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Bhat: Murray the fighter succeeds at last

June 30th

FoxSportsLogoAs a bleary eyed young reporter, I wrote this throughout the night so that it could be ready for the morning in Asia. (See archived version here).

It’s done. Murray, the great hope of British tennis, has finally fulfilled the annual expectations thrust upon him to win at SW19.

The moment they had all been waiting for happened just three hours, nine minutes into the final.

And the overpowering emotion was that of disbelief.

Not until Djokovic had netted a backhand, and Murray stumbled to the ground on what was his fourth championship point, had the crowd fully realised the importance of the moment. Almost everyone had expected Djokovic to mount a fightback, especially after the Serb went 4-2 up in the third, and they were entirely unprepared for the swift end to the proceedings.

They didn’t have to endure a five-set match for the kid from Dunblane to get a chance to run over to his mother, Great Britain Fed Cup captain Judy Murray, and celebrate the end of an unbelievable fortnight in the Royal Box.

But far from merely being a one-year wait to be crowned the Wimbledon champion for 2013, his journey actually began nearly eight years ago when the Scot first rose to prominence by defeating Sergiy Stakhovsky in the 2004 US Open juniors’ singles final (the Ukrainian came to his aid this year by dumping Roger Federer out of the tournament), just as Britain’s previous big hope – Tim Henman – was entering the twilight of his career.

Murray the fighter

This time last year, emotions had gotten the better of Murray as well as he broke into tears after losing to Federer in the final.

12 months ago, the country that holds the most prestigious of the four majors mourned along with Murray as he came so close but failed in his bid to end what was then a 76-year drought.

However, the defeat only seemed to have sharpened the player’s resolve and he came back stronger in the US Open months later, defeating Djokovic in an epic four hour, 54 minute final.

It was the fifth grand slam final of Murray’s career and even Djokovic, a friend of Murray’s since the age of 11, was happy to see him succeed.

Many have justly remarked that Murray should not have had to wait so long for his first grand slam. The Briton has had the misfortune of playing in an era blessed with the talents of three supremely gifted players in Federer, Djokovic and Rafael Nadal.

Over the years, Murray found it as difficult to conquer Djokovic’s aggressive hitting as he did with Federer’s masterful baseline play. On the few occasions he got the better of the duo, he failed to find an answer to Nadal’s industry and never-say-die attitude.

Murray is not the first sportsman who had to struggle to thrive within a competitive environment. In cricket, for example, Rahul Dravid faced similar questions towards his aspirations to reach the zenith of his craft as he was continuously compared with the mercurial Sachin Tendulkar. But nevertheless, the Wall soldiered on with each match and Murray continued to believe in his grand slam hopes.

Moreover, the 26-year-old, much like many a sportsman, has taken some time to better understand his weaknesses and hone his strengths.

Murray himself remarked that much of the credit for this transformation has to go to Ivan Lendl, who himself underwent a trying time during his professional career.

“There’s not been one radical change [with Lendl],” he said. “A lot of it is minor details. But if you pick 10 small things to work on and change, that can turn into a big difference.”

The small changes were carried out by a remarkable team who have been dedicated to Murray’s success. Fitness coach Jez Green, in particular, has put Murray through a punishing fitness regime, often in the baking heat of Miami, and has the player on a strict diet that can often include up to 50 pieces of sushi in one meal.

The mental and physical training that Murray has endured has helped him gain the edge to make the reality of a British winner at Wimbledon possible.

Did Murray face a below-par Djokovic?

The above question has still been asked by many who do not credit Murray as a true champion.

The short answer is yes.

The Serbian gave away eight break points in the first set alone, he produced 40 unforced errors that were almost double the tally of Murray’s 21 and generally looked tired and unwilling to run as hard as Murray could.

Despite insisting he would be on top form, the Serbian’s record-breaking semi-final against Juan Martin del Potro looked to have taken its toll. Djokovic used drop shots with increasingly regularity in the third set, perhaps to shorten the exhausting rallies as he tired. Murray looked fresher in the summer heat and moved with more vigour as the match came to a close.

