The triumphs & tragedies

Sania Mirza-R.V. MOORTHY

No athlete perhaps lifted the mood or dazzled the senses more in 2005 than Ronaldinho , whose feet own an intelligence that qualifies them for a footballing Mensa.

IT IS the end of 2005 but sport has not stopped, it rarely does these days. Andre Agassi vomiting after training one Christmas Day is a particularly pungent reminder. At best, a hasty renewal of a tired body is allowed, a small time found for a reflective silence away from the drumbeat of competition. As statisticians ink antiseptic new notations into record books to be wondered at by future generations, athletes will reflect on 12 months abruptly gone.

Did the mind stay disciplined or disappoint, did the body surge or fail, did technique stand the test or falter? Young athletes will smile easier for time is precious and they have it; older ones will look nervously at the calendar turning on their lives. India's top batsmen are in their 30s and will know what we mean. Mistakes hurt, they wound, for the clock does not turn back.

Always athletes will ask themselves at year's end: were we faithful to our gifts? The best do not lie. Michael Schumacher does not believe so, he has cancelled his Christmas holidays; he did not win, he does not deserve it. Sania Mirza may believe so in a year in which she flirted with the unforgettable, but her holidays are spent with a stranger named Tony Roche on court. Tiger Woods sends out his newsletter by email, and says: "People keep asking me if I can improve. Are you kidding? You never get there." The route to any success is slippery with sweat.

Of course, when God was serving out talents to man, Ronaldinho evidently dribbled past Him to grab a second helping. As he once said: "God gives gifts to everyone. Some can write, some can dance. He gave me the skill to play football and I am making the most of it." Put that down as understatement.

No athlete perhaps lifted the mood or dazzled the senses more in 2005 than the buck-toothed Brazilian at Barcelona, whose feet own an intelligence that qualifies them for a footballing Mensa. Not that his other body parts sit idle either. Once he carries the ball past two players on his chest. Another time he passes with the back of his neck.

There is such an effortless music to his play that Frank Lampard, second in voting to the Brazilian in both the European and World footballer of the year award, says, simply: "He is the player the players love to watch." At Real Madrid's Bernabeu, where Barcelona is viewed as the visiting devil, Ronaldinho earns a standing ovation, a gesture last accorded in those parts to a fellow named Diego Maradona.

This world being enraptured by a coloured Brazilian soothed the senses somewhat for despite a preening about globalisation, sport has become increasingly insular. Jingoism is no longer an exception, neither is parochialism. Black soccer players constantly face vile monkey chants across Europe; Indian cricketers have been taunted in Calcutta, South African cricketers suffered racist taunts in Australia. More and more, too, the result has begun to obscure the beauty of the process. After all, still we are not sure if walking in cricket is a virtue.

Still, always there is hope, that most powerful of sporting aphrodisiacs. England won the Ashes, Kim Clijsters won a Grand Slam title and Maradona no longer resembled a grounded blimp, and as the year began who would dare believe it.

While Australia's cricketing fall brought glee from nations unequal to them for so long, it could not obscure the outstanding standard they had stayed married to for a decade. Perhaps they had run out of lands to conquer. Clijsters' win carried its own romance; for too long and too naively it has been said nice girls don't win, and her triumph suggested that there is at least some justice in sport.

Most stirring perhaps was Liverpool's surge from 3-0 down in the Champions League final to win, and you did need to wear red to be moved. Few things in life are more compelling than the athlete stoked by an invisible desire, the valorous team propelling itself beyond what once seemed the impossible. "We lost in six minutes of madness," cried AC Milan coach Carlo Ancellotti. Sport, so beautiful, so terrible. Across the oceans, the Chicago White Sox won baseball's World Series. They had been waiting 88 years!

No year of celebration is complete without heartbreak, and this, too, gives us pause. George Best finally went to his maker, this scarred genius lamented by all, a reminder that gifts must be treasured amidst all manner of distraction. Tyson the fearless now became Tyson the fearful, the bruiser now reduced to quitting mid-fight, his departure signalled by a telling admission: "I don't have the guts to be in this sport any more." Elsewhere Greece, champions of Europe, failed to even make the World Cup, proving again that sport offers no guarantee.

