Of Dope & Hope

That Maria Sharapova failed a dope test, last year, was nothing new. A swift flashback would reveal that it was Martina Hingis before her — one of tennis’ princess charming — who carried that jinxed alchemy for doping. That Hingis retired from tennis and is now on a new-fangled winning spree, in association with Sania Mirza, and others, does not, however, absolve her. It reflects a sad story of what competitive tennis is all about today and tomorrow.

Hingis, the five-time Grand Slam champion had to blame herself for whatever happened, or did not happen. This was not what reveries are made of. Remember the time when Hingis claimed her fourth Grand Slam title at the Australian Open and also became the youngest player ever to successfully defend a Grand Slam title? As was expected, she demolished Conchita Martinez 6-3, 6-3, in 90 minutes. Yes, it was a ‘hi-ho’ too — and, yet another piece of silverware and megabucks to tuck into the satchel. But, there’s danger in-waiting, far beyond the obvious — if you now look at it all differently. It was also action-replay for Sharapova, the difference being of degree — nothing else.

Agreed that the smiley ‘Swiss Miss’ Hingis had the world at her feet – all right. She’s, at one point in time, totally out of range of her nearest rivals; a lone ranger. There lurked that big danger. Being a lone ranger in any sport, more so in tennis, for a seventeen-year-old as charming as Hingis wasn’t a bed of roses, really. Far from it — because, the mere thought of it would bring goose pimples on lesser mortals. Or, maybe, a life full of mixed portents, if not intent.

It’s fortunate that Hingis had more to her starry life than just tennis alone — a value outside of ‘volleying’ for success. Like horse-riding, music, and WHO Ambassador of Health, who was loved unconditionally without strings attached by her doting, but disciplined, mother. This was a great blessing, or so one thought. Wait a minute. Because, the name of Jennifer Capriati too rings a bell, albeit she apparently lacked such metaphors, or indicators. Capriati trod a long, painful road. She demonstrated all too cruelly the warning signs, or sins, of chasing that which you cannot achieve unless you are blessed with the safety net of acceptance and love all around. More so, from your own family, who visualise in you a human being — not a robot with the racquet, or money-making machine.

You need not look far behind for a diagnosis: of how prodigies came, and go, never to return, or make a comeback bid, like Capriati. Andrea Jaeger, to cull another example, lasted just four summers at the top before a shoulder injury put a curtain on her career at age 19. Tracy Austin, yet another former #1, was on the Freudian, not to speak of the physio’s, couch at age 20, after just five successful years on the circuit. Steffi Graf was quite different, though, notwithstanding the fact that she’s not immune to parental indulgence and pressure.

The threat was lurking round the corner — Sharapova’s dope dimension has come true. Yet, logic would, quite simply, warrant us to offer a cautionary warning, if not the alarm bell to her ilk, wherever they are holding their priceless racquets, or trying to grab the limelight. To draw a paradigm from Chuck Kriese’s perceptive book, Winning Tennis: “One of the things that troubles me most about the way tennis is taught… is the unreasonable amount of pressure placed on kids. Too many parents and coaches are searching for the next ‘child prodigy.’ Children usually learn physical skills easily in the early stages of their lives when there’s not much pressure, but before physical growth occurs in the early teen years. We often see a burnout syndrome in tennis, and other sports. The public has been led to believe that the peak years for young players are their late teens, and even younger for girls. This is completely false.” Adds Kriese, an experienced and successful tennis teaching pro, “Players learning the game should understand that while physical skills are learned earliest, it takes time to develop the mental and emotional skills needed. A better time-table would be the ages of 18-25 for women, and 20-30 for men, when the minds and emotions can catch up with the physical development. They’ll have to come together before a player can become successful.’’ This sounds a tad difficult in the ‘sporting’ times of ‘sporting’ megabucks that we live in today.

