September 4, 2013

Tendulkar and the pull of love

Why does he keep playing? It has to do with belonging, and an abiding love of the craft, the discipline, and of mastery

Why is Sachin Tendulkar still playing cricket? Why is Roger Federer still playing tennis? With a two-Test series now scheduled for November, there is renewed speculation that Tendulkar may retire after reaching 200 Test caps. Federer, meanwhile, slumped out of the US Open in New York two days ago, defeated by Tommy Robredo, the kind of competent pro Federer has spent his career dispatching with gleeful ruthlessness. In his most recent Test match, Tendulkar was lbw twice to Nathan Lyon, whose steady offspin is roughly equivalent to Robredo's tennis.

Usually these debates descend into an argument about whether the great men have still got the magic, or if the slide away from the top is now inevitable. I am more interested in a subtler, even harder question: what motivates them? How can great athletes, who once dominated their sports, appear to settle for a more subordinate role? Or do they still feel that glories lie around the corner? Can matinee idols become supporting actors? Can gods become men?

The two careers have much in common. Both are global icons who transcend their sport. Within cricket and tennis they are regarded as the most complete players of their generation. At their best, both have touched a kind of serenity that is beyond the imagination, let alone the ability, of even very good players. Both have avoided controversy. They have little left to prove to anyone.

There are undoubted differences. As a Swiss, Federer grew up in country that values privacy and has little tolerance for celebrity culture; he has been able to enjoy his fame. Tendulkar's career, in contrast, has reflected, or even anticipated, the emergence of India as a world power. India's economic liberalisation began in 1991, two years after Tendulkar's Test debut. Excellence alone does not quite make a hero. They need context, too. It was the burgeoning self-confidence of Victorian Britain that made WG Grace more than just a sportsman. So it is with India and Tendulkar.

That is why I've always felt Tendulkar has carried a much greater burden than Federer. And why Federer has tended to lose on his own terms: playing aggressively, sometimes almost with indifference. Not so Tendulkar. In the 2005-06 series against England, for example, his batting was so passive that it seemed almost beneath his talent. He looked fearful of letting anyone down. But we shouldn't forget the cumulative strain of being Tendulkar. As Virat Kohli put it, speaking after India's World Cup triumph in 2011: "Tendulkar has carried the burden of our nation on his shoulders for the past 21 years. So it is time that we carried him."

Even the most well-adjusted sportsman has a subliminal fear of civilian life outside the sporting bubble. A sport, like a religion, gives meaning to its congregation

Both champions have already proved the danger of writing them off. Autumn has been kind to them. In 2010, Tendulkar scored over 1500 Test runs in the calendar year. And just over a year ago, after a prolific season, Federer won Wimbledon for the seventh time and returned to World No. 1. It was deeply moving to watch.

In "Late Style", his famous essay about late bursts of creativity, Edward Said described how "age confers a spirit of reconciliation and serenity on late works". We saw something similar in Zinedine Zidane's almost omniscient displays at the end of his football career - he was part player, part director of the show.

A year ago, I sensed Federer had reached an accommodation with the fact that supremacy was no longer automatic. His manner suggested that he had not so much lowered specific expectations as transcended them. His body language could be translated as saying: "No. 3 in the world, No. 4, No. 1 - yes, each number has meaning within the sport of tennis. But which other sportsman is able to be so gloriously himself? Why would I give this up, why would I not want to entertain as I do, to bring joy around the world, and to myself?" But that spirit has not endured during his recent and far deeper trough of bad form. The last warmth of autumn is fading.

Which brings us back to the first question: why stay? Professional sport makes gruelling demands. Why stay? We can, I think rule out money. Both men have more than enough. And I don't think either wants to be more famous than they already are. If fame is relevant at all, more likely it is fear of celebrity divorced from performance that worries them. There is a huge difference between the roar of a live crowd and the reverence of a charity dinner or a staged television studio audience.

Belonging? This feels a more central explanation. For Federer and Tendulkar, their sports have been their home. The game itself has been an umbrella that has sheltered every hotel room and training camp they've experienced. They have been aristocrats of their social spheres; their careers have deep meaning to the wider community of their sports. All retiring sportsmen, even moderate ones, must grapple with the fact that the outside world is less interested in them than their own sporting community. Even the most well-adjusted sportsman has a subliminal fear of civilian life outside the sporting bubble. A sport, like a religion, gives meaning to its congregation.

But I suspect the deepest pull of all is love. Love of the peace that comes with total concentration; love of the craft and the discipline of routine and practice; love of defining and controlling events; love of nervous excitement; love of winning; love of mastery; love of the stage.

That sense of love still outweighs the sacrifices and the disappointments. For how much longer? I don't know, nor do they. But I am sure it has enriched all our lives.

Ed Smith's latest book is Luck - A Fresh Look at Fortune. He tweets here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on September 6, 2013, 17:16 GMT

    Tendulkar plays on a team, Federer plays for himself. Federer has to earn his right to play in a tournament. Tendulkar? Not so much. A case can be made that Tendulkar cannot hold his place in the team based on his form. No such case can be made for Fed since he will not be in the main draw if he is not good enough.

    When Fed starts entering majors based on wild card entries alone, the two can be compared. Tendulkar may well be past the sell-by date, but since his selection is not dependent on his form exclusively, we may never find out. Federer is a top ten player, even today. Is Tendulkar a top ten batsman today?