In a year when Michelle Wie found $10 million worth of endorsements before hitting a professional ball, a football was designed with a chip which resulted in a referee's watch vibrating when the ball crossed the goal-line and Ian Thorpe decided 4.15 am alarm calls had become boring and took the year off to rejuvenate himself, the main storylines were still reserved for familiar figures.

Tiger Woods, Annika Sorenstam, Lance Armstrong, motorcycle maestro Valentino Rossi, Roger Federer and pole vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva demonstrated that while perfection does not exist the whole idea remains to pursue it. Rossi has been world champion, in one class or another, in 1997, 1999, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005. Isinbayeva, with a beautiful head for heights, is Olympic champion, world champion, European champion, and this year became the first woman above five metres. Phew!

"I feel like I am playing history and not just my opponents," said Federer, and indeed he was. For him history was Sampras, for Tiger it was Jack Nicklaus, and on court they single-mindedly chased these ghosts of the past. Armstrong chased nobody. He created history and retired.

Federer and Tiger are interesting, for one's excellence is artistic, the other's almost mechanical, yet both provide an equal thrill. There is no one way to play, or to please. Tiger's feat was to emerge from a slump, Federer's to replicate an astonishing year, and who is to say which journey was more arduous.

Woods was the more interesting for he was the definition of the athlete searching to improve himself, willing to temporarily sacrifice even victory in the quest for the elevated game. Having dominated golf, he altered his swing, lost tournaments, and everyone balked. Said the maestro: "I've been criticised for years now. Why would I change my game. This is why." First, second, first and fourth in the majors this year.

Both Federer and Woods were important for other reasons, their excellence untouched by innuendo, the ingredients of their success all natural fibre not artificial substance. In a time when some athletes even called for legalised doping, an absurdity not worth arguing, we required such comforting. Argentine tennis players began to be viewed with suspicion and Tim Montgomery retired in disgrace. Fortunately the American sprinter was already the former world 100 metres record holder, Asafa Powell having crossed that distance in 9.77 seconds in April. There is no joy to sport when we are unsure if it is not real.

What was the real deal was Indian, a ball-thrashing teenager with the devil-may-care attitude once associated with a fellow named Lochinvar. Sania Mirza's ascension could be told in numbers, but even her rise from No. 206 at the end of 2004 to a high of No. 31 in October 2005 did not adequately reveal the fierce confidence she owned and the desire she wore like a perfume. Here was substance that did not require any hype. Too much was written about her being Muslim, about role models, and short skirts; this is an 18-year-old girl, just out of school, trying to play tennis. No more should be asked of her.

Less successful but in a way no less ground-breaking was Narain Karthikeyan, adding India to the geography of Formula One, suggesting that with time his fast feet and fast hands would mature into something interesting. Mahesh Bhupathi's limbs have not completely lost their quickness either, and he pulled Mary Pierce to a Wimbledon mixed doubles title.

Hockey was fussed over but, alas, stayed on life support and it has become an embarrassment. V. Anand did not fuss at all, it is not his style, a maker of quiet moves with substantial impact. He is a genial fellow, but across a chess board a consistent menace. A fourth chess Oscar was one recognition of the esteem with which he is held universally. It might be remembered that only Garry Kasparov has been similarly honoured.

For a brief while we were wonderfully distracted from cricket, in which controversy shoulder-charged performance from the headlines. We had a new captain, a new coach, a new cricket chief, and while change is always significant in India it is also endlessly dramatic. Chappell and Ganguly both showed an unfamiliarity with discretion, one through an email, the other through an utterance at a press conference. Despite numerous protestations to the contrary, there was no going back from there.

Tendulkar pulled himself to 35 Test centuries, Kumble to 100 Tests, men of such triumphant discipline, of grand sacrifice, from whom we have evidently learnt nothing. Instead we embarrassed ourselves with our handling of Ganguly's future, and as much as the former captain was deserving of sympathy still Indian cricket continued to put sentiment before performance.

Even Steve Waugh, a unique cricketing conqueror, was given his marching orders; great teams must move forward but India struggles to put away its past in every way. One year Indian cricket will figure out what greatness entails. This was not that year.