Tuesday, 26 June 2012

In Seventh Heaven

[The two finalists at the French Open 2012, Nole with the runners-up plate and Rafa with the trophy he nearly owns.]
And history is created! Rafael 'Rafa' Nadal pipped Novak 'Nole' Djokovic two Sundays prior, to capture his seventh French Open crown, and in the process providing decisive evidence to settle the question of who is the greatest clay-courter of all time, him of Björn Borg.  As I had mentioned in an older post, that after capturing the title at Monte Carlo by beating Nole after 7 straight losses in finals, Rafa surely had gotten a bit of his confidence back, and beating Nole again in the Rome final further boosted it. At the start of the French Open, his favourite tournament where he has achieved tremendous success, it looked like he was back to his usual invincible and destructive form, storming through the draw, dropping no set en route to the final and thrashing some of the best claycourters, his own countrymen, Nicolas Almagro and David Ferrer, like one does flies with a swatter. His shoes, the left one with '6' emblazoned, for the six titles he has won there, and the right one with his stylized bull, he seemed to make his intentions clear. In the final, waiting for him was Nole, who in contrast, had to work really hard to get there, having two tough five-setters in the fourth set (he was down 2 sets to 0) and quarters, but surprisingly beating Federer rather comfortably in the semis. It was the first time in the men's game that two same opponents contested the finals at four consecutive Grand Slams. Nole was bidding to win his fourth consecutive Grand Slam, to become only the third man to hold all four of them at the same time, just like Rafa was bidding to do at the Australian Open in 2011. However, he was denied.

[Nadal ready to charge and batter the ball. Again he opts for bright fluorescent colours that many would shy away from wearing, although he carries it off really well; just love his shoes.]
It would have been amazing to see Nole get that record and join the elite club of Don Budge and Rod Laver, but being a die-hard Nadal fan, I wished for something different. Right from the start of the match, Nadal looked like the better player, serving better and bigger, hitting massive forehands and defending his territory and crown with increased tenacity. He was playing from god knows how many feet behind the baseline, yet would make it to the net to return a delicate drop-shot played by the Serb. His body language was far more positive, and the pressure of the fourth consecutive Grand Slam on the Serb was pretty evident. However, he too played some classy shots and did not shy away from taking risks and providing entertainment to the delight of the French crowd, after all everyone wants their money's worth. There were a lot of break of serves in the match but, Nadal always seemed to get the break and then hold his own when it mattered the most, him winning the first two sets. In the second set when Nole let Rafa break his serve to lead 4-3, he got so angry he smashed his racquet into the chair which had Perrier written on it, much to the joy of the crowd. Wonder if Perrier can sue him for that!

With Nole looking agitated and Rafa going from strength to strength it looked like the match would be a short one, and for a third time Rafa would win the title without losing a set. However, when he was leading 2-0 in the third, Nole found that extra something and raced away with the 6 games in that set, and the first 2 of the fourth set as well, much to my shock and amazement. It seemed as if Rafa wasn't doing much! There had already been a rain delay before and another one came in at 2-1 in Nole's favour in the fourth set, but not before the best rally ever that I had seen, a 44 point gem, where at multiple stages you thought that it is going to end now, oh there is no way he can return that ball, how did he fetch that... ultimately Nole winning it. The second rain delay forced the final to be continued on Monday. That was disappointing, because we had all gathered at my friend's place and it was getting really late, close to midnight, and we didn't wanna impose, for it was a big group of people, nor did we want to miss even a minute of the match should it start. We all left his place after waiting for quite some time, after we made him promise he would update all of us if the match started again and we still hadn't reached our respective houses. With the kind of money these tournaments generate, why can't they put a decent roof up, at least on the main show courts, to avoid such delays and disruptions, especially when they know how whimsical their weather is?