  • Jay on September 6, 2013, 11:23 GMT

    Ed - A wonderful tale of two icons! It's no coincidence Tendulkar & Federer are like good friends. They spent an hour chatting on the balcony of the Wimbledon Royal box two years ago. Sachin observed: "What a humble guy! ... He knows a lot about cricket!!" Roger returned the compliment: "Today was a special day ... had the chance to catch up with the great Indian cricket star Sachin Tendulkar"! Yes, the twining goes deep in their DNA: a love for both sports. Sachin's childhood idol was tennis star John McEnroe. He even sported a McEnroe style shock of hair. He yearned for that brat's headband & wristbands. Roger learned the basics of cricket from his mother, a South African. His granddad was secretary of the Northern Transvaal Cricket union. He remains a keen SA cricket fan. Just imagine if they had switched sports? Thud! Instead of Heroes we'd call them Goats! By staying true to one's chosen sport, each man has earned the right to become arguably a real GOAT: Greatest Of All Time!!

  • Kartik on September 6, 2013, 10:06 GMT

    People have their varying opinion on Tendulkar. Fair enough. All the great ones are legends and we should appreciate their craft equally. In my opinion Tendulkar is the best batsman since Bradman and that is the only opinion that matters to me. To the people who may say 'who cares' if you think he is the best... my point exactly 'who cares' if you think he is not. Now as a true sports fan I will contradict myself and share another opinion that matter a lot to me. Bradman made two points (i) Tendulkar batted like him and reminded him of his own batting - and Bradman's wife agreed (all married men will Nod and appreciate that validation) (ii) Tendulkar is the only batsman of the modern era he picked in his team (yes to be fair he did not see Pointing and Kallis at their best but he did see Lara and other greats). I am sure Bradman's knows more about Batting than anyone else period. However, if you disagree that is fine as well. That is what makes sports so much fun!!

  • Naresh on September 6, 2013, 9:56 GMT

    @hhillbumper - you say he is overrated and who are you? Why only look at his current form? Why did BRADMAN who was a legend of the game make his comments on Tendulkar? Dont facts, stats and figures given by cricinfo mean anything to you? Do you know in the 2003 WC IN SA he was the top batsman? check cricinfo for this Yes his eyesight and reflexes are diminshed and he got out to Anderson and that is of late. He has only declined in the last 3-4 years. Maybe you at 40 should try playing cricket against some young fast bowlers like Anderson.

  • Android on September 6, 2013, 7:39 GMT

    hi all this is real nice article.And I felt there is no perfect balanced test side for india.that is y sachin is still continues if he felt it is safe he will retire. but I want to tell the people who want him to get retired even BCCI dont dare him to make retire becas they know the consequences from public.becas he very much attached to every cricket lover of india if bcci take decision at least 10 crore people will protest .it is because of him most of us start watch play love cricket .like dhoni told in WC final he dont want see sachin childish face with sorrow want promote himself in batting. every indian want him smile always he give us joy of enjoying game and we still backing him always .As indian I am feeling him like my own bro

  • Dummy4 on September 6, 2013, 0:17 GMT

    He keeps playing for immortality in the record books. Tests and ODIs will become increasingly rare given how T20s are taking off. Consequently, a player playing for 20 years will play far fewer tests/ODIs than Tendulkar did over the same period. So the record books will be littered with whoever is playing now, or more correctly whoever is ending his career shortly.

    He retired from ODIs as soon as he determined that his closest competition was no longer in contention for either the most runs or centuries, and he'll do so in tests as well, under the same conditions.

    The problem is that Kallis is still playing and is in a purple patch during which he racked up a bunch of hundreds and runs. So if Tendulkar retired, it is conceivable that Kallis could overtake him in both.

    So once he no longer sees Kallis as a threat, he'll retire. In the meantime if he chalks up a couple more hundreds, even better.

  • Sarthak on September 5, 2013, 18:40 GMT

    Tendulkar, Federer has truly been the lords of their game. Their connection with the game is very special. Their skill may be waning but the connection with the game or rather as you put it love is as strong as ever. Perhaps now that they know they will have to leave the stage sooner rather than later, they are only feeling it more. I can only guess, but I think this phase is also about learning another important lesson in the lives of these greats.

  • Dummy4 on September 5, 2013, 17:22 GMT

    Tendulkar is an undeniable legend of the game, who has just had a bit of poor form of late. He still has a good eye - he'll be back. Long live Sachin.

  • Clifford on September 5, 2013, 14:56 GMT

    There are a couple differences between the two though (1) Federer at 32 is still not old for a male tennis player. While he may not have the youthful legs of Nadal (27), Murray, or Djokovic (both 26) he would reasonably expect to be able to play at a fairly high level for another 3 years. His high standing in the history of the game is due to his relatively early supremacy in the game - he won his first grand slam at 22 and was first #1 ranked at 23 which is young for a man. Sachin is 40 and while he too became a great at a relatively young age there is no doubt that 40 is stretching his career. (2) Federer plays an individual sport and even if he reduces his play and falls to a far lower ranking he's not dragging a team down. For a few years one could argue that Sachin was still worth his spot as India were not producing replacements but with an influx of young talent into the team a reduced Sachin would likely be blocking a talented youngster from getting an opportunity.