On top of the game: age and injuries no bar

columns Updated: Nov 30, 2018 20:31 IST
Soumya Bhattacharya
Soumya Bhattacharya
Hindustan Times
Autobiographies,Shane Warne,Rafael Nadal

(left) Novak Djokovic of Serbia with Rafael Nadal of Spain and Roger Federer of Switzerland during the ATP Heritage Celebration in New York, 2013. (Getty Images)

Autobiographies of sportspersons tend to be anodyne. Just as official interactions with them are mediated, and full of platitudes, autobiographies, too, have become another form of a mediated encounter, a whirring of the PR wheels, an output of the spin factory. The 2015 documentary on Cristiano Ronaldo is a classic example. It not so much revealed a glimpse of who Ronaldo really is, but showed us who Ronaldo thinks we should believe he is.

There are exceptions. John McEnroe’s autobiography, Serious; Andre Agassi’s Open; and Tony Adams’s Addicted are intimate and forthright and offer readers and fans insights they did not have. Shane Warne’s just published autobiography, No Spin, despite its many flaws (too long, too digressive), is an addition to that sub genre.

No Spin is good in several respects (the art of leg spin, the challenges of captaincy), but it is particularly astute about one thing: how injuries affect a top player, how they play havoc as much with his body as his mind. We, as fans, may understand and appreciate the game. We may be obsessively preoccupied with it. But, reading Warne, we realise that it is impossible to be intuitive about how things really work in the mind of an elite player.

Warne, having undergone surgeries to his finger and shoulder (the two most important things physically to a leg spinner) was no stranger to injuries. He talks about how difficult it is to rediscover one’s rhythm on coming back from injury, how hard the most basic things seem, how remote all the guile and trickery that once came so easily appear.

With this, comes a crippling lack of confidence. This is a vicious cycle. Warne says that on return from injury, he felt he was no longer the bowler he used to be. He worried that his opponent had figured this out as well, and no longer feared him as he once did. That, in turn, gnawed further away at his confidence, and diminished him still more. It is harrowing.

How do sportspersons who have been hit by grievous injuries ever recover their top game?

Think about Diego Maradona. In September 1983, already the most talented and expensive young footballer in the world, Maradona, playing for Barcelona against Athletic Bilbao, was scythed down on the pitch by Antoni Goikoetxea, the defender who came to be known as the Butcher of Bilbao. “I just felt the impact, heard the sound, like a piece of wood cracking, and realised immediately what had happened,” Maradona writes in his autobiography, El Diego. “…I said, weeping, ‘I’m broken, I’m broken.’”

But Maradona did not allow this devastating injury to break him. He put himself back together again. Less than three years later, in arguably the greatest exhibition of solo virtuosity in football on a world stage, he led Argentina to victory in the World Cup in Mexico.

Think, most of all, about three men who, between them, have dominated their sport for more than a decade now. Between them, they have held off the charge of the next generation, proving that ageing need not be synonymous with dwindling. Three men whose careers have been ravaged by injuries. And who have coped with them, battled them as well as their inner demons, rediscovered their magic, and risen again to rule their sport.

Think about Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, and Roger Federer. This past Tuesday, the trio ended the year ranked Numbers 1, 2, and 3, the first time the three have occupied the top spots since 2014. (They did that, every year, between 2007 and 2011.) This year, they shared the year’s four majors between them (Djokovic won Wimbledon and the US Open; Nadal the French Open; and Federer the Australian Open). Each of the three was Number 1 at some point of time or the other in 2018.

Djokovic’s revival has been stunning. Number 12 at the end of 2017, outside the top 20 at one point this year, an elbow injury threatening to end his career, he has burned a hot streak, all snap and bite and elasticity of limb and resoluteness of purpose, ending 2018 where few could have imagined when he announced an injury induced long break from the game in July 2017.

Nadal, who recently said his travails with injuries (knee, shoulder) have been worse than those of Djokovic and Federer, had to pull out of his US Open semi final in September. He has not played since, and had surgery on his ankle this month. And yet here he is so close to the summit, having produced a year of near perfection.

Federer has, since 2013, been persistently troubled by his back and knee. He had surgery in 2016. He opted out of the tour for long periods, managed his playing time, and prolonged his unique career. In 2017, ranked Number 17, he won the Australian Open, his first major win since 2012. Who would have thought? A remarkable late efflorescence saw him follow that up with another major win in 2018, and a march up the rankings.

How did any of them ever do this? Reading Warne’s account of what injury does to a player, even the very best of them, the achievements of this particular trio seem truly staggering.

We have been lucky to have them around at the peak of their powers for so long. Let us enjoy their longevity and dominance while they last.

Spinoff will appear every fortnight

First Published: Nov 30, 2018 20:31 IST