[An emotional Nadal breaking into tears after winning a historic seventh French crown. Wow, those are some washboard abs!
That was the lovely watch that got stolen. Inspector Jacques Clouseau, where are thee when thy country needs thee the most?]
Luckily, it didn't start that day. On Monday, it seemed like the new day had helped Rafa regain his composure which he had lost briefly for a set. He exploded from the get go and after a couple of ups and downs, finally claimed the set 7-5 and with it the title. Rafa got emotional after the win, breaking into tears and then jumping into the crowd to greet and hug his family and friends - coach and uncle Toni Nadal, his father Sebastián Nadal, his girlfriend Maria Francisca Perello (Xisca), and his friend, compatriot  and Los Angeles Lakers player Pau Gasol, with whom he had a touching moment, and others. He, with the trophy by his side, even posed with a whole bunch of them, for who gets to that elusive seven!  Nole spoke a large portion of his speech in French. Nadal followed suit, giving his entire speech in French for the first time, which pleased the crowd, but maybe not that much, for his watch was stolen; luckily it was recovered later. The French have a reputation for being rude, although I have never encountered that in France, but thieves! And that too in under the watchful eyes of hundreds of spectators and cameras, that takes guts and audacity! Maybe a job for Inspector Jacques Clouseau. This was Rafa's seventh title, helping him edge past the Swede Björn Borg's six. Nadal now is the only player to win the French Open seven times, and shares the record for winning any major that many times with Pete Sampras, who won an equal number of Wimbledons. With Rafa being only 26 years old, and at least half a decade of tennis left in him, it looks like he may win a whole bunch of other majors. The title boosted his Major wins to eleven, putting him in fourth place on the all-time list, tying him with Borg and Laver. Rafa is also the only player to win three different tournaments more than seven times, after winning the Monte Carlo title and the Barcelona title earlier this year for a record eighth and seventh time respectively. No one has even won two tournaments seven times. Such is his genius and dominance!

[Nadal biting the trophy in his typical trophy. No one has bitten La Coupe des Mousquetaires more than him.]
With Wimbledon already under way, and as I has stated in my previous post, that this being an Olympic year, I hope Rafa regains his Wimbledon title and defends the Olympic Gold, after all that is a title whose points you enjoy for four whole years. Federer's love for the grass courts at Wimbledon is no secret, and with age not on his side (this will most probably be his last Olympics), he will be pushing harder than ever to win the one thing that has eluded his glorious career, a Singles Gold Medal. The ex-Federer fan in me wants him to win Wimbledon so that he can equal Pete Sampras' record for seven titles and also for the number of weeks spent as World Number 1. Federer is at 285 weeks, and just one short of equalling Sampras' record. I just want him to get that, so as to put an end to the debate as to who is a better player, him or Sampras, for Federer is undoubtedly the greatest the game has seen, given that he won all majors, even the French Open once and finished as runners-up on four occasions, while Sampras could only manage to reach the semis, that too, just once. Let Federer beat Sampras' records, and Rafa is most certainly going to get there. He won't get the number of weeks at the top record, but he will easily end up with the most Majors. Hope the Wimbledon and Olympics have plenty of amazing tennis.
[Rafa posing with his prized 'possession'. Is it just me, or does he look like a lot like the pictures of Jesus Christ with his long flowing hair?]

[Cheers to Sania Mirza and Mahesh Bhupathi for capturing the French Open Mixed Doubles crown; left on her own, Sania could have never even won any Major, and finally Hesh breaks the jinx of not winning a Mixed Open crown with the same partner again.]

Saturday, 23 June 2012

This can't be the end for the Williamses

[The Williams sisters - Serena and Venus.]
A father passing by the closed door of his teenage son's room, hears something not too pleasing. His anger boils and he barges in thundering, "What the hell are you doing? Watching porn?", only to have his anger subside and turn to embarrassment and laughter as he realises his son was watching a tennis match between the Williams sisters, their grunts louder than airplanes, reverberating through the room. His initial reaction was justified given the way they grunt and moan while playing just the most amazing tennis.

