The Aussie fighting spirit

IN a contest that assumed the contours of an epic, Australia, powered by the pugnacity and perseverance of Mark Philippoussis, conquered Spain to take the Davis Cup at Melbourne last week.

IN a contest that assumed the contours of an epic, Australia, powered by the pugnacity and perseverance of Mark Philippoussis, conquered Spain to take the Davis Cup at Melbourne last week. Australia's 28th victory in a competition perceived as the pinnacle of team tennis not only symbolised the return of the trophy to the country after four years but, more importantly, came as a balm to the wounded Australian psyche after the disastrous defeat against England in the World Cup Rugby final a few days earlier in Sydney.

What really made the rangy Mark Philippoussis a national hero in a team effort after he had lost the first singles to Carlos Moya was the remarkable rally against Juan Carlos Ferrero in the deciding set of the fourth rubber, braving a pectoral injury, which was treated after an on court medical check-up. " I did not know what was going on, but thank God everything was going in," remarked the gutsy Australian after he realised the hopes and aspirations of millions of his countrymen.

The country came on the Davis Cup scene in 1905 — the event was on put on boards in 1900 — and has figured in the finals 47 times. It is no surprise, therefore, that tennis, nay sport, has carved out an enchanting tradition and dimension Down Under. Few countries can boast of a star galaxy as Australia in several sports, particularly in tennis. From the marvellous years of Frank Sedgman, Ken Rosewall, Lew Hoad, Ashley Cooper down to the golden age of Rod Laver, Roy Emerson and John Newcombe, to the current crop headed by the enigmatic genius, Lleyton Hewitt, Australian tennis has attracted worldwide attention, and even set the trend for other countries. The genius of Harry Hopman and Neale Fraser in forging winning combinations is also acknowledged widely in competitive tennis.

Till 1972, the Davis Cup, the brain-child of that Harvard man Dwight. F. Davis, was held with the Champion team figuring only in the Challenge Round. But with the number of participating nations increasing every year, a new format was designed to provide a level playing field for every competitor. The Group of 16 is chosen after the preliminary qualifying rounds. It is indeed an irony that Australia, which played its last final in 2001, had to go through the whole process, starting from the qualifier, this time.

Brushing aside India 5-0, the Australians went through a momentous phase in the next four rounds beating Great Britain in Sydney, eliminating Sweden in Malmo, overcoming the tough Swiss, headed by Roger Federer, at Melbourne and finally prevailing over the fighting Spaniards by three matches to one. The sequence of victories clearly illustrates the arduous course the team had weathered with determination under the leadership of John Fitzgerald.

What the Aussie victory in the Davis Cup conveys in essence is the extraordinary value of human endeavour supported by the spirit of challenge and the willingness to work hard to reach set goals. This spirit is reflected not only in the victory achieved in tennis, but in other major sports as well. Is it not true that this quality runs through the entire Aussie cricket squad which is now taking on India in the ongoing cricket series ? Was this not clear when India succumbed in the final of the cricket TVS Cup to Australia? Do we not feel the full force of the Aussie character, as in the fighting spirit of Mark Phiippoussis or in the elegance and efficiency of Steve Waugh, Ricky Ponting and Matthew Hayden? Do we have to remind ourselves about the quality of performances of swimmer Ian Thorpe, or the star quarter-miler, Cathy Freeman?

Posers such as these can be endless, but what they tell eloquently, of course, is that success does not come without hard work. And that the Aussies have courted triumph in more than one sport is simply because they have put their heart and soul into the preparations for reaching the summit. An aberration here or there as in the shape of the troubled genius, Shane Warne, or in the ingenuity of inventing the despicable mode of "sledging," does not take away the overall impression that Australia is among the few countries where the primacy of sport is an established fact. Else, it could not have been the home of the incomparable Don Bradman, a cult figure unsurpassed not only in cricket, but perhaps in all sport.

Lessons to be learnt by India from the Aussies' success in tennis and cricket are many and varied. Basically, it is related to building strength — mental and physical — and then adding up character and temperament to fight it out when the chips are down. There cannot be a better example to pinpoint this Aussie quality among Indian sportsmen than tennis ace Leander Paes, who, unfortunately, had to miss the major part of the season.

Clearly, the Aussie approach to training is well designed and oriented towards reaching the goal within the set time frame. The role played by the Australian Institute of Sports (AIS) is remarkable in this regard. A better interaction with this set-up by Indian agencies will be far more productive and result-oriented than the long-term arrangements with such organisations in Europe or even in the United States.