This also relates to Jungian analogy, but with one or two exceptions — not more. Sharapova may well be the current victim, and there will be others just as well. But, one ‘dope volley’ does not an upset ‘return of serve’ make. It also just doesn’t divest the fact that in its mad drive to market itself, women’s tennis is offering its aspiring young players incorrect role models. A ‘smart’ attitude this maybe, in today’s world; but, for all the wrong reasons. One only hopes that Sharapova has a safety net, especially when her celebrity status from sport is over. Again for wrong reasons: not just doping, but also pressure, stress, too many dreams, or perceived failures of falling short of a ‘dream-life.’

Now, for the sake of argument, let’s again take a look at Hingis’s early profile. Till the Aussie Open, which she won, for her fourth Grand Slam, Hingis had played over 75 matches with just a few defeats, and won over ten major titles, not to speak of more than US$800,000 in prize-money alone. This was fantastic portfolio for a teenage sensation, in just a year’s time. Yet, in more ways than one, Hingis’ graph, at that juncture, was most impressive, if one takes into consideration what might have been her record had she not fallen from her horse, some months before. This was also something that ensured her absence from the circuit for almost two months. Add to this a brace of rare, major defeats, during the interregnum, and you have a sound case on hand — all too human. Let’s drive home the point, in her own words, “I can go home, relax. But, everything hurts me now. The energy, and everything. You are a human being. It’s like being a car. Sometimes, there’s more gas in there.” Sharapova may have to repeat the same words and for different reasons.

Don’t blame them for everything. Blame it on the circuit — on those who arranged Hingis’s, or any other tennis star’s relentless schedules. Of schedules which beat them to the bone. That’s also too much strain on anyone’s body — one which may well bring premature fade-outs. More important: the evidence, in sports, for a life beyond gloss, is overwhelming. And, there’s more to it than what meets the eye in this age of image building — not innocence. Yet, you can’t cop out of the system, and say ‘no’ to change. It’s a misleading paradox; yet, a reality.

In its orgy of self-promotion, women’s tennis today has gone too overboard: beyond the realms of decency, perforce. As Tony Banks, the former British Sports Minister, put it so succinctly, during Wimbledon: “It is appalling the way so much of women’s tennis is treated like soft porn. The media should concentrate on women’s tennis abilities rather than their underwear, or figures. References to players like [Martina] Hingis and [Anna] Kournikova are as much about their looks as their tennis. This sort of reporting is sexist and insulting to women.’’

Banks’ riposte doesn’t reflect the whole picture. Just ask the sponsors who carry the magic wand of making youngsters superstars. It’s, quite simply, exploitation, all right — the first step on the road to attracting further endorsements — like it, or not. The players are game to the idea. So, why blame the media? The inference is simple. Beyond beauty, there’s tennis; and, beyond tennis, there’s beauty — albeit the whole spectacle is no allegory for Beauty and the Beast. This sort of explains why some protective parents have cushioned their tennis playing starlets against hungry marketing ‘shenanigans.’

Be that as it may, the whole exercise conjures up a palpable image — much of it being short-term in value and lacking in appeal. But, who cares? Yet, on the brighter side of things, what is redeeming is that things have not run out of hand as yet. All the same, the writing on the wall is imminent: if tennis does not evaluate, and evolve, measures to counter the growing trend of bemoaning standards of dress and behaviour, or ‘dope,’ it would be a ‘party’ detrimental to a glorious tradition of elegance, born of mature and lasting standards.

This will, eventually, lead to frustration, and culture-shock. And, you won’t get to hear Hingis saying, “I’m very happy about my whole tennis life. I had a few great years. You know, what I could have improved? Sometimes I ask myself. It’s a little scary. I did not win that one title, I cherished. So, that’s kind of my goal. That’s the tournament I wanted to win the most.’’

Well, you’ve got the answer. Right? So, let tennis be tennis — a specialised niche, or primary engine of historical change. A domain where younger players are predisposed to rise, on their own terms, and not on the basis of a sponsor’s logo alone — or, maybe, a harmonious mix of both, aside from an element of distinction, attached without clumsy underpinnings.

This is the best way to keeping tennis alive and in good health, for more and more prodigies, or brave hearts, to arrive and adorn the game with their resplendent talent.

 

— First published in FINANCIAL CHRONICLE

— Photo, Courtesy: DAILY BRAILLE




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