Growling and grunting, fists and muscles pumping, abs stretched, running down every ball and returning it with such venom and power that it makes the opponent cower, and serving up aces that slice the air faster than a bullet departing a gun, intimidating and scaring opponents, surely you are talking about the likes of Nadal or Djokovic? Well, in this case no. All of the aforementioned statements hold equally true in case of the Williams sisters - Venus and Serena. Two of the most fierce competitors to step onto a tennis court, they have revolutionised the rather slow women's game with their powerful groundstrokes, heavy hitting, most consistent and fastest serve, arguably the best, and the ability to perform at Grand Slams and other important tournaments unlike any other. They play a rather 'high risk' style of tennis, going for the big shots and for the kill each time rather than prolonging the rallies, and are more often than not rewarded. I like to call Serena, the rhino for her aggression, power, bulk and the way she charges down the court, while Venus I call the horse for her slender frame, long legs, higher stamina for longer rallies and amazing court coverage. They are the ones who decide the outcome of nearly every match - winning by their superior performance or losing by a poor show, very rarely giving the opponent a chance to decide the outcome of a match by a superior showing. Almost every time, it revolves around them.

[The sisters in doubles action at the 2010 Wimbledon, the last major they won together.]
They have dominated the women's game for more than a decade. Serena the winner of 13 Singles (sixth on the all-time list), 12 Doubles and 2 Mixed Doubles Grand Slams, the most of any active player on tour, male or female, and has also won 2 Olympics Doubles Golds, while Venus has 7 Singles, 12 Doubles and 2 Mixed Doubles Grand Slams in her kitty, the second highest among active players, only behind her younger sister, and also winning 2 Olympics Doubles Golds and a Singles Gold. Serena has won over $ 36 million in prize money, the highest among women athletes and fourth highest among all players, and is trailed among women by Venus, who has over $ 28 million in prize money. During their careers, 4 times have they held the number one and two rankings in singles, the latest being in 2010 and have also held the top spot in the doubles rankings in 2010. They were the first pair of tennis players, and until this year's French Open when Nadal and Djokovic matched their feat the only pair, to contest four consecutive Grand Slam Singles finals from the 2002 French Open to the 2003 Australian Open, with Serena winning all of them. Since 2000, every Wimbledon save two, featured at least one of the sisters, them winning the title nine times out of ten finals, four of which were contested between the two! Need anyone say more?

[Eyes fixed on the ball during a match at the 2009 US Open.]
Nearly every tournament they contest, they are among the hot favourites, although why they do not perform at their best at minor tournaments escapes me; but as long as they outshine the rest at the Grand Slams, who cares, for it is ultimately these that are remembered for generations. However, right from the start of their careers, their game was riddled with injuries, reducing the number of tournaments they play drastically, sometimes being out of action for months on end. In 2011, both the sisters were out of action with life-threatening diseases, not knowing whether they would be able to hold a racquet again, but thankfully they did. All this leading to slip and rankings and the rise of other players. However, the truth remains, as long as there is a Williams in the tournament, she will be among the favourites.

This year they both played fewer tournaments, although Serena won 2 tournaments before the French Open, while Venus made quarter-final appearances at some tournaments. They looked in fine form to offer a tough fight at the French Open, with Serena being a title favourite, however she lost in the first round to local hero Virginie Razzano (ranked a lowly 111 in the world), although Serena was up in the second set and just 2 points away from victory an astounding nine times in that set! She looked emotionally unstable, and even while she was still leading in  the second set, she broke down, her eyes welling up and the usually aggressive fierce athlete, who has scared not only opponents, but also line judges and chair umpires, looked a shadow of her former self making far too many unforced errors and having her massive serve desert her. It was her first loss at the first round of any Grand Slam in her entire career, that is, one loss after making the second round 46 straight times! Virginie had the crowd behind her, but she lost in the next round itself. I hate it when some nondescript player ousts a favourite, has their 2 minutes of fame, never to be seen again, but in their single most important victory, change the course of the tournament; not that Maria Sharapova did not deserve to win it. She, who has described herself on clay as 'a cow on ice' played a much consistent game throughout the tournament, and even though I do not like her that much, I would agree that she deserved to complete a Career Grand Slam. Serena was also competing in the mixed doubles at the French Open this year, for the first time since 1999, with compatriot Bob Bryan, but unfortunately lost there too in the first round. Venus too did not play well losing in the second round in singles to Agnieska Radwanska.