But does that undervalue Murray’s win? I don’t think that the hours he put in during training in order to have a shot at achieving success at Centre Court should be disrespected by such a suggestion.

The best summation of Murray’s winning mentality during the match came from musician Sir Cliff Richard who told Sky Sports: “I think Andy played for himself. He was masterful all the way through and even though he had those moments when he was down, he broke back [and] won his own serve.”

“In the last game I knew that Djokovic was going to be trouble because he doesn’t give anything away and it was just very exciting to eventually watch him finally pull it off.

“It was just fantastic for all of us but I’m hoping that he [Murray] feels really good about himself and then we can enjoy his winning.”

Murray had himself expressed his annoyance at the media hype that surrounded his every move and it appears Lendl and his team have helped the 26-year-old blot out all the distractions.

It was this, as well as an immense amount of self-belief, that played a part and it would be wrong to focus on Djokovic’s lethargy.

After all, wasn’t it Murray who failed to show up in January’s Australian Open final when Djokovic’s water-tight serve – the Serb was not broken once in four sets of intense baseline brutality – was praised but few gave the Scot his due?

What next for Andy Murray?

Murray may have been the home favourite but he has yet to really assert himself and expand tennis’ big three to include an additional member.

He can consider himself to have earned a fortuitous straight sets final victory but any future opportunities will be more like last year’s US Open battle instead of Sunday’s brief contest.

As much as the media would like to script the ‘rise of a legend’ story, Murray has to improve upon many aspects of his game and define his identity.

Djokovic is well-known as an artist of comebacks while Nadal punishes opponents on clay surfaces; Federer has already made a name for himself as the classiest act on Wimbledon. Murray, on the other hand, still has a story to tell and he’s only written the introductory chapter.

Sport has always loved the underdog, though, but now Murray has the chance to go beyond that tag. For now, the world will be perfectly happy to dwell on the relief experienced by the masses after the culmination of a long wait for a home champion.

Even Murray, in his stoic and dispassionate manner, understood that his victory meant a lot to all those who were watching: “That win was for myself but I also understand how much everyone else wanted to see a British winner at Wimbledon.”

“I hope you guys enjoyed it.”

We most certainly did. Let’s see if there’s more.

A Tribute to a Cricketing ‘God’

Tendulkar's cover drive

FoxSportsLogoAn editorial written after Indian cricketing great’s final test match in November 2013. (See archived version here).

“Cricket is my religion and Sachin is God” has been the anthem for millions of Indians the past 24 years. Today marks the first day that Indians the world over have to accept the fact that Tendulkar will not be at the crease anymore.

The Mumbai-born batsman brought an end yesterday to a 24-year-long cricketing career that saw him break numerous records – he registered 100 international centuries across one-day internationals (ODIs) and Tests, the first double century in ODIs and the most runs scored in both formats of the game.

So it was fitting that when he gave his farewell speech, the 34,000-strong crowd, as well as many more around the world, broke into tears.

It was not just the end of the career of a brilliant sportsman. It was the end of a narrative that defined the nation across three generations and delineated the virtues of sportsmanship, humility, passion, perseverance and patriotism.

The feelings many experienced were probably similar to the moment when fans saw Pele get off the pitch or Michael Jordan score his final basket.

It was the end of an era – a phrase used too often but thoroughly appropriate on this occasion.

The language of the bat

India is a country synonymous with diversity; it has 1.2 billion people, 415 living languages, six major religions and is home to the second-largest group of billionnaires even as three-tenths of the populace live beneath the poverty line.

Because of its vastness, it is very difficult to reach a consensus and therefore its politics, bureaucracy, the religious, linguistic and regional discourse has been plagued with internal strife and disagreement.

It is hard for any individual to be representative across the strata of society. Hundreds of voices, equipped with metaphorical loudspeakers, seem to be constantly clamouring for attention with the result that noise has pervaded the system.

But in 1989, a 16-year-old Tendulkar rose to the fore becoming India’s youngest debutant, and, over the next decade, somehow brought silence within the room.

