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