Monday, 19 March 2012

Tendulkar, Messi and Federer – sporting geniuses who make us laugh with delight

It’s been a great ten days for lovers of sporting genius. Tendulkar finally got his hundredth international hundred, Messi  scored five goals against decent opposition in the Champions League, and Federer’s extraordinary run of good form (he’s won 39 of his last 41 matches) continued as he won the Indian Wells Masters 1000 tournament in California yesterday.

Watching the Federer match, I realised that I tend to laugh whenever he does something ridiculously wonderful (for some examples, click here - the last shot makes it well worth the effort). Doesn’t matter who he’s playing. There’s nothing nasty about my chortling, either: it signals utter delight at a demonstration of God-given genius rather than pleasure at an opponent’s discomfiture.

The other two current sportsmen whose brilliance elicits the same reaction are Sachin Tendulkar and Lionel Messi. I caught up with Messi’s demolition of the German side Bayer Leverkusen on Sky Anytime after my brother mentioned seeing it:

It is simply impossible to play football any better than that - in fact, it's impossible to play football like that, full stop: that’s why it’s funny. (I’m sure if they hadn’t been involved in the match, the German team's players would have been laughing too - well, the foreign ones, anyway.)

As for Sachin Tendulkar, well, just watch him effortlessly dispatching a seemingly endless succession of balls to the boundary while scoring 241 against Australia in the Fourth Test in the 2003/2004 series.

But not all sporting geniuses make me laugh. Ronaldo? Ponting? McEnroe? So what’s the difference between them and my trio of rib-ticklers?

1. My chaps make it all look so easy. They make you wonder (a) why they don’t do this all the time and (b) why everyone doesn’t play like this. In fact, they make it look as if it’s easier to do the impossible than the mundane.

2. They all seem to be very likable, relaxed types, extremely comfortable in their own skins. The gracefulness of their characters makes it easy to take pleasure in their success.

3. There’s nothing physically freakish about them. Federer’s just over six feet tall, but I don’t think you’d necessarily assume he was an athlete if you met him while he was wearing a suit (here's a funny advert, for those of you who like funny adverts). As for Messi and Tendulkar, they both look like the chap who’s come to read the meter. (Harry Redknapp: “Messi looks so ordinary, you half expect to find him in the dug-out at half-time with a fag on.”)

4. They all spend enormous amounts of time free of injury or illness. Tennis players and footballers, in particular, are always getting injured (Rooney can barely get out of bed in the morning without damaging something). This is probably because what they do comes utterly naturally to them – no strain, no forcing the issue. Tendulkar only started getting injured after ten years of international cricket. Messi has missed a few matches for Barcelona here and there, but given how many times he’s brutally chopped down, it’s surprising he’s still able to walk. Federer – and this is probably the most bizarre thing about his bizarre career – hasn’t missed a Grand Slam tournament in over eleven years and, if he does well at the French in a few months time, will have reached the quarter-final stage of every slam for the past eight years

 5. They’re obviously nice chaps – it’s hard to laugh with delight when an arrogant, preening blister like Ronaldo does something brilliant: in fact, it’s hard not to want to see one of his legs drop off. Federer, Tendulkar and Messi obviously take enormous pride in their performance, but you don’t feel that they exult in the humiliation of their opponents (which geniuses such as Muhammad Ali, Viv Richards and John McEnroe often did). All three are gentlemen.

6. Not only are they the most naturally gifted sportsmen currently playing tennis, cricket and football – all three may just be the greatest players ever to have picked up a cricket bat or a tennis racket or to have kicked a football.

7. I’m sorry to go mystical on you, but watching Tendulkar stroke a 95-mph ball to the cover boundary as if it had been lobbed underarm at him by a five-year old girl, or Messi bamboozling five top-class defenders before chipping the ball over the head of an advancing gorilla of a goalkeeper, or Federer travelling backwards in time to reach a ball which has actually gone past him, only to send it rocketing back into the few square inches of court where his opponent can’t reach it – well, it’s as joy-inducing as watching a dog running at full pelt through the waves along a Cornish beach on a sparklingly crisp, sunny late winter morning. The world simply clicks into place, and is suddenly full of possibility. God really is in his heaven. As with that dog, it’s as if some natural force is operating through these sportsmen; as if what we’re witnessing is not their genius, but Genius itself. 

On the whole, I think a Sky Sports subscription is definitely worth the expense. 

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