His bat did all the talking with the straight drives, the leg glances and the lofted drives when facing spinners. He then broke record after record by becoming the youngest Indian to score a century, scoring the most number of runs in a World Cup and formed a deadly opening partnership with Saurav Ganguly that dominated the best bowlers.

And while Kapil Dev and the 1983 World Cup-winning team had made India a powerhouse, it was widely recognised that Tendulkar had now become the face of Indian cricket.

Differences were erased for the duration of the ‘Little Master’s’ innings and the fervour with which adults watched Tendulkar inspired kids to adopt the man as their sporting role model.

And with Tendulkar’s name on the scorecard, every match was winnable. Tendulkar’s bat spoke for them all.

A paragon of humility

What stands out in Tendulkar’s career, though, is that he never let the fame get to his head. He played simply for the joy of cricket and for the pleasure of gladdening the hearts of his compatriots.

Despite being such a household name, he shied away from sponsorship opportunities in the early part of his career and shunned the limelight for the rest of it.

For a man of his stature, he did not want to utilise his considerable influence in the national arena even as many cricketers, actors and celebrities secured positions of power. This changed last year when he accepted a nomination to the Rajya Sabha (India’s upper house of Parliament) but, in typically Tendulkar-esque fashion, declined a bungalow that came with the position.

Tendulkar provided yet another example of his humble personage yesterday when, amid the backdrop of “Sachin, Sachin” chants that reached deafening levels, the batsman gave a farewell speech that started with: “For the first time in my life I am carrying this list, to remember all the names in case I forget someone. I hope you understand.”

He went on to thank, in his characteristic soft-spoken voice, all of those within his family, friends, colleagues both present and past, coaches, medical staff, fans, managers, journalists, photographers and many others. The list went on and on and the 40-year-old somehow made everyone feel part of his success story.

For a man who has conquered the sport, it still sounded like the fresh-faced boy from Mumbai felt that he had a lot more to learn.

Amitabh Bacchan, a famous Bollywood actor, wrote in similar terms in the Outlook magazine when he explained: “As a person, Sachin is the exact opposite of Sachin the cricketer.”

“If as a performer, he is dominant, aggressive and bold on the field, which are the hallmarks of a real champion, as an individual, he is humble, dignified and rooted.

“He comes across as someone who has not let success transform him and this is indeed incredible considering the scale of his achievements.

“In fact, if you watch his expression when he walks back to the pavilion after he’s out, whether after a low score or after he is out for a century, you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.”

Life after Sachin Tendulkar

In a sport obsessed with longevity, whether at the crease or elsewhere on the pitch, Tendulkar has outlasted them all.

He continued to achieve success well into the twilight stage of his career as he helped India win the World Cup in 2011 after five previous unsuccessful attempts, mentored the Mumbai Indians franchise in the Indian Premier League to their first success in 2013 and continued to score runs at an impressive rate.

Now, India has to consider how to move on after the exit of one of its favourite sons from the cricketing landscape.

However, the future is immensely bright.

The likes of Virat Kohli, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Shikhar Dawan and Suresh Raina are ready to don the gloves and score the runs. Tendulkar had stopped being the focal point a while back anyway.

But the men in blue are no longer considered the underdogs and, like Brazil in football, have become constant favourites, espousing a brand of attacking cricket that is feared by opponents.

And this remains the hallmark of Tendulkar’s legacy: His feats left such a strong impression on youngsters that every child secretly dreams of playing for the Indian national team now.

India is assured of a constant stream of talented prospects that will form a team of worldbeaters for some time to come.

Life after Sachin Tendulkar will still never be the same, though.

“Cricket is my religion, Sachin is God”, a quintessentially outlandish Indian slogan filled with hyperbole and exuberance, explains it best.

When ‘God’ disappears from the picture, one can expect to feel a little hollow inside.

All that can be said is thanks for a tremendous career that has brought joy, hope, sadness, inspiration, pain and a cavalcade of other emotions to over a billion people.

It is truly the end of an era and cricket, for many, will never be the same without him.