Does that mean there are done and dusted? Serena, aged 30, and Venus, 32, are certainly past the prime years in an individual game like tennis, and with it becoming increasingly competitive and with the emergence of youngsters, it looks like they have a tough task ahead of them in their twilight years. Roger Federer at 31 surely seems to be way past his prime, not winning a major since the 2010 Australian Open, and struggling against the top two players, although you want him to win a couple of more Grand Slams. However, with the Williams sisters it is different, having spent a lot more time on tour and at the highest stages of competition, they have far more experience and firepower to overcome any obstacle. They, and probably Sharapova and Samantha Stosur seem to be the only female players playing a power game, having enough strength to compete even in the mens draw. Maybe another round of Battle of the Sexes is due. When Serena, my favourite tennis player, though not many of friends agree with me there, won the 2010 Wimbledon, I remember someone posting on Facebook, "Soon a man will have more Grand Slams than Federer", and expecting it to say Nadal, again my favourite, I scrolled down to realise, it was a joke aimed at Serena! That can surely be possible, (no sexist undertones there), given that she probably has bigger muscles than every male player save Nadal.

[One of those rare occasions when their fashion sense appealed to me.]
Many people may have written the two sisters off as old, and particularly Serena as too fat to win (when in fact that is all muscle), but I certainly have not. I may not like their fashion sense (it is just hideous), or Serena's verbal rants (she has anger management issues, clearly), but of one thing I am certain, that they are among the best players, and Serena is most certainly the best active player. She lent the women's game stability after Justine Henin's sudden and premature retirement in 2008 (why did the little genius have to retire? I liked her even more then Serena), when in its aftermath, the world number one position changed five different pair of hands more than five times, until she claimed it and cemented her position at the top, and since her injury-laden off season again was held by a bunch of different players. The last 6 Grand Slams were won by all different women, 4 of them winning their maiden Grand Slams. Change and variety are good, but beyond a point it becomes annoying. With Wimbledon starting day after tomorrow, their favourite tournament, and this year being a special one with the Olympics at Wimbledon on grass, where they have achieved tremendous success, one can only hope that they perform their best, in what may be their last Olympics appearance. I want nothing more than an all Willaims final at Wimbledon with Serena clinching the title and them winning the Doubles title there too, competing together after two years, but more than that I want Serena to win the one important thing she has never, an Olympics Singles Gold and also get a Mixed Doubles Gold, making a return for the first time in the Olympics since 1924. The phoenix shall rise again!

[Serena roaring during the 2010 Wimbledon final.]
God speed to the goddesses!

[Hope the Indian doubles players sort out their own mess before the Olympics and send a team that can win us a medal.]

Sunday, 17 June 2012

An Atheist beholds Divinity

For someone who is an agnostic atheist, the words God or divinity are rather incoherent, their meaning and usage restricted to exclude the very thing they represent! However, three Saturdays prior, that changed to some extent! I finally got to meet God, well not one, but actually two Gods! I beheld divinity in it's truest form and boy was I thrilled and touched to my very core.

