that we are being a tad too harsh. After all, Agassi could have walked away with the 2005 US Open, if it hadn't been for Fed Ex. When adolescents with overflowing hormones and energy run out of steam against the genius, this is a 35-year-old man, who actually managed to sneak a set from under the Swiss man's racket.

And Davenport, to her credit did enter two finals last year, and even had match-point against Venus Williams at Wimbledon. But the question here is not their ability to win, but their ability to keep wanting and trying to win, even after a loss. Both might have retired if they had triumphed last year, but they didn't, and there are no ifs and buts in sport.

If they decide to dismiss age as a mere number, the younger generation thinks so, too. The respect for the likes of Agassi, Davenport and Mary Pierce is slowly being replaced by thoughts that these people were great, but now, surely, beatable.

Perhaps it would do well for them to pull down their own curtains, take it easy a bit, spend some quality time with the spouse and the juniors, let the joints and the bones get used to a bit of normal rhythm, and then, come back, which they surely will. Why will they come back?

Because they can, and because this sport, more than any other, will allow them to return, and will welcome them with open arms. Sans expectations, they will enjoy the sport like they could never do in their prime. Sceptics need only to set their eyes on John McEnroe, Martina Navratilova, Martina Hingis, and in the future, Pete Sampras.

But even if the Agassis and the Davenports of today decide to walk towards the sunset, never to return, we have enough and more thrilling memories of the denim to white, brat to blameless Las Vegan's penguin-like waltz around the court, and the droopy shouldered Californian's utter disregard of the short ball.

They deserve their right to decide when to go.

* * * ANDRE AGASSI PLAYED Career: 1134. Won: 865. Lost: 269. TITLES WON

Career: 60. 2005 & 2006: 1 (Los Angeles, July '05). Grand Slams: 8. (Last Grand Slam: 2003 Australian Open).

* * * LINDSAY DAVENPORT PLAYED Career: 887. Won: 704. Lost: 183. TITLES WON

Career: 51. 2005 & 2006: 2005-6, 2006-none. Grand Slams: 3. (Last Grand Slam: 2000 Australian Open).