Ups and downs in the ranks

If I won something called a World Cup, could I muster the 100-per cent oomph required to compete? And doesn't remaining No 1 seem so much less fun than getting to No 1?

Seldom do India's cricket team and Serena Williams turn up in the same conversation, but right about now maybe they could.

Lately I have wondered how it must feel to have played for India all this calendar year, to have scaled the exultant skies of Churchgate and wallowed in the fretful lows of Edgbaston. In some sense, it's ludicrous that a sport that cannot control itself from over-scheduling should make any side continue playing just 100 days after it won something labelled a World Cup.

If you win one of those things called a World Cup, shouldn't you have off the rest of the year off?

Instead, in the summer right after the spring with the crescendo, these guys dwell in chatter about "Lowest point since …" and "Oh-no-what-happens-now." They lose their No 1 ranking, and some people scoff that they don't thrive at the real version of the game even after the less-real version somehow managed to dredge fireworks and billion-strong fetes.

They have Dhoni going philosophical: Setback "is what makes it interesting, just like challenges do to life".

If I won something called a World Cup, could I muster the 100-per cent oomph required to compete in an elite world freighted with skilful sharks? And, maybe a more intriguing question: Doesn't remaining No 1 seem so much less fun than getting to No 1?

A man who knows more than most said almost as much. Speaking from Johannesburg, as reported by various media outlets from an interview on the sidelines of a promotional event, the just-departed former India manager Gary Kirsten said, "It's always difficult to understand why teams ebb and flow and often it's the intangibles that make the difference."

If somebody that learned can't ascertain the ebb and flow …

"It's not easy to continue a run of success," Kirsten said. "It's difficult to reach the top and stay there. They won the World Cup, which was massive for them, but then they've had a tour of the West Indies and a few injuries and maybe the hunger to win games goes down a little."

This same summer has brought the sight of Williams from the rampantly over-scheduled sport of tennis, doing courtside TV interviews and looking uncommonly exhilarated. She has blasted through the draws in Stanford, California, and Toronto. She withdrew in Cincinnati last week, but her form suggests the US Open is already over and she has won it. I'm not sure why they're playing the thing other than to make some money.

Williams and her sister Venus have alluded on occasion to the idea that while they have not tried to access lower rankings, the experience of playing from them has freshened the mind. Docked all the way to No 175 as of the Fourth of July after an 11-month hiatus from a foot injury and a health scare, Williams played California from No 169 and Toronto from No 80.

Grateful to play, infused with a self-challenge of reaching the top 32 for a US Open seeding, she has hit No 31, which, of course, would not be her first rebound from rankings yonder. Her mostly empty 2006 ended at No 95 and her 2007 Australian Open began at No 81, before she won the thing and said something telling.

Assessing her then-eight grand slam titles, she said, "This one is right up there at the top. Even I didn't expect to come in and win it all." Clearly it had been more fun to win from No 81 than from No 1.

Besides, winning from below No 1 can bring that weird bonus so many athletes crave: the shushing of doubters. Listen to enough prattle in sport and sometimes it seems nobody could accomplish anything without doubters to shush. Sometimes, you'd think the media deserves accompanying trophies simply by providing the favour of doubting.

"More than anything what I love, besides obviously winning," Williams said then, "is proving people wrong. Ever since I was young, even when I came on tour, it was 'Venus, Venus, Venus, Venus - oh, and the little sister'. My whole goal in life was just to prove people wrong. And that's one thing I enjoy so much."

The noted philosopher, Dhoni, says it's not time to panic, and maybe he's right for the wrong reason. Who gets to prove anybody wrong from the perch of No 1? One of the odder quirks of life might be that the ballyhooed position of No 1 might feel like dull drudgery next to the energising challenge of some number such as two or 81.

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Published: August 21, 2011 04:00 AM


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