[Can a better concert please stand up?]
It was my last examination that Saturday, the 26th of May 2012, and as I had mentioned in my previous post, I was in my "crazy-exam-wackadoodle-mode", and two weeks of studies had drained me enough. However, this time around, I was looking forward to something more exciting than the post-examination careless enjoyment with gay abandon, that evening A. R. Rahman was coming to town! It was probably his first time in Bombay and I was thrilled beyond belief. I am a huge fan of him, and have been one ever since I heard his music in Roja, the first film in which he provided music that was also released in Hindi! His music is so fresh, entertaining, something that transcends everything touching your heart (I would have said soul, but my atheistic beliefs prevented me) and transporting you into a completely different world, music that makes you want to live in a musical, breaking into happy dances every now and then, no matter your environment. Fifteen Filmfare Awards, four National Awards, two Academy Awards, two Grammys, one Golden Globe, one BAFTA and Padma Bhushan, India's third highest civilian honour, need we say more for the Mozart of Madras, the God of Music?

I was so excited, that I had planned the whole thing much before the day of the concert. The minute I glanced at the advertisement in the newspaper, I had decided that I was going to go, come hell or high water and made some frantic calls gathering  a motley crowd, that included my mother and brother, his girlfriend and family, cousins, friends and friends of friends, most of them not having met each other before (although we did have an insane amount of fun), everyone united by their love for Rahman's music. Everything was planned and that day, I rushed through my examination, not that I needed to, but the anticipation was too much to bear, and even though it was a theory paper, I surprisingly finished my paper with 46 minutes to spare and a hardened finger-tip from the speed and intensity with which I had written; and past experience had taught me that going through your answers is always a disaster, resulting in you changing right ones to wrong, so I left. I was picked up from my examination centre, as planned, and we made our way to the D. Y. Patil Stadium, a novel way to stage a concert. We reached way too early, for the seating was on a first come first serve basis, and we wanted decent seats. The tickets we had bought were for ₹ 1800, which was a lot for a 3 hour concert, but it's Rahman, the god of music and don't you pay a similar amount for the 'VIP Darshan' at Tirupati? We had to wait in the swooning summer heat for about 2 hours before they opened the gates and let us in. Our seats were on the field, with some other rows in front of us, and a majority behind us, so we had a good view of the stage. Even the seats on the stands were up for sale, for a much lesser amount, given how far they were.

[The stage so beautifully lit.]
By 6 in the evening the whole stadium seemed packed, but the sun hadn't mellowed down that much, not only annoying the hell out of the anxious crowd, but also raising tempers, for many in the crowds had already started picking fights over miniscule issues! One snooty lady with an extremely fake accent, oh I hate those wannabes, reminding me of that bimbo who had come to watch The Vagina Monologues, who always arrive late and want decent seats, argued for a really long time with some other poor group where one of them had left his seats briefly to attend nature's call. Late comers can't be choosers! But, that was our Schadenfreude, at least until the rock-star arrived. We also stuffed ourselves with food and drinks, high in price, low in quantity, and and even below low in quality! However, we didn't wait for long. It was scheduled to start at 18:30 hours, which for some reason never happens, but they started at 19:00 hours nevertheless, and Rahman being the thorough gentleman that he is, took to the stage without any further delay. He didn't act like various other artists who get mediocre talent to start proceedings and then arrive for not even half the time promised!

[Rahman in action. The voice of God is indeed sweet!]
He started off with Nadaan Parinday from Rockstar, I just like one song from the film Tum Ho, but the whole atmosphere is so spell-binding, you find yourself instantly humming the tune and your feet tapping, and before you know it, you're on your feet swaying and dancing, as if an elven lady hath cast a spell bewitching on thee! He and his troupe of artistes sang many gems such as Ishq Bina, Rang De Basanti and Roobaroo, the brilliant Roja title track, of course he had to sing Jai Ho, which I don't particularly like a lot, Dil Se, Jiya Jale, Ting Ling (this was the worst! Is it even a song?) and Sadda Haq, which again I don't like very much, but the raging crowd sure did not agree with me on that one, for when he sang the latter, everyone was up on their seats, invigorated and passionate! He also sung a couple of Tamil songs, which weren't that bad. One of my favourite songs and the best one that night was Lukka Chhuppi. It was so touching and they screened a video of the great Lata Mangeshkar singing it in the back, which was a nice touch. I wish they had done the same for Asha Bhonsale's Jiya Jale, but I was disappointed.

[An animated Mohit Chauhan.]
Rahman was accompanied by many artists, but the catch of the night were Mohit Chauhan and Javed Ali, who won many hearts with their voices. Rahman even called two college kids, who produced alien, but amazing music from their throats. However, the most marvelous performance was the jugalbandi between violinist Ann Marie Calhoun and sitarist Asad Khan; the performance gave me goosebumps, especially Asad's notes, which were just out of this world! That spell-binding performance made me want to learn the sitar next, that is, after I can produce some sound out of the flute that I own and violin which is next on my list. They changed the stage a couple of times to suit the medley of songs, of which the qawwalis were the clear winner. They had the singers seated on mattresses in chaste white clothing, with Rahman on the harmonium, and the background had lovely images reminiscent of a dargah and arches typical of Islamic architecture. The whole Sufi atmosphere brought me to the verge of theism! They started with Arziyan from Delhi 6, a true gem, and then moved on to Khwaja Mere Khwaja, Kun Faya Kun and other mystic tracks. It was just ethereal. The lasers and lighting was amazing throughout the concert and added to the magic of the night.

[Two of the greatest sons of India.]
The most special part of the night was when midway through the concert they announced that a very special guest was present there and that person would be called on stage. Now of course, it is no secret that a lot of stars and starlets attend such mega events, and everyone expected someone like Ranbir Kapoor to come since they were doing a lot of tracks from Rockstar. However, it was a wonderful surprise when they announced that the special guest was none other than the greatest cricketer of all time, Sachin Tendulkar. The minute his name was announced, before he could even get on the stage, the echoes of "Sachin Sachin" shook the stadium. Everyone was on their feet, many of us on our seats, and just chanting his name. The crowd relented only to give him a chance to speak, and as soon as he was done, the started again It was unbelievable to witness the kind of support, love and adulation he commands! I've seen him up close when he had come for an ad-shoot in my building, and have seen  the frenzy even when he is at the non-striker's end in a cricket match, but to behold the euphoria he generated at a non-cricketing event is un-fricking-realistic! He truly is the only India who can command unopposed respect and support. The crowd was in a delirium, witnessing two gods, together, praising each other, two individuals, who are true gentlemen, simple, humble and down to earth beings bereft of controversy, beloved by all and above all securing the love and deference of the masses, excelling beyond expectation and imagination in their respective fields and two of the greatest sons of India bringing it glory and pride like none other. They should most certainly be awarded the Bharat Ratna, none deserve it more; but more on that in a later post.

The concert went on till 10 in the night as promised (Damn the curfew restricting loud music beyond 10!). Rahman performed the whole three hours and did not act like many stars who perceive that time spent on stage shares an inversely proportional relation to their stardom. Fools! That is what sets him apart from the rest. If he wasn't singing, he was playing some or the other instrument, but his presence was throughout the show. I was amazed at how many instruments he could play with ease and finesse, the weirdest being a guitar with piano keys. The night ended with him singing one of the most moving patriotic songs, his rendition of Vande Mataram! It was spectacular. Although I was a little disappointed that he didn't my favourite Rahman number, the oh-so-moving and getting-tears-to-your-eye-song, Yeh Jo Des Hai Tera from Swades. But then again, he has so many great songs to his credit, that he must have been confused as to what to pick and what not to pick.All in all, a wonderful three hours spent, where we were awed, moved and uplifted to a different world, where our passions were ignited, all worldly cares and troubles obliterated, and we were left with joy and ebullience. One of the best concerts ever! That's the closest an atheist like me could have come to divinity and God, thanks to the two present there! Do not miss it the next time he comes to your city or the attendees and the youTube videos shall make you regret that